Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Poetic Sentence: Thoughts about John Donne’s “The Triple Foole”

Dawn Potter

[This essay reworks material that will appear in The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Deerbrook Editions, 2014). I recently received a rejection letter from a prominent teachers' journal (not for this piece but for work that will appear elsewhere in the book), which remarked that "your manuscript sounds a bit stilted to me. Try reading it out loud to yourself. Then have a friend read it out loud to you." While this strikes me as (1) hysterically funny, (2) bizarrely patronizing, and (3) possibly written by someone who doesn't read much Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Hayden Carruth, John Berryman, Michel de Montaigne, or James Baldwin, I'm willing to take your advice on the matter, should you feel like reading this essay aloud to yourself.]

Theodore Roethke wrote that “the poem . . . means an entity, a unity has been achieved that transcends by far the organization of the lecture, the essay, even the great speech.” The sentence is key to reaching such poetic unity. It’s a blueprint for working out what and how the poet thinks and feels. It’s a conduit for curiosity, a path into mystery.
But sentences in poetry are not simply blocks of meaning; they also exist as patterns of sound. A sentence is supple and musical and physical, and more than one poet can recall a childhood moment in which she experienced that viscerality. In her essay “The Province of Radical Solitude,” Carolyn Forché writes:
The world hummed, and my own speech rose above the humming and was measured by it. I didn’t know what metered verse was, but I remember knowing that language rose and fell, and that it occurred most pleasurably in utterances of similar length. One could recite for hours the flow of language in patterns. My early musical and rhythmic training derived from the Latin liturgy, most especially from litany recitations and Gregorian plainsong. Rhythm, however, is of the body, and it was during walks in childhood that I first sensed the relation between breath, phrase, and heart. I spoke to the pounding.
            How does a poet write the kinds of sentences that create a response like Forché’s? The answer is more flexible than you might imagine. Because grammar books tend to treat sentences as recipes requiring precise ingredients, many students think of a sentence as correct or incorrect, not as a personal exploration. In contrast, The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition focuses on the individuality of articulation rather than the rules of the game: “[a sentence is] a series of words complete in itself as the expression of a thought, containing or implying a subject and predicate, and conveying a statement, question, exclamation, or command.”
In other words, sentences comprise a large variety of language patterns, many of which don’t follow official grammar-book prescriptions. So when I talk about sentences in poetry, I’m not celebrating tidy subject-predicate combos and snarling about fragments and comma splices. Rather, I’m thinking about the way in which a poet arranges words to express a thought. In an effective sentence, the arrangement of words is “complete in itself.” That is, the articulation has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In addition, an effective sentence displays a particular pattern of language: “a statement, question, exclamation, or command.”
The variations are as individual as the poets who invent them. For instance, sentences may be identical to lines of poetry, as they are in Jeanne Marie Beaumont’s “Afraid So”:

Is it starting to rain?
Did the check bounce?
Are we out of coffee?
Is this going to hurt?

A sentence can fill up an entire stanza, as it does in Maxine Kumin’s “Rehearsing for the Final Reckoning in Boston”:

During the Berlioz Requiem in Symphony Hall
which takes even longer than extra innings
in big league baseball, this restless Jewish agnostic
waits to be pounced on, jarred by the massive fanfare
of trombones and trumpets assembling now in the second
balcony, left side, right side, and at the rear.

A sentence may cross stanzas, as it does in Alexander Pope’s “Ode on Solitude”:

Blest, who can unconcern’dly find
            Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
                        Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
            Together mixt; sweet recreation;
And Innocence, which most does please
                        With meditation.

Sentence boundaries may be ambiguous, as they are in Lynn Emmanuel’s “Dressing the Parts”:

So, here we are,
I am a kind of diction

Despite their many differences, all of these examples maintain allegiance to what Forché has called “the flow of language in patterns.” Robert Frost named this flow the “sentence-sound,” defining a sentence as “a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung.” By this, he didn’t mean any random clump of words. “You may string words together without a sentence-sound to string them on just as you may tie clothes together by the sleeves and stretch them without a clothes-line between two trees but—it is bad for the clothes.” Thus, dog buttermilk the in is not a sentence-sound. But rearrange the words as dog in the buttermilk and suddenly “the sound of sense” is “apprehended by the ear.”
Let’s consider the maze of sentences that cohere into John Donne’s “The Triple Foole.”

