Natasha Sajé | October/November 2005
Syntax is unique to humans. Animals communicate using signals that refer to whole situations. For instance, animal calls can be continuous analogue signals or a series of random variations on a time, like bird song. My cat's meow while standing in front of his empty food bowl differs from Oliver Twist's "Please, sir, I want some more," because Oliver can separate the parts of his sentence to form new ones. In other words, human language consists of components that have their own meaning and can be arranged to make new messages, thus syntax allows for a larger language repertoire and bypasses mere memorization. Humans memorize words and their functions (for example whether they are nouns or verbs) but they do not memorize every message they relate.
Thirty years ago, linguist Noam Chomsky argued that human babies are born with a sense of syntax that transcends individual languages. Since then, others have been attempting to discover universal patterns. For instance, Guglielmo Cinque posits that every language consists of sentences based on a verb phrase surrounded by modifiers in predictable patterns. 1 When the field narrows to a particular language, patterns become easy to identify; i.e. grammatical rules. In order to write well, writers must not only master words, but syntax, the rules of their ordering. Moreover, understanding syntax allows writers to bend or break rules in ways that serve their work.
Form and Content
Syntax reveals the interrelatedness of form and content, and the paradoxes that result in discussing one without the other. Most literature contains paraphrasable ideas; its form (including syntax) conveys these ideas. In The Rhetoric, Aristotle writes, "For it is not enough to know what we ought to say; we must also say it as we ought ....The arts of language cannot help but having a small but real importance...the way in which a thing is said does affect its intelligibility. Not however, so much importance as people think. All such arts are fanciful and meant to charm the hearer. Nobody uses fine language when teaching geometry." 2 Using the model of an orator convincing a crowd, Aristotle seems to separate form and content, yet Martha Nussbaum argues that in ancient Greece, "Forms of writing were not seen as vessels into which different contents could be indifferently poured; form was itself a statement, a content." 3 The answer to the apparent contradiction rests in flexible use of the terms "form" and "content." Any attempt to impose a neat or chronological development of the relationship of form to content has been, at least for me, impossible. Form and content are variables on a seesaw that can be tipped in either direction.
Suspicion of "fine language," for instance, stretches from the Bible and Aristotle to contemporary anthropologist Yi-Fu Tuan, who believes that "Truth dwells, if anywhere, in simple speech. Christ said: 'plain yes or no is all you need to say; anything beyond that comes from the devil.' Matthew 5:37....truth cannot be netted in artful speech." 4 If style is like a dress that adorns a body, an attack on style is a quick way to discredit a writer. For instance, John Locke in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding associates rhetoric with "the fair sex": "All the Art of Rhetorick, besides Order and Clearness, all the artificial and figurative application of Words Eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong Ideas, move the Passions, and thereby mislead the Judgment...Eloquence, like the Fair Sex has too prevailing Beauties in it, to suffer itself ever to be spoken against." 5 Seeing that "eloquence" and the "fair sex" were equated in order to dismiss them, some women writers rejected "flowery diction" and "elegant" syntax. Here, for example, is Mary Wollstonecraft:
...wishing rather to persuade by the force of my arguments, than dazzle by the elegance of my language, I shall not waste my time rounding periods, or in fabricating the turgid bombast of artificial feelings...I shall be employed about things, not words! 6
Such a division between style and content is termed dualism. Dualists believe there are different ways of saying the same thing, that a sentence can be paraphrased and not lose its message. In 1818, Hegel addressed the relation of form to content in his Heidelberg lectures on aesthetics, dividing works of art into three categories: symbolic, classic, and romantic. Symbolic art, such as the "oriental," "vainly endeavors to find pure conceptions and a mode of representation which is suitable to them. It is a conflict between matter and form, both imperfect and heterogeneous." 7 Classic art, such as sculpture, unites form and content in harmony. Romantic art emphasizes form over content, so that form becomes its truth, and poetry is the art which unites form and content: "Poetry is the universal art of the mind which has become free in its own nature, and which has not tried to find its realization in external sensuous matter, but expatiates exclusively in the inner space and inner time of the ideas and feelings." 8
Dante wrote, "the exposition of the letter is nothing other than the development of the form," 9 yet these ideas blossomed in 19th and 20th-century thinking. It is the form that makes art, insisted Flaubert, Tolstoy, and the New Critics, taking the stance called monism, which finds form and content inseparable, and believes that any change in style results in a change of meaning. Monists see a text as a whole, and to take this view to the extreme would be to say that meaning can only be expressed by repeating the very words of the original text. This recalls the medieval form of monism, the icon, wherein form and content are so inseparable as to be endowed with one (holy) spirit: indeed, for some 21st-century artists, art is the new icon, with the artist a stand-in for God. Yet for others art is only surfaces, without content or "depth"-even without a controlling human consciousness. Frederic Jameson notes the poststructuralist repudiation of philosophical, psychological, and linguistic "depth models," arguing that "depth is replaced by surface or by multiple surfaces." 10 Such binary oppositions between form and content, truth and falsehood, and natural and artificial led 20th-century philosopher Jacques Derrida to challenge "the good and the natural (as) the divine inscription in the heart and the soul; the perverse and the artful (as) technique, exiled in the exteriority of the body." 11 The tension between truth and art is reflected in discussions of syntax.
