Flying on the wings of syntax

The Argument

A poet and scholar celebrates the energies of imagery, rhyme -- and 'a good ride'


April 04, 2004|By Clarinda Harriss | Clarinda Harriss,Special to the Sun

I want to be swept up and carried to a glittering peak on giant wings where I resist, go limp, rise transfigured. I want to be bemused and astonished. I want to be enfolded and sweetly rocked. I want to be struck between the eyes. I want to bathe, perchance to drown, in a great whirl of syntax.

Reader, you have felt this way. You have craved the sweet knuckle-chop of "Call me Ishmael" and "My dear, I don't give a damn." You have been magicked by Ecclesiastes' or the Preacher's "There is a time ..." which you hardly knew was just one sentence till, enchanted, you began to sing it (as the Byrds did in 1965).

A few of you may have luxuriated in the indecent embrace of novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch, a sentence that lasts for 272 scalding pages (Perennial, $13). The lust for luscious sentences is a common venial sin. Ask friends to tell you what their favorite sentence is. They won't say "Huh?" nor "Why?" They'll ponder a moment, then quietly recite a sentence, often an astoundingly long one. Friends I asked came up with the following:

Geoff Becker, a Towson faculty colleague, over tuna fish on rye, quoted from John Cheever's "The Swimmer"(from The Stories of John Cheever -- Knopf, 704 pages, $40): "He thought of the provincial station at that hour, where a waiter, his tuxedo concealed by a raincoat, a dwarf with some flowers wrapped in newspaper, and a woman who had been crying would be waiting for the local." Geoff invites us to observe how specific and strange the details are, so matter-of-factly tucked into a string of simple clauses.

Carl Behm, an associate dean, smoothed the palm trees on his tie and recited a bucolic moment from D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow (Modern Library, 528 pages, $8.95): "There was only the moving to and fro in the moonlight, engrossed, the swinging in the silence, that was marked only by the splash of sheaves, and silence, and a splash of sheaves." The reapers' back-and-forths become a mating ritual choreographed by the interplay of repetitive phrases.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." My friend and fellow shoe-addict and Romantic scholar Fran Botkin was quoting from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (Bantam, 332 pages, $4.95). Two other friends quoted this same sentence, all wearing the small smile programmed by Austen's sly sentence.

George Friedman, a retired scholar, re-settled his baseball cap, torn between Carson McCullers' The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (Bantam, 320 pages, $6.99) -- "In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together" -- and Isaiah 55:11: "For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands." He said that John Gissendanner, another colleague who later gave me a funny, non-P.C. parody of the McCullers sentence above, read the Isaiah sentence at his wedding.

Answering my own question, I shocked myself by reciting from John Milton's anti-censorship treatise "Areopagitica" (from The Portable Milton, Viking, 704 pages, $17): "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat."

What shocked me was that I chose prose; as a poet, I should have reached into a poem. It struck me that much of the poetry I read and teach has been starving me. After all -- it's poetry month! In cruel April, I'm pining, famished, in poetry that's a thicket of snippets--of unconstructed lists, unextended images; pinches and smidgins where there's no place for me to rummage, wallow or reel. But there's good news. Sensuous syntax is making a comeback in poetry. A reading last fall by Dave Smith, beginning his poet-in-residency at Johns Hopkins, tipped me off that maybe I could get some satisfaction.

Smith's sentences ebb and flow, crest and break. You can ride them. Some go on for line after line; these don't develop a story but are stories, complete with rising action, climax and denouement. Others are so condensed they lodge in your brain like shot.

Here's one from "Crab House" (The Wick of Memory, Louisiana State University Press, 280 pages, $19.95): "I listen / as the swamp grinds its teeth, feeds, begins to reek." The rich stench blooms inexorably in those last five words. Smith's sentences yield by degrees. From "Tide Pools": "At dusk and long distance they are the mouths / to another world, caves of silence that speak / only in light, and tonight, family packed / for home travel, we take a last, slow route / over sand the sea has all day been stroking." The reader walks with the writer from pool to pool, phrase to phrase.

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