consider what must be happening when we set out to produce a poem

There are no more two distinct brain sides than there are two distinct genders. Why would that surprise anyone who’s ever created anything?

from “A Moment’s Thought” by Ellen Bryant Voigt in her excellent collection The Flexible Lyric

The recent bicameral (and thoroughly Nietzschean) model—right brain for intuition, emotion, art, and music; left brain for logic, rational thought, and language—is already outdated; such neat divisions were never verified except in pathology. In its place has come the concept of “modularity,” of a lifetime of data not stored on labeled shelves in the closet but processed multiply by distinct networks of differing functions: this very sentence as you read it is dismantled by your brain into its component parts—one set of ganglions taking care of the nouns, another the verbs; another flashing up your own shelf, in your own closet at home, from the image depot; a separate hardwired board parsing out the syntax you may have been born to; the brain’s musicians tuning up to the lexical and syntactical repetitions I’m using; and a brand new neural pathway extending itself like algae shot with Rapid-Gro to accommodate this new word “modularity” and its baggage, “modules” and “modern” and “insularity” and “modular housing” and even, from the rhyming crew, “nodules,’ even “noodles.” Thought, it seems, is not the linear storage and retrieval system we know from computers. [So] consider what must be happening when we set out to produce a poem, a complex construct made from intuition, observation, experience, erudition, music, memory, and feeling—what Coleridge called “the blossom and the fragrancy of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, motions, language.”


New Work Up

I’ve started a new set of pages for my craft essays and poetry reviews, accessed through a new tab at the top of this page. First up are two essays using Scott McCloud’s theory of transitions from Understanding Comics to consider how poems are sequenced in collections. If you like comics or syntax, you’ll probably be as geekily thrilled as I was when I wrote them. Heather McHugh and Ellen Bryant Voigt also make big appearances in these works. No surprise there, after this fall.

More coming to this area soon.

On adjectives

a continuation of my poetic love affair with Ellen Bryant Voigt

and because it makes me think, hard, about how language works

Nouns are the strongest parts of speech; without nouns, there is no poem, maybe no language: if language points to or names, then the nomen is language. The noun is the source of the image—a verb needs an agent. Nouns collapse the distance between language and the external world, and carry tremendous syntactical power.

Adjectives, on the other hand, can be weak, dispensable, hollow or predictable. If you consider an apple, are not all the usual adjectives assigned to already part of your image? Red (maybe yellow), crisp, sweet, tart, juicy—listing these adds nothing to our understanding of apple-ness. Discussing Robert Haas’s “Meditation at Lagunitas,” Voigt explains:

After all, “tender” is more amorphous than tenderness, “thirsty” less commanding than thirst, wonder more solemn and convincing that “wonderful,” despair a good deal more respectable than “desperate.” The debasement of adjectives is more widespread now than at the turn of the century, their descriptive prowess weakened by the direct image of photography, film, and television, their value judgments grown suspect in the sake of advertising’s unsupported claims. Anything, it would seem, can be GREAT! WONDERFUL! SPLENDID! if we say it is, whereas most people probably still wish to believe that “greatness,” “wonder,” and “splendor” have some objective standards, some specific denotations, even if we can’t agree on what they are.

But adjectives can be much more than this, can define more than they describe. Because adjectives can be subjective, not fixed, they can become vital to a poem’s tone and meaning. The lyric, in particular, needs adjectives, just as discursive poems need nouns and narrative poems need verbs. From Plath’s “Ariel,” for example, come these: substanceless blue, brown arc, dark hooks, black sweet blood mouthfuls, red eye. This list alone is the feeling, the tone, of the poem.

Adjectives can also reverse or alter the surface meaning of the poem. Voigt’s explanation of this, in a poem I love, is the string of three adjectives at the end of William Carlos Williams:

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

And which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Without that last sentence, there is no poem. In a brilliant arrogance, the final assertions—delicious/so sweet/and so cold—both justify and undercut “Forgive me.” Pleasure first, virtue second, oh surely you understand.

Adjectives can describe, they can limit, they can serve precision. They can contradict, correct, or amplify the possible meanings within the noun. More than that, adjectives restore the eye, and the “I,” to the poem: they supply tone, the context without which nouns can be imprecise, incomplete or misleading.