Scientists as well as philosophers and artists have entered the debate over surface versus depth, and artifice versus truth. For instance, psychologist Barry Schlenker has discovered that the way people present themselves changes how they feel about themselves; other scientists have shown that acting happy, for example, creates happiness, thus smiling (with the eyes) stimulates the same hormones, whether the smile is spontaneous or deliberate. 12 Divisions between inside and outside, surface and depth, and true and false are being questioned and eroded in all fields.
In a 1959 letter to Elaine Feinstein, Charles Olson expresses a monist view when he writes "that form is never any more than an extension of content." 13 Not all modern poets are monists, however; in her afterward to Viper Rum, "Against Decoration," Mary Karr cites poems by Amy Clampitt and James Merrill, among others, that spend their energy on "surfaces," arguing that when "decorative elements" in poems become "final ends," the poems fail to move the reader." 14 Karr advocates art which emphasizes the artist's expression of emotion as a conduit for the reader's, citing Merrill's "Serenade" as a poem whose "flourishes...obscure the central subject, render it meaningless." 15 Conversely, I would argue that the situation of past lovers reduced to corresponding with each other, one by letter, the other by poem, is clear; that the emotions described are longing, anticipation, and loyalty; and that the art of both the letter and the poem become light by which to see. "Serenade" may not be one of Merrill's best poems, but neither is it meaningless. My point is that readers continue to use "artifice" to dismiss writing they don't like.
"Pluralism" offers a third approach that tries to avoid the weaknesses of monism and dualism, the denial of content and form, respectively. Geoffrey Leech and Michael Short propose a pluralist model that incorporates three levels of style: semantic, syntactic, and graphological. The semantic level is that of message; the pluralist would consider "The discreet door closed with a click" and "the door discreetly shut with a click" to transmit the "same" message, despite slight differences in meaning. 16 On the syntactic level "the discreet door shut with a click" and "with a click the discreet door shut" have different effects but transmit the same message. Graphological changes-punctuation, spelling, hyphenation, italicization, paragraphing, line and stanza breaks-are the most minor. Thus, "the discreet door shut-with a click" and "with a click, the discreet door shut" have very slight different effects on the reader. The literary magazine I advise sometimes receives revisions of poems we have accepted for publication, revisions that might seem major to the poets, but are minor to us. Often, when a poem is not working, changes in line breaks, wording, or syntax are not the problem-rather it is some more basic glitch in the poem's conception, who is speaking to whom and why, or to use Mary Karr's terms, a lack of clarity about the emotion expressed.
It is reasonable to see form and content as variously connected; the more "literary" the form, the less paraphrasable the content. In other words, one could paraphrase (skillfully) a driver's manual without any loss of meaning, but not a novel or a poem. My college's debate over a mission statement provides an example of monism versus dualism. A faculty member suggested that a small group revise our poorly written mission statement without bringing it back to the whole faculty for another vote. The dualists (mostly professors from business and science) were happy with this idea, but the monists (the humanities faculty) argued that even minor changes in style might affect the meaning, and thus create controversy. Even texts more literary than a college mission statement can be paraphrased, as suggested by Masterplots, Cliff Notes, and Reader's Digest Condensed Books. Furthermore, translation from one language to another separates form and content, but the fact that some translations result in unsatisfying poems points to the importance of form.
