Learn from the word craft of ‘Hamilton’ and make your stories sing
“Hamilton,” the musical, is a sensation, winner of 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. Try getting a ticket.
Inspired by a thousand-page biography of Alexander Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda constructed a creative juggernaut based on two related ideas: that in our day the language of revolution is rap and hip hop; and that our founding mothers and fathers, many of them slaveholders, should be played on stage by men and women of color.
Miranda’s verbal dexterity — he is famous for his improvisational, freestyle raps — rises to the level of art when honed by revision and workshop rehearsals. To illustrate the playwright’s genius, I need nothing more than the first verse of the first song, 37 words sung/recited by the actor who plays Aaron Burr, former American vice-president, who infamously kills Hamilton in a duel:
"How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman,
Dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean by providence,
Impoverished, in squalor,
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?"
Before I X-ray those lines to surface the literary techniques that created them, let me offer a quick list of the most reliable moves of poets, lyricists and rappers, that is, the tribes that get paid for playing with language:
- Rhyme: words that sound alike: round, pound and mound.
- Half-rhymes: words that almost sound alike: rumor, mourner, drama.
- Alliteration: repetition of initial consonant sounds or letters: clumsy, kissing, quarrel.
- Assonance: repetition of vowel sounds, especially inside the words: tilting at windmills.
- Consonance: repetition of the final consonant sound in a group of words: blank, truck, link.
- Meter: the rhythm that comes from a pattern of stressed or unstressed syllables, the most famous being the short/long iambic rhythm: “My MIStress’ EYES are NOTHing LIKE the SUN.”
- Onomatopoeia (or echo or sound words): This strategy does not appear very often in “Hamilton” but is an essential strategy for any writer practicing the critical art of poetics. These words echo the sounds they signify: murmur, tinkling, gulp.
Even if you were not paying attention during high school poetry class, that inventory will get you started. These language moves combine to create euphony, the expressive sound of writing that makes us shout: “That story sings.”
We can begin my X-ray reading by reciting each line from “Hamilton” aloud:
"How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman..."
The first thing I notice, before I hear the words, is that there are seven uses of the letter "o" in a single line, a clue that there may be some interesting sound effects ahead. Notice that the words "bastard," "orphan" and "Scotsman" have structural similarities. All three are two-syllable words with the metrical stress on the first syllable.
"Orphan" feels like a half-rhyme with "Scotsman." The cymbal clash occurs with the assonance/rhyme that links the first syllable of "orphan" with the word "whore." As a journalist, I immediately am attracted to the reporting in that line, every detail drawn from the historical record.
"Dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot..."
The sound of “Scotsman” in line one will echo in this line with "dropped," "forgotten," and "spot." I am curious about the double consonants in "dropped," "middle," and "forgotten." None of the vowels in the first two lines are long ones that say their name. They are all short. The repetition of those short vowels turns the voice of the performer into a percussion instrument.
"In the Caribbean by providence
Impoverished, in squalor..."
These two lines are best read together. The meter is affected first by the pronunciation of CaRIBbean. Those are four syllables with the emphasis on the second. That is repeated in the four syllables of the prepositional phrase “by PROVidence” and again with ImPOVerished.”
Notice again how the short vowel sounds dominate, with "i" appearing six times. "Impoverished" is a synonym for "in squalor," but for me the best rub comes from the juxtaposition of "providence" and "Impoverished." Almost every sound is echoed, especially the ones that come from p, r and v. The connotation of “providence,” unlike “fate,” is something positive. God looks after us; not God buries us in poverty.
"Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?"
This analysis may have obscured that these five lines constitute a question, one that begins with "How does a bastard…" and concludes with “…Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?" "Scholar" is a strong rhyme for "squalor" — but this is only to call attention to their different meanings (as if someone rhymed "glamour" and "grammar"). There are three more "o" sounds but the first two, in "grow" and "hero," have long vowels in them, changing the previous pattern in a productive way.
If you are still with me, you may be harboring the secret thought that this exploration of poetics and euphony — while appropriate for poetry, fiction and rap — have little relevance for the practice of journalism and nonfiction.
In most cases this is true. Journalism tends to be light on metaphor or sound imagery. But that turns out to be good news for the clever writer. The general absence of such language means that when it does appear it will get special attention.
There are poetic moments in life and in the news. They may deserve special language. The writer can play with sounds, even in the most serious contexts and what could be more serious in New York City than a memorial to the victims of 9/11?
"Once more the leaden bells tolled in mourning, loved ones recited the names of the dead at ground zero and a wounded but resilient America paused yesterday to remember the calamitous day when terrorist explosions rumbled like summer thunder and people fell from the sky."
That sentence opens a story by Robert D. McFadden of the New York Times, and I invite you to read it again, aloud. I just did it and now, bear with me, I invite you to try reading it in something like the same hip hop rhythm established throughout “Hamilton.”
For such a story, on such a day, the news can read like poetry. The writer begins with the inherent drama and symbolism of ceremony. The tolling of bells and the reading of names place us in a familiar, but still emotional setting, fraught with history and meaning. Then come the sounds. In this passage and throughout the piece, the details echo so effectively that they might serve as natural sound in a brilliant NPR story. The bells are leaden. They toll. The names are recited. On that dreadful day in 2001, explosions “rumbled like summer thunder.” (The poet would point out the repetition of those short "u" sounds, that device called assonance. And the repetition of those words "rumbled," "summer," and "thunder," sound like the things they describe.)
The writer chooses words with care and each reverberates with a solemn tone. Examine the language. Listen to it: leaden, bells, tolled, mourning, loved one, recited, names of the dead, ground zero, a wounded…America, summer thunder, fell from the sky.
McFadden begins his story with three elements, a symbolic number that represents the whole. More interesting is the movement through the triad: from bells, to loved ones, to a resilient America — that is, from a symbolic object to powerful witnesses to an abstract representation of the nation as a whole. Finally this sentence of 45 words ends with a haunting, almost mystical image. The bloodless euphemism of people falling from the sky exemplifies decorum, a sensibility that helps us look back with resolution and hope, rather than with bitterness and despair.
Now get off your assonance and make your story sing.
(The analysis of McFadden’s story first appeared in my book “The Glamour of Grammar.” I analyzed another example of McFadden’s work in a recent essay.)