Notes Toward the Syntax of the Book

Notes Toward The Syntax of the Book
Elliott batTzedek

The sonnet lends itself to the next sonnet because each one doesn’t resolve the issue besieging me until I stopped being besieged.
            Gerald Stern describing American Sonnets

I. These notes intend to convey sequence-dependent analysis, and are meant to be read in order

When a poet assembles poems for a chapbook, a book, a reading, what questions, what issues or understandings determine the order? What’s the weight, the flow, the phrasing? Contemporary convention implies that there is no, or little, such questioning or intentionality. Readers are trained 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; the Ipodization of music came to poetry early on. 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.

But the order of poems should have as much reason as the order of lines in a single poem have. 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?

The widest answers seem to be “it depends” or “the order in which I wrote them,” neither of which is particularly informative about the craft decisions involved.

Some poets, of course, have particularly strong feelings about how the reader ought to interact with their book. 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.

In Tender, Toi Derricotte takes the opposite approach, as she explains 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. 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.

Rita Dove’s poems are then laid out physically in a way that supports her desired linear reading, with all of Thomas’ poems followed by all of Beulah’s poems, even though the span of time covered in each is the same. Derricotte’s layout, though, actually works against her stated desire, as the poems are in numbered sections that inherently suggest rank or sequence. Was that her choice, or one of the inevitable clashes between poetry and editor? Her work is definitely an example of what online technology could provide that most books can’t. With hyper-linked text or Flash presentations, 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. Or 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.

But how many other poetry books come with author’s notes about the sequence of the poems, or guidelines for how the poems are intended to be read? And even with that information, how are choices made, and what types of broad patterns do those choices fall into?

II Sequences, Series, and Long Poems, oh my!: A few background assumptions from work by Lynn Emanuel

• A book of poems is not a plate of hors d’oeuvres.
• The order of the book is all about the drama of turning the page.
• Poetic sequences are psychological allegories: romantic, irregular, open ended and unresolved. Many confessional poetry collections are sequences; the confessional sequence begins anywhere and ends anywhere, and has a structure built on an “organic” feel.
• Long poems are really lyric moments with what is essentially prose in between, so structurally very different from a sequence or a series.
• A poetic series is a row or chain, a number or set of one kind of thing ranged in temporal succession, such as a crown of sonnets.
• The guiding question is “What makes us turn the page?” Which is the macro version of “what makes us go from one line to another?”

III To Narrow the Concern, and to Draw from a Definitive Source

For this questioning, I am thinking about poetry collections that intend to tell a story in a more or less narrative way, as opposed to books of seemingly-unrelated lyric poems. While the structure of the latter would also be interesting to poke at (with Sappho’s fair warning to the squeamish to not poke the beach rubble), I am for now considering only the former.

For an opening framework for the discussion, I’m turning to Scott McCloud’s six categories of how panel-to-panel transitions happen in comics as introduced in his amazing Understanding Comics. From my own work about the connection between the “page-turn” in picture books and the space between panels (called “the gutter”) in comics or graphic work, I’ve found McCloud’s distinctions easy to apply to the connections between individual poems in book or collection. His categories for how story is carried over the gutters:

1. Moment-to-moment: the action stays in a single location and moves through contiguous time; generally narrative
2. Action-to-action: the action stays in a location and moves through immediate time but is focused on cause and effect
3. Subject-to-subject: the action stays in a single location, but the “camera”/point of view moves from character to character or object to object in contiguous time; this requires much more reader involvement and sophistication to make meaning
4. Scene-to-scene: the action moves through space and time, often in large jumps or flashbacks; this requires involvement and deductive reasoning from readers
5. Aspect-to-aspect: the action stays in location and is generally still in time, as if you were in the location turning to look in all directions, from smallest objects to long-range view; this requires reader’s mind to assemble the parts into a coherent whole
6. Non-sequitur: no discernable connection between one image and the next.

IV. Case Studies. Emphasis on “study”

To use rough tools from different fields to categorize complex information in ways that may do violence to the subject is, I suppose, just as accurate as most social science studies, so here goes. Each book has a brief description drawn from Emmanuel’s thinking, and then a category (or two or more) from McCloud’s descriptive categories.

Thomas and Beulah by Rita Dove. This poetic sequence, or poetic sequences, flow from year to year through the life spans of both characters. In McCloud’s terms, this collection is type one, moment-to-moment. Dove’s note to readers seems to reinforce this, as she is asking for each character section to be read linearly, and not back and forth from character to character at each time junction.