The Triple Foole
John Donne
I am two fooles, I know,
For loving, and for saying so
            In whining Poëtry;
But where’s that wiseman, that would not be I,
            If she would not deny?
Then as th’earths inward narrow crooked lanes
Do purge sea waters fretfull salt away,
            I thought, if I could draw my paines,
Through Rimes vexation, I should them allay.
Griefe brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For, he tames it, that fetters it in verse.
            But when I have done so,
Some man, his art and voice to show,
            Doth Set and sing my paine,
And, by delighting many frees againe
            Griefe, which verse did restraine.
To Love, and Griefe tribute of Verse belongs,
But not of such as pleases when ’tis read,
            Both are increased by such songs:
For both their triumphs so are published,
And I, which was two fooles, do so grow three;
Who are a little wise, the best fooles bee.

Lucille Clifton’s poem “sorrows” opens with “who would believe them winged,” an unpunctuated, uncapitalized line that is a clear, straightforward question. Her sentence doesn’t require punctuation or capitalization to convey what Frost called “the sound of sense.” In contrast, John Donne relies on ornate, heavy-handed punctuation to demarcate the sentences in “The Triple Foole.” Nevertheless, at first reading I’m not always convinced that what Donne has marked out as a sentence is, in the OED’s terms, “complete in itself as the expression of a thought.”
But what is “the expression of a thought”? My own thoughts are frequently clotted, unclear, and ambiguous; and it seems that Donne may have felt the same about his, for not much in “The Triple Foole” can be called straightforward. Let’s look at the opening sentence and track how the speaker moves grammatically through his own perplexity.

I am two fooles, I know,
For loving, and for saying so
            In whining Poëtry;
But where’s that wiseman, that would not be I,
            If she would not deny?

            The sentence breaks neatly into halves. The first section, which ends at the semicolon, lays out a claim (“I am two fooles, I know”) and follows with supporting reasons. Foole 1 is foolish “For loving,” and Foole 2 is foolish “for saying so / In whining Poëtry.” Thus far, the sentence seems to express a coherent thought “complete in itself.”
            But after the semicolon, things get stranger. As the sentence shifts from a statement to a question, the speaker lays out a series of linked but incongruous phrases. “But where’s that wiseman,” he asks. Immediately he undercuts the question with the self-deprecating “that would not be I.” Or should I read this as an excuse rather than as modesty? Suddenly I find myself not entirely trusting this speaker. What is he trying to evade? The sentence continues, deepening my confusion. “If she would not deny?” Deny what? Are words missing here? The sentence feels as if it’s been chopped off mid-phrase. Typically, “deny” would be followed by a noun phrase or a dependent clause: for instance, deny my love, deny that I am a foole. As it is, the question leaves me hanging. I don’t understand what’s going on. All I know is that I am confused, suspicious of the speaker, and curious about this enigmatic “she,” this mysterious “deny.”
            “The Triple Foole” is an early seventeenth-century poem. No doubt there’s a scholarly edition that would translate its archaic sentences into contemporary English, lifting my spirits and erasing my puzzlement. But even though I honor such scholarship, I want to argue for the value of coming to a poem as it exists, unadorned, on the page. I think it’s important to meet a difficult poem on your own ground, to rely on your own wits and reactions as you wrestle with it.
Are my reactions to this sentence “correct”? If I were faced with a multiple-choice question about “The Triple Foole,” I’d probably get the answer wrong. But when I ask myself what I’ve learned, I see that I’ve made an important discovery. Pushing myself to look closely at the structure of the sentence has also pushed me look closely at the structure of a thought. And what I’ve learned is that, for some poets, sentences really do seem to mirror thoughts. Clear or confused, simple or complex, Donne’s thoughts unwind as his sentences unwind. When I read his lines, I feel as if I am wandering along the pathways of his brain, at one moment basking in his rational neatness, at another drowning in his tortuous evasions. “Donne felt his thought as immediately as the odour of a rose,” writes A. S. Byatt. Now I know what she means.

