You cannot write a poem until

You cannot write a poem until you hit upon its rhythm. That rhythm not only belongs to the subject matter, it belongs to your interior world, and the moment they hook up there’s a quantum leap of energy. You can ride on that rhythm, it will carry you somewhere strange.

Stanley Kunitz


It’s all about the line

More syntax. And more and more. “I see dead people using syntax.”

from chapter 2 of The Art of Syntax, “The Sentence and the Line”

…poetry likewise makes use of two often competing rhythmic systems: the rhythm of syntax I have been discussing, which poetry shares with well-made prose, and the rhythm of the line. Like musical measure, the poetic line is inherently artificial, imposed by the poet onto the language. […] In free verse, too, the poet continually negotiates the extent to which the two rhythmic systems will be “at peace with one another.” That is, whether a line will be primarily consonant with the syntax, parsing it, or dissonant, in counterpoint ….

… the effects of the [balance between syntax and line] seem more significantly different between short- and long-lined poems than between metered and unmetered verse.

Say what? Had to read that one several times to really let it sink in. The difference, she says, is that long lines “more easily participate in large-scale musical phrasing, providing the poet opportunities to combine ‘bite-size chunks’ for new emphasis or nuance. With short lines, however, “large-scale phrasing must be left to the whole sentence, paced and punctuated by the lines (which may explain the ubiquitous reference to line ‘breaks’ in free verse poems, rather than to the integral unit the line creates). The shorter line achieves new emphasis or nuance by increasing the frequency of temporarily suspended comprehension, separating the constituent parts of the sentence and delaying its completion, for which the brain is avid.”

Got that clearly now? After only one read? I’m thinking of it this way, after several reads of her examples (including Stanley Kunitz’s “King of the River” which is genius): the long line lets us enter into relationship, a back and forth, that is, essentially, consummated at the end of each luxurious line. The short line is a kind of flirting with the brain, holding back, extending, spacing out the pleasure of completion until the poet is good and ready. And since the brain inherently desires to complete the pattern, to get enough information to make meaning, the reader is drawn through the short lines seeking that pleasure.


Side note: oh, how I loved to hate Barthes’ “The Pleasure of the Text.” But now how I love finding, learning how to make, the pleasure of the text. One important difference, though—his only model for that pleasure was the penis and its single, intense orgasm. I have a MUCH more interesting variety of pleasure models on hand, so to speak, from which to draw.


Whether line and syntax are consonant with one another […] or set in muscular opposition […] it is the dynamic interplay between them that comprises the prosody of almost all memorable poetry in English, in forms both fixed and “free.”

For the past one hundred years, poets have meanwhile been fretting about the poetic line, what it might be, what it can do, when released from a priori metric patterns. It is useful to remember that we write in sentences, too, and that the infinite variations of generative syntax take another quantum leap when they can be reinforced, or reconfigured—rechunked—by the poetic line.

Syntax as meta-structure: how do we order poems?

from what I’m sure will be an ongoing series of questions. When we are putting together poems for a chapbook, a book, a reading, how do we order them? How do we even think about ordering them? What’s the weight, the flow, the phrasing?

I think there’s this idea that one reads a poetry book by picking it up, opening to a page, and seeing if that poem connects to you, sparks you. If not, go to another page, forward or backward, maybe scanning first or last lines. Definitely no pressure to read a poetry collection as we’d read a novel or short story, as if the structure and sequence were there to carry meaning. Goddess knows I’ve read poetry books that way.

So how then do poets plan for the syntax of their collections—the phrasing, the emotional sense built by order and how information is revealed or withheld?

Two examples from my current reading list; more in the near future. Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah starts with this bolded advisory on the dedication page:

These poems tell two sides of a story and are meant to be read in sequence.

While Toi Derricotte, in Tender, says this in her preface:

Tender is not to be read in linear fashion. Rather, it is a seven-spoked wheel, with the poem “Tender” as the hub, each “spoke” or subdivision radiating out from that center.

Dove’s work is then laid out physically in a way that supports her desired linear reading. Derricotte’s layout, though, actually works against her stated desire, as the poems are in sections numbered sequentially. What editor or editorial committee did that? Her work is definitely an example of what online technology could provide that most books can’t. With hyper-linked text, the small poem “Tender” could stand in the middle of a space surrounded by the other section names such that the reader would have no sequence markers. Okay, really original book making could do this too, if the sections were printed on different color paper, maybe without page numbers or other markers or symbols of suggested order.

What reasons do we have as poets for how we order our poems? Most frequent reason: the order I wrote them in. But is that syntax or chronology? Meaning, or only a matter of interest to some future dissertation writer?

Language nerds only need read: syntax as phrasing

more updates from the world of The Art of Syntax, chapter 1.

