Selection and syntax

In my last entry, dated 8 October 2021, I made a few suggestions about the craft of poetry, citing “selection and syntax” as two of the principal tools that poets use to achieve their ends. 

Let me enlarge on that idea here, and refine it too.

Be selective

John Ashberry
John Ashberry, American poet, 1927–2017

Selection, first, means we are selective, yes? We may throw in everything but the kitchen sink in our first drafts. After all, we may well be compelled by a crazy buzz, an inspiration, and the heat of the moment is a chance we don’t want to let pass by. But what’s produced is a first draft. It’s molten. Let it cool. Then see when red hot turns to blue how many impurities remain.

They’re embarrassing, from the distance of time and reflection. They’re included in the heat of the moment, sure, but now look uncouth, not cool. They mock our vanity, our impetuousness.

Of course, I’m presuming the poet is capable of a certain critical distance. And this may not always be true. You see this foolish attachment to self in amateur poetry, the kind of stuff people throw up in Facebook and elsewhere on the web. There’s a sense of entitlement and stubborn pride here. I wrote it, therefore it stands as written. But we all know, if we’d acknowledge it, that modesty is in order; that we haven’t written a poetic masterpiece in the ten minutes we slapped and dashed out this morning’s poem. (Maybe Mozart could do this. The rest of us? Unlikely.)

Here’s a typical poem from an amateur site, a good start by a talented teenager (this is from 2014, and I don’t see anything very recent by this poet: has she revised the poem? has she stopped writing altogether, alas?):

Hand me another drink
Soupy slurred words slide from her lips and drip to the floor,
Mixing in with the pool of regurgitated gin and tonic.
Her mouth is bitter but her thoughts are true;
Only the drunk can tell the truth.
Her incoherent words fall to the floor followed closely by her slouched figure and salty tears.
She sleeps on the bathroom floor …

Okay, the first line is great: no words wasted here. “Soupy slurred,” though? And then “slide”? I get the attachment to sound for sound’s sake. Poets are suckers for sounds, after all. (Never weaned properly, as Donald Barthelme might say.) Sound fights against sense, but sense, even common sense or a sense of fun, I think, would suggest something more regularly rhythmic and compressed here, e.g.,

She slurred her words, I think.
They dripped on the floor 
and what’s more
mixed with her vomited
gin and tonic. It’s
disgraceful …

But I don’t presume to write, or rewrite the poem, merely suggest that poetry is usually not prose. It’s more rhythmic, it aims for beauty, even beauty in travesty, as here; and it uses formal devices to achieve these ends.

Her mouth is bitter but her thoughts are true,
She spews in order not to be blue …

You see how long and slouchy the penultimate line is (“Her incoherent words …”). Jump on it. Cut it in half. It’s a hissing, slouching snake, and must be wrangled into submission.

Selection, then, is being selective, choosy, fussy. Your first inspiration may be great. But the game is 90% perspiration, remember. The first draft is generally just a first draft, a rough approximation of what you can end up with.

Here’s another half-finished poem, from Facebook. I’m not going to comment on it, but leave it to you. What would you change here, and why? What would you leave out, and what put in?

What do I have left
empty words scattered across blind space
images of yet another dream, forgotten
I link these thoughts yet nothing remains
the death of a poem daily resounds,
heavily in my mind
we don’t know each other but we still share
all these hopes fragmented by distance
and the past echoes a call, a sound
asking for truths, for answers
while I am lost momentarily,
in delicious failed metaphors, limply hanging, in darkened gardens of night

Control your syntax

As for syntax, the second tool, its use in poetry may be harder to explain.

Syntax is the order of words in a sentence. Some people write short, simple sentences, others long and complex. Obviously, there’s no right way to write sentences in poetry. Realistic prose may demand short, Hemingwayesque sentences. Bu poetry is another beast.

Syntax in poetry is the ability to control the shape, form, and length of your sentences, whether they’re long, short, or in between. And the chief guide in this matter is your reading. Which writers do you read and admire? Which do you learn from?

If you read only Hemingway and admire him, you may end up as his epigone or imitator. If you read Faulkner, you’re traveling another road.

William Faulker
William Faulkner, great American prose stylist and Nobel Prize winner, 1897–1962.

