“The Gass Sentences: A Top 50,” by Stephen Schenkenberg

As one would imagine, the assignment for this birthday tribute sent me to my shelves. But once there, after quickly dipping into the writer at hand, I had a hard time leaving. So what if I focused not on all books, but just Gass’? And what if I focused not on titles but on sentences, a subject with which this writer has long been deeply in love? Herein, my top 50, split evenly between his real and made-up worlds. — Stephen Schenkenberg

NON-FICTION

“Rilke’s strategy for the defeat of time was to turn it into space.” — Reading Rilke


“The sentence, seeking its form, must pass through the belly and bowel without irritation, as though it belonged in that dim hallway, as though it was — as though it were — on skis, on rails, on call, on a mission.” — “The Sentence Seeks Its Form”

“Emerson’s essays build the mind that thinks them.” — “The Literary Miracle”

“And so at the end I was sick, and though hanging over the mouth of the john, I knew I had found the woman my work would marry.” — About Gertrude Stein, in “A Temple of Texts: Fifty Literary Pillars”

“The country of the blue is clear.” — On Being Blue

“My work may be ugly but it’s not cheap.” — 11/16/58 letter to Charles Shattuck, coeditor of the journal Accent.

“The surfaces of spaces which have been abandoned, and which know only the touch of the tramp, the spray can of the vandal, the trash of the vagrant; where a cheap Tokay’s sweetness lies shattered like the bottle, and the tin-can stove threatens to scorch the mattress that’s been flung like a self into a corner; or where the calm insouciance of forgotten furniture can be encountered, or the eloquence, though hardly heard, of one shoe or a left-over word: they combine to create a Dorian Gray-like image of the city’s soul or country-cousin’s character: a landscape of spiritual self-loathing and suicidal hate.” — Abstractions Arrive: Having Been There All the Time

“He wrote as well as he could and as he felt the art required, and he knew he would not be thanked for it.” — “Mr. Gaddis and His Goddamn Books”

“A tone of jubilant acrimony is perhaps its most consistent quality.” — “A Forest of Bamboo: The Trouble with Nietzsche”

“Many think that it is [book] reviewing which needs to be reformed, but I believe the culprit is the species, which surrounds itself with lies, and calls the lies culture, the way squirrels build their nests of dead twigs and fallen leaves, then hide inside.” — “Introduction,” The Recognitions


“Most poets fail (and Rilke means his former self and practice) because they bewail their state instead of describing it; they evaluate their feelings instead of forming them; and although they believe their joys and sorrows should be known, they are unable or unwilling to transform their consciousness into an adequate poetic language, they fail to make of their poem ‘a thing’ that can sit in the world as fat and steamy as a teapot, or the way, in Peter Jaffe’s poem, the apple simply lay.” — “Rilke and the Requiem”

“Unlike the love we’ve made or meals we’ve eaten, books congregate to form a record around us of what they’ve fed our stomachs or our brains.” — “A Defense of the Book”

“How reluctantly, in the United States, have we come to recognize that civilization is refinement; that it requires leisure, judgment, taste, skill, and the patient work of a solitary mind passing itself, as though it were both a cleaner and a cleansing cloth, back and forth across an idea, back and forth until the substance of it — wood or marble or music, in syllables seeking their place in some song — back and forth until the matter of it begins to gleam deeply from its buried center, deeply where thought and thing are one, and therefore not solely from its surface, where a glitter may sometimes be glibly emitted, a glitter that comes just after a bit of light has struck, a glitter, a glit, before the beam has bounded off — a glitter, a glit — a spark, after which there will be only the light that has gone.” — “Simplicities”

“If you enjoy the opinions you possess, if they give you a glow, be suspicious.” — “Influence”

“Yet how much richer our awareness of the world is because he convinced us — at least for a while — that even our dreams were real; that out of the scraps of our life, the unconscious could make a quilt; that gestures could reveal more than a slit skirt and be even more glamorous.” — On Sigmund Freud, in “The Inside Man”

“Our death is born when we are born.” — “Rilke and the Requiem”

“I have taught philosophy, in one or other of its many modes, for fifty years—Plato my honey in every one of them—yet many of those years had to pass before I began to realize that evil actually was ignorance—ignorance chosen and cultivated—as he and Socrates had so passionately taught; that most beliefs were bunkum, and that the removal of bad belief was as important to a mind as a cancer’s excision was to the body it imperiled.” — “Retrospection”

“There is the tyranny of your own routines—your own habits—that rise around you like the sides of your grave.” — “What Freedom of Expression Means, Especially In Times Like These”

