The Pocket

Musicians sometimes talk about “playing in the pocket”. As with many things musicians say, what they mean is a little mysterious, but, as far as I can tell, they’re referring to an organic sense of time — the local, natural rhythm that a group of musicians finds in the moment of playing. It’s not the time of the metronome, but the pulse of the performance. It’s not something you measure but something you feel.

Mysticism aside, it is usually achieved by each member of the group playing a little “off” the beat, yet somehow “in sync” with the others. Their playing is not oriented around some external, abstract standard tempo, but by what the other people in the band are doing. The bass player may play, like my band teacher taught me to play, just at the front of the beat, not faster but hitting each note just a little before the others, driving the music forward, “like a Mac truck,” Mr. Orr used to say. The guitarist may hang back a little, putting “some stank on it,” as I believe it’s called in the Parliament of Funk. A drummer may play the hi-hat exactly on the beat, but hit the snare variously “around” it, producing, like Max Roach, “awe and puzzlement and even fear” in his peers. In the pocket, each musician finds their place and makes room for the others. Whatever they do, they’re producing a tension, a stretch in time, that the audience can feel, and which, ideally, propels them out of their seats. “Music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance,” as Ezra Pound said on New Year’s Day, 1934.

And “poetry,” he went on, “begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.” I want to say that prose must never fully abandon its roots in poetry, and writing can therefore never be truly good if it has entirely lost its ear for music. “Bach and Mozart are never too far from physical movement,” said Pound. Nor are Montaigne and Flaubert, Hemingway and Barthes.

Even academics have to keep it in the pocket. A scholarly paper or essay is a series of paragraphs, each of which occupies about one minute of the reader’s attention, supporting, elaborating, or defending a single claim. The argument of the paper moves forward in time, along a line marked by the key sentence of each paragraph. The purpose of the paragraph as a whole is to resolve the difficulty that the key sentence, taken on its own, occasions in the mind of the reader. The reader may find it hard to believe, hard to understand, or hard to agree with, and the writer will support it with evidence, elaborate its meaning, or defend it against objections accordingly. Like a participant in Charles Mingus’s jazz workshop, you’re free to put the key sentence anywhere in the paragraph, wherever it feels right. You can start with the difficulty and the resolve it. You walk up to it, pick it, put it down, and walk away. Or you can leave it until the end, giving the reader materials that must be put together in the last sentence. Whatever you do, just, you know, put it in the pocket.

It’s all about occasioning a specific, manageable difficulty for the reader. If you are going to support a claim, you must make sure that it’s not so hard to believe that it takes more than 200 words, i.e., one minute, to present your evidence, but it must not be so easy to believe that five or six sentences of evidence feel like a waste of time. You must say something that is just hard enough to believe that a paragraph will support it. The same can be said of how hard your claim is to understand or agree with. You have one minute to elaborate your meaning or defend your point — one minute that you don’t want the reader to feel was either futile or wasted. You have to find what I have called the right “difficulty setting”, both for you and your reader.

Remember that academic writing is a conversation. So the analogy we’re exploring here requires you to think of your reader (who is always a peer, remember) like another member of the band you’re playing in. You’re the band leader and the composer, to be sure, but you’ve got to leave room for the reader’s contribution. In each paragraph, you’re going to establish a space between the claim you’re making and the reader’s belief, understanding, or agreement. The reader must feel free to step into that space (and out of it, if need be). The reader must play a role in the resolution of the difficulty the paragraph implies. So the reader is not your “audience”, at first listening and finally moved. The reader is in your band and is thinking along with you. You and the reader are playing, if you are, in the same pocket. Enjoy the company.

I like this analogy. Consider another kind of reader, someone who is not the writer’s peer, or not yet the writer’s peer. It might be a member of the public trying to make sense of a scientific paper or a student just starting out in the discipline. This is someone who can’t make the contribution that the sequence of key sentences implies. The space between the difficulty and its resolution is simply too great. There’s too much math or too much jargon or too much tacit knowledge in the argument for a layperson to comprehend in the moment, the minute of attention the paragraph presumes to command. And yet, even this “audience”, this passive receiver of your text, can detect whether you’re writing “in the pocket” or just fencing in the air. Such a reader may not finally believe, understand, or agree with you, but they will get a sense of the tension and its resolution. Does the text seem to be written into an ongoing conversation among knowledge people? Does it feel “tight”? Or not. I think much of the academic writing that so famously “sucks” is simply not “in the pocket” in this way. It doesn’t leave room for expert engagement.

To the reader, the paragraph should appear like a single, coherent moment in which the key sentence is, as it were, “accomplished”. Even if we’re not able to fully appreciate the accomplishment, we should be able to experience it at some level. There should be a certain intensity in our writing; each paragraph should constitute a “plateau” in our text. Of course, we’re not always going to swing perfectly with our readers, and some passages (series of paragraphs, sequences of fact and motion) will be more engaging than others, but there should be pages where the peer reader really gets “into” what we’re doing. Good writing provides the pocket in which that can happen.