Manuscripts and books produced before the 17th century exhibit great variance in spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. These were gradually standardized with the help of dictionaries, printing presses, and grammars. Marxist critic and poet Ron Silliman links the trend toward standardized language to capitalism, in which "the illusion of realism and the breakdown of gestural poetic form" 17 make it more possible to have a message that does not call attention to its construction. "Poetry has yielded less (and resisted more) this process of capitalist transformation" writes Silliman, noting for instance that poetry is the only genre in which spelling may be unconventional. 18 "Feedback" might be a kind of standardization, an attempt to make a poem more universally readable, while copyediting is another. Interestingly, in the publishing industry, the number of eyes that looks at a text before it is printed is one indication of its importance and financial viability. Poetry is lightly-or not at all-edited, perhaps because of cost or because standardization would destroy the poet's "style."
Judy Grahn's True to Life Adventure Stories, published in 1981 by The Crossing Press, resist standardization. Grahn collected working class women's stories, and "tried to keep each writer's language intact, precise for the story it is telling, for the more closely coordinated we allow content and form of any art to be, the more accurate, useful and whole it is. In addition, when a sentence says, as one of Linda Marie's does, 'we could beirly survive on what I could make in any part of the world,' I simply don't feel it is appropriate to let Mr. Webster say that what is wrong with the sentence is the spelling." The line between fact and fiction is blurred in these stories, but Grahn's intent is "truth," suggesting convention as a barrier to it. Grahn chose her stories "because they are true. By true I mean they are based on information which is close to, or is, the original source of the story." 19 In her back cover blurb Susan Griffin writes, "These are lived stories. The language tells one so. Every word, scene, gesture speaks authentically of the real lives we live as women."
The dominance of free verse also suggests that "the less artifice, the more truth." For example, Philip Levine said, "In my ideal poem, no words are noticed. You look through them into a vision...just see the people, the place." 20 Conversely, l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poetry-even the very grapheme of its name-calls attention to form. In between is a wide range of practice, and one that may differ from poem to poem, not just between poets. Louise GlÃ¼ck is a poet whose work has remained relatively consistent, yet in the "Author's Note" to the reprint edition of the first four books of her poems, she distinguishes between books on the basis of syntax:
After Firstborn, I set myself the task of making poems as single sentences, having found myself trapped in fragments. After The House on Marshland, I tried to wean myself from conspicuous syntactical quirks and a recurring vocabulary-what begins as vision degenerates into mannerism. And after Descending Figure, my favorite of the books here, I tried to learn to use questions and contractions, because I finally noticed that I'd refused them and it seemed interesting to discover how the poems would sound if I didn't... 21
GlÃ¼ck's distinction between "vision and mannerism" is another way of saying "content and form" or "truth and artifice." The power of GlÃ¼ck's poems comes from psychological insights which at their best transcend the individual and create myth. Her simple subject/verb/object sentences have elongated slightly over the course of her career, but insights make her poems interesting-their narrative paraphrasability, like that of myth.
Alongside a cultural convention like the fact that American prose has become simpler since about 1933, 22 a writer has personal habits. For example, more practiced writers tend to produce longer and more complex sentences. 23 Being aware of one's habits, for
instance by counting syntactical patterns, allows one to work with or against them. In addition to sentence length and complexity, the elements of syntax include tense; passive versus active voice; sentence types (declarative, questions, imperative); usage frequency of particular parts of speech; clause type and structure; verb, noun, prepositional and participial phrases; fragments; and person (first, second, third). This partial list suggests the possibilities of syntactical analysis: any one feature may become a writer's habit or provide an "opening" for the reader. Although most writers become fluent without learning how to diagram a sentence or knowing the names of the devices they employ, syntactical fluency-mastering these categories-is a prerequisite to good prose. I would argue that it is also a prerequisite to good poetry, and that one must understand conventional syntax before challenging it.
