What’s So New about the New Sentence?

The new sentence, like all other “new” phenomena and movements (the New Criticism, the New Novel, the New Narrative, dozens of New Wave movements in film and music) keeps getting older and older—it is, in fact, roughly as old as I am, if you date it from 1977. Such is the danger of naming anything new. But what made the New Sentence something novel way back in its youth, in the late 1970s and early 1980s?

An aside, though, before we begin: I’m rather fond of tracing out lineages and influences. This may create the impression that I don’t believe that anything’s ever new. Quite the contrary! We are surrounded by innovation—however, I believe that it rarely (if ever) arises out of thin air, and that it represents less of a break with the past than we might think. An extremely novel effect can come about through the recombination of preexisting influences and materials. Or: a simple shift in an artwork’s organizing dominant (to use Roman Jakobson’s term) can create something exceedingly innovative.

Allow me to attempt to demonstrate with the new sentence, first described (to my knowledge) by Ron Silliman in his 1977 essay titled after it. This long and complex essay advances several arguments: much of it, for instance, is devoted to criticizing the lack of a coherent concept of the sentence in linguistics, philosophy, and literary criticism. Along the way there are numerous intriguing observations, such as:

If we argue—and I am arguing—that the sentence, as distinct from the utterance of speech, is a unit of prose, and if prose as literature and the rise of printing are inextricably interwoven [here Silliman is following a line of thought borrowed from Viktor Shklovsky], then the impact of printing on literature, not just on the presentation of literature, but on how writing itself is written, needs to be addressed. This would be the historical component of any theory of the sentence. (73)

You’ll have to forgive me for not dwelling on this and various other insights; for today’s purposes, I want to skip right to the end of the essay, where Silliman lays out the qualities of the New Sentence:

  1. The paragraph organizes the sentences;
  2. The paragraph is a unit of quantity, not logic or argument;
  3. Sentence length is a unit of measure;
  4. Sentence structure is altered for torque, or increased polysemy/ambiguity;
  5. Syllogistic movement is (a) limited (b) controlled;
  6. Primary syllogistic movement is toward the paragraph as a whole, or the total work;
  7. Secondary syllogistic movement is toward the paragraph as a whole, or the total work;
  8. The limiting of syllogistic movement keeps the reader’s attention at or very close to the level of language, the sentence level or below. (91)

Or, as Bob Perelman conveniently summarized it:

[…] a new sentence is more or less ordinary itself but gains its effect by being placed next to another sentence to which it has tangential relevance. New sentences are not subordinated to a larger narrative frame nor are they thrown together at random. Parataxis is crucial: the internal, autonomous meaning of a new sentence is heightened, questioned, and changed by the degree of separation or connection that the reader perceives with regard to the surrounding sentences.

I like Perelman’s summary, although his stronger emphasis on parataxis somewhat reduces Silliman’s 1st, 6th, and 7th points; he also revises point 4 to being a function of parataxis, losing some aspect of the original “torque” (which admittedly Silliman does not define, other than as “increased polysemy/ambiguity.”) (Torque implies, to me, the sense of language turning or being turned against itself, which I read as meaning that a new sentence can have its own ambiguities that arise independently of its lack of syllogistic connections with its neighboring sentences.) All in all, Perelman’s stance here strikes me as slightly more extreme than Silliman’s.

Now here’s an example of a paragraph of new sentences: the second paragraph or chapter in Lyn Hejinian’s My Life (the revised 1987 Sun & Moon edition, as reprinted by Green Integer), “As for we who ‘love to be astonished.'” In the spirit of Viktor Shklovsky, I’m excerpting the full thing:

