Note: This was originally published November 10, 2010.
A few months ago, in April, to be exact, I started a series of posts entitled “A Sentence About a Sentence I Love” with a sentence about one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s magnificent sentences. This concentration, or, rather, this obsession with the sentence may have come from my, at the time, recent readings of William Gass’s essays wherein he concentrates much of his attention on the sentence as a primary building block in poetry and prose. Essays by Gass like “The Soul Inside the Sentence,” “The Sentence Seeks Its Form,” “The Architecture of the Sentence,” take as their focus the centrality of the sentence toward the construction of thought, and particularly of thoughts within the parameters of fiction. In “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction,” Gass claims that sentences are “the most elementary instances of what the author has constructed….a moving unity of fact and feeling.” Moreover, sentences
must be sounded, too; it has a rhythm, speed, a tone, a flow, a pattern, shape, length, pitch, conceptual direction. The sentence confers reality upon certain relations, but it also controls our estimation, apprehension, and response to them. Every sentence, in short, takes metaphysical dictation, and it is the sum of these dictations, involving the whole range of the work in which the sentences appear, which accounts for its philosophical quality, and the form of life in the thing that has been made (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 14).
Elsewhere he asserts that there is moral dimension to the construction of a sentence, that “a badly made sentence is a judgment pronounced upon its perpetrator, and even one poor paragraph indelibly stains the soul” (Finding a Form, 52). And in an interview with Thomas LeClair he posits that “One’s complete sentences are attempts, as often as not, to complete an incomplete self with words.”
Coupled with these thoughts was an essay I’ve often returned to and encouraged others to read by Gary Lutz entitled “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” wherein he celebrates stories and novels “in which virtually every sentence had the force and feel of a climax, in which almost every sentence was a vivid extremity of language, an abruption, a definitive inquietude”, books “written by writers who recognized the sentence as the one true theater of endeavor, as the place where writing comes to a point and attains its ultimacy.” These texts inspired him to write “narratives of steep verbal topography, narratives in which the sentence is a complete, portable solitude, a minute immediacy of consummated language—the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself.” He also “later tried to define this kind of sentence as ‘an outcry combining the acoustical elegance of the aphorism with the force and utility of the load-bearing, tractional sentence of more or less conventional narrative.’” The kind of sentences he became obsessed with were ones “that had been worked and reworked until their forms and contours and their organizations of sound had about them an air of having been foreordained—as if this combination of words could not be improved upon and had finished readying itself for infinity.” All of these ideas resonate greatly with me, and, in turn, inspired me to launch the series “A Sentence About a Sentence I Love”. While it’s easy to stew over how few writers deliver these kinds of satisfying sentences, it’s also easy to immerse yourself in the mighty flood of beautiful sentences.
I followed my initial post with a sentence about a sentence I loved by Gary Lutz. Having had so much fun with it, I invited a bunch of writers to submit pieces of their own, and the following writers sent in a sentence of their own about a sentence they loved: Gary Amdahl, Matt Bell, Andrew Borgstrom, Paula Bomer, Alexandra Chasin, Thomas Cooper, Luca Dipierro, John Domini, Scott Garson, Greg Gerke, Barry Graham, Chris Heavener, Christopher Higgs, Steve Himmer, Lily Hoang, Tim Horvath, Jamie Iredell, Ari Juels, Roy Kesey, Sean Kilpatrick, Michael Kimball, Matthew Kirkpatrick, Brian Kiteley, Darby Larson, Michael Leong, Diane Lefer, Jen Michalski, Kyle Minor, Lance Olsen, Jeff Parker, David Peak, Ted Pelton, D. A. Powell, Dawn Raffel, Adam Robinson, Bradley Sands, Peter Selgin, Ken Sparling, Ben Spivey, Laura van den Berg, William Walsh, Derek White, Dan Wickett, Joseph Young, Mike Young, Zoe Zolbrod, and Todd Zuniga.