“The world is not simply good and bad on different weekends like an inconsistent pitcher; we devour what we savor and what sustains us; out of ruins more ruins will later, in their polished towers, rise; lust is the muscle of love; its strength, its coarseness, its brutality; the heart beats and is beaten by its beating; not a shadow falls without the sun’s shine and the sun sears what it saves.” — “Humors of Blood & Skin”

“What could Pound do, built of opinions like a shack, but hate every wind?” — “Finding a Form”

“The sentence, then, if it is to have a soul, rather than merely be a sign of the existence somewhere of one, must be composed by our innermost being, finding in its drive and rhythm, if not in its subject, the verbal equivalent of instinct; in its sound and repetitions, too, its equivalent feeling; and then perceive its thought as Eliot and Donne did, as immediately as the odor of a rose—fully, the way we see ships at anchor rise and fall as though they lay on a breathing chest.” — “The Soul Inside the Sentence”

“He could organize a pudding.” — On Italo Calvino, in the original 1991 “A Temple of Texts” booklet published by the International Writers Center

“The healthy mind goes everywhere, one day visiting Saint Francis, another accepting tea from Céline’s bitter pot—ask for two sugars, please—and hiking many a hard mile through Immanuel Kant or the poetry of Paul Celan—a pair who will provide a better workout than the local gym.” — “To a Young Friend Charged With Possession of the Classics”

“Music makes the space it takes place in.” — “Finding a Form”

“Sure, there are good things, lots, sure, blow jobs, chocolate mousse, winning streaks, the warm fire in your enemy’s house, good book, hunk of cheese, flagon of ale, office raise, championship ring, the misfortunes of others, sure, good things, beyond count, queens, kings, old clocks, comfy clothes, lots, innumerable items in stock, baseball cards and bingo buttons, pot-au-feu, listen, we could go on and on like a long speech, sure it’s a great world, sights to see, canyons full of canyon, corn on the cob, the eroded great pyramids, contaminated towns, eroded hillsides, deleafed trees, those whitened limbs stark and noble in the evening light, geeeez, what gobs of good things, no shit, service elevators, what would we do without, and all the inventions of man, Krazy Glue and food fights, girls wrestling amid mounds of Jell-O, drafts of dark beer, no end of blue sea, formerly full of fish, eroded hopes, eruptions of joy, because we’re winning, have won, won, won what? the . . . the Title.” — “Were There Anything in the World Worth Worship”

FICTION


“My father is dressed in a thick green woodman’s plaid wool shirt, so heavy with adjectives he can hardly lift his arms.” — The Tunnel

“When he shrugs, it’s suddenly—as marble moving.” — Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife

“He’d gone off this way yet there was nothing now to show he’d gone; nothing like a bump of black in a trough or an arm or leg sticking out of the side of a bank like a branch had blown down or a horse’s head uncovered like a rock; nowhere Pedersen’s fences had kept bare he might be lying huddled with the shadows shrinking while I watched to take for something hard and not of snow and once alive.” — “The Pedersen Kid”

“A moist mouth relieved a sausage of its stick.” — The Tunnel

“It should not be too cowardly of song, but show its substance, sing its tunes so honestly and loud that even eyes can hear them, and contrive to be a tongue that is its own intoxicant.” — Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife

Sing of disappointments more repeated than the batter of the sea, of lives embittered by resentments so ubiquitous the ocean’s salt seems thinly shaken, of letdowns local as the sofa where I copped my freshman’s feel, of failures as frequent as first love, first nights, last stands; do not warble of arms or adventurous deeds or shepherds playing on their private fifes, or of civil war or monarchies at swords; consider rather the slightly squinkered clerk, the soul which has become as shabby and soiled in its seat as worn-out underwear, a life lit like a lonely room and run like a laddered stocking.” — The Tunnel


“But Furber hung like a drapery demonstrating him, his hollow—all could see it, billowing thinly, the wall gauze, and God’s laws flickering.” — Omensetter’s Luck


“Once, when dust rolled up from the road and the fields were high with heavy-handled wheat and the leaves of every tree were gray and curled up and hung head down, I went in the meadow with an old broom like a gun, where the dandelions had begun to seed and the low ground was cracked, and I flushed grasshoppers from the goldenrod in whirring clouds like quail and shot them down.” — “The Pedersen Kid”

“He had the stare of a statue without the excuse of stone—this raconteur, this Homer.” — The Tunnel

“The same gray sky lay on the ground, day after day, gray as industrial smoke, and in the sky the ground floated like a street that’s been salted, and his closets were cold, holes wore through his pockets, and he was lonely, indoors and out, with a loneliness like the loneliness of overshoes or someone else’s cough.” — “Icicles”

