If you value simplicity as a tool for achieving clarity of language, take inspiration from the lyrics of the Great American Songbook, featuring tunes from the 1920s to 1940s from greats like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and duets like George and Ira Gershwin and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein.
For nearly two years, I’ve had a great time every Wednesday afternoon on Zoom with a dozen friends — some old, some new — talking about those lyrics. Our host, Michael Lasser, author of several books on the subject, points out that lyricists like one-syllable words because they fit so easily with the rhythm of the melody and because they express so little meaning. .
Remember playwright August Wilson’s approach to writing: “I just stop trying to sound important. I just say it. The more simply you say it, the more eloquent it is.”
This doesn’t mean sticking to one-syllable words; this means that by choosing the words we can create rhythm and music. As Ira Gershwin wrote:
“It’s very clear, our love is here to stay.
Not for a year, but never and a day…
In time, the Rockies could collapse,
Gibraltar may collapse,
They are only made of clay, but
Our love is here to stay.”
You don’t need to know the melody to feel the music, reading the lyrics silently or out loud. As we write, we may struggle for this feeling. Readers will love us for it.
Now, to the Zoom Boom: Despite all the dissatisfaction with distance learning, one benefit of virtual meetings is manifesting in intimate gatherings of friends to share mutual enthusiasms and bond. Our Wednesday gatherings of people from all parts of the country produce joy.
Why not form a Zoom group that shares the love of great phrases in contemporary writing? Send me your findings, and I’ll relay them to the readers of this column.
Here is one, taken from the song “All the Things You Are”, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein:
“You are the promised kiss of spring
It makes the lonely winter longer.”
You remember spring, don’t you?
Twin Cities writing coach Gary Gilson, who teaches journalism at Colorado College, can be reached through writebetterwithgary.com.