Game for Small Sounds

A piece I wrote with words of one sound each. No more, and of course no less (or else there'd be no sound at all).

Two wait for the train.

You can hear the last part of this piece out loud (1.46 Megs). My throat has had a scratch for the last two weeks, and I am very tired, and slur a bit, but there it is - sound.

My folks were split, so when the week would end, I'd take the bus to Dad's. Dad did not own a car, so he and I strode the roads and talked.

Once, 12 years back, as we walked, he and I played a game. It stays with me; it works like this - just speak in words of one sound each. One wag of the chin per term - no more. Or else you lose the game.

A long time has passed, but I still find it fun to play. I like few games; for me, no boards with bright squares or small dogs of lead or rolled dice. But this game, I would play it days straight, if I could. My brain is like that, I guess. My friends don't think it's so much fun.

You see, the real goal of the game is not, and should not be, to see who speaks a word with two or more sounds first. The real goal is for each who plays to take large thoughts and make them small, break them up and find new ways to speak them, in plain, calm tones. You do best to pause less, to speak smooth, to let the words glide off your tongue.

At first, when you try, it's fun to play tricks. When the cat's name is long, you ask “what is the name of your cat?” And the friend with whom you speak, who owns the cat, must find a way to tell you. Or you might ask that friend which band they like the best. And they might say:

“It's the band that sells a disc called 'Kid A' and one more disc, more old, called 'The Bends'. A band from the place where the Thames runs by. They're named for a head that is joined to a box that gets sound from the sky.”

If you asked for more on my life, I could say, “I worked for months near the Dead Sea, and saw guns in the streets and where Christ walked, and ate fish. Now I work in New York for those who pay good cash. I write, so that I can buy things, and I work, so I can write.” In a few sounds, there I am.

.  .  .  .  .  

As much as your own words, it's fun to take the words of souls from the past, and say them in the terms of the game. Take the play, the play, the one that tells of the prince of the land of Danes, which the man wrote down in the time of James (or Beth? I don't know). But this prince wants to bring on his own death, or death for his peers and kin. He can't choose. I try to say it like this:

To be, or not to be -
that is the thing to ask.
Tis it best to let the slings and
(but then, it gets quite hard, you can't just wing it, for the next word speaks of wood shafts with sharp hard points which fly through the air from a bow, the bow plucked by a man. What can take its place? Ah! - ) darts. Slings and darts...

Well, it's not much good, in terms of style. But it's fun, and you must choose what each word from the source means to say it in one-sound words. The things you learn from this, I think, are good to know. Here's one more try - take the first verse of Blake's bit on the big striped cats - you know the poem - and now write it in prose with one-sound words. Here's what I did:

With flame hued fur, the beast prowls through the night groves. What strange, strong hand lathed this harsh form's flesh?

I know it's no good - but see, I chewed through Blake's words and guessed what he wished each sound to mean, then tried to do it on my own. As you do more of this, you see the gaps in speech, the way to keep the beat. You get a new sense of how to write and talk. I still can't write a poem to save my life, but now I see a part of how good poems are done. And that plays out in my prose.

You find as well that some things we oft hear are all small words. “Kiss me.” “I love you.” “Fuck you.” “Blow me.” “Whose pants are these?” “My ass is sore.” “Give that back!” “Where's Dad?” “My nose is made of gold.” “Your mom has balls.” “Tell the kids to wait in the car.” “Don't be a bitch.” “Porn site.” “Film school.” “Rock star.” “Coke fiend.” Or my name, “Paul Ford.”

.  .  .  .  .  

It's quite a thing, all these sounds that come out of the grunts of the first folk, the hunched souls who left their bones in the hills and took our genes with them to walk the globe, the men and wives, with kin and child, who drew curved lines through the map of the world, and as the plates of earth moved and the seas spread, they walked, and brought flame and speech with them. And here we are.

Some found a place to stay; some walked far north through the cold, and past the land bridge, then south. They lit fires, and dressed in robes, and prayed to the gods.

Then one day they found that those they'd left back, now blanched white, the men from Spain, the Brits and Scots, the Dutch and Danes and Swedes, and more, had found this new land, had left their boats where the tide lapped the rocks and come to shore.

Then came, as all of us know, a great and long pain for those here first, and then for the slaves who came next, and for the poor, and on, and on. But all got to keep some words of their own, and that is how the tale went, and how the words and sounds that we were born to were mixed, and shame or no, the words here in this place are owned by all. So here we are, with all of speech tween us.




Ftrain.com is the website of Paul Ford and his pseudonyms. It is showing its age. I'm rewriting the code but it's taking some time.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


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