A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
What do cocktail party talk and poetry have in common?
Like Barbara Hamby at the end of her gorgeous “Millennium Rave,” I come to praise the sentence in poetry “in a twitter, / my sweets, in a flutter, a twist.” This is because sentences are, number one, so earthy and otherworldly, and, number two, so acrobatic—so lithe and muscular and full of—I’m going to sound scatty by calling it this—the vital life force. Or maybe I come to praise the sentence in such a crazy state because sentences came to me that way, back in the 1960s and ’70s, when everyone around me—most notably my parents—had apparently decided to celebrate the newfound liberties with a decade-long carnival.
Every Friday or Saturday night, the professors and painters and poets and musicians (and so on and so forth—the actors and real estate agents and lawyers and unemployed radicals) would burst through the house right around bedtime. I could hear them from my room, or almost. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, just exactly, but I would lean into my doorjamb to get ahold of what was happening just beyond earshot. What came to me was not completely discernible, since I couldn’t make out exact sentences, but there was a definite tone—a series of feelings—to the sound of that party talk. It was all fervor and zeal and heat and buzz. It was vodka and scotch and probably pot. It was jazz and women swallowing the newfound Pill and here-and-there a swinger and divorce and alcoholism and death, too. But mostly, for me, it was the power of human utterance to swirl everything scattered and lonesome back together again.
And then I began to read. And fell in love almost to the point of madness.
For that’s when I discovered that the fervor and zeal and heat and buzz I’d heard in my preliterate state could be manifested on the page. That is, I found out that sentences, much like certain wild-headed professors and painters and poets and musicians and actors and real estate agents and lawyers and unemployed radicals, can say anything. They can say the opposite of the thing they just said. Or they can say one foremost thing over and over and over again. They can just say, alone and even lonely: So. They can stop in midair. They can be direct and to the point—Fuck off, jackass!—and they can seduce: Come live with me and be my love. They can swell in size to an architectural lunacy and then, and meanwhile, shrink back down again. They are there at the beginning in Hi Mama and right at the end in Goodbye, my sweet. Adios! Au revoir!
In fact, sentences can even drop all their intrinsic willfulness and get out of the way, as they do in much narrative poetry, so that a story might be told. In the most lyrical poetry, the sentence might stand backstage so that smaller units of language—syllables, say—can take the limelight. The sentence can also lose its temper, as it does in Ginsberg, and praise by cataloging every blasted thing on earth, as it does in Our Father Walt Whitman. The sentence can wail and whine, as it does in Anne Sexton, and go stark raving mad in Gertrude Stein and in certain post-post-post-postmodernists whose names will not be mentioned.
Such marvels also happen in prose, you might be thinking: what does any of this have to do with poetry?
The answer to that question depends on what you mean by poetry. Some poets define poetry as that-which-is-written-in-lines, but since the prose poem renders this definition useless, I prefer more philosophical definitions. Coleridge’s formulation, my favorite, says that poetry “reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.” He means that a poem’s form or ultimate shape will balance or reconcile opposing lingual forces. Any number of lingual forces—lines, line endings, rhythms, counterrhythms, sounds, word choices, and so on—can collide and cohere in a poem. I focus my adoration on the sentence because it was the device that brought me to consciousness rather than because I think its power supersedes other elements of poetry.
Or maybe that’s a wicked lie, and I focus my adoration on the sentence because it’s not merely a device at all. I mean, the sentence is by no means just a contrivance—it’s not simply a grammatical or syntactical phenomenon, of interest only to writers and English professors. Instead, like the earth itself, it belongs to all of us. In fact, it begins in the ears when we’re too young to understand how much power it has, and then moves on to the mouth, where we begin to understand, often way before our second birthday, that it is the only real solution to our isolation. Only gradually does it become an aspect of the page. Once there, though, it does not diminish in power, but takes on a whole second or third or hundredth life, saying many things at once in a multitude of shapes and forms. Some poets are interested in dividing the sentence from what Robert Frost called “talking tones,” but the poets who move me most think of language as what Allen Ginsberg, praising Bob Dylan, called “one long column of breath.” Here, for a famous example, are the opening lines of Frank O’Hara’s “Ave Maria”:
Mothers of America
let your kids go to the movies!
