Further Meditations on the Syntax of Structure
1. Source Texts
Heather McHugh, “Broken English”
We can’t help, as readers (or as spectators, for that matter—the science of moving pictures was predicated on this fact) putting together the separate frames into a coherent or continuous experience. For the mind is not only analytic but synthetic.
But I think it’s absolutely useful to consider the book in the same way one considers the
poem. Where does each line belong? Where does each image belong? How is the sound of the first line interacting with the sound of the second? Could they be arranged different in order to achieve a greater effect? And then, to get more micro, how about the syntax of the individual language units within each individual poem? In other words, each sentence or fragment or line has a determined syntax—and this can be, with tremendous thought, replicated at the level of the book. How do the poems speak to each other? How do they illuminate each other, or obscure each other, or complicated each other, or confuse each other? To do this throughout the book—for every poem, considering a relationship to every other—is a wonderful, tedious, and difficult exercise. How many books, I wonder, are actually working in this way? Further, how many books which do not have a very explicit and predetermined narrative structure (i.e.” Leadbell”y followed an approximate life story, as did “Thomas and Beulah”). So that a book like “Tender”, to me, becomes especially interesting in its non-conventional conception of a book’s potential for cohering, for meaning. […] My assertion is that these books—these themed or unified books—require a different kind of attention to the order, or syntax, of the book. These are books that require a reading approach closer to that of reading a novel.
Heather McHugh, “Broken English”
The poem is not only a piece, like other pieces of art; it is a piece full of pieces. Schlegel says, in poetry every whole can be a part and every part really a whole.
Ellen Bryant Voigt The Art of Syntax
Music has been fairly defined as organized sound: identifiable elements recur over time. Its hallmark is sufficiently recognizable patterns causing a brain to repeatedly group notes in the same way, according to Robert Jourdain in “Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy.” That is, it sorts and arranges perception. Organized sound may also fairly define speech. Routinely, analysis of music employs linguistic terms—phrase, meaning, idea—because “our brains treat musical phrases and spoken phrases similarly, suspending comprehension as a phrase arrives, then pausing to gulp the whole thing down.” This “chunking” is the essential work of syntax, and it is how we make meaning: from a rudimentary set of principles we generate or interpret surface structures of infinite variety that combine, in parsable sequence, words from our acquired lexicons.
Syntax identifies the order in which these strings or chains or chunks of language appear. When the chunks differ in relative weight and grammatical importance, […] the surface structure is hypotactic. That is, the sentence contains more than one clause, but at least one of them is more powerful than the others, controlling everything with its independent subject and predicate. (…I will call that essential chunk of syntax “the fundament” throughout this book.) Hypotaxis names one of the kinds of common surface structures we routinely recognize in English. It is a characteristic rhythm of adult thought, processed by listening or reading brains as they would a Brahms concerto.
Scott McCloud Understanding Comics
This last category [of ways to move from panel to panel, the non-sequitur] suggests an interesting question. It is possible for any sequence of panels to be totally unrelated to each other? / Personally, I don’t think so. No matter how dissimilar one image may be to another, there is a kind of— /—alchemy at work in the space between panels which can help us find meaning or resonance in even the most jarring of combinations. / Such transitions may not make “sense” in any traditional way, but still a relationship of some sort will inevitably develop. / Bang! / By creating a sequence with two or more images, we are endowing them with a single— / —overriding identity, and forcing the viewer to consider them as a whole. / However different they had been, they now belong to a single organism.
Rita Dove’s bolded advisory to the reader on the dedication page of Thomas and Beulah
These poems tell two sides of a story and are meant to be read in sequence.
Toi Derricotte’s explanation for how to read Tender
‘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. Violence is central in our lives, a constant and unavoidable reality. Experience is not a linear construct moving from one point to another […] but a wheel turning around a point that shifts between hope and despair.
2. Blue Front: A Poem
So, to add to the poetic directives of Dove and Derricotte, Martha Collins, in the title and on the cover of her book, also tells readers how her poetry collection should be read: as a single poem, beginning to end, in the manner of a novel; as a unified, single, cohering set; as a clear, unquestioned move from page to page. An argument could perhaps be made that this internal structure then replicates the structure of fiction, with her pages of many short poems divided by lines representing paragraphs, and her major rhetorical/syntactical shifts, from expository/prose poems to short lyrics to framed quotations from the historical record, representing chapter divisions. This argument could be made, in a PhD program paper with many citations of literary theory, but I don’t think it should be. The poems exist as themselves, and must be taken on their own terms. The instinct towards a poetry collection that should be read in the manner of a novel does not mean that the poetry has become structurally fictive, only that a different kind of attention is now being required.