A few writers, namely, Sean Lovelace, Peter Selgin, Ron Silliman, and Terese Svoboda thought outside of the parameters I’d set up, offering more than one sentence about a sentence they loved. Check them out below.
People talk a lot of shit about Hemingway. The warring and drinking and hunting and fishing and marrying (4 times) and running of the bulls (He never did, or claim to). More than anything they say he writes clear and concise sentences. He has a terse, minimalist style. Papa does not fuck around with flowery prose! Etc. The story goes he got this style from staring at Cezanne paintings for hours or from his short stint in newspaper work in Kansas City and Toronto (You can read every column he wrote in the excellent, Ernest Hemingway Dateline: Toronto). Or maybe he ripped everything off from Gertrude Stein.
Hemingway said all you need to write is a 100% foolproof bullshit detector, so I am going to call stink. Those that think Hemingway exclusively wrote one manner of sentence have not read the complete works of the author. Hemingway could write concretely, but he could also be abstract. He didn’t hate adverbs and adjectives—he used them his whole life. And, yes, he could write a concise, declarative sentence (For Whom the Bell Tolls: “He was dead and that was all.”) or, if he chose, not. He wrote whatever type of sentence he wanted, when he wanted, and how he wanted. With purpose.
Let’s get to one my favorites, from one of Hemingway’s few downhill skiing (another hobby he enjoyed) stories: “Cross-Country Snow“. Two friends are skiing, Nick (Adams, who you know, correct?) and George. Watch as Nick observes (the story’s “eye” here) in a sort of awe as George expertly navigates downhill:
George was coming down telemark position, kneeling; one leg forward and bent, the other trailing; his sticks hanging like some insect’s thin legs, kicking up puffs of snow as they touched the surface and finally the whole kneeling, trailing figure coming around in a beautiful right curve, crouching, the legs shot forward and back, the body leaning out against the swing, the sticks accenting the curve like points of light, all in a wild cloud of snow.
How many Hemingway myths does this one sentence clearly reveal as bullshit?
Why are “sticks hanging like some insect’s thin legs” or “accenting the curve like points of light…”? Why are we told something is “beautiful”? Doesn’t Hemingway hate figurative language? Doesn’t Hemingway always show?
(The beauty is Nick’s POV in this instance and important to our understanding of their relationship.)
More significantly, look at the why of the sentence. The intent. This sentence is a perfect example of Yeats’s question: How do we separate the dancer and the dance? Here’s how: we don’t. This sentence is downhill skiing; it propels itself up and over and onward, down, down, down and into that wonderful, “…wild cloud of snow.”
To more clearly see this technique, follow its contrast, as the two skiers glide further downhill, where they reach a little mountain inn. They remove their skis. They are done with the movement of the sentence. And so Hemingway writes, “Inside it was quite dark” and “There was a low ceiling.”
The sentences are now indeed short (and include adjectives). And these characters are done skiing, short on this time of their life, as this will be the last ski trip together. Their lives are radically changing and they can’t go home again, etc. That’s one point of the story. One theme. It arrives to us from an accumulation of sentences. None of them the same.
Sean Lovelace teaches creative writing at Ball State University. How Some People Like Their Eggs is his award-winning flash fiction collection by Rose Metal Press. His works have appeared in Crazyhorse, Diagram, Quick Fiction, Sonora Review, Willow Springs, and so on. He likes to run, far.
“The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.”
Who can resist this poem-in-a-sentence from Joyce’s Ulysses? The sentence comes in reply to the question, “What spectacle confronted them when they, first the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity by a passage from the rere of the house into the penumbra of the garden?” in the Ithaca (Episode 17) section of the novel, which with its question-and-answer format parallels the Christian catechism or a Socratic dialogue.
