― Ernest Hemingway
When established poets tell students that they need to pay attention to the different elements of craft—the diction, the image, the meter, the rhythm, the music, and the line breaks—they often overlook one element that is essential to make all the others work. That element is syntax.
A good sentence, if carefully rendered, can ignite or implode a poem.
The Romantic poets who wrote long narrative poems or short powerful lyric poems used sentences that energized the poetic lines, often having a sentence trip down the page, skipping from line to line before closing. Contemporary poets, often influenced by the journalistic styles of crisp, short sentences, are more inclined to pack a sentence into a few lines.
But wherever strategy a poet is using—the long complex or short declarative sentence, the periodic (left-branching) or cumulative (right-branching), the paratactic or hypotactic syntax (see below)—syntax informs what we know, see, and experience in a poem. It is the invisible element of craft.
Poets talk about how a protracted line allows for more content, facilitates a quicker pace, and allows for a more narrative flow and how the shorter line, often used with lyric poetry, slows down the pace, focuses intensely on word choice, and modulates as well as condenses the language of a poem.
But what is often ignored is how these long or shorter lines are made possible by the sentences that are broken into separate parts. The essential unit of English is the sentence that is comprised and formulated in a predictable pattern—subject, verb, object. When the poem breaks that normal sequence of words, the syntax becomes highlighted and calls attention to the line breaks. The words that are disrupted from their natural order stand out like someone wearing underwear at a formal party. If the breaks fall into familiar shifts in the sentence, they become, as in many of W.S. Merwin’s poems where he uses no punctuation, guides to reading the way word-units move down the page. Line breaks focus our attention on what the sentence is doing on the page.
For poets, line breaks are what visually separate us from prose writers. The intense focus on line shifts the way we make sense of a sentence. We comprehend it differently because we visually take it in differently. Instead of reading it, as we do in prose, for its whole meaning, we pay attention to each line and how, by itself, and as part of other lines, the sentence moves down the page. The sentence acts differently. The meaning doesn’t depend on the whole unit. Meaning is revealed in the parts. Line by line, phrase by phrase, even word by word, we discover the meaning of the poem as the sentence unravels. As the poet Baron Wormser said, reading (and writing) poetry is “life in the slow lane.”
There is a dramatic shift in our focus on the page when we focus on lines. By the way lines are spaced down the page, we are forced to shift from the horizonal movement of the eyes across the page from left to right to reading vertically down the page, line by line. The shift changes how we comprehend language and how we take in a sentence. Breaking the sentence apart forces us to look inside the sentence at its working parts. Like a car mechanic lifting off the top of the engine, we get to look at the pistons and valves and spark plugs and how they, when the engine is working, combine to create power. But in a poem, we are seeing the working parts in action, live, moving up and down the page, driving the poem from line to line.
As a reader, we don’t necessarily notice how the subject has been severed from its verb or how the object has been dislocated from the main clause. We read a line, take it in, then read the next, looking for each to inform us about something that will reveal the meaning of the sentence. But subconsciously, we know that a sentence is fractured. We also sense the breakage has something to do with the meaning. So, we read on, noting how the sentence is parsed out, broken up, and ends with a period. Then another one commences. And so it goes down the page. That is the task of reading and writing a poem.
Yet what may be invisible to us, as readers of poetry, is how the sentences and their construction—be they long or short, complex or compound, periodic or cumulative—create a pace and rhythm that, if studied carefully, make all the different elements of a poem work together. Equally, as poets, what may be invisible to us is how we can trouble-shoot what doesn’t work in our poems, not by just perfecting diction, imagery, meter, sound effects, and line breaks, but by also paying close attention to the nature of our sentences.
The poet Jessica Jacobs suggests that one way to determine if a poem is working is to dismantle a poem, remove the lines, take it apart, break it into sentences, and look at how it moves, how the sentences interrelate, what variety there is in the sentences, before rearranging it into lines and stanzas as a poem.
That’s a critical thing you can do when you have laid a poem out for a pre-revision surgery with the muscles, internal organs, and sinews of sentences peeled apart so you can look to see what the problem with the poem may be.
In his book How Poems Get Made (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008) James Longenbach suggests considering how the sentences syntactically are set up. He contends that five elements of a poem—diction, syntax, figuration, rhythm, echo and repetition—if used carefully, can create a powerful lyric. He argues “that what matters is not to imply the presence of German and Latinate diction, paratactic and hypotactic syntax, figurative and literal language, or rhythmically regular and irregular lines. What matters is…(the) moves from Latinate to Germanic diction…(the) moves from parataxis to hypotaxis…(the) moves from conventional to extravagant metaphors…(the) moves from a rhythmically regular to an irregular line.” (Ibid, 80) He goes on to say,
The language of every poem is performing multiple actions at once, creating a repeatable path of discovery—a new knowledge of reality—through the simultaneous ordering of differing degrees of echo, different kinds of syntax, different kinds of diction, different levels of figuration, and different degrees of rhythmic regularity. (Ibid.81)
But he acknowledges that “every poem chooses either explicitly or implicitly to do something at the expense of something else,” which, in the case of a free verse poem, means the poem may relinquish the power of meter. (Ibid,124) It’s not a matter of each poem using all these but how it synchronizes “its repetitions of diction, syntax, figure, rhythm and echo” (Ibid,151) and how “the poem orders its movement between Latinate and Germanic diction…or between paratactic and hypotactic syntax…or between discontinuous figures…or between regular or irregular rhythms…or between varying densities of echo.” (Ibid, 150) When he speaks about syntax, he is talking about sentences and their arrangement in the poem.