To quote a lyric that’s been running through my mind as I try to describe Collin’s work, from Canadian singer/songwriter/ poet Ferron: “life don’t clickety-clack down the straight line track/it come together and it come apart.” Taken on their own, the pieces of poetry that make up Blue Front: A Poem run along a narrative track, but definitely not a straight-line track. In the McCloud categories I’ve been considering, this extended poem uses scene-to-scene and aspect-to-aspect transitions, with the former moving the action through time and space and the latter slowing or even freezing the action, holding our hand and turning our attention to each little detail of the town, of the child’s perception, of the moment. These two time strategies also weave in and out, or break into and out of each other, which helps create the dramatic tension of the piece. For example, the poem/book begins with small lyric moments, aspect-to-aspect, describing the child selling fruit, the main street of the town, how the Mississippi and Ohio rivers look when they meet at Cairo, the boats and people that come there and are changed by the color lines, the shops on the main street. Then, by page five, the syntax changes from sparse lyric to staccato, sharp lines, with the lines in regular typeface moving across time from one act of racial violence to another years later, transposed with italicized lines that seem to be official or omniscient voice/s providing a standing-still-in-time Greek chorus commentary. Then, on the following pages, the poem shifts to a piece with longer lines with hypotactic, right-branching, rushing syntactical structure that tosses off bits of emotional insight and historical information from the centrifuge of the violent event at the heart of this book.
These elements, this shifting structure, are theme and variation throughout the poem/book. (The poem is not only a piece, like other pieces of art; it is a piece full of pieces.) Reading through the shifting voices and jumps through time and space, piecing together the story and motives (chunking) as we go, is a reading skill necessitated by the invention and development of the novel, but the poem is not a novel; I think the main difference is how Collins uses syntactical strategies to affect the pacing and emotional affect of the words. With these shifts comes the ever-changing amount of white space on each page, as some pages are packed with single-spaced text, others with bits of lyric, nearly fragments, and others with what looks like the “normal” one-poem-on-a-page structure. McHugh describes how this use of space breaks open meaning and creates possibility:
All poetry is fragment: it is shaped by its breakages, at every turn. It is the very art of turnings, toward the white frame of the page, toward the unsung, toward the vacancy made visible, that wordlessness in which our words are couched. Its lines insistently defy their own medium by averting themselves from the space available, affording the absent its say, not only at the poem’s outset and end by at each line’s outset and end. Richard Howard’s deft maxim (”prose proceeds, verse reverses”) catches the shifts in directionality implicit in the advertencies of verse. It means to aim at (as its means are) the untoward.
What is unspoken is so often centered in Collin’s line endings and spacing, in ways that I would now describe as Dickinson-like, after reading McHugh’s essay on Dickinson’s dashes. Collins writes predict phrases without their nouns, leaving each image unfinished, open, moving rather than fixed, as in the opening lines:
to the double arch
where in 1990
was it the blue of the
was it the river
front of the blue of
As I consider how to use not only syntax but graphic and design elements to contain and convey different levels and kinds of information within a poem, I am also drawn to those pages (such as 34-35, 43, and 63) where Collins has chosen to record historical fact or quotations verbatim, presented as if they had no comment or syntactical shaping from her. Like those phrases missing their nouns, these pages are descriptive and precise while leaving nothing resolved and everything open. They are demarcated within the text by being boxed by thin black lines on the page. The boxes make obvious (maybe too obvious?) that this information is set aside, is intended to be self-contained, not directly interactive with the pages around it. Although of course, it is placed intentionally within the poem, so is interactive, but in a broken, intrusive way, not the flow from lyric image to lyric image of so much of the rest of the poem/book. As McCloud asserts, the very act of placing two things next to each other, in a time sequence, inherently makes meaning because they now belong to a single organism; this is equally true within any one poem as it is true about this overall poem/book.