“The Triple Foole” is composed of five sentences. Four of those sentences are constructed as intricate stacks of clauses that fill between four and six lines. But the fifth sentence is notably different:

Griefe brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For, he tames it, that fetters it in verse.

At only two lines long, it is much shorter than every other sentence in the poem. This brevity might not have surprised me if it had shown up in some other place. For instance, if the poem had begun with a short sentence and then gradually accrued into denser and denser sentences, I might have speculated about the way in which the sentence structure was mirroring the speaker’s increasing emotional turmoil. If the poem had ended with a short sentence, I might have seen it as an epigrammatic conclusion, a succinct comment analogous to the moral at the end of a fable.
            But Donne’s short sentence appears in the middle of the poem. Two long sentences precede it; two more follow it. So I begin to mull over visual and structural associations: fulcrum, keystone, waist, hourglass, heart. Does anything within this sentence support these associations?
            Most of you have done enough close reading in college English courses to follow up on that question yourself. My point here isn’t to give you answers about meaning but to show you that a sentence’s style and its position in a poem can trigger a curiosity that leads toward literary analysis. Sometimes scholarship and craft can feel like two different roads into reading a difficult poem. If you teach, you might find yourself focusing on analysis skills rather than creative writing skills, or vice versa, as if the two are entirely unrelated. By bringing them together, you allow both yourself and your students to think of complex canonical literature, such as Donne’s poetry, as work that a real person actually constructed from movable materials.

At six lines long, the final sentence of “The Triple Foole” accounts for nearly a quarter of the poem.

To Love, and Griefe tribute of Verse belongs,
But not of such as pleases when ’tis read,
            Both are increased by such songs:
For both their triumphs so are published,
And I, which was two fooles, do so grow three;
Who are a little wise, the best fooles bee.

Despite its length, the sentence seems to visually comply with traditional sentence expectations. It begins with a capital letter and ends with a period. It is composed of linked clauses, several of which begin with coordinating conjunctions such as but, and, and for. These kinds of conjunctions tend to make a reader feel rhetorically safe. They hint at a balanced argument, a weighing of options. They imply logical progress from one idea to the next. But is logical progress really what’s happening in this sentence? When I look more closely at the punctuation, I begin to feel uneasy.
Lines 1 and 2 open smoothly enough. In fact, “To Love, and Griefe tribute of Verse belongs, / But not of such as pleases when ’tis read,” reads like a sentence unto itself. Though the order is archaic and convoluted, the lines have a subject (“tribute of Verse”) and an accompanying verb (“belongs”) with an attached prepositional phrase (“To Love, and Griefe”). The second line is a dependent clause that explains the qualities of this particular “tribute of Verse” (it’s not pleasant when read). So far, so clear.
But line 2 ends with a comma, indicating that the sentence isn’t over yet. So why, when I read line 3, do I feel as if I am now in a completely different sentence? The simplest response is because Donne has relied on a comma splice. That is, instead of inserting a period or a semicolon after line 2, he has used a comma to link an independent clause (“Both are increased by such songs:”) to what was already a complete sentence.
You may be a person with a hot, hot hate for so-called bad grammar. You may revile its versus it’s errors and snarl about dangling modifiers and split infinitives. But for now I want you to stop spitting and snarling. I want you forget the fact that seventeenth-century punctuation styles don’t follow the rules of twenty-first-century grammar manuals. Simply I want you to reread these three lines and ask yourself, Why is there a comma here?
When I think about how a poet such as Gerard Manley Hopkins chose to punctuate his poems, I often link many of those choices to his manipulation of sound. In Donne’s case, however, I am less sure about the influence of sound. Does the sound of “The Triple Foole” change radically if I insert a strong end-stopped pause rather than a lighter comma pause? Yes, each reading does create a different effect in my voice and on my ear. But more than the echo of music I hear the echo of thought.
In lines 1 and 2, Donne states that verse can be a tribute to either love or grief, and he tells us that such tributes aren’t necessarily a pleasure to read about. Then in line 3 he rushes into his next idea: such tributes aren’t pleasant because verse intensifies both love and grief. Is he making logical sense? Not necessarily. I might argue that an increase in love can be pleasurable, even that an increase in grief can have its self-absorbed allurements. But I think it’s important to remember that thought isn’t logic. Thought is exploration. To my mind, Donne’s comma splice is somewhat analogous to the light bulb that appears over a cartoon character’s head. “Idea!” it shouts.
Let’s keep pushing into the sentence. Line 3 ends with a colon. Here again, we have a situation that might be called a sentence break. Why did Donne choose to break his thought with a long exhale rather than an actual stop?
Read further down into line 5, which ends with a semicolon. In modern English grammar, a semicolon links two independent clauses. In other words, it functions as a kind of hybrid period/comma. But this isn’t a case of two independent clauses. Line 6 is a straightforward dependent clause—a place I might have expected to see a comma. Why didn’t Donne choose to use one here?
How do these punctuation choices—a colon, then a semicolon—affect your sense that the poet is working, in the OED’s terms, with “a series of words complete in itself as the expression of a thought”? I’m not going to answer such questions for you, although I hope you take the time to puzzle over them yourself. As I’ve already said, my goal here is to show you how to open doors into the poem, not to explicate it for you. By paying attention to sentence structure, sentence punctuation, and sentence position, you will be using the solid elements of language as touchstones for your own curiosity. You can analyze for meaning; you can focus on dramatic movement; you can bask in the cadence of the language. There are many ways to read a poem, and there are moments in your life when one type of reading will be more vital than another. But the poet’s language choices always remain at the root of those readings.