“This snow—like our skin it covers the country.” — “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country”

“Brown trout lay hidden in little stone holes like the complete expression of a wish, and disappeared at the rude intrusion of my shadow even before my bait dropped like a schoolboy’s casual pebble in the water.” — The Tunnel

“But inside that misplaced secretary there were all those books, each compressing hundreds of pages into something as simple as a brick, while upon those pages lines of words were layered the way beneath a quilt there was a blanket, beneath the blanket, an embroidered sheet; and the words were several sounds as leaves and blooms and maybe a boat upon a bond were threaded together, making better environments for one another; thus with the cabinet shut, book covers closed, you couldn’t hear any talking going on, the shouting and the singing, yes, quiet as a reading room, though in each reading head there’d be a booming world: that was why his empire was so wide and full, both few and many, near and far.” — “Bed and Breakfast”

“With my right forefinger slanted slightly to bring the nail into play, I would inscribe the course of a river—so gently, so slowly, it might have been a tear’s trail—running its convoluted way the length of Lou’s back, semicircling a buttock, and concluding in her crack, at a fulfillment one might call a delta.” — The Tunnel

“The coffee first darkened then swallowed the sugar as she poured.” — “Cartesian Sonata”

“Or shall I, like the rivers, rise?” — The Tunnel

“I saw her smile once but it was not nice, more like a crack in a plate.” — “Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s”

“Someone said how elegant—what was? what?— while Miss Tott, sitting straight as her stoop would let her, dipped her utensil down and then away like the bucket of a ferries wheel, bracelet meanwhile shaking.” — Omensetter’s Luck


“A single fat tear will run quickly across her cheek as though a blister had broken; and we shall only that moment have crawled awkwardly from our cab, the front door of the house will still be standing open, bags beneath  my hands like movie props, powder will be lying in the creases of my mother’s face like snow, her voice wet and wandering, blurry as her gaze, Marty’s eyes will ice, and I shall be . . . I shall be in a rage.” — The Tunnel


“Or is the Furber preaching at you, trying to fish your soul out like the last pickle?” — Omensetter’s Luck

“How I hate this life I never want to leave, he often said to me while turning his chair in slow rocky circles like a dying top.” — The Tunnel


“There was Mrs. Henry Pimber, her untidy hair, dull eyes, her fallen breasts and shoulders, exclaiming grief and guilt at his demise, while every gesture was a figure in a tableau of desire; there was the Reverend Jethro Furber, a blackening flame, and Mrs. Valient Hatstat, rings spotted on her fingers, a small white scar like an unwired white of egg lying in the corner of her mouth; there was Doctor Truxton Orcutt of the rotting teeth and juice-stained beard, who looked like a house with a rusting eave; there was Mrs. Rosa Knox, sofa-fleshed and fountain-spoken, with an intermittent titter that shook her breasts, and also Israbestis Tott, together beggar, hurdy-gurdy, cup, chain, monkey; and there was Mrs. Gladys Chamlay, the scratched rod, nose like a jungle-bird’s, teeth like a beast’s; Miss Samantha Tott, so tall she had to stoop in the sun she thought; and all those others, with their husbands or their brothers, invisible, behind them, making sounds to celebrate the death of tea-weak Henry Pimber; while Mr. Matthew Watson, neither praying, speaking, crying, or exclaiming, uncomfortable in a corner, surreptitiously scratched a rash through his trousers.” — Omensetter’s Luck


“He was drinking like Pa drank—lifting the bottle.” — “The Pedersen Kid”

“His voice was rather high, always precise, very measured and penetrating, never sweet, at its worst hard and shrill as a metal whistle, and initially his repetitive declamatory style was annoying, with its tendency to accelerate and to wind itself up like a mechanical spring; but later one realized that speaking without notes as he did, as if spilling his heart, simply spilling his heart like a tipped cup, he could not have formed his sentences so surely, involved as they sometimes were, or deepened his thought as rivers were a channel, if he had not composed in the manner of Homer, chanting an earlier formula while his mind flew over the flood ahead, wound like a hawk to its tower, searching for a bit of land to cry, and anything alive.” — The Tunnel

“You have fallen into art — return to life.” — Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife

Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.

Stephen Schenkenberg, the founder and editor of ReadingGass.org, recently published “Abstractions Arrive: Having Been There All the Time,” an iPad-exclusive e-book pairing writing by William H. Gass and photographs by Michael Eastman.

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One thought on ““The Gass Sentences: A Top 50,” by Stephen Schenkenberg

  1. Pingback: Big Other’s Birthday Tribute to William H. Gass, 2012 « BIG OTHER

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