In short, adjectives not only annex precision and clarity, for more exact meaning, and add nuance and resonance, for evocation of emotion; in their amplifications of tone they acknowledge the poet’s subjective presence in the poem. […] Adjectives moderate between nominal fixity (the world’s facts) and mutability (change enacted on them); they strengthen the noun by adding response to fact, by limiting or expanding the noun, and by admitting into the poem the human sensibility that is apart from the world, thereby putting the yearning self in alignment with the world.


If music is both sound and feeling, then adjectives are a crucial source of music in our poems, meditative or narrative or lyric. […] Because of its subjective nature its presence in the poem is the hardest to earn; craft does not put it there so much as vision, intuition, temperament, perhaps even character.

Back to Voigt for more essential craft truth

So I had no idea that Ellen Bryant Voigt would become a major mentor of mine, but I just keep finding her critical/analytical writing to be what I need when I need it. One of my many writing struggles this fall has been using image; my poems have been flat, narrative, discursive, two-dimensional, with not nearly enough emotional sparks between me, the page, and the reader. So I went looking for good writing about image, what it is, how it is used, and found Voigt’s essay “Image” (no need to search for a topic sentence with that title!) in the anthology Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World.

She has a very complicated argument/thesis going on in this long essay, which I could only reproduce by scanning in the whole thing. But I can summarize what matters to me, what, I hope, will inform the re-writes of those flat flat poems and make them better. If you are intrigued, go buy the book and dig into this yourself.

1. Traditionally, there were two ways of thinking about images in poems. The “art-as-mirror” crowd understood images as “pictures made out of words,” with the emphasis on the concrete not the abstract, on sensation not idea, and on perception rather than concept. As Voigt writes:

When one assigns the primary allegiance of poetry to the world beyond poet and poem, the value of the image is its representational power—its ability to create in the mind a color, say, which is an “ostensible copy or replica of the objective color itself” (Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry).

2. The second traditional way of understanding image, the lamp as opposed to the mirror, in Abram’s terms, is as “expressive.” This is the heart of the Romantic movement, the idea that poetry, figurative language, is the spontaneous product of feeling, and that the job of poetry is to convey the emotions and personal perceptions of the poet. Poetry is not to be true to an object, but to the human emotion. Descriptions, images, figurative language, serves the function of conveying the writer’s symbolic vision; “objects signified by a poem [were] no more than a projected equivalent for the poet’s inner state of mind.” (Abrams)

3. Eliot’s theory of “objective correlative” grew from this understanding, with some personal twists. I am in love with Ellen Bryant Voigt for many reasons, not the least of which is her summary of Eliot and his theory:

As is often the case with poets who undertake essays and lectures on poetics, Eliot was both justifying and camouflaging his own poetic practice: specifically, he seems busy erasing any tracks back to the mind/psyche/internal conflict of the poet as originating source and primary allegiance for his work.

4. The tension between these two understandings is the difference between an insistence that image must serve the ways the “passionate are naturally inclined to amplification” or that the image owes allegiance to external fact. Voigt reconciles/wrestles/straddles/bull rides these by building a different understanding. These are not opposite ends of a line, she says, but points on a circle. The image, she says, can be totem, both honestly itself and the way that poetry mediates emotional reality between the poet and the reader.

The idiosyncrasy of the figures does not necessarily make them decorative or indulgent: they are the weight-bearing walls of the lyric structure. If the poem succeeds, it is because what might otherwise be abstract or in accessible or private or alien—the [poet’s emotion]—floats between us and the “relict” in our minds [of the real object] like a cluster of eye-motes.

5. Now, add some more recent critical ideas to the mix. Thom Gunn, reviewing Christopher Isherwood, created a description of Isherwood’s “objective perception.” He discussed Isherwood’s statement “I am a camera,” drawing out and challenging that understanding of poetry-as-direct-recording. A camera is not a bad thing to emulate, Gunn says, because cameras do record how one thing resembles another, and cameras have a faithfulness to physical imagery through which we learn about the appearance of the world outside of us. And, he said, given the fact that humans are creatures of almost uncontrollable bias, understanding our work as being camera-like can help us escape the singleness of our minds which, if lived in exclusively, become prisons.

6. Describing this idea, Voigt writes that, while this harkens back to the understanding of poetry-as-mirror, it here becomes a moral issue of trying to find clarity in the face of human bias. She writes:

The primary virtues and functions of the image remain the same: recording the dependable concrete nouns of our common reality, uncovering the congruence among them. But one expects the fog of the individual sensibility settling inexorably on the lens.