You spill the sugar when you lift the spoon. My father had filled an old apothecary jar with what he called “sea glass,” bits of old bottles rounded and textured by the sea, so abundant on beaches. There is no solitude. It buries itself in veracity. It is as if one splashed in the water lost by one’s tears. My mother had climbed into the garbage can in order to stamp down the accumulated trash, but the can was knocked off balance, and when she fell she broke her arm. She could only give a little shrug. The family had little money but plenty of food. At the circus only the elephants were greater than anything I could have imagined. The egg of Columbus, landscape and grammar. She wanted one where the playground was dirt, with grass, shaded by a tree, from which would hang a rubber tire as a swing, and when she found it she sent me. These creatures are compound and nothing they do should surprise us. I don’t mind, or I won’t mind, where the verb “to care” might multiply. The pilot of the little airplane had forgotten to notify the airport of his approach, so that when the lights of the plane in the night were first spotted, the air raid sirens went off, and the entire city on that coast went dark. He was taking a drink of water and the light was growing dim. My mother stood at the window watching the only lights that were visible, circling over the darkened city in search of the hidden airport. Unhappily, time seems more normative than place. Whether breathing or holding the breath, it was the same thing, driving through the tunnel from one sun to the next under a hot brown hill. She sunned the baby for sixty seconds, leaving him naked except for a blue cotton sunbonnet. At night, to close off the windows from view of the street, my grandmother pulled down the window shades, never loosening the curtains, a gauze starched too stiff to hang properly down. I sat on the windowsill singing sunny lunny teena, ding-dang-dong. Out there is an aging magician who needs a tray of ice in order to turn his bristling breath into steam. He broke the radio silence. Why would anyone find astrology interesting when it is possible to learn about astronomy. What one passes in the Plymouth. It is the wind slamming the doors. All that is nearly incommunicable to my friends. Velocity and throat verisimilitude. Were we seeing a pattern or merely an appearance of small white sailboats on the bay, floating at such a distance from the hill that they appeared to be making no progress. And for once to a country that did not speak another language. To follow the progress of ideas, or that particular line of reasoning, so full of surprises and unexpected correlations, was somehow to take a vacation. Still, you had to wonder where they had gone, since you could speak of reappearance. A blue room is always dark. Everything on the boardwalk was shooting toward the sky. It was not specific to any year, but very early. A German goldsmith covered a bit of metal with cloth in the 14th century and gave mankind its first button. It was hard to know this as politics, because it plays like the work of one person, but nothing is isolated in history–certain humans are situations. Are your fingers in the margin. Their random procedures make monuments to fate. There is something still surprising when the green emerges. The blue fox has ducked its head. The front rhyme of harmless with harmony. Where is my honey running. You cannot linger “on the lamb.” You cannot determine the nature of progress until you assemble all of the relatives.

So what’s going on here? And in particular, what’s so new?

My Life is a memoir, but the memoir isn’t new.

“Syllogistic movement is (a) limited (b) controlled.”—or, “Parataxis is crucial.” It would be a mistake to completely conflate the limiting of syllogistic movement with parataxis. However, neither is new: parataxis is older than Caesar. And precedents for limited and controlled syllogisms can be found (as Silliman notes) in Stein, Williams, elsewhere.

Prose poetry isn’t new; it’s been around in English since Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), in French since Aloysius Bertrand (1807–1841).

“Torque” (increased polysemy/ambiguity) isn’t new; indeed, it’s arguably the foundation of modern poetry—or has at least been especially valued since the Symbolists.

Writing that uses the paragraph as a metrical unit is perhaps new, even though Silliman finds at least one precedent for this: Fenton Johnson‘s poem “The Minister,” a prose poem in which each paragraph is a single sentence:

I mastered pastoral theology, the Greek of the Apostles, and all the difficult subjects in a minister’s curriculum.
I was as learned as any in this country when the Bishop ordained me.
And I went to preside over Mount Moriah, largest flock in the Conference.
I preached the Word as I felt it, I visited the sick and dying and comforted the afflicted in spirit.
I loved my work because I loved my God.
But I lost my charge to Sam Jenkins, who has not been to school four years in his life.
I lost my charge because I could not make my congregation shout.
And my dollar money was small, very small.
Sam Jenkins can tear a Bible to tatters and his congregation destroys the pews with their shouting and stamping.
Sam Jenkins leads in the gift of raising dollar money.
Such is religion.

I’ve found at least two other examples, also by Johnson:

“The Scarlet Woman”

Once I was good like the Virgin Mary and the Minister’s wife.
My father worked for Mr. Pullman and white people’s tips; but he died two days after his insurance expired.
I had nothing, so I had to go to work.
All the stock I had was a white girl’s education and a face that enchanted the men of both races.
Starvation danced with me.
So when Big Lizzie, who kept a house for white men, came to me with tales of fortune that I could reap from the sale of my virtue I bowed my head to Vice.
Now I can drink more gin than any man for miles around.
Gin is better than all the water in Lethe.

“Aunt Hannah Jackson”

Despite her sixty years Aunt Hannah Jackson rubs on other people’s clothes.
Time has played havoc with her eyes and turned to gray her parched hair.
But her tongue is nimble as she talks to herself.
All day she talks to herself about her neighbors and her friends and the man she loved.
Yes, Aunt Hannah Jackson loved even as you and I and Wun Hop Sing.
“He was a good man,” she says, “but a fool.”
“So am I a fool and Mrs. Lee a fool and this Mrs. Goldstein that I work for a fool.”
“All of us are fools.”
For rubbing on other people’s clothes Aunt Hannah Jackson gets a dollar and fifty cents a day and a worn out dress on Christmas.
For talking to herself Aunt Hannah Jackson gets a smile as we call her a good natured fool.

