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brain for intuition, emotion, art, and music; left brain for logic, rational thought, and language—is already outdated; such neat divisions were never verified except in pathology.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.

Genius on Genius—McHugh on Dickinson’s Dash

I’ve both understood and been completely mystified by Dickinson’s use of dashes since meeting her voice in high school. Finally, FINALLY, someone makes sense of it for me, in terms of how writers can manipulate syntax to create meanings, contradictory meanings, and multiple meanings all with the same few words.

from “What Dickinson Makes a Dash For” in Broken English:

Dickinson uses the dash to avoid semantic mono-determination: a dash occurs where the more exclusive choice (of period or comma or colon or semicolon) would direct the sentence to a single end. Because her semantics are multiplicative her syn-tactics need to be flexible, especially at the junctures. The same dash may operate in one reading as a period or semicolon, distinguishing what precedes from what follows it; and in another, only a blink of an eye away (and existing all the while in the text) as a sign of resemblance instead, a colon, for instance. Only by suspending the power of the period (definer and difference-maker in the prose sentence) can Dickinson interweave phrases the way she does, release meaning from the sentence’s exclusionary powers, and nudge the whole occasion toward that at-onceness which is her manifold temporality.

Heather McHugh on Emily Dickinson’s inexhaustibility

from “What Dickinson Makes a Dash For” in Broken English:

It is not the definable (delimitable), finally, that interests Dickinson; she is drawn precisely to that uneasier thing, what can’t be said. 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. Where a lesser writer might try to comprehend the world by adding more and more words to his [sic] portrait of it, Dickinson allows for it, by framing in opposites or absents, directing us to what is irresoluble, or unsaid. Where the addition of a word would subtract even one of the cohabitant readings in a text, she leaves the sense unsteady and the word unadded. What critics sometimes lament as cryptic or obscure in her work proceeds, I think, from this characteristic reticence—a luxurious reticence, a reticence which sprouts and branches meaning in many directions, the way more exhaustive (less ambiguous) texts cannot.

article slapdown: “a” vs. “the”

…the noun articulated by a “the” has a history: it comes again, and was foreseen; it doesn’t just occur, but re- and precurs. When “the bear comes out of the woods,” he’d been known or mentioned before; when “a bear comes out of the woods,” it’s somewhat more alarming, less expected—he has not appeared before, and the hearer starts a little (or a lot, depending on whether she is learning this fact in a field or in a reading chair). Articles thus operate as time signs: they cast their light ahead, onto their subsequent nouns, but cast a different light upon appearance (“a bear”) than upon reappearance (“the bear”). The “the” presumes something already there; it reacknowledges it. But an “a” makes its noun crop up on the spot: with an “a,” the unforeseen (and, by extension, the disappearing) is articulated.


If the “the” tells something about the recursive past (in which its noun existed before), and the “a” tells something about the precursive future (an unforeseenness about to befall), then a poet can administer such articles for their cursive and discursive powers, savoring the time relations they incur.

Heather McHugh “A Genuine Article”

All poetry is fragment

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.

A composed verse is a record of the meeting of the line and sentence, the advertent and the inadvertent: a succession of good turns done. The poem is not only a piece, like other pieces of art; it is a piece full of pieces.

Heather McHugh Broken English

if you’ve even remotely been following my syntax fascination

then you’ll get why my mind was completely flooded with the power and genius, and yeah, muscle and sinew, of this particular John Prine lyric, heard so often but never before like this, at the BonTaj Roulet Tour concert last night:

“if dreams were thunder, lightning was desire”

jesus. Listen to the difference if he’d used parallel phrasing instead of reversing the subject/predicate in the second phrase:

-if dreams were thunder, [if] desire was lightning
-if thunder were dreams, lightning was desire

And speaking of difference, the lyrics John Prine wrote actually went:

“if dreams were lightning, thunder were desire”

but only he seems to sing it that way; everyone else follows Bonnie Raitt. Well, hers did get massive popular coverage. But I also think her version has a better logical flow, it fits the rhythm of our common speech. We say “thunder and lightning” not “lightning and thunder,” even though, in fact, thunder comes from lightning. But folk idiom is powerful, it is ingrained in our brains early on. And our brains remember phrases whose spoken sounds start at the front of our mouths (that “lie” sound) and then move to the back (that “der” sound). So did she intentionally rewrite? I’m betting probably not, but that singing the lyric in way that says “thunder lightning” was how she remembered it. Because it is, in fact, more memorable than how Prine wrote it.

Although I always love that Prine used the grammatically proper “were” in both of his clauses.



if you think I wasn’t also blown away by how Bonnie Raitt gets more beautiful, more powerful, more rich and more astounding with age, and by where in my body her music gets me, then why do you think you know me well enough to be reading my blog?

BonTaj Roulet

BonTaj Roulet

Listen Here:Angel From Montgomery

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.