Stuff I Like: Wordsmithery and Woe

wordsmiths3Being a writer myself, I have a deep affinity for words and their smithing. I have long maintained that it’s one thing to tell a great story, but another to tell it well, and beautifully. I would consider popular tales like the Millennium Trilogy, the five volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire, and the Harry Potter  series to be excellent stories, but to be honest, while reading them I rarely stopped and backtracked in order to re-read a particular paragraph because of the sheer beauty of the prose.

On the other hand, I can barely make it through an entire chapter of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings  trilogy without being moved several times, not just by the story, but by the language used to tell it. One of my favorite passages from The Fellowship of the Ring  has always been Tolkien’s description, through the eyes of Frodo the hobbit, of three characters present in Rivendell for the council of Elrond:

Gandalf was shorter in stature than the other two, but his long white hair, his sweeping silver beard, and his broad shoulders, made him look like some wise king of ancient legend. In his aged face under great snowy brows his dark eyes were set like coals that could leap suddenly into fire.


Glorfindel was tall and straight; his hair was of shining gold, his face fair and young and fearless and full of joy; his eyes were bright and keen, and his voice like music; on his brow sat wisdom, and in his hand was strength.


The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful. His hair was dark as the shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars. Venerable he seemed as a king crowned with many winters, and yet hale as a tried warrior in the fulness of his strength. He was the Lord of Rivendell and mighty among both Elves and Men.

‘Nuff said.

But it’s not just big, epic sagas that can have this effect, it can be short stories, poetry, and even song lyrics. What especially gets my attention is the deliberate — dare I say sacramental? — mixture of metaphors that can strike one in ways that I find delightful and disrupting. For example, Flannery O’Connor ends her short story A Temple of the Holy Ghost  thusly:

Her mother let the conversation drop and the child’s round face was lost in thought. She turned it toward the window and looked out over a stretch of pasture land that rose and fell with a gathering greenness until it touched the dark woods. The sun was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood and when it sank out of sight, it left a line in the sky like a red clay road hanging over the trees.

Perhaps likening the sun to the Eucharistic Host is what inspired Bono to liken Route 66 to the piercing of the side of Christ on the cross: “Freeway, like a river, cuts through this land into the side of Love, like a burning spear”? Or the late Rich Mullins, who sang, “This road, she is a woman; she was made from a rib cut from the sides of these mountains, these great sleeping Adams who are lonely even here in Paradise”?

But even without the sacramental overtones, an unexpected or ill-fitting metaphor is always a welcome surprise: Like Bono’s “She is the gunfire; she is the car crash; she is the avalanche; she is the thunder,” or, “The sun so bright it leaves no shadows, only scars carved into stone on the face of earth.” Now that I think about it, extreme weather probably accounts for around 78% of all good writing (of which the following is conclusive proof):

Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail,

The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder;

That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze,

Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder.

There’s also an off-beatness to the kind of poetry and prose that I especially like. For example, how Alanis Morissette got this to fit into a singable melody I’ll never know:

Slid into the ditch: We have this overwhelming loss of ambition, we said “Let’s name thirty good reasons why we shouldn’t be together.” I started by saying things like, “You smoke,” “You live in New Jersey.” You started saying things like, “You belong to the world” (all of which could have been easily refuted).

Or this:

Dear Terrance, I love you muchly. You’ve been nothing but open-hearted, and emotionally available, and supportive, and nurturing, and consummately there for me. I kept drawing you in, then pushing you away; I remember how beautiful it was to fall asleep on your couch, and cry in front of you for the first time. You were the best platform from which to jump beyond myself. What was wrong with me?

(But I’m glad she did.)

And if poetry is tinged with tad of melancholy, so much the better. Like Leonard Cohen’s line:

The 20th century belongs to you and me;

Let us be two severe giants

(Not less lonely for our partnership)

who discolor test tubes in the halls of science,

Who turn up unwelcome at every World’s Fair,

Heavy with proverb and correction,

Confusing the star-dazed tourists

With our incomparable sense of loss.


I would like to remind the Management

That the drinks are watered,

The hat-check girl has syphilis,

And the band is composed

Of former SS monsters.

However, since it is New Year’s Eve,

And I have lip cancer,

I will place my paper hat

On my concussion, and dance.

Or this selection from Bukowski’s “The Crunch”:

There is a loneliness in this world so great

That you can see it in the slow movement

Of the hands of a clock. . . .

Our educational system tells us

That we can all be big-ass winners;

It hasn’t told us of the gutters, or the suicides,

Or the terror of one person aching in one place alone,

Untouched, unspoken to, watering a plant.

The wail, the keen, the lament: these elements, when added to good wordsmithing, combine for a form of writing that I can’t get enough of. In fact, I will happily sacrifice a great story mediocrely told for a mediocre story told with flair or moving turns of phrase. Let’s be honest: Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night  isn’t exactly a page-turner, and neither is Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. But I hardly think that’s the point. The point, for me anyway, is not so much about what they’re saying as it is about how they’re saying it.

(Hashtag, Style’s Sometimes More Important Than Substance)


  1. NoelleJanuary 6, 2014

    I remember little of my youth, but I do remember the first time I realized I wanted to be a writer.
    It was the moment words made me feel like I could cry, laugh & scream all in one breath.

    “I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”
    ~Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

    Great post, Jason.

  2. Links! | Phoenix PreacherJanuary 7, 2014

    […] J.J.S. on the wonders of wordsmithing… […]

  3. monaxJanuary 7, 2014

    And then there’s the last line of Araby, a short story by James Joyce:

    Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

    Good stuff!

  4. JasonJanuary 8, 2014

    Great quote, monax. I have been nagging myself to start reading Joyce for forever, but that might be the final push I need! Where to start, though?

  5. monaxJanuary 8, 2014

    Hey, Jason, I’d begin and end with Joyce’s Araby. Personally, I haven’t the patience to read such things as his Ulysses. Difficult reading.

    Fwiw, I read Araby in college. I could really relate to this particular short story. At a most visceral of levels.

    Appreciated your post!

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