That said, even if we found a dozen other antecedents, I doubt few poets other than the Language Poets had made it one of the dominant organizational units of their work. (A similar point can be made concerning prose poetry: the Language Poets made that, too, a central aspect of their work, giving it an importance that few of their contemporaries or predecessors did. So already we can see an example of what I described above: that innovation can arise simply from a shift in dominants.)

An example of how writers of new sentences enlist paragraphs: in composing My Life, Hejinian “constructed a work of 37 sections of 37 sentences, each section paralleling a year of her life [this was in 1978, when she was 37]. For the second Sun & Moon edition, published eight years later, Hejinian added 8 sections and 8 new sentences to each previous section to account for her . . . age” (Hejinian). And so there are 45 sentences in the above excerpt.

Moving on, we find another example of a shift in dominant: parataxis wasn’t the crucial preoccupation of too many poets before Silliman, Hejinian, Perelman et al.

And so: prose poetry + the paragraph as a metrical unit + a prioritizing of parataxis = the new sentence. Combining all of these conditions, all of these shifts in dominant—making them, as Jakobson put it, the poetry’s “focusing component[s]” that controlled “the remaining components” and “[guaranteed] the integrity of the structure” (41)—that was the achievement of the new sentence. That’s what made it unique, and new.

(Although, as always, there were precedents! Silliman himself notes William Carols Williams’s Kora in Hell (1920), the early 70s writing of Hannah Weiner, and Bob Grenier’s mid-to-late 70s work Sentences.)

The new sentence turned out to be a large vein worth exploring. Lyn Hejinian’s My Life is nothing much like, say, the example of new sentences and new paragraphs that Silliman gives in his original essay, Carla Harryman’s poem “For She”:

The back of the head resting on the pillow was not wasted. We couldn’t hear each other speak. The puddle in the bathroom, the sassy one. There were many years between us. I stared the stranger into facing up to Maxine, who had come out of the forest bad from wet nights. I came from an odd bed, a vermilion riot attracted to loud dogs. Nonetheless, I could pay my rent and provide for him. On this occasion she apologized. An arrangement that did not provoke inspection. Outside on the stagnant water was a motto. He was more than I perhaps though younger. I sweat at amphibians, managed to get home. The sunlight from the window played up his golden curls and a fist screwed over one eye. Right to left and left to right until the side of her body were circuits. While dazed and hidden in the room, he sang to himself, severe songs, from a history he knew nothing of. Or should I say malicious? Some rustic gravure, soppy but delicate at pause. I wavered, held her up. I tremble, jack him up. Matted wallowings, I couldn’t organize the memory. Where does he find his friends? Maxine said to me “but it was just you again.” In spite of the cars and the smoke and the many languages, the radio and the appliances, the flat broad buzz of the tracks, the anxiety with which the eyes move to meet the phone and all the arbitrary colors. I am just the same. Unplug the glass, face the docks. I might have been in a more simple schoolyard. (91–2)

The parataxis here is more extreme than in My Life, as is the polysemy of each individual sentence (which is as much due to internal grammar as it is to the juxtapositions).


I wanted to set this section aside, because it will be sketchier, but there’s a final point I want to make, or at least mull over. The shifts in dominant described above didn’t happen in a vacuum. For some reason, several contemporary artists felt compelled to explore these ideas around the same time, and in the same place: Silliman notes “[the new sentence] occurs thus far more or less exclusively in the prose of the Bay Area” (63). It is of course conceivable that they discussed these ideas openly with one another (I wasn’t there); Silliman’s essay and subsequent lectures no doubt further crystallized the idea, and a common methodology. (The Language Poets, unlike some movements, did embrace a common identity, with shared interests and techniques.)

However, artists don’t even need to be in the same place in order to experience similar cultural pressures. As Steve Katz so memorably described the tendency toward certain postmodernist techniques: “[A]ll of us found ourselves at the same stoplights in different cities at the same time. When the lights changed, we all crossed the streets” (LeClair and McCaffrey).

All of this is to say that there exist in the culture at large pressures toward certain dominants, certain ideas. Here are three that exert a strong pressure on fiction and poetry today:

  1. A pressure to write in response to Continental Theory, especially post-structuralist theories of identity;
  2. A pressure toward very short work;
  3. A pressure toward a very clean, very neat aesthetic.

These pressures are not unique to literature; they can be seen at work in various other media (for instance, a great deal of visual fine art, commercial illustration, and indy music). They are part of what give different groups, or even particular times and places (“scenes”), particular shared cultural identities. (That said, I don’t want to suggest that these pressures are monolithic. They are rooted in, and expressed by, particular persons and works, which may or may not be widespread; meanwhile, many artists and groups working today may feel no or very little pressure to adhere to them. Others may work in direct opposition to them; these are matters of politics, and one’s artistic identity. To cite a well-known example: MFA poets often adhere to different aesthetic ideals than do Slam Poets.)