get them out of the house so they won’t know what you’re up to
it’s true that fresh air is good for the body
but what about the soul
that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images
and when you grow old as grow old you must
they won’t hate you
Because talking tones or speech effects echo how we actually talk to one another, they remind us, if unconsciously, of the relational purposes of language: countering the silence of isolation (which is the silence of death) with public utterance. For this reason, speech effects can generate considerable familiarity. Out of such familiarity comes, in the best of cases, a certain kind of intimacy. Poets are able to use this intimacy to make readers trust the sounds of their own peculiarity, and out of this peculiarity fabricate what we call voice, or that elusive, stylistic something Louise Glück calls “the sound of an authentic being.” Our best poets sound, I mean, like nobody but themselves. They embody the language with the strangeness of their exclusive habits of mind. Whitman’s gift to American poetry was not only his voice but the courage it took to construct that voice against what one might call the odds. The result is our sense that language can be personified or made flesh. Reading Whitman and our other great poets, then, is not just reading Whitman. It is breathing Whitman in.
The sound of actual speech broken up into lines is not the same thing as poetry, for all good poetry must be contained or shaped in such a way as to alarm us into apprehending more than one meaning at a time. If Coleridge is right and “poetry reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities,” conversational tones alone in a poem will sound too mundane or boring—too much like unformed Laundromat chatter—to move us. For this reason, speech effects are often countered and even contradicted by language used in more overly poetic ways. In “Letter to Maxine Sullivan,” Hayden Carruth counters or defies the idiomatic sentence “Oh Maxine, how screwed up everything is” with, later in the poem, this more lilting seven-line sentence:
Maxine, I cling to you, I am your spectral lover, both of us
crumbling now, but our soul-dust mingling nevertheless
in the endless communion of song, and I hope, I believe, that you
have striven, as I have,
beyond the brute moments of nostalgia,
into the timelessness of music,
and that you have someone with you, as I have Cindy.
The syntactical differences between these two sentences articulate a shift in tone and therefore in feeling from a kind of barroom exasperation to a more melodious acceptance in which “spectral lover[s]” are bound together in an “endless communion of song.” The shift in diction from the colloquial “screwed up” to the more elevated “mingling” and “nostalgia” does contribute to the sense of a mind moving from a desire to curse the messed-up everyday world to a longing for the “timelessness of music,” but the syntactical differences between the two sentences allow the poem to manifest “the sound of an authentic being.” That’s because change is inherently dramatic. In the case of Carruth’s poem, the shifts in syntax and tone give us the sense of something in the speaker’s mind having been satisfactorily settled. Carruth’s line breaks obscure his wandering syntax so it won’t sound too melodramatic and overwrought. The feeling therefore seems quite genuine.
C.K. Williams is one of our most sentence-driven poets, but in his hands the sentence is often more psychological and cerebral than conversational. Here, from Flesh and Blood, is Williams’s “Love: Beginnings”:
They’re at that stage where so much desire streams between them, so much
frank need and want,
so much absorption in the other and the self and the self-admiring entity and
unity they make—
her mouth so full, breast so lifted, head thrown back so far in her laughter at
he so solid, planted, oaky, firm, so resonantly factual in the headiness of
being craved so,
she almost wreathed upon him as they intertwine again, touch again, cheek,
lip, shoulder, brow,
every glance moving toward the sexual, every glance away soaring back in
flame into the sexual—
that just to watch them is to feel again that hitching in the groin, that filling of
the old, sore heart, the battered, foundered, faithful heart, snorting again,
stamping in its stall.
This poem is a 133-word sentence, which would be considered long even to William Faulkner fans. The long introductory phrase describing the couple forestalls the subject of the sentence—“to watch them”—until the sixth line. Our desire to understand what the sentence is going to say creates an anticipation that propels us quickly forward, but the deepening, expanding clause with its repeating descriptive phrases frustrates those desires, until we’re caught in a kind of trap between enjoying the descriptions and wanting to get the information the sentence promises to convey. This feeling of being caught between two opposing desires is strangely erotic. Thus the syntax of this poem becomes equivalent to its content.
