Sentence Hunger [essay] by Anne Kaier

Recently, I stood with three fellow poets in a white tile kitchen, sharing secrets. We’d been reading each other’s work all morning—slashing, commending, savoring. For ten minutes, we took a break and huddled, rubbing the parquet floor with our feet. We spoke intimately, but we weren’t talking of love or sex, or even money. We talked, rather nervously, about sentences. The other three poets—all more accomplished than I, with books to their credit and poems in top literary journals—agreed on their fondness for fragments in poetry.

“I seem to see in snap shots, like flashes from a train at night,” said one, sliding slim fingers through her stylish grey hair.

“I hear in short bursts,” said another. “My husband says I adore fragments.”

Backing away from the group a little, I had to confess a passion for complete sentences, for the long roll of subjunctive and subordinate clauses, for semicolons, for introductory phrases, for the structural security of an English sentence with a noun, a verb, and an object—in that order. I confessed my predilection and my poet friends humored me in it and then we went back to work on the drafts we had brought to read aloud.

I think this passion for sentences started in the fourth grade. Standing in my maroon uniform in front of a blackboard at the School of the Holy Child in suburban Philadelphia, I diagrammed sentences. The main verb stood squarely in its main clause like a patriarch in a genealogical chart. Subordinate clauses fell in line below. Further generations, such as phrases, hung in their constituent parts: gerund, adjective, object. Sister St. Chrysostom, who loved us and who loved grammar, presided with a long pointer, her black habit getting chalkier as the mornings wore on.

Much later, in graduate school, I began to sense the emotional attractions of complex sentences. At Harvard in the early 1970s, I was lucky enough to hear Professor Walter Jackson Bate lecture on the great 18th century writer Samuel Johnson, on Johnson’s passionate opinions, his internal conflicts, anxieties, depressions—and his sentences. I could still memorize in those days and walking down Brattle St. in my orange mini-skirt, I let this bit from The Preface to Shakespeare roll in my head:

“The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight a while, by that novelty of which the common satiety of life sends us all in quest; but the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.”

Feeling the architecture of this magnificent sentence, hearing how Johnson complicates it until it emerges into the finality of that last clause, which satisfies in its structure the desire for closure and for truth, I sensed that grammar could be balm for conflicted emotions such as those with which Johnson struggled. The rhythm of a complicated sentence can take profound emotions, stir them up, roil them even, and then gradually calm them, like the rhythms of a wave.

This selection, of course, is from a great piece of prose. But Johnson’s example, if I may make so bold, taught me about myself. I seem to have emotional needs only sentences can fulfill. Perhaps my poet friends who love fragments are simply saner than I am. To write poetry in fragments feels too scary for me. The lines feel jagged, jazzy. Needless to say, many fine poets, including my friends, write poems in powerful, fragmented lines. But I simply can’t write in this particularly powerful, fragmented way. I need main verbs. In fact, I love the feeling of stretching a poem taut from beginning to end, on one sentence.

The sentence is my net. There’s a firmness to it that I seem to need in a visceral way. That morning in the white tile kitchen, my friends went back to work without worrying about the particularities of formal grammar. I reread the draft poem I’d brought, parsing it to make sure it had the verbs that keep me safe.

 

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This story put the editors in mind of the poem “Par Rum Pum Pum Pum” by Thomas Lynch.]

Image by YaleLawLibrary

Anne Kaier’s essay “Maple Lane” was mentioned on the list of Notables in the 2014 edition of Best American Essays. Her new memoir, Home with Henry, is out from PS Books. Her essays and poetry appear in The Gettysburg Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Kenyon Review, Referential and Beauty is a Verb: An Anthology of Poetry, Poetics, and Disability which is on the American Library Association Notable Books list for 2012. With a Ph.D. from Harvard University, Kaier teaches at Rosemont College and Arcadia University. She lives in Center City Philadelphia. More at www.annekaier.com.