May 2009
“With Tremulous Cadence Slow”: An Editorial On Syntax
Posted in Musings by Tavel at 2:37 pm | 27 Comments »
One of the burdens of narrative verse is that it requires the poet to be moderately skilled in the techniques of fiction. Character, arc, and even dialogue are essential weapons in the narrative poet’s arsenal. And while many beginning and journeyman poets have an intuitive understanding of these elements—surely we can all tell a story, right?—the lack of self-examination and honest revision can lead to language that is soft, expositive, and rambling. As an editor that reads literally thousands (if not tens of thousands) of narrative poems a year, one of my litmus tests for a publishable submission is a keen awareness of syntax, and how variety and inventiveness in one’s sentence structure allows a poem to explode off the page. I’d like to begin by sharing an example of the aforementioned soft, chatty style despite the embarrassment of exposing my own humble origins as a writer. Here is the first stanza of “The Stray,” a very early and unpublished piece:
I said something like “why don’t you ever drive me anywhere,”
when I opened the door and found him, shivering,
a mass of sunken bones plopped by the screen door.
I asked some of the neighbors—at least the ones on their stoops—
but nothing, and after seven calls to shelters I finally got
the sheriff’s dept to promise a van within the hour.
So I sat on our cold tile, dropping torn pieces of bread
through a slender rip in the screen, afraid to catch some rogue
disease known only to the broken immunity of lost dogs
while you and I bickered about his breed…
I cannot help but cringe as I reread these lines; the descriptions are weak, the voice is underdeveloped, and we already know that the poem will end with some grand pronouncement about the vulnerability of life. Yuck. The only phrase that is salvageable to my ear is “broken immunity of lost dogs,” but even that doesn’t hold up under closer scrutiny—“broken” is the wrong modifier, and needs to be replaced with something like “doomed,” but even that is too heavy-handed. Also, how can the dog be “lost” if it is sitting on the speaker’s stoop? The problems are legion.
While I could continue with this public self-chastisement, I’d rather turn my attention to the poem’s syntax. There are three sentences here, all of which have elementary structures: I said, I asked, I sat. This hindrance, from the very beginning, drastically limits the poem’s potential because even as a free verse poem it resists melody, cadence, or tonal variation. If one possible definition of poetry is a dynamic compression of language, thought, and feeling, the syntax of these lines render them little more than the flat, conversational prose of a diary entry or email. 
Compare all this to the first four stanzas of Bob Hicok’s “Once a Green Sky,” which originally appeared in Ploughshares, and concludes his masterful collection Animal Soul:
A deer was on Linwood and I asked the forest
to come and retrieve her, curl its slow hammers
around our houses and decipher brick into scraps
of clay. My hardest wishes are for and against
ourselves, delicate locusts, ravenous flowers
with an appetite for even the breaths
between the spaces. Say you are alone. Pretend
everyone emulates you. Imagine if alone
the idea of the conversion van, the strong touch
of burrito wafting from the bodega, never
germinated in the cavernous brain. Hands
are no more clever than kneading dough,
the weapon of choice is sleep, the gods we adore
eat their own ribs, supplicant postures
of apology break out simultaneously in each
cabin and in exactly the same way. Impossible, OK,
move on…
The tone, enjambment, and associative force are all masterful. But behind these techniques is a syntax that dodges and ducks, sprints and spins, and it reveals a poet that is critically aware of sound, rhythm, and breath. In other words, a poem seemingly about a deer’s frenzied running through the street before later “she ran/into the mouth of a Saturn” takes on greater narrative force due to the ordering and energy of its language. It is also intriguing to note that the generative impulse behind both poems in question—my strikeout and Hicok’s homerun—is a searching, forlorn empathy for a victimized animal.
Hicok’s deft syntactic maneuvering is a result of studiousness, revision, and natural talent. Nevertheless, all narrative poets—particularly those of us who are actively submitting work for publication—have a responsibility to avoid telegraphic blandness or quaint chattiness if we want a poem to enact a meaningful occasion for our readers rather than, say, a mere retelling of experience. So leave a gap. Take a leap. Juxtapose sweeping lyrical clauses with blunt admissions and vice versa. Make sure the subject is actually the subject. Diagram your sentences to find and squash repetitiveness. As an exercise, diagram the sentences of a poem by one of your favorite writers and get your hands greasy in its gears. Above all else, read your work out loud. Maybe we can’t all hit homeruns, but with enough practice, we can all get on base. 

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