Henry Miller’s singing prose

Ondřej Skovajsa writes: “In Miller’s attempt to write voice, the usage of parallelism is crucial. Marcel Jousse (1886-1961) interprets the general function of parallelism as mnemonic, connected with and involving the bilateral symmetry of human body and the rhythmical breath with the span of pronouncing 15-17 syllables. Jousse illustrates this on the first verses of John: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God (Joh. 1:1-2),’ where the illiterate singer rendering the chant – while rocking from leg to leg, gesticulating, and breathing rhythmically – reminds himself of the following by repeating the previous. Miller’s ‘voluntary’ usage of parallel structure in a text (Miller wrote his book, he did not preach on a soapbox or just talk like Van Norden/Wambly Bald) can thus be seen as the composition’s chief structural means of rehabilitation of the body, its ‘pair of lungs,’ and the moves of its ‘parallel’ limbs.” (OS 76)

But if Miller wanted to rehabilitate the body through the “voice” of the work, why didn’t he tell us, his readers, to read his work out loud? Or why didn’t he write poetry rather than prose, a form designed to be read out loud rather than one designed to be read in silence? At the beginning of Tropic of Cancer Miller tells us that he will “sing” for his reader, but he doesn’t ask his reader to sing his words:

“This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty . . . what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse . . .

“To sing you must first open your mouth. You must have a pair of lungs, and a little knowledge of music. It is not necessary to have an accordion, or a guitar. The essential thing is to want to sing. This then is a song. I am singing.” (TroCan 10)

“I am singing” – Henry Miller is singing. But when you hear song perhaps you will be moved to dance. This is what Skovajsa means when he tells us that Miller writes to “rehabilitate” the body: we’re moved to dance by the sound of the words. At least, we’re moved to respond physically in some way to the sound of the words. But again: if we’re reading in silence – as most readers will when confronted with prose – will we hear the sound of the words?

Through his use of repetition, “Miller thus attacks the linear, dietetic, and prudent narrative of textual modernity, being born out of the thrifty protestant work ethic. In the quoted paragraphs above, we could have observed Miller even ‘tasting the consonants,’ enjoying the melody of the ‘singing,’ and also of the rhythmical strikes of his typewriter.” (OS 77)

So it’s not his readers who sing the words, but Miller himself. Miller is the illiterate singer, rocking back and forth so that we can hear the chant. And as we feel these “rhythmical strikes” the reading process becomes a sort of dance. This encourages the reader to enjoy a work of prose in a way opposed to the common modern way: we don’t read to get the information fast and get to the end of the story; we read to savour the rhythms.

Not only Miller, but also Ezra Pound at around the same time was writing about the music of writing, and thinking about its effect on the body of the reader: “The author’s conviction on this day of New Year is that music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance; that poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music: but this must not be taken as implying that all good music is dance music or all poetry lyric. Bach and Mozart are never too far from physical movement.” (ABC 14)

But while we read Miller in silence and imagine Miller the writer hammering rhythmically on his typewriter as he writes, Pound is writing about poetry, a form designed to be read out loud by the reader, and to generate sounds that resonate with the body of the reader as he or she reads out loud.

So why did Miller choose to sing in prose? In a letter written in 1936 to Lawrence Durrell, Miller writes: “the fact is I know nothing about verse.” (Letters 14) So perhaps the reason is simple: Miller wasn’t able to write in verse, so he used the means he had. He used the rhythms of natural speech to create a prose as close to song as he could manage.

Works Cited

OS = “Tropic of Cancer: Word Becoming Flesh” by Ondřej Skovajsa in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury 2015) pp.75-84

TroCan = Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (Harper 2005)

ABC = ABC of Reading by Ezra Pound (New Directions 2010)

Letters = The Durrell-Miller Letters edited by Ian S. MacNiven (Faber and Faber 1988)

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4 Responses to Henry Miller’s singing prose

  1. Therese says:

    I certainly like reading prose that has rhythm in it. Not the verbose kind, but with the use and combination of certain words, the text just flows. Especially when they are descriptive, I like for the paragraphs to have assonance or alliteration and rhythm.


    • leewatkins says:

      Thanks for commenting! I like that kind of thing too. But Miller’s writing doesn’t seem to have any of this — he’s not like Jack Kerouac, for example, who wrote truly poetic prose with alliteration and assonance and jazz rhythm. Miller used the ordinary language of speech, albeit with this use of repetition that Skovajsa talks about, which creates a sort of chanting rhythm in places. This is why I find his talk of “singing” paradoxical and interesting: compared to someone like Kerouac he doesn’t seem to be singing very much at all.

      Liked by 1 person

    • leewatkins says:

      Yes, it certainly has a kind of music


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