Home > 3. My Poetry & Translations > Trumpets and Le Mot Juste

Trumpets and Le Mot Juste


Despite the fact that RT’s mom wanted to be a jazz singer when she was young, RT has no discernible musical ability himself. Or, to speak frankly, he can’t carry a tune. Though as a writer he has seen certain of his colleagues, with guidance and encouragement, make remarkable progress in their literary efforts, music seems to him a more arduous and exacting accomplishment, one that requires an innate ability to recognize and duplicate pitch. It is a precise art, so much so that people who do not quite hit the note when performing can actually inflict pain on those of their listeners sensitive to slight variation in pitch.

There is an analogous phenomenon in writing: finding the right word (or as the French say, le mot juste). What might be exactly the right word in a given situation, however, is highly context dependent, and with the immense vocabulary available to English speakers (about a million words), there is enough imprecision that we have at our disposal, at least in many cases, a cluster of words that can send a shiver of pleasure through our audience.

In a parallel universe, RT would play the trumpet–its pure and thrilling sound has attracted him since adolescence. He is doubtful, though, of claims from various individuals that they can teach him to play it. Guitar lessons in childhood led to a series of crash-and-burn situations that convinced him that there is an indisputable element of raw talent in the enterprise. It is easier, as a general rule, to improve a person’s command of his or her native tongue than to sharpen the sense of pitch. The standards are less strict.

Of course, there are those individuals born with the great voice, that is, people who drip poetry from their lips like honey. But, sadly, the individual often must be long dead before his or her gift is generally acknowledged. These people are trailblazers, transforming and perfecting the language they received; it takes time for society to catch up with this kind of invention.   RT

Photo: Slide trumpet player, southern France. WikiCmns; Public Domain.


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