7 comments:

Maureen said...

I have a friend whose daughter is in a long-distance learning class and was given "F" on an analysis of a poem because it contained too many semicolons. Never mind that every semicolon was used correctly and that the analysis rivaled that of published critics.

Dawn Potter said...

Amazing, isn't it? I'd actually been warned by a poet/teacher friend that teachers' journals would be very unlikely to publish my (or his) thoughts about teaching poetry. I wondered what he meant, and now I know.

wfkammann said...

But after the semicolon, things get stranger. As the sentence shifts from a statement to a question, the speaker lays out a series of linked but incongruous phrases. “But where’s that wiseman,” he asks. Immediately he undercuts the question with the self-deprecating “that would not be I.” Or should I read this as an excuse rather than as modesty? Suddenly I find myself not entirely trusting this speaker. What is he trying to evade? The sentence continues, deepening my confusion. “If she would not deny?” Deny what? Are words missing here? The sentence feels as if it’s been chopped off mid-phrase. Typically, “deny” would be followed by a noun phrase or a dependent clause: for instance, deny my love, deny that I am a foole. As it is, the question leaves me hanging. I don’t understand what’s going on. All I know is that I am confused, suspicious of the speaker, and curious about this enigmatic “she,” this mysterious “deny.”

I am two fooles, I know,
For loving, and for saying so
In whining Poëtry;
But where’s that wiseman, that would not be I,
If she would not deny?

There is no wise man who would not choose to be me, if she would not deny my request for love (sex) but accept it. Really not so hard.

Dawn Potter said...

Bill, thank you for this brilliant comment. (I've been away, so I apologize for not responding sooner.) I agree with you: "things get stranger." The movement of the sentence is, as you describe it and as I also experienced it, at the heart of this poem's mystery. Yes, on one level, I know what the speaker is trying to get across. On another level, I hear everything you note: modesty, excuses, self-deprecation, untrustworthiness, evasion. Thanks for explicating the enigma so cogently.

wfkammann said...

You're welcome. BTW the first part was a quotation from you.

Dawn Potter said...

Can you tell I've been sleep-deprived for a week?!

wfkammann said...

Hardly noticed.