Ultimately, Collins imposes a summary narrative, a biographical one, on this open, complex poem by beginning and ending it with the image of her father making change, literally as a child in the opening lines and figuratively as a social activist in the closing lines. I’m not sure this works, or maybe more I’m not sure it was necessary; while the poem grew from her ponderings about her father’s experience of the mob violence, the work grew to be about much more than her father. His experience, his life, is a touchstone throughout the work, but I’m left wondering if her opening desire to create a redemptive story about him was subsumed to the larger project, and should have been left there, part of the complexity, and not wrangled back to be the narrative drive. Maybe. Certainly the strength of the book/poem isn’t diminished by this choice; perhaps it is only how I noticed the boundary she chose to ultimately draw, to use as a cautionary example as I consider my own project.
A fractal often has the following features:
• It has a fine structure at arbitrarily small scales.
• It is too irregular to be easily described in traditional Euclidean geometric language.
• It is self-similar (at least approximately or stochastically).
• It has a simple and recursive definition.
Or maybe this is what bothers me about Collin’s default to biography as imposed structure on her work. She was working on a structure I can best define as fractal, as a way for the determined syntax of each sentence or fragment or line to be replicated at the level of the book. And I find that idea very exciting, a way of thinking about the syntax of structure for book projects that don’t have a clear defaults such as time-line narrative or “the order the poems were written in.” As a hunch, a place to start looking, I think Derricotte was also working in, or toward, a fractal structure in Tender, in which case the poem “Tender” isn’t so much at the center of her hub as the poems “Invisible Dreams,” “1:30 a.m.” and “Dead Baby Speaks,” all of which move associatively through a huge range of issues around personal, social, and structural violence, which is of course the project of the collection overall. This may also be true of Catherine Bowman’s The Plath Cabinet, although I’ve not spent enough time re-reading the book to get a sense of the relationship between part and whole; certainly building out from fragments of Plath’s own words, following her patterns, is a fractal enterprise.
Considering fractals as a model of structure, I’ve gone searching through the other books I’ve been reading. Because of the nature of my reading list, most have a structure based in some kind of linear reality. Diane Gilliam Fisher’s Kettle Bottom is arranged seasonally over one year, with the sections “Summer—Fall” and “Winter—Summer.” A. Van Jordan’s Macnolia also uses biography as the organizing principle, but with several twists; the collection is framed as a film, with a fade in and fade out, and it begins with Macnolia’s story as an adult in the first section titled “Z” then moves to the story of her childhood and the spelling bee in the second section “A.” I didn’t even notice that as I was reading the book, perhaps because we are all so familiar with the common syntactical structure of films that the current day/flashback model doesn’t seem particularly surprising; Van Jordan certainly shoves us toward that understanding with his chosen setting. And I’m wondering, too, about Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon’s Open Interval, which seemed so different from the other books of my first packet that I couldn’t really take it in. She makes such constant and profound use of the dash in the poems that I’m wondering if the dash structure is the small scale design around which the self-similar collection is built, with the connections between poems intentionally multidimensional. (The relative exhaustibility of a literary construction is one measure of its inadequacy to this truth; and Dickinson’s sentences and lines often seem designed (in judicious ellipses, elisions, contractions, puns, and dashes) to afford the greatest possible number of simultaneous and yet mutually resistant readings. McHugh “What Dickinson Makes a Dash For)
And who else is constructing books this way? And does fractal make sense as a way to consider structure, perhaps more sense than, or additional sense to, Emmanuel’s debate about sequence and series? And in some sense aren’t we all writing fractally, using patterns and sounds over and over in large and small ways until whatever they mean to us is resolved and we move on to other patterns and sounds? Or maybe some poets stay in the same fractal, building and rebuilding it? I love some of Mary Oliver’s poems deeply, but I couldn’t tell you what collection any one poem is from, because they seem to cover and recover the same territory, whereas, say, Alicia Ostriker’s Volcano Sequence is unlike her prior work. I know my own instinct has been towards the expository, the narrative, the structured by timeline, events, arguments to be made, so considering the fractal opens a very different door.
5. A Summary, in the loosest possible sense of the term
There are, so far in this inquisition, four broad categories of ways of organizing a poetry book:
1. Some kind of linear narrative, usually timeline or biography-driven. These may use a variety of ways to move from poem to poem, ala McCloud.
2. Books that look at a topic from many different aspects, or many different sides of an issue, ala McCloud “aspect-to-aspect” transition. I’m thinking, for example, of Karen Hesse’s Witness or even Spoon River Anthology.
3. Books that claim not to have a particular system, i.e. the advice to “put the strong poems up front” or the popular “the order in which I wrote them.”
4. Fractal books, collections that have central organizing shapes, at the level of word, sound, line, or poem, and reproduce elements of these shapes as the structure of the book.