My Affair with the Sentence
October 11, 2017 § 10 Comments
By Beth Ann Fennelly
After many years of a fairly monogamous relationship with poetry, I began a flirtation with prose. Now it’s a full-blown affair. My newest book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, is a collection of little bite-sized stories about my life. Some of them are a sentence, some a paragraph, or a few. At times, when I was trying to publish them, my husband (also a writer) would call my attention to a prose poem contest, asking, “Why not send in your new pieces?” My refusal was knee-jerk: my pieces weren’t poetry. “Does it matter?” he’d ask, genuinely curious. It mattered, curiously. Memoir had allowed me access to material previously unavailable through poetry, and I wanted to credit the genre. Why, though, did writing in sentences as opposed to lines make a difference?
The line versus the sentence: this distinction would seem twee to those who aren’t obsessed with words, who assume lines are chopped-up sentences. But those of us who are obsessed with words know the distinction changes not only how but what we write. After all, if lines were merely chopped-up sentences, and line breaks merely visual, we could delete them with no change to the material. But when losing the line break, we lose the white space that shapes the way we process meaning. Line breaks provide a rest, so the words on either side of the rest can require more effort in the processing of lyricism, tropes, syntax, and sound. These resting places—like stair landings in a walk-up—interrupt the exertion with a breather (literally), and so give us the strength to keep climbing. Without them, too much is demanded of us, so our absorption is hindered.
The poetic line also affects the reader because it highlights the artfulness and artifice of the experience of reading, as opposed to the sentence, which distracts us from it. The line, followed by its white space, metes out comprehension, followed by its disruption. The power play of the line break is that of withholding. We’re never unaware that our experience is being modulated by another as we follow the choreographer’s orders to leap and rest, leap and rest. This is fundamentally different than how prose pours itself into the vase of the page. Here, says the line, Now we are here. Now we are here. But everywhere, says the sentence. You are everywhere and nowhere. The sentence is always pointing outside of itself. This is what Cole Swenson means, I believe, when she writes “Prose exists somewhere other than the page.”
And, lastly, the line’s tension is different from the sentence’s tension. Tension in the line occurs as the unfurling sentence is interrupted by caesura and line breaks. These two forces, the force that pushes and the one that retards, become the warp and weft on which the skilled poet manipulates rhythm. Let’s compare this to how the engine of the sentence moves us. With prose, the rhythms are steadier, the goal accumulation. Chris Forhan, another poet-turned-memoirist, says on LitHub that “When writing prose, I can often afford to work at a lower idle.” Indeed, the locomotive and the long distance car trip are frequent comparisons for prose, which feels horizontal, not vertical.
And all this influences the “what” we write. Without the push-and-pull of line breaks, the act of reading becomes less conscious. The physicality of reading–the eyes yanking back to the left margin, while the ear and brain rush toward comprehension–is lessened. As a result we’re less bolted to the moment, which is to say, the lyric impulse. The tension of prose takes place on a wider tapestry, the warp and weft tightening not over the course of a single line but as momentum builds toward and is delayed from its destination. Prose is more interested with the future, and sometimes the past, connected to the present, which is to say, plot. Prose is less about relating shifting parts of a sentence into a coherent now, and more about relating the shifting now to a coherent then, and then, and then, which better accommodates the narrative impulse.
So, how did the rhythm of the sentence allow me access to experiences I hadn’t accessed with poetry? I made that long-distance road trip into the past and stayed there longer than I would have with the line’s leaping insistence. By idling there, the past revealed its intricacies, fleshed out in a way that let me see how rich and detailed those memories were. The unfolding energy of the “and then” construction demanded these moments link up with a future, thus providing prospective. The person who lived those past moments, the “I of the then,” as Sven Birkerts terms it in The Art of Time in Memoir, intersected with “the I of the now.” For example, my whole life I’ve heard how, when I was two, my four-year-old sister cut off my curls and eyelashes with safety scissors. This oft-repeated Fennelly family anecdote was not one I ever explored in poetry. But the fishing line of the sentence, cast back into the pool of 1973, lingering there, allowed me to sound the depths of that memory. As it turned out, there was something troubling about how that experience links up to our current relationship. There was a genuine question I needed to answer that the anecdote elided and the poetic line might have yanked me out of. The sentence got me there, inviting me to linger until I’d made the connection.
So I’m grateful to the sentence and all I’ve learned from it, all I continue to learn. Don’t tell poetry, but, at least for now, my love affair with the sentence shows no signs of fizzling.
Beth Ann Fennelly is the poet laureate of Mississippi. Her book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, is out this month from W.W. Norton.