Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The comments on yesterday's post, while lovely in their own right, are making me realize that I wasn't clear enough about explaining my sudden connection to the sentence I quoted from Frost's letter. Subject matter is only a single element of that connection. Yes, there's the "minor poet" bit and there's the "village" bit and there's the "millstone around the neck" bit; and yes, any of you who've read anything I've written are aware that, as topics, they all rise and fall among my themes and anxieties. But as much as anything, it is the sentence itself that feels so familiar, that feels as if it's spent its entire existence stretching and preening among the coils of my mind. The shock is not the subject matter but the saying of the subject matter.

Let's look at the sentence again, and I will try to show you what I mean.

"Perhaps it will help you understand my state of mind if I tell you that I have lived for the most part in villages where it were better that a millstone were hanged about your neck than that you should own yourself a minor poet."

This is a working-itself-out sentence. It begins with a long clause of consideration. The sentence is preparing to allow itself to speak. It has an audience--"you"--but it is shy of speaking to this audience, though at the same time it is eager to reveal itself. "Perhaps," says the sentence, "a sentence beginning with the unclear antecedent it will help me lure you, you, you into caring about my state of mind, and, yes, now that I'm here at the end of this clause, I find myself ready to illustrate an entirely different state of mind that until this moment in my sentence I had not quite realized I needed to show you."

Now the sentence begins its storytelling--"I have lived for the most part in villages"--an exaggeration, certainly, given Frost's experiences in San Francisco and Lawrence, Massachusetts, neither one of which is a village, but an important exaggeration because a sentence is the delicate purveyor of myth . . . the deprecation of "for the most part," the choice of "villages" rather than "small towns": the word choice casts a gleam of innocence, of modesty; and then, immediately, we have have violence: "where it were better that a millstone were hanged about your neck than that you should own yourself a minor poet." Oh, this subjunctive! . . . "were better," "were hanged"! . . . and the archaic reserve of "that you should own yourself." The tensions, the knots, of these verb forms are notable. Yet notice, too, how the "you," at first so distant from the sentence, has become an actor in this imagined drama, how "you" and "I" have fused into a single character. That is a violence, as much of a violence as the melodramatic millstone--which is a lie, of course. People in villages don't care if you write poems. They do care if you're a sloppy farmer and behave strangely about money and pull your kids in and out of school and keep quitting your job and milk the cows at midnight. But "you" doesn't need to know all that. "You" is now too busy being "I."

This sentence is just the sort of sentence I write. It's filled with lies and myth, and bursts of candor, and peculiar verb tenses, and clauses of consideration, and prepositional manipulation. It listens to itself talk; it carves out a rhetorical space on the page; it follows its own stream bed; it is an accident that is hugely purposeful. It also happens to deal with my own subject matter.

Do you see what I am trying to say? Do you understand at all why this sentence disturbs me so much? Or am I still being unclear?

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