Habits reveal the stresses an individual responded to in the past. Athletes and musicians perform the same movements in the same way over extended periods of time, and such repetitive motion creates injuries. Similarly, some writing habits constrict thought. For instance, many of my undergraduate students were taught by their high school teachers never to say "I" in essays. What no doubt started as a teacher's attempt to professionalize student writing went haywire when students apply the rule without understanding the reason behind it. By the time they reach college, many have developed bizarre ways around this restriction, and my task involves getting them to take responsibility for their ideas, use active voice, and say "I."
Fluent writers also have habits; for instance, the repeated use of fragments might reveal an antagonism toward making relationships between things explicit. The usefulness of this habit depends on the rhetorical situation of the writing: hypotaxis, the combination of phrases and clauses with coordinating and subordinating conjunctions such as: if, because, so, since, etc., is necessary to a critical essay because the writer must link her ideas, but hypotaxis might be less important, even contradictory, in a poem or a story where the reader is asked to make the "leaps" between images. Conversely, parataxis works by juxtaposition, with punctuation such as semicolons and periods. Susan Griffin's nonfiction book about war, A Chorus of Stones, repeatedly uses paratactic sequences of short sentences to simulate her comprehension process. In other words, instead of creating sophisticated complex sentences that suggest she has control over and an understanding of the facts, Griffin offers a series of overlapping simple sentences that transmit her own numb bafflement:
She is across the room from me. I am in a chair facing her. We sit together in the late darkness of a summer night. As she speaks the space between us grows larger. She has entered her past. She is speaking of her childhood. Her father. The war. Did I know her father fought in the Battle of the Bulge? Was it for him, this great and terrible battle? She cannot say. He never spoke of it at home. 24
This syntactical practice exemplifies the "creative" aspect of Griffin's book-a more journalistic venue, for example, might have standardized the style. If parataxis suits Griffin's subject, one might also ask whether parataxis is the "dominant mode of our time" and "one of the marks of the postmodern," 25 as debated by Frederic Jameson and Bob Perelman. In other words, are short unconnected sentences the cultural style of our era? Does linking ideas assume a mastery and control that belie the state of the world? Or does parataxis merely help the writer avoid difficulty? "Sentence length is an appropriate gauge of difficulty because it measures relationships. Longer sentences incorporate more words, and more words mean more relationships which increase the effort for the reader," notes Kevin Catalano. 26 Perhaps paratactical "sound bites" mirror the flash of unconnected images we see on television and suit our short attention spans.
A poem whose first two sentences use both parataxis and hypotaxis is Stephen Dunn's "Corners":
I've sought out corner bars, lived in corner houses;
like everyone else I've reserved
corner tables, thinking they'd be sufficient.
I've met at corners
perceived as crossroads, loved to find love
leaning against a lamp post
but have known the abruptness of corners too,
the pivot, the silence. 27
The semicolon that ends the first line creates a sort of corner by linking two independent clauses. The second sentence is hypotactic in its use of "but" to create an opposition between the first part (representing good corners) and the second (representing bad corners). Leaving out the "but" would require the reader to supply the opposition. In this poem, "corners" is a trope for a wide range of things: protection, threat, crossroads, bodies, places, time, and emotions. The syntax controls this range, for example by adhering to a subject/verb/object frame throughout. In other words, the regular syntax helps shape the poem into a syntactical box, with the first sentence (twenty words), second sentence (twenty-eight words), third sentence (thirty-five words), fourth sentence (twenty-three words), and fifth sentence (thirty-five words) broken up into roughly equal bits, like walls to a room. Ancillary to sentence length are clause length and line length, creating a rhythm that corners the reader.
Poetry should be at least as well written as prose, as Pound famously remarked. Fluency requires practice writing all kinds of sentences (and fragments) for all kinds of purposes. Something as simple as asking a poetry student to restrict herself to present tense instead of past can open a new way of seeing. Early in my own graduate studies, the Melville scholar Hershel Parker pronounced my prose "not quite English," noting that I had a tendency to bury main points in the middle of sentences. At the time I was mortified, especially since English is not my first language, although I liked to think I wrote it well enough to pass for a native. Since then, I've realized that I have to work to produce fluent syntax; in the intervening years, I have also written a lot more, and seen a corresponding improvement.