7. In a move too complicated to summarize, Voigt then moves from the image of poetry-as-using-a-camera to poetry as using a movie camera, adding motion, time, and sound to how image is recorded and shared. This, she says, is a move in modern poetry towards dramatization, a “discerning, active eye” to quote Susanne Langer. Image in poetry records not merely the objects of the world but those objects seen, touched, heard, smelled, tasted: rendered with a halo of human response. Instead of seeing poets as only the descriptive eye or the expressive I (hey, I just made that phrase up, and I’m loving it!!), Voigt asserts:

…the image is the crucial mimetic device, essential for its power to enact not only what the writer-as-scientist has uncovered in the empirical world, or what the writer-as-ecstatic has isolated and articulated from the whirl of the individual psyche, but the moment when both are fused.

8. Which means, and here’s where I get nearly unbearably excited, that we’re talking about a new way of understanding language, poetry, our brains, and ourselves. There is no mind/body split, for “the world of sense is the real world construed by the abstractions which the sense-organs immediately furnish. The abstractions made by the ear and the eye—the forms of direct perception….are genuine symbolic materials, by whose office we apprehend a world of things, and of events that are the histories of things.” (Langer again) In short, the mind is body, sense organs and cerebrum. The mind is physical, delivering simultaneously the concrete and the abstract, the objective and the subjective, the representational and the expressive, the empirical and the assumed.”

9. Yeah, no more need to have the stupid debate about the mind/body split!

10. In Voigt’s words, then, image can reproduce both what the poet sees and how the poet sees it, eliminating the need to choose either the mirror or the lamp. Image is capable simultaneously of the “representational” and the “expressive,” and is the chief agent for mimesis in a poem written for the page. (Poems performed can add voice, timing, etc as essential elements of mimesis)

11. She seems to be suggesting four different types of/roles for images:
1. pure detail (those concrete nouns from the “poem as camera” folks)
2.description (nouns with describing words that make them unique, specific to the poem)
3.figure (figurative language, such as a description of Medusa having “hissing hair”)
4. dramatic – images that carry and move the emotional weight of the poem, that create its dramatic structure, that make the connection between mind and body)

12. Wow, typing all that out really helped my embodied mind make more sense of what she was saying/arguing/defending. In Voigt-world, of which I am increasingly fond, image is THE way for contemporary poets to make meaning; syntax is the flow, rhythm, and tension of how we convey image; and lyric the structure. (I think, anyway; I’m just about to launch into her book about Lyric). Now my challenge is taking all this and trying to apply it to make my rabbit and sea lion poems better. We shall see…

muscle and sinew and music, clarity and resonance and power

from The Art of Syntax

After one hundred years of free verse invention and mastery, contemporary poets need not focus solely on lineation or fall unthinking into one of the dominant conventions of our time: on the one hand, a “sincere” poem made accessible by predictable simple declarative sentences, all about the same length, chunked by end stop and end pause into three or four roughly equivalent short lines; on the other hand, an “edgy” poem of passive predication or no predication at all, sentence fragments torqued by violent enjambments or arranged for a purely visual effect on the page.

Most of us who write poems rather than prose have very high formal appetites. Lineation affords quite evident and audible opportunities for making pattern, and we will and should go on exploring them all. But it’s useful to remember that other sorts of pattern are also there for us to use—rhythms inherent to the language we write in, the source of its muscle and sinew and music, its clarity and its resonance and its power.

“But did you MEAN to write it that way?” Two

from The Art of Syntax

The making of a poem is not a performance but an adventure, an act of discovery. Most poets of high formal appetite often do perceive, in advance of the concrete materials of the poem, some shape or heft or tone or set of means—what Susanne Langer calls a “formal apprehension.” […] The more alert and experienced the poet, the more numerous those options have been, whether in the heat of composition or in later revision, whether self-conscious or intuitive. The intuition, after all, was tutored by the many poems the poet had previously read and written, their many choices.

It doesn’t matter whether the analytical left brain decides or the “intuitive” right brain: both belong to the poet.

“But did you MEAN to write it that way?” One

from Ellen Voigt The Art of Syntax

After detailed analysis of a poem, someone usually asks whether all that has been pointed to—or any of it, for that matter—was intended by the poet. The truthful answer seems weaselly: yes and no. It’s probably not often an authentic poem of “felt though” emerges solely from a willfulness intent on all the effects I have identified, any more than studying your feet as they move will help you down the stairs. But the mirrors in the ballet studio have a purpose: neither a first-position plie nor skillful iambic pentameter occurs spontaneously in the human animal.

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.

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.