In choosing it as my favorite sentence I’m not alone. Martin Amis concurs. In his “War Against Cliches” he calls the sentence as “ravishing.”Others have called it “jewel-like,” “gorgeous,” “a romantic poem in sound.” Here, in one line, we get Joyce’s chamber music, his Irish lilt, his fearless neologisms (“nightblue”). As with the best descriptive writing, there are no abstractions here. Even the modifying “nightblue” is made of solid stuff (night, blue) pressed into service as an adjective. And nothing cloying, either. Joyce’s heaven, hung with damp fruit, is a perfect foil to the sea he describes in the same book as “scrotum tightening” and “snotgreen.” With its hanging fruit the firmament itself strikes a scrotal image, and don’t for a second think Joyce didn’t know it; nor would the suggestion of testicular pain as occasioned by coitus interruptus in the “blueness” of the hanging fruit have escaped his scatological, association-obsessed eye.
Of the latter quality Frank O’Connor tells a curious anecdote. While attending a party of Joyce’s at his (Zurich, I believe) flat, on the wall O’Connor noticed an oddly-framed map.. “What is it?” he asked Joyce. “Cork,” Joyce replied. “I know it’s County Cork,” O’Connor replied. “I was asking what the fame is made of?”
“Cork,” Joyce said.
“At that point,” O’Connor reflects, “I knew I was dealing with someone who suffered from association mania.”
Peter Selgin is the author of “Drowning Lessons,” winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, and “Life Goes to the Movies,” a novel (Dzanc Books), as well as two books on writing craft, “By Cunning & Craft” and “179 Ways to Save a Novel: Matters of Vital Concern to Fiction Writers” just out from Writers Digest Books. “Confessions of a Left-Handed Man,” a collection of essays whose title essay was included in Best American Essays 2006, has just been accepted for publication by University of Iowa Press / Sightline Books.
“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”
—from The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
It was, the instant I first laid eyes on it in 1970 in a class devoted to Faulkner led by the late James E.B. Breslin, as perfect a sentence as I had ever read, could ever imagine reading. Forty years later, I think it is probably the reason, more than all the Stein, Ponge or St.-John Perse in the world, that I have written so much prose poetry.
It’s an important sentence in the history of English-language fiction, revealing as it does as much about the narrator, the developmentally challenged Benjamin Compson, as it does about what he is watching (a game of golf). Where, say, Joyce’s conception of language is predicated upon 19th century philology – this is particularly visible in the Wake – Faulkner’s is a demonstration of the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis that your language shapes your reality, and in turn is shaped by it. That’s what really distinguishes The Sound and the Fury from Ulysses.
But what I was hearing also had a lot to do with balance & with rhythm, the sentence as prosody. I think it’s easier to hear this in the context of the full first paragraph:
Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit. Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.
These are not simple sentences, but as constructions they link rather than build. The word and serves a percussive as well as grammatic function so that it quickly becomes clear that what is in front of us (or in front of Benjamin) is all that is the case. These few words. That first sentence is in fact three separate moments, the focus shifting in each one.
Coming into contact that year with the poetry of Robert Grenier for the first time – his big work-in-progress was tellingly entitled Sentences, and it’s not a book at all but a box—I tried to fit these pieces of what seemed to be a whole new puzzle together. I spent the better part of that spring sitting on the roof of my apartment building, scribbling an evolving paragraph over & over into a couple of black-bound sketchbooks, trying to see if I could replicate the strength, the balance, the simplicity of Faulkner’s first words. I never did & there is just one fragment in Ketjak, written in 1974, that survived the process: The garbage barge at the bridge. But that exercise – think for six months about a single sentence – made me into the poet I became.
Ron Silliman has written and edited over 30 books, and has had his poetry and criticism translated into 12 languages.
My sentence is “The white appears in the eyelid fissure between East and West. The pupil is not to be seen.” Ingeborn Bachmann. Okay, so it’s two sentences but the mysterious swoon between peoples, the unconscious peering like a sunrise–their drama encapsulates some orgasmic or life-ending moment that cannot be pierced.
Terese Svoboda’s fifth book of prose, Pirate Talk or Mermalade, will be released three days before Talk Like a Pirate Day this year by Dzanc Press.