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Making Sentences, Making Sense

Stanley Fish‘s wonderful new book, How To Write a Sentence: and How to Read One, opens with Annie Dillard‘s account (from her The Writing Life, which I have to read now) of a conversation between yet another writer and a student. The student asks the writer “Do you think I could be a writer?” and the writer answers, “Well, do you like sentences?”  Dillard goes on to recall a conversation with a painter friend in which he says be he came to be a painter because he liked the smell of paint. Fish then poses the question of whether, for the writer, words rather than sentences are the equivalent of paint for the painter, and his answer is an emphatic No: lists or jumbles of words don’t do anything until they are arranged in sentences, allowing meaning to appear.

Similarly, the Forward to Tony Hoagland‘s Real Sofistikation: Essays on Poetry and Craft ends “If a vision of poetry comes through, I expect it reflects an allegiance to experience as much as to art; a love for the sinuous human voice, for elaborate sentences, and for a certain brashness of imagination.”

Poets are writers, and writers make sentences: sentences make sense of the world, even when they’re wrong, even when they’re mad. We can’t tell that they’re mad or wrong if they don’t make sense to us.

In my last post I claimed that MFA program poetry suffers because “making poems that generate interesting class discussions is quite different from making poems that move readers, even those that move readers to think.” I wasn’t in an MFA program, but I did an MA in English with a Creative Thesis (meaning my thesis was a collection of my own poems) and I attended and taught many writing workshops. Here’s how they work.

Everybody in a graduate writing workshop is smart and well-read and everyone there is aware of the fact. Those who happen to be poets are also aware that publication of poetry is almost entirely restricted to university journals and presses. They know that the 10 to 15 poems per month appearing in The Atlantic and The New Yorker combined are providing a living for precisely no one, that the 40 or so in Poetry do exactly the same, that even Richard Wilbur makes his living translating classical French theater; that the only remotely possible living remotely related to writing poetry is teaching poetry or poetry workshops; and they know that there are more workshop classes in writing poetry than there are classes in reading poetry because, while neither are required undergraduate classes, there are lots more people who think they can write poetry than there are people who want to read poetry and then write about it.

In such a workshop, students rightly expect the teacher’s and the class’s attention to be focused on the writing of the students in it. It soon becomes apparent that no matter how good a piece is, not much time will be spent on it unless there’s a lot to say about it. With traditional poetic technique not really on the menu (and sometimes actively discouraged—I’ve heard students be told they were “brave” for trying, not to write a sonnet, but to present one to the class), cleverness, allusiveness, and obscurity are attractive strategies both for writing and for discussing poems in the class.

People get amazingly good at the latter without ever writing a good poem, and sometimes they get so good at it that they can no longer recognize just how bad are the poems produced in this way, or how silly are such virtuosic acts of explication. Here is an example.

Some of you went there and read the whole 1800 words (and it is a virtuoso performance). For the rest of you I’ll quote the first line of the book’s first poem (presented in its entirety in the review)

alacrity at time and yet the hulkish ness

and point out that the dot appearing by itself two spaces above the quoted line is referred to by the critic as an “interpunct” only because, together with the Latin title of the book in which the poem appears, doing so allows that critic to claim that the all lower-case text of the poem is “a sort of inverse Roman capital.”

It is no surprise find this soon after:

The reader and his/her labor, the text seems to insist, echoed by one of the sequence’s 3 epigraphs: “It is as labor, and not as communication, that the subject in art comes into its own” (Adorno).

I don’t think it mean-spirited to point out that we never learn from this broken sentence what it is that “the text” insists about the “reader and his/her labor.” Such poets, and such critics, don’t give a damn about the reader, but they can damn-sure impress a graduate workshop.

Update 02/14/2011: I realize Adorno’s claim is what the writer wants to say is insisted upon, but there’s no “that” there. As Fish quotes from Anthony Burgess‘s Enderby Outside,

And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.

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3 comments

1 MAS { 02.14.11 at 8:47 pm }

Mostly I agree, but I take issue with the words thing. I don’t see how you can like sentences without liking words by themselves. It feels like liking knitting without liking yarn.

2 Mike { 02.15.11 at 7:55 am }

Sure, Sam—but liking words isn’t enough. It is enough to like paints and colors: clearly a love of drawing isn’t necessary to create extraordinary paintings (though I’d argue the very greatest visual art always has an aspect or representation, and artists will cheerfully ignore me if they’re not hooting in derision).

But spelling out words, or arranging them according to the Kabbala, on using them in associative games—none of these are writing.

3 judy thompson { 02.23.11 at 9:32 am }

none of those are writing as such, but sometimes just the act of ‘wordplay” or ‘gameplay’ with words will stir the pot a bit, and get something moving in there. I rarely do word exercises but now and then when I do I find that what comes out often, truly, is hash, but what comes out NEXT is not. That’s where the value lies.
And what sam says, about having to like words in order to like sentences, yeah, absolutely. You simply cannot build a poem, sentence by sentence, without utilizing words as individual bits, like trying to build a brick wall without using bricks. You have to respect the bits, and what they can give you.

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