When it comes to poets, some may write long and prolix sentences like Faulkner. I think of Walt Whitman, Charles Olson, Marianne Moore, and John Ashberry. But at their best, these poets show complete control of the long line, mastery, as in this stanza from Ashberry’s “The Painter”:

Imagine a painter crucified by his subject!
Too exhausted even to lift his brush,
He provoked some artists leaning from the buildings
To malicious mirth: “We haven’t a prayer
Now, of putting ourselves on canvas,
Or getting the sea to sit for a portrait!”

This is a poem of sestets, stanzas of six lines, plus a closing tercet. In the sestet quoted above, there are only two sentences. The first is the opening line. The second is the rest of the stanza (though you could say that second sentence contains another, the quoted material). 

This is a wonderful stanza, and it stands as written — without excess verbiage and in complete syntactical control.

In my own case, I tend to write long sentences — the result perhaps of reading Whitman, Faulkner, Melville, Moore, Ashberry. But I feel I can control the sentence, even such a long, tortuous sentence as begins this poem from my recent second book of poetry, Lost & Found: Poems Found All Around:

Myopia: Word of the Day
For Jen again

You say you can’t see anything beyond
the tip of your nose, my love, yet if this is
myopia it may owe, after all, to the Greek
myōpía, “nearsightedness,” i.e. (id est),
to use a Latinism, something contagious
and coming down to you, honestly enough,
through the obscure centuries, deriving
from mýein “to close the eyes or mouth”
(close kin to the Latin mūtus “inarticulate,
dumb, silent” or, as we’d say in English,
“mute,” which, true enough, sweetheart,
you have seldom been). Consider too mystikós,
“connected with the mysteries,” or “mystic,”
an enchanted Greek isle perhaps? Let’s not
forget also -ōpía, a combining form of ṓps
(stem ōp-), meaning “eye, face, countenance,”
and the gods know yours are beautiful: opa!
Yet what doth it profit a man, or woman,
to gain the entire world if he/she closes
the eyes, or mouth, and trips over the obvious,
a metaphorical sense, “inability or unwillingness
to act prudently,” developed in English only
at the hyperopic end of the 19th century.
So look, look, look, my true love, and see.
Here we are then, you and me, together
this blazing instant. Let that be a lesson.

This kind of syntax may require more trained attention than the average poem asks of us. May reflect my academic background as teacher and writer. May be a taste that must be acquired. But for me, let me say simply enough, it’s part of the voice I have developed through a lifetime of reading, writing, and feeling. That last sentence, incidentally, “Let that be a lesson,” is a tribute to the academy and a mockery of it too, a very short, didactic utterance in a long, even long-winded poem. (I certainly did not write the poem to teach anybody a lesson, especially my wife, but to learn what kind of lesson there might be in taking a word and idea from the dictionary and weaving it into a meditation of a married life.)

Questions? Comments? Agreements? Disagreements? I welcome ’em all. Thanks for reading.

Author: Greg Zeck

Greg Zeck taught college English in Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota. He also had a career in freelance business writing and communications. He's retired now in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with his wife Jennifer, where he continues to read, write, bike, hike, and garden.

2 thoughts on “Selection and syntax”

  1. I understand and agree with your perspective to a point Greg. Isn’t a big part of free verse poetry that we allow our muse to express freely, just like you using very long (dare I say run-on sentences?) My muse and I would be intimidated to have you as a poetry teacher!

    1. Oh, oh, Brad. Great question / challenge. I think that our first drafts can be as windy as possible, wild, free, manic. But when we revise, that is see again with fresh eyes, we see better and think better if not repent our first thoughts or, rather, the way we expressed our first thoughts. Just as freedom is not possible in the social realm unless we think of others and the consequences of our actions on others (think Covid vaccines), so too freedom in poetry demands we think of ways to communicate with others both wildly and rationally. I’m talking here about form. I don’t think I’m a formal poet (some contemporary poets, the New Formalists, write like the old masters in meter and rhyme), but I have a keen sense of form: is it right for the particular thought or emotion I’m trying to convey? Indeed, most often I don’t know what I’m trying to convey until I go through several drafts. When I stand then in the calm of several drafts, it doesn’t feel so drafty, windy, blowy, stormy, insane. “Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks!” cried Lear, out on the heath, but he was a mad king, remember?

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