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What makes good writing good? It’s all in the ear – Sunday May 13, 2018

Poetry, according to one definition, is “memorable speech.” That may be my favourite definition—because it addresses the original orality of the form. Even in free verse, it’s the sound that does much, perhaps most, of the real work and no explication of symbol and metaphor captures how a poem works if it ignores that. It’s for that reason that James Fenton’s 2002 An Introduction To English Poetry—with its attention to prosody—seems to me one of the best available.

Prose may be “memorable speech” too. As I found when researching my recent book on style and usage, neuroscience tells us that even when reading silently, we use the parts of the brain associated with hearing. That affirmed my conviction that, though prose cadence—being harder to talk about analytically than poetry—is little discussed, what we think of as “good writing” almost always seems so because it sounds right.

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