Grammar controls the function of each word in the sentence and lines it up on one side of a clause or the other: “mask” can a thing (noun) or an action (verb) depending on its usage. Grammar also regulates that usage, and the lexicon, to efficiently signal function (he or him; laugh or laughs). These are tactics for clarity of discursive information. Syntax, however, is a larger, more flexible calculus: the order of the words in each unique human utterance.

Neurolinguists […] have discovered that the two quite distinct kinds of language development—acquiring a lexicon and mastering syntax—occur in different areas of the brain. […] And these syntax centers are not only independent from word deposits but adjacent to where we process music.

Summary of Ellen Voigt’s ideas here: Syntax is to language what phrasing is to music; phrasing is not musical meter, but operate on top of or in resistance to that meter using dynamics, harmony, melodic line, rhythmic variations, to create music. Syntax does this for language. Our brains are hungry for patterns and are inherently able to process information in chunks, not only in linear sequence. Our language allow us thousands of choices that make sense grammatically but give different weight, emphasis, sound, rhythm, and emotional meaning as we choose how to order the information we give.


One of the things I wondered about: considering the idea that syntax and lexicon are in different areas of the brain, I’m thinking about what I know about how language was used by the dozens and hundreds of different African peoples who were drug across the ocean and forced to learn to communicate, quickly, because their lives did depend upon it, in a language none of them knew but that was enforced through horrible violence. So of course the language they spoke used English words in syntax patterns from African languages. Duh—how else? There was no time for learning “standard” English—and such formal education was punishable by death anyway—so as a coping mechanism a language arose that gave birth to “Black English.” And in a racist setting, this has been treated as a deficit and not a brilliant, highly literate adaptation.


So how does one learn a second or third language so deeply that the vocabulary and the grammar and the syntax are available fluently? And how do we translate syntax when it varies so widely, especially between inflected and non-inflected languages??

Eight Weeks of Syntax

So the next eight weeks or so of my reading and writing life will be all about syntax. Seriously, truly, deeply about syntax. (quick, why is the latter NOT a fundamental English sentence??). Not just syntax as grammar, though—syntax as order, as counterpoint to the music of meter, as a constant series of choices about how meaning will be built.

I’m reading Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Art of Syntax, so expect many quotations and insights from samesaid. First, this, from her introduction, comparing musical ear-training and sight-reading to language:

When what we read is written not in musical notation but in words, those patterns are embedded in the syntax of the language. Writers who employ them with wit and surprise, with satisfying musical structure, with clarity of purpose and subtlety of meaning, provide us one of the greatest satisfactions of the literary arts. And the art most attentive to pattern if every kind is poetry.

Natasha Trethewey

from Native Guard, a book that, as a whole, is about looking back at oneself, seeing reflections that are real and reflections that are twisted. Look at what she does in this poem, only a few pages after a poem about Narcissus.



I was asleep while you were dying.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow
I make between my slumber and my waking,

the Erebus I keep you in, still trying
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow,
but in dreams you live. So I try taking

you back into morning. Sleep-heavy, turning,
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
Again and again, this constant forsaking.


Again and again, this constant forsaking:
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
You back into morning, sleep-heavy, turning.

But in dreams you live. So I try taking,
not to let you go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow.
The Erebus I keep you in—still, trying—

I make between my slumber and my waking.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow.
I was asleep while you were dying.

Mark Twain’s 19 Rules Governing Literary Art

From Twain’s brutally funny essay on Fenimore Cooper’s literary offenses in the Deerslayer series. I thought of this essay on Saturday at the Brandywine River Museum, standing in front of one of N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations for Deerslayer. Here’s the beginning of the essay; I’ll put the link to the whole piece at the bottom. It was written in 1895, so please put his cultural references in that historical context.


There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction — some say twenty-two. In “Deerslayer,” Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the “Deerslayer” tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.

2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the “Deerslayer” tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.

5. The require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the “Deerslayer” tale to the end of it.

6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the “Deerslayer” tale, as Natty Bumppo’s case will amply prove.

7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the “Deerslayer” tale.

8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the “Deerslayer” tale.

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the “Deerslayer” tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the “Deerslayer” tale, this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.


You can read the entire essay online here

Ira Sadoff “Structure and Poetic Memory” Drew 2nd Residency

Notes and Fancies from Ira Sadoff’s Lecture “Structure and Poetic Memory”

Ira challenged us to really consider the structure of the poem – not its grammar, or its form, or its meter or lines, but structure as the connection between all the craft elements and its poetic argument, as how the poem carries meaning and how it builds its authority, earns its right to say what it says.