One well-documented example of a writer's prose style changing is Henry James, who toward the end of his career in 1907â€“1910 selected and rewrote his fiction to publish it as the New York Edition. Most scholars agree that trying to give the simpler youthful work the complexity of the late style merely muddied it. Geoffrey Leech and Michael Short argue that writers develop what they call "mind style" over the course of their careers, i.e. how a world is apprehended or conceptualized. "If the choices which build up this view of things are repeatedly used by a writer in a number of his works then they become part of what critics regard as his typical style....For example, the abstractness and complexity of syntactic embedding are well known characteristics of the style of Henry James, and it is also these characteristics which give rise to the complex social vision James creates." 28 James's late work was not only more convoluted in style, but more complex ethically, so a fair measure of a writer's growth is to ask if the form changes to accommodate new insight.
The sentence is a grammatical unit, a minimum complete utterance in writing that is fixed by a period. It must have a subject and a predicate, and it can be extended endlessly by appending clauses and phrases. An elegant sentence permits the reader to understand without rereading. It is a train headed to a destination, which the reader knows won't make unscheduled stops. Poems that consist of one sentence must use a range of devices to link ideas, from punctuation to coordination, yet their destinations may remain a surprise until the end. Consider Lance Larsen's "Spider Luck" which draws attention to syntax by attenuating it:
One toe-nudge too many and she exploded, poor
mother spider, into a slick of babies-no more
than spilled commas, unless you knelt
at the open door with a used paperback of Beowulf,
as I did, to rescue them, and happened
to notice the pool playing hide the button
with Cassiopeia and wondered about heroic codes
in general and my cowardice in specific
for not swimming naked at 2:30 am and which lunatic
neighbor slipped into my apartment to steal
half a rotisseried chicken while I mailed a letter
and which one I should trust to water my ferns
and why rain is almost never a possessive
and whether I was the only one awake enough
to hear the wind saying with its hundred
mouths, Never mind, little orphan, never mind. 29
(Reprinted with permission of the author)
It takes skill to write a sentence this long, one that doesn't lose the thread of meaning as it builds to the end. In "Spider Luck," the bursting sense of the sentence correlates to the pregnant mother spider, and to the speaker's sense of being overwhelmed by detail and derailed by lost trust. The last two stanzas follow from the verb "and wondered about": the verb anchors the speaker's wondering, and puts the last half of the poem firmly in his mind, not "reality." The end of the poem recalls the beginning episode of putting the baby spiders outside, and the last consolation is addressed to the spiders and to the speaker. Breaking the ideas into independent sentences would suggest that the speaker can control his environment; conversely, the poem's one long sentence signals the speaker as part of his surroundings.
As Ellen Bryant Voigt points out, poets negotiate the rhythm of the line against the rhythm of the sentence. 30 Long sentences can be clarified by short lines. The branching syntax Voigt notes in poems by Stanley Kunitz and Robert Frost is a common structure of the traditional American poem, which starts with an observation, wanders a bit, and then ends with the "point." It is also a structure that has been criticized for presuming the hegemony of the speaker and the coherence of the subject. The linguistic category of "end focus" presumes the general tendency for given information to precede new information. 31 In other words, "John wrote the whole book" and "the whole book was written by John" differ in context. The first sentence answers the question, "what did John write?" while the second answers, "who wrote the book?"
But what if the sentence is not a train with a destination? In poetry, meaning does not convey information as much as instigate the reader's process of discovery. What is considered aberrant in prose might be a virtue in poetry. Common poetic devices such as alliteration and inverted syntax separate poems from everyday speech. For instance, the inverted order of the first lines-a fragment-of Paradise Lost signals it as verse: "Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit / Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste / Brought death into the world, and all our woe, / With loss of Eden." Starting with the preposition "of" opens a door into the poem, making the first lines an abstract for the rest. "Of" is highly relational, a word that signifies groupings and judgment. Another syntactic signal is the use of an uncommon verb form, as in poem #1186 by Emily Dickinson:
Too few the mornings be,
Too scant the nights.