He argues that accomplished poets intentionally use one or more of these in making a poem. Of course, if one doesn’t know what these are and how to use them, it doesn’t mean that a writer cannot make a lovely poem. But it does mean that if a writer has these at their command, it’s more likely that they will be able to compose better poems more often.
When I revise my poems, for example, if I find a poem has lost its verve, I can notice how the subordinate clauses, one after another, clogged it up. I can be my own physician and operate on the poem before it expires. That’s what a skilled surgeon has over a layperson. It’s the same use of skill and training that makes a writer a professional rather than a dilettante.
So what does one notice if the focus was purely on syntax and sentences?
Longenbach describes two types of syntax that, if played against one another, can create a dynamic that propels a poem forward. One type is paratactic sentences which are “clauses, each with its own subject and verb, (that) are arranged side by side, without any sense of hierarchy.” For his example of such a poem, he quotes the Wallace Stevens poem “No Possum. No Sop. No Taters” in which Longenbach transposed the last line with the first, showing how, no matter how the poem is arranged, because each sentence stands by itself, somewhat autonomously, the poem can be configured in reverse and still work. The lines from Stevens don’t necessarily have to be put in a particular order. One sentence doesn’t inevitably, as with a narrative poem, rely on and lead to the next:
He is not here. The old sun.
As absent as if we were asleep.
The field is frozen. The leaves are dry.
Reverse them and, if you didn’t know the original poem, they would still track.
The other type of syntax is the hypotactic sentence “because the two clauses are lined by a subordinate conjunction, one clause depends on the other.” This construction is used “when describing the hierarchical relationship between clauses and the effects in a narrative or between facts and conclusions in an argument.” Longenbach cautions that a paratactic syntax can have a logic to it, an inevitability, one thing following another. But it is not necessarily so. The use of a hypotactic syntax (and sentences), however, does require a certain logic, a hierarchical arrangement, one subordinate to another. John Donne’s “The Canonization,” which Longenbach notes uses “one kind of syntax giving way to another,” concludes with a hypotactic syntax:
Soldiers find war, and lawyers find out still
Litigious men, which quarrels move,
Though she and I do love.
The logic of these lines bring closure to the poem that a series of single sentences wouldn’t do as effectively, although, properly used, they might.
For Longenbach, it isn’t that one syntax is better than another. The craft is in the interplay of the two in a poem, how one works against the other. If a poem consists, as Stevens does, of short sentences that can and do stand by themselves, the language and diction in the sentences, the interplay of Latinate and Germanic (Anglo-Saxton) words need to be employed to create the drama. Diction saves his poem from being monotonous. But if the sentences move back and forth using paratactic and hypotactic syntax as John Donne does so effectively, there’s a natural tension built into the structure of the sentence, in its flow and rhythm, and diction isn’t necessarily needed to rescue a poem.
Once you have pulled the sentences from your poem and put them on a page, each separate with no line breaks, take a look what kinds of syntax you use. Longenbach offers a cautionary word that may help when one line feels too prosy while another feels too poetic. He says that “it may seem that elaborately hypotactic syntax will sound written, while simpler syntactical constructions sound spoken.” (Ibid.42)
A poem by Mary Oliver provides a good example of how sentence, and the syntax of sentences, can make or break a poem. She varies the sentences, shapes them, and breaks them to propel the poem down the page. I have highlighted different elements in her poem. Notice that parts of a hypotactic sentences are keyed by italics. The main part of a sentence—subject, verb, and object—are keyed with bold. Paratactic sentences are crisper, mostly comprising subject, verb, and object.
- Underlined words or phrases are use of parallelism
- Bold are main subject and verb of a sentence, main clause
- Italics are subordinate or relative/adverbial clauses or free modifiers such as prepositional phrases, participial phrases, appositives, infinitive phrases, absolutes, adjectives out of order
- Bold italics: An analogy, comparison, simile, or metaphor
Notice how I have broken the poem into sentence units. That’s what Jessica Jacob
suggests you do with your poem. Remove the lines. Put it into a sentence format.
