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.