No lodging can be had
For the delights
That come to earth to stay,
But no apartment find
And ride away. 32
A more usual way of stating the first two lines would be: "The mornings are too few and the nights too scant." This poem places verbs at the ends of lines, making us ask, "too few for what?" and propelling us to the end. Dickinson's choice of "be" signals strangeness and gestures toward the imperative (i.e. "be" in another context would be imperative: be well). Although the lines create a complete sentence, they read like fragments because the most important aspect, why, is not stated. The anaphora of "too" heightens the phrasing. The poem's second sentence buries its subject ("delights") in the middle, which underscores the delights' fleeting presence. If this sentence were found in an essay it might read: Because the delights that come to earth do not find lodging, they ride away. Dickinson's use of passive voice underscores the passive quality of the delights, which come to earth like faeries who will not look for lodging explicitly, as if such a search is too pedestrian for them. The poem exhorts the reader to be on the lookout for delight, and the poem's syntactical oddities not only alert us that we are reading verse, but also make us see what we take for granted. In this case, one might say the strange syntax simulates the ephemeral and estranged quality of delights.
James Joyce's Finnegans Wake is a prose work that torques diction and syntax for revolutionary effect, a novel that demands slow reading and a wide range of reference: "riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs." 33
This first sentence discards the convention of beginning with a capital; Eve and Adam's refers to a church in Dublin whose name Joyce reverses. The teleological irony of the opening is that the first sentence completes the novel's last sentence, something it takes 627 pages to discover. Joyce's lexical wordplay and syntactical oddities shout their difference from classic realism.
How a piece of writing calls attention to form varies on a continuum from exaggeration to error. One might say that "Spider Luck" exaggerates, Finnegans Wake exaggerates more, and Gertrude Stein's poems err. Like Louise GlÅ¸ck's realization of her own growth through syntax, Stein heralds her discovery of nouns in "Poetry and Grammar" as the gateway to poetry: "But and after I had gone as far as I could in these long sentences and paragraphs that had come to do something else I then began very short things and in doing very short things I resolutely realized nouns and decided not to get around them but to meet them, to handle in short to refuse them by using them and in that way my real acquaintance with poetry was begun." 34 If Stein's prose presents syntactical challenges, her poems offer more. Here is the first section of "Yet Dish":
Put a sun in Sunday, Sunday.
Eleven please ten hoop. Hoop.
Cousin coarse in coarse in soap.
Cousin coarse in soap sew up. soap.
Cousin coarse in sew up soap. 35
Is "Sunday" being addressed or just repeated? Why are the numbers important? Is "hoop" a reference to embroidery, a game, or skirts? Do cousins visit on Sunday, as a matter of course, freshly washed? Why is the fragment "soap" not capitalized while the fragment "Hoop" is? What is the difference between the last two lines? The poem resists meaning, resists paraphrase.
Readers of poetry are more open to irregularities than readers of prose. The British poet Donald Davie wrote, "what is common to all modern poetry is the assertion or the assumption (most often the latter) that syntax in poetry is wholly different from syntax as understood by logicians and grammarians." 36 Examining syntax in poetry through the lens of three philosopher-critics, T. E. Hulme, Suzanne Langer, and Ernest Fenollosa, Davie wants to "show the inadequacy of the symbolist and post symbolist tradition" because it articulates only the world of the poem. In other words, Davie is disturbed by poetry that abandons reference, such as Stein's, although he names no names. While he admits that it is poetry, he says he doesn't like it because it has lost its "humanity": "for poetry to be great it must reek of the human." 37 Davie's sentiment is echoed today by readers who reject poetry without a coherent human speaker, a personality behind or out of the words.
When William Carlos Williams says of e.e. cummings's writing, "It isn't at all english," and goes on to say, "cummings has come from english to another province having escaped across a well defended border," 38 he means that cummings was trying to challenge the ideology of grammar. "With cummings every syllable has a conscience and a specific impact-attack, which, as we know now-is the best defense." 39 Similarly, when Gertrude Stein wrote, "I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences... the one thing that has been completely exciting and completely completing. In that way one is completely possessing something and incidentally one's self," 40 I think she was expressing her belief that ideology works in grammar and saw how she could challenge it.