Notice how Oliver uses extensive parallelism throughout this poem, repeating words as well as different free modifiers and adverbial clauses to link the images. She also varies sentence length. She starts off a series of short, declarative ones that tend to hurry the poem, since “he carries…he is gone…I am so happy…Seeing what I have…The first words” jams a lot of action into the poem. That is a paratactic syntax. Then the tone changes. It shifts to a more meditative turn. With that turn, the sentences also change. They become hypotactic. The last part of the poem where she is wondering, asking “maybe” questions slows it down more, elongating the sentences that are again packed with repetition of two participial phrases to close the poem.
In the morning the blue heron is busy stepping, slowly, around the edge of the pond.
He is tall and shining.
His wings, folded against his body, fit so neatly they make of him, when he lifts his shoulders and begins to rise into the air, a great surprise.
Also he carries so lightly the terrible sword beak.
Then he is gone over the trees.
I am so happy to be alive in this world [that] I would like to live forever, but I am content not to.
Seeing what I have seen has filled me, believing what I believe has filled me.
The first words of this page are hardly thought of when the bird circles back over the trees; it floats down like an armful of blue flowers, a bundle of light coming to refresh itself again in the black water, and I think: maybe it is or it isn’t the same bird—maybe it’s the first one’s child, or the child of its child.
What I mean is, our deliverance from Time and the continuance, if we only steward them well, of earthly things.
So maybe it’s myself still standing here, or someone else, like myself hot with the joy of this world, and filled with praise.
But her poem wasn’t formatted in sentences. The sentences were broken into lines. Notice how sentences flow down the page, look at how they are broken up, how the line breaks create more hesitations and syntactical disjunction (busy/stepping; the/pond; they/make) that give the poem a start-stop quality, almost following the eye as it follows the jerky movement of a heron. As the poem develops, however, the lines smooth out as she turns inward, following her own thoughts about what is being seen and not seen. Note the immense variation from quick short to long, extended, complex-compound sentences.
In the morning the blue heron is busy
stepping, slowly around the edge of the
pond. He is tall and shining. His wings, folded
against his body, fit so neatly they
make of him, when he lifts his shoulders and begins to rise
into the air, a great surprise. Also
he carries so lightly the terrible sword beak. Then
he is gone over the trees.
I am so happy to be alive in this world
I would like to live forever, but I am
content not to. Seeing what I have seen
has filled me, believing what I believe
has filled me.
The first words of this page are
hardly thought of when the bird
circles back over the trees; it floats down
like an armful of blue flowers, a bundle of light
coming to refresh itself again in the black water, and I think:
maybe it is or it isn’t the same bird—maybe it’s
the first one’s child, or the child of its child.
What I mean is, our deliverance from Time
and the continuance, if we only steward them well,
of earthly things. So maybe it’s myself still standing here, or
someone else, like myself hot with the joy of this world, and
filled with praise.
To troubleshoot how to get a poem moving, pay attention to sentences. See if changing them, adding more complex ones in contrast to shorter ones, setting paratactic against hypotactic sentences, will liven up your lines.
In case you want to bone up on a better understanding of different types of sentences, I’ve highlighted some of the books that have helped me.
Virginia Tufte, Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphic Press LLC, 2006
This book has been a bible for me. She shows how different types of sentences provide their own dramatical force. She goes from simple sentences to more complex structures, using great writers to show how a periodic right-branching sentence can, by itself, quite separate from the content, can create suspense. She shows how the simple use of verb phrases or noun phrases can build up detail and drama in a sentence. She shows how a cumulative, right-branching sentence can, with the artful use of free modifiers, pack a sentence with information while actively engaging the reader with information. She shows how to use openers and closers in sentences, how to use free modifiers to break up sentences, giving more variety to the prose. You find out how, with parallelism, a sentence can contain the world. You find how sentences are the musical phrases in prose and in poetry.
Brooks Landon: Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read. New York, A Penguin Group, 2013 Online: A Plume Book
In Landon’s book, building on what Tufte has done, he shows how he taught writers to write well, adding a range of sentences to their writing. He demonstrates how to take flaccid prose and liven it up, using cumulative sentences. He also provides you with exercises to build your sentence muscles.
Harry R. Norden: Image Grammar: Using Grammatical Structures to Teach Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1999
This very practical book, my second bible on sentence writing, taking the ideas of Tufte and Landon, shows how to make artful sentences using free modifiers—absolutes (the must for any professional writers), appositives, participle phrases, adjectives out of order—and not only gives wonderful writing exercises along with the images and examples to back them up, but also invites you to stretch your sentence muscles. He calls the use of free modifiers “image grammar” because, by their nature, they give imagistic vitality to your writing. They are the reservoir that a writer can draw on when a writing instructor tells them to use detail, to show, not tell. The use of free modifiers is the wellspring of professional writers.
Jeff Anderson: Everyday Editing: Inviting Students to Develop Skill and Craft in Writer’s Workshop. Portland, ME Stenhouse Publishers, 2007
Taking Norden’s ideas, Anderson shows how to develop your sentence muscles by walking you through some exercises, giving examples as he does. Very practical.
Jeff Anderson: Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2005
His first book opened my eyes to what I could do in my writing as well as how to teach the use of artful sentences to my students.