Miraculously, the syntax in this poem also generates its form. While the whole sentence tumbles downward in a heady rush to the full stop of the period, certain phrases within it (what Carruth would call Maxine Sullivan’s “exact little accents and slurs and hesitations, the marvelous stop-time measures, the languets of song”) work to hold that rush back, like stones creating riffles in a stream. This holding back comes about as the consequence of both syntactical repetition and variation. For example, the phrase “so much” in the poem’s first line is repeated in the second, and then, as the speaker develops his idea, transforms into the phrases “so full,” “so lifted,” “so far,” and “so solid.” Like the repetition of any unit of speech from syllables to stresses, the repetition of clauses and phrases will produce a pattern, and patterns deviate from regular speech into Walter Pater’s “condition of music,” which ultimately distinguishes poetry from other verbal acts.
Think about how the sound of the series of adjectives in “planted, oaky, firm” in line four is picked up again in the series of nouns in “cheek, lip, shoulder, brow” and, toward the close of the poem, in the adjectives “battered, foundered, [and] faithful.” Since the sound of each list remains the same while the parts of speech being listed change, Williams is able to both establish and violate the pattern he sets up. By maintaining a somewhat constant syntax (or returning to sounds we’ve heard before), he comforts us. Meanwhile, by varying his syntax, he surprises us out of the intrinsic boredom or complacency that too much pattern generates. Form in poetry comforts us by telling us what to anticipate and expect, but too much pattern will lull us to sleep (as in the nursery rhyme, for example). For this reason, variation becomes central to any real poetic enterprise. But too often we fail to recognize that syntax can be used as formally, and as varyingly, as smaller units of language. So while O’Hara and Carruth (and many others) might use the sentence mainly for the way it can generate an authentic voice, in Williams it becomes as much an aspect of form and structure as voice.
Sometimes poets even violate the rules of standard grammar and syntax. We call such defiance “poetic license,” but our best poets don’t usually break laws in order to express an inherent right to whim and liberation. Instead, their goals are usually much more serious. Berryman’s famous syntactical transgressions are a case in point:
There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good
— “Dream Song 29”
The ungrammatical “in all them time” in this excerpt produces the emotional effects of an anxious or scattered psyche. For another example, consider the first line of “Dream Song 52”: “Bright-eyed & bushy-tailed woke not Henry up.” By placing the potentially clichéd but here interesting phrase “bright-eyed & bushy-tailed” in the subject position of the sentence, the word “Henry” becomes the object. Henry the character becomes therefore quite literally objectified. As even the phrase “woke up” is split apart with “not Henry,” this syntax also ironically energizes Henry’s famous depression and places Henry—the psychological focus of the Dream Songs—at the end of the line, where ideas and sounds in poetry most resonate. It’s interesting to note that Berryman began playing with syntax as a young man, when he was still, as far as anyone can determine, happy enough. As his life becomes more and more pressured (as he becomes more and more successful and therefore malcontented and unmanageable), he becomes more and more serious and seems to lose, as a result, the sense of daring syntactical play that makes his voice so unique. It is therefore possible to speculate that Berryman’s suicide was at least partly the result of a loss of his syntactical distinctiveness.
Could we call a loss of syntactical distinctiveness a loss, in the end, of courage?
Since linguists say that almost all sentences, both written and spoken, have never existed before, the way we put them together might be one of the only ways we have of distinguishing ourselves from others. The ways in which a poet sounds like nobody but himself is, again, in essence, what we call his voice. So perhaps it is possible to measure a poet’s worth by measuring his willingness to spend his fearlessness, which is just another way of saying all his energy, on the verbal manifestation of his peculiarity. Ironically, hearing the sound of peculiarity—of what many poets and critics call “the genuine” or “authentic”—might be the only way we have of really knowing that we are not alone. For to hear what sounds like a real person in the world speaking to you from the page (and even more startlingly, from beyond the grave) is to diminish the lonesomeness that we are born, witless and garbled and slippery and ignorant, to somehow bear.
In other words, in the beginning there really were lions and tigers and bears at the door. There was the old, sore heart by the hearth and meanwhile a storm blowing up and a shy child leaning emphatically out toward the ruckus because she wanted to know what everyone was on about because she wanted inside the circle where she knew, if she must be lonely—and everyone must be lonely—she wouldn’t be lonely alone.
Copyright 2006 Adrian Blevins
This essay originally appeared on The Poetry Foundation website. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Adrian Blevins is the author of three books of poetry including The Brass Girl Brouhaha which won the 2004 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Her latest book is Bloodline published by Hollyridge Press. Blevins teaches at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
An artistic arrangement of diatoms