As Marjorie Perloff has shown, Gertrude Stein and Ludwig Wittgenstein had similar ideas about syntax. 41 In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein writes, "When I say that the orders 'Bring me sugar' and 'bring me milk' make sense, but not the combination 'milk me sugar,' that does not mean that the utterance of this combination of words has no effect. And if its effect is that the other person stares at me and gapes, I don't on that account call it the order to stare and gape, even if that was precisely the effect that I wanted to produce." 42 Wittgenstein also asks why it sounds strange to say "for a second he felt deep grief" and goes on to explain that the sentence sounds wrong because we understand grief to last longer than a second; there is a disjunction between connotation and the grammar of the sentence. We know that grief is not a fleeting emotion, so the sentence doesn't make sense. It is these disjunctions that writers like Stein, Pound, Williams, and cummings explore in their poems, and these disjunctions that disturb Davie, among others.
Another example of syntactic disjunction can be found in Karen Garthe's poem, "stolen car" which begins, "Once was a queen and he didn't deserve cruel treatment..." 43 Just as we understand that grief is long lasting, we know that Queens are female, so the use of the male pronoun "he" seems wrong-making us reread and question what is happening. Is the Queen in this case male, for example a transvestite or someone who otherwise has adopted feminine behavior? Or does the poet merely skip the linking idea, that the Queen was cruel to a male subject? In either case, the syntactical oddity makes the reader slow down and question, not only what is being said, but what is assumed by the language.
Nearly everything is encased in an assumption of normality or convention; that it doesn't snow in south Florida, that it is bad or sad to be poor. Some of these assumptions change over time, for instance the idea that women can be writers, and more recently the idea that marriage is between a man and a woman. When William Carlos Williams said, "kill the explicit sentence, don't you think? And expand our meaning-by verbal sequences. Sentences, but not grammatical sentences: deathfalls set by schoolmarms. Do you think there is any virtue in that? Better than sleep? To revive us?" 44 he was railing against the ideology of grammar. Williams praised Stein for "tackling the fracture of stupidities bound in our thoughtless phrases, in our calcified grammatical constructions, and in the subtle brainlessness of our meter and favorite prose rhythms-which compel words to follow certain others without precision of thought." 45 Patrick Moore shows that Williams' own syntax deviated in ways that advanced his poems: with modifying clauses that created separate, floating, images; parataxis; copulative verbs; exclamations and rhetorical questions asserting the priority of instinct and feeling; and dependent phrases and clauses before the subject or between the subject and the verb to temporarily suspend closure and meaning. 46 The question of when syntactical oddity improves writing and when it is the sign of a clumsy or lazy writer is best answered in the context of the writer's oeuvre.
I would like to end by analyzing a poem by Anne Carson that exemplifies syntactical fluency.
Of the soldier who put a spear through Christ's side on the cross
(and by some accounts broke his legs),
whose name is Longinus,
it is said
that after that he had trouble sleeping
and fell into a hard mood,
drifted out of the army
and came west,
as far as Provencia.
Was a body's carbon not simply carbon.
Jab hook jab.
Slight shift and we catch him
in a moment of expansion and catastrophe,
white arms sporting strangely in a void.
Uppercut jab jab hook jab.
Don't want to bore you,
my troubles jab.
Jab. Was a face not all stille
as dew in Aprille.
(From Men in The Off Hours by Anne Carson, copyright Â© 2000 by Anne Carson. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.)
"Shadowboxer" uses a variety of sentence lengths and constructions, as well as fragments. This is not a poem that could be mistaken for prose: even if it were printed without line breaks, the hyperkinetic energy of the syntax demands heightened reading. Like Paradise Lost and Auden's "The Old Masters," "Shadowboxer" begins with an inversion, "Of the soldier..," creating a somewhat pedantic tone. "Of" is a preposition that signals family, alliance, and correlation. The main clause, "it is said," is marvelously empty-marvelous because this emptiness mirrors that of hearsay and history, echoing the title. "Shadowboxing" refers to an invisible or imaginary opponent, as for practice or exercise. Metaphorically, it refers to someone who expends energy for no apparent reason. The detail in the first sentence is contained in the dependent clauses, notably the clause that begins the poem. In fifty-two words, the first sentence sets up the story of Longinus. By frontloading the syntax, and beginning the poem with the subjects of betrayal, faith, and violence, rather than leading up to them obliquely, Carson lets readers know where they are. Once she has set up the subject, the syntax shifts to a question, notably one without a question mark, as if the speaker is talking to herself.