Tender by Toi Derricotte. This is a sequence in Emmanual’s terms. Or a series. It is definitely not a long poem. It is trying to be something new, a more complicated way to arrange poems and make connections between historic, cultural, and personal experience. McCloud is helpful here; Tender is his type five, aspect-to-aspect in terms of its emotional reality, but type four, scene-to-scene, in its setting. The counterpoint/tension between these is certainly an explanation for part of the collection’s powerful yet dislocating effect on the reader.

Leadbelly by Tyehimba Jess. These poems are a poetic sequence, arranged in order historically and presented as a history-based invented biography. It uses different narrative sequencing strategies. Section One “what kind of soul has man” is type one, moment-to-moment. Section Two “what you gonna do when the world’s on fire?” carries more a sense of type two, action-to-action, while Section Seven “you don’t know my mind…” is a perfect example of type three, subject-to-subject, as the perspective on the narrative swings back and forth from Leadbelly to Lomax, often within the same poem.

Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey. A poetic sequence, over all, with a sequential series of sonnets contained within it. Again, a complex work, with strategies working in tension with one another. Her first section is most strongly type four, scene-to-scene, as it covers her childhood through her mother’s death. The second session is mainly type five, aspect-to-aspect as it traces Mississippi history, although the “Native Guard” sonnet sequence is one, moment-to-moment. The third section again has elements of five, aspect-to-aspect, in the story of her parents’ marriage, and one, moment-to-moment, in the closing poem about her pilgrimage to the site of the events in “Native Guard.” Tretheway’s manipulation of time and event sequences is so tightly controlled, and exactly what she seems to mean in the opening poem, “Theories of Time and Space.”

Coal Mountain Elementary by Mark Nowak. This collection is built entirely from source material, not created material, such that the order of the book is the only explicit creative work of the author. I would argue that, even within its unusual construction, it is a poetic series. Within and between each section the sequence strategy moves back and forth between scene-to-scene and aspect-to-aspect, each in terms of time and setting. The use of photographs as source material, not illustration, also adds an element of type three, subject-to-subject, as the photos draw our eye from, well, subject-to-subject.

“The Book of the Dead” by Muriel Rukeyser. This sequence of poems about an industrial “accident” is a combination of three, subject-to-subject, as it includes first person poems of different people caught up in these events, and of five, aspect-to-aspect as Rukeyser explores the geography, the history, the medical information, the design of the dam, an legal/legislative action (ok, inaction). That aspect-to-aspect is here definitely makes this collection more rich, more complex, than if she had created only character or persona poems.

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight by Claudia Rankine. This collection is a great example of Emmanual’s assertion that confessional poems are usually poetic sequences with open-ended time frames, no clear resolutions, and an “organic” associative structure. This collection, in particular, adds graphic and multi-media effects, and is heavily self-reflective. While the story does move through time, often back and forth, it still feels best described by McCloud’s type five, since it moves strongly from aspect-to-aspect. This is the only collection for which I would also argue that a sequencing strategy is McCloud’s type six, the non-sequitur. In describing this type of comic sequence, McCloud asserts that the eyes and brain will make some narrative connection, always, no matter how unrelated the images seem; Rankine often seems to be using this pattern-making element of reading quite intentionally, to allow her to jump from subject to subject.

V. Some data analysis, or “and so?”

Poetry collections are not comics, and Lynn Emmanuel’s attempt to explore categories of sequential structure does not even attempt to be definitive. Yet applying them as a lens does draw attention to the effects of sequencing decisions on the overall feel and meaning of a poetry collection. Derricotte, Jess, and Trethewey in particular are using and manipulating sequences of time, voice, and location. What seems necessary now, as always at the end of studies, is more data and more studying. Are there collections whose sequence can’t be described by any of these labels? How could McCloud’s conceptual framework be reinvented to directly address poetry? His categories are descriptive, deduced from his reading of thousands of comics; if we were to read and categorize thousands of poetry collections, or even just work that could be classified as “poetic sequences,” what patterns might emerge? While I have only an inkling after considering in these books the choices of different strategies within the same work, I do know these new categories would be much more interesting that “I’m not sure” or “the order I wrote them in.”

3 thoughts on “Notes Toward the Syntax of the Book

  1. Elliot, what’s the word, synchronicity or…Tuesday my creative writing students will be reviewing Cornelius Eady’s THE LATEST VICTIM OF THE DANCE CRAZE and I want them to look at it from the point of theme/subject (the “triggering subject”), metaphor, and what you are saying here “the syntax of the book” makes sense to also discuss.

    Thank you. I found your site when I googled TRIBE by Martha Courtot, thinking I might try to find another of her books to purchase.


  2. Pingback: Poetry roundup at Magpie Days

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