Sunday, July 21, 2013

What's the Most Important Sentence?

Dawn Potter
In many ways, “what’s the most important sentence?” is the linchpin question of the book I've been writing. Individual words, punctuation, and sounds cohere into the grammatical unity of a sentence. Details accumulate among these words and sounds. Lines and stanzas fracture or link burgeoning sentences. The sentences collectively construct characters and images.
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. As I discussed in my chapter about Joe Bolton's poem "In Memory of the Boys of Dexter, Kentucky," 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. 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.”

[from a draft chapter of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]

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