Two versions of the Longinus story exist: in one, he converts and becomes a saint after witnessing the miracle of Christ's blood. In Carson's version, Longinus's act leads him into despair, and he becomes a drifter. Carson also plays with the versions of what happened to Christ's body when he was taken from the cross. From John 19-31:
Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. 48
Scholars disagree over whether the centurion referred to in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is the one who pierced the side of Christ. Unnamed in the Bible, he is mentioned in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus: "Then Longinus, a certain soldier, taking a spear, pierced his side, and presently there came forth blood and water."47 This version, in contradiction to John's Gospel, has Longinus spear Christ before his death. The story of Longinus and the speaker of the poem are linked by the lines, "don't want to bore you, my troubles jab." This punning sentence signals a speaker who rejects the idea of faith in Christ.
The poem also quotes a medieval lyric, "I Sing of a Maiden," an Annunciation piece, wherein Jesus comes as a courtly lover to the bower of his mother Mary:
He cam also stille
Ther His moder was,
As dew in Aprille
That falleth on the gras. 49
Carson truncates a refrain in the lyric, making the reference ironic. If Jesus and Mary in the medieval lyric have quiet faces, like dew in April, then Longinus and the pierced Christ have the opposite, Was a face not all stille as dew in Aprille. Carson's use of "was a face" instead of "had a face" undoes the opposition between surface and depth: Longinus is reduced to a face, as though his actions represent him entirely. History writing is a face (surface) which we interpret.
"Shadowboxer's" complexity is linked to its dialogism (or heteroglossia), terms coined by Mikhail Bakhtin to explain how bits of language that come from different systems create friction. Bakhtin points out that "this usually parodic stylization of generic, professional, and other strata of language is sometimes interrupted by the direct authorial word." 50 The first sentence of "Shadowboxer" refers to apocrophyal gospel, repeating heresay yet formalizing it with inverted syntax and a long sentence. The second sentence is a question that doesn't have a question mark, and refers, I think, to the shroud of Turin which carbon dating has found to be from the 1300s, the same century as the "I Sing of a Maiden." Perhaps an ordinary body could not leave a mark, but a holy body could. The next line recalls the boxing of the title-three monosyllables without punctuation describe the moves of a boxer and merge Longinus with the speaker. The poem contains 113 words, of which eleven are prepositions, twenty-one are nouns, and thirty-two are verbs. The abundant verbs underscore the action of the poem and contribute to the sense of it taking place at the time of reading, not recollected or reflected, but as a fight transcription. Yet the boxing words-jab, hook, and uppercut-can also be read as nouns. One throws or gives an uppercut or hook. Moreover, in boxing terms, a jab is a distraction, a setup to a reverse punch or hook, or a method to close distance with an opponent. A jab is means to an end, not a way to knock someone out. The reader becomes a shadowboxer-as well as the opponent who is jabbed. The reader in Carson's poem feels religion as the jab hook jab of a fist in the face. The poem's last word, "jab," underscores the incomplete transmission of history.
An insight from bodywork applies to poetic syntax. Ida Rolf wrote that "you don't have to see the whole man (sic). Every move he makes tells what his structure is." 51 Carson's every move is irregular, unpredictable except in its very variety. She habitually challenges stasis; even her combination of poetry and prose in books like Glass, Irony, and God might be said to do this. When Yeats said, "As I altered my syntax, I altered my intellect," he meant that change of any kind is not confined to a narrow realm. Altering the way one moves will also alter the way one thinks. No change in the human body is without analogue, without consequence elsewhere. Even if one doesn't believe in a cosmic relatedness of beings, change has ramifications beyond the individual self. "We must become the change we want to see in the world," said Gandhi, meaning that individuals take responsibility for global change. Changing one's syntax is a place to begin.
Natasha Saje is the author of two books of poems, Red Under the Skin (Pittsburgh, 1994) and Bend (Tupelo Press, 2004), and many essays. She teaches at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, and in the Vermont College MFA in Writing Program.
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