Sunday, January 20, 2008

Literary Resonance in the Art of Writing

To "resonate" literally means to bounce back and forth between two states or places. Resonate comes from the Latin word for "resound." In sound, resonance is a prolonged response to something that caused things to vibrate. When sound reverberates, it's resonating within a bounded space, like the body of a guitar. Thunder often resonates/reverberates across an uneven landscape.

Resonance in writing is something that affects us the same way. It's an aura of significance, significance beyond the otherwise insignificant event taking place. It's caused by a kind of psychic reverberation between two times, places, states, or spheres — one common and the other extraordinary. So, for example a Biblical epigraph for a poem about an empty school bus in a snowstorm resonates between the temporal and eternal, lending the bus an aura of cosmic significance.

Resonance has long been used to impress people. Rituals are designed to make the everyday actions and gestures in them resonate. Monarchies and the papacy orchestrate ceremonies in extravagant settings to make the words and gestures of the monarch or pope resonate with majesty. Charles VII of France spread a story that, in the middle of the night the moment Joan of Arc was born, all the roosters in France crowed. Crafty Charles was simply doing what was always done to establish the cult of some personality: invariably, legend has it that Nature itself resonated the significance of his or her birth. We are told that, at the death of a certain crucified criminal, the day grew dark as night. That's resonance. It lifts a common thing out of the ordinary by lending it an aura of awesome significance.

The end of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory is a "Way of the Cross," a study in resonance prolonged to wring the last bit of emotion from you. It resonates like thunder, except that the reverberations get louder and more intense. Subtle, relentless references to the weather establish the main character as a Christ figure going to his death. Similarly, in Shakespeare's King Lear, the climactic moment brings on a violent thunderstorm, as though this betrayal of a king and father has cosmic implications.

There are many other ways to make writing resonate, as well. They all often employ a simile or metaphor. Next time we'll look at some ways to make your writing resonate.

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