Poetry, Ira argued, is very different from prose or other forms of writing because it is not a character study or narrative source of information, description, or plot. Poetry is associative, the place where improvisation and form intercept. The “music” of a poem (or the racket, as Ross Gay calls it) is there to reinforce the poem’s emotional moment. Poetic structure is also the way images echo and argue with each other within the world of the poem. The structure of a poem is its emotional spine; while poems do have and convey ideas, poetry happens in the place that is embodied, physical, and emotional.

Structure is also the way poems build authority, how they earn the right to assert what they say, or question, about the world. In this way, structure demands that poets do not settle for the easy, the thematic, or the conventional. Poems should be allowed to ask questions, should not be forced into what the poet wanted to say. As poets, we have responsibility to our own language, and to not using rhetorical flourishes in place of the hard work of making meaning and music. The poem must be responsible to each word that it uses and how the echoes between the words and music accrue meaning as the poem progresses. This accumulated meaning is poetic memory, and is also the structure of the poem.

Also, these insights:

-Consciousness engenders passion and a penchant for justice

-Imagine if we could make every moment matter, if we refined and honed the art of paying attention

-an embodied consciousness is the religion of poetry

-poems move toward intensification

-the key to revision is to ask of the poem “what’s the obsession? what’s the inquiry?”


My additions, as scribbled in my notes:

About poetic authority—the authority must come from within the poem itself, not from the known life story of the author. This is so many “topical poems” or anthologies of “X Kind of Writers Speak” are often so very very bad. Their biography is doing the work, so their writing isn’t expected to. Identity is infinitely interesting to me, but it is not the same as a poem that makes its own meaning real.

A poem is such a living object, creating meaning between itself and its reader each time. To read a poem is a four dimensional experience, since you are in the sensory world created by the poem and the reading itself takes the time it takes, so you are traveling with the words through space and time. Like desire, which is ever mutable and reforms itself constantly between people but is nonetheless a real, felt, object or power, the poem lives as we read it, it pushes on us and we push back and that new thing that is created between the poem and reader should have its own name. Actually, I guess, there is the shape created between the writer and the poem, and then the shape created between the reader and the poem, and these are distinct realities beyond the writer, the poem, and the reader. These are, to borrow a phrase from the vocabulary of comics, which are also 4 dimensional communicative art forms, the gutters, the spaces between, and the gutters are where the meaning is made and remade endlessly.

Ars Poetica, Drew, 2nd Residency

Ira Sadoff on Dickinson—the powers of complex metaphors connected by association, the wilderness of her imagination

Anne Marie Macari speaking about Theodore Roethke—when I feel a poem in my mouth, in my body, I am rich in physicality

Jean Valentine quoting Berryman’s advice to a young poet—“If you have to be sure, don’t write.”

Ira Sadoff in a lecture on structure:
-Poetry is associative, the place where improvisation and form intercept.
-Poetry has everything that makes for a good crash and burn love affair.
-Consciousness engenders passion and a penchant for justice.
-Imagine if we could make every moment matter, if we refined and honed the art of paying attention
-An embodied consciousness is the religion of poetry
-poems should always move toward intensification
-the key to revision is to ask of the poem “what’s the obsession? what’s the inquiry?”

Gerald Stern describing Alicia Ostriker—she shows her loyalty by not forgetting and by insisting, which are the same thing

Anne Marie Macari
-When we get to our real poems—after a long apprenticeship—the poems only we can write write us
-We are what we write, we are our language
-metaphor is not just a poetic device, it is the ultimate pattern of thought, the source of all new insight
-Never to get lost is never to live. To be always sure of where you are is very dangerous for a poet
-I’m not interested in transcendence
-We are being distracted by distraction from distraction
-We must live as if language were matter and mattered

James Haba:
-Poetry has become something to read or hear, but before print, poetry was something you could be. Imagine poetry before irony, which has contaminated our understanding, replacing feeling with gloss and substance with reflectivity. Poetry was shared, communal, never alone or solitary.
-the effect poetry is to shatter your fundamental assumptions
-of the final line of “Prufrock” –drowning is terrifying, but then everything is terrifying

Richard Hugo – you’ve written every poem you’ve loved

Gerald Stern of Jean Valentine’s poetry—in her work, I and thou are in a lifelong conversation

Peter Cole—aesthetics is to art what ornithology is to birds

from my notes from Joan Larkin—a poem’s meaning is the combine harvesting 10,000 hours of labor (did she say that, or did I invent it in response to something she said?)

Joan Larkin on Hopkins—there is a kind of joy in the recognition that we are not alone in our despair, in the glory of the music. Anyone who can count syllables, make rhymes, is no longer in the grip of despair

Dmitri Shostakovich—Art destroys silence

Lynn Emanuel:
-A book of poems is not a plate of hors d’oeuvres
-we must avoid the fetish of the perfect poem
-when we are reading a book of poems, what makes us turn the page?