LATELY — 10 April 2003

The Perfect Order of Words in the Sentences I Have

In his essay on James Joyce, “Joyce’s Choices,” David Lodge writes:

There is a story well known to all students of Joyce, that one day in Zurich, when he was writing Ulysses, he met his friend Frank Budgen in the street and told him he had been working all day and had produced two sentences. “You have been seeking the right words?” asked Budgen. “No,”replied Joyce, “I have the words already. What I am seeking is the perfect order of words in the sentences I have.”

(From The Practice of Writing, p. 130.)

I seem to spend an awful lot of time ordering and reordering the words within sentences too; my notebooks are filled with multiple renderings of pretty much the same thing. But this is a feature of English, I suppose. How well do the opening lines of Coleridge’s “Xanadu” translate into other languages, say? In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / a stately pleasure-dome decree…

This reminds me of something Brad said recently. We were talking about hip-hop, and he mentioned that he’d been listening to some French hip-hop recently, and that it was pretty good. (He recommends MC Solaar.) He reckons it’s good because French, like English, has both lots of short, sharp, rhyming words and a flexible word order. I’m comfortable with the idea that some languages sound better than others, but for some reason the thought that some art forms aren’t really possible in some languages is little unsettling. Is there such a thing as German hip-hop?

One of my favourite CDs is a CD-R compilation I got for 50p from the Bongo Club in Edinburgh. Australians don’t MC terribly well (it could be just the accent)—but Scots do! The track breaks are pretty strange, but there’s some good Scottish hip-hop about 1:15 into track 3. (The whole album.)