Looking back at Language Poetry, I can see certain affinities between those poets’ prized dominants, and their cohorts:

As Perelman notes, parataxis is a condition of much of contemporary literature, if not contemporary life. Consider by way of comparison Yuriy Tarnawsky’s first English-language novel, Meningitis (1978):

Jim Morrison woke up. It was quiet in the house and outside. It was dark. Jim Morrison didn’t know what time it was. It was a few minutes after three in the morning in reality. Jim Morrison didn’t know why he’d awakened. That is he hadn’t been awakened by a noise or dream. He lay still for a few seconds. He lay on his back. He felt wide awake. There was no stuffiness in his head as is usual after sleeping. It was as if Jim Morrison had been awake all along. He then sat up. He threw back the blanket. He stood up on the bed. There was a window above the bed. The window was wide. It was short. It was high up. There was a blind on the window. The blind was made from bamboo slats. Jim Morrison pushed back the blind. He leaned his chest on the wall. The wall was made from unfinished wood. Jim Morrison was naked. He felt the texture of the wood on his chest. The splinters of the wood seemed to be trying to push themselves into his flesh. Jim Morrison looked outside. He could see the rushes growing around the house. Beyond the houses he could see more rushes and bushes. The sky was lighter than the ground. The sky seemed almost luminous. It was gray. It seemed overcast. The bushes were swaying in the wind. It was only then Jim Morrison noticed the wind. It was as if he were watching a movie. It was as if the sound had been just switched on. Due to the bushes swaying the house amidst the bushes seemed to sway too. […] (9)

Tarnawsky’s “atomized style” revels in syllogisms (indeed, it’s absurdly syllogistic), but his work is no less parataxical than that of the Language Poets. Tarnawsky also uses paragraphs as controlling units: nearly all of the chapters in Meningitis and his 1993 novel Three Blondes and Death are single paragraphs.

It’s a simple truth that parataxis is a useful tool for all those who wish, whether consciously or not, to partake in the less representational, more opaque, more language-centered literary lineage that stretches back at least to the Symbolists, and the commonly-recognized beginnings of Modernism.

Another, more whimsical connection: I’ve long been intrigued by the way that Language Poetry was originally written: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (after Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein’s magazine). Whence those equal signs? And do they have any connection to the titles of these three Paul Sharits films?


N.OT.H.I.N.G. (1968, 36 min)

T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, (1968, 36 min, with David Franks):

(My best guess is that this similar use of interspersed punctuation demonstrates a Concrete Poetry influence; CP was enjoying its heyday in the Bay Area in the 1960s.)

Furthermore, in the above film, the relentless repetition of the word “destroy” breaks it down as a signifier, reducing it to phonemes, creating the semblance of other words. As various YouTube commenters have pointed out:

Fuhgl: It’s straw. Destroy. He’s drawing. His straw. His drawer. Draw it. Just draw it.
andrewjrahman: it’s strong, destroy his drums,
Behexxxen: Destroy, just draw, just draw it, just drive, just die, die, die, die, die, die, die…
Orangesoda19: Destroy? His jaw…? It’s sterilized.
firedragon117: his girl. destroy. his girl. i keep hearing different shit ahhhh

So can Sharits’s work be considered Language Poetry? It seems, like Tarnawsky’s novels, to be at least a cousin, if admittedly a distant one. (“Language Cinema?” It’s typically classified as either a FLUXUS or Structural work.) Did David Franks know Andrews and Bernstein? Did Sharits? Did Tarnawsky?

Or were they all simply standing at the same stoplights?

Works Cited

  • Harryman, Carla. “For Her.” The New Sentence. By Ron Silliman. New York: Roof Books, 1989. 92–3. Print.
  • Hejinian, Lyn. My Life. Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2002. Print.
  • Johnson, Fenton. “Aunt Hannah Jackson.” Bartleby.com. Web. 19 Dec 2010.
  • —. “The Minister.” Bartleby.com. Web. 19 Dec 2010.
  • —. “The Scarlet Woman.” Bartleby.com. Web. 19 Dec 2010.
  • LeClair, Tom and Larry McCaffrey. “Steve Katz” (interview). Anything Can Happen: Interviews with American Novelists. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1983. Print.
  • Perelman, Bob. “Parataxis and Narrative: The New Sentence in Theory and Practice.” American Literature. 65.2 (Jun 1993), pp. 313-324. Duke University Press. JSTOR. Web. 19 Dec 2010.
  • Silliman, Ron. “The New Sentence.” The New Sentence. 63–93. New York: Roof Books, 1989. Print.

11 thoughts on “What’s So New about the New Sentence?

  1. Fascinating & thorough, Adam. I guess the point at which I cry “right on” is that list of pressures on contemporary literature, something of the essay’s climax, which raises a warning regarding too great an esteem for abstraction & brevity.

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