The Perfect Order of Words in the Sentences I Have

10 April 2003

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.)