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No Pause for Breath

By Camille Dungy

picture-21

I was talking to a friend today about one-sentence poems I love.

By one-sentence poems I don’t mean very short poems like the one-line poems Michael McFee discussed in his Feb. 2008 article in the AWP Writer’s Chronicle.  McFee has written a whole book made up of monostich (The Smallest Talk), and so he is likely much interested in the form and its function.  That is an interesting line of inquiry (pardon the pun), but not what I’m talking about when I mention one-sentence poems here.

I’m talking about poems of a greater length that are only one sentence long. Not poems without punctuation, but poems that employ the standard rules of grammar and flow.  When pulled off well, the simultaneity of loose constructions and rigid attention to details that a lengthy single-sentence poem requires puts me in mind of the most stirring music: what I receive appears spontaneous and wildly free even while I understand that it seems this way only because of careful practice and intense focus on the part of the maker.

Dissidence

in memoriam Thelonious Monk

You have to be able to hear past the pain, the obvious
minor-thirds and major-sevenths, the merely beautiful

ninths; you have to grow deaf to what you imagine
are the sounds of loneliness; you have to learn indifference

to static, and welcome noise like rain, acclimate
to another kind of silence; you have to be able to sleep

in the city, taxis and trucks careening through your dreams
and back again, hearing the whines and sirens and shrieks

as music; you must be a mathematician, a magician
of algebra, overtone and acoustics, mapping the splintered

intervals of time, tempo, harmony, stalking or sluicing blues
scales; you have to be unafraid of redundance, and aware

that dissonance-driven explorations of dissonance
may circle back to the crowded room of resolution;

you have to disagree with everything except the piano, black
and white keys marking the path you must climb step

by half-step with no compass but the blues, no company
but your distrust of the journey, of all that you hear, of arrival.

Anthony Walton

The play between different types of resistance to norms in this poem speaks to what I like about a good one-sentence poem.  The poem resists the simple structures set up by the culture of grammar.  Sure, Walton could have easily used periods in place of semi-colons, but phooey on the period, he was going to push his poem as far as he could. Long-sentence poems are dissenters, resisting the rule of law, the brevity we tend to desire of highly-communicative language. The effect of this dissent could play as a kind of dissonance upon a certain, rule-abiding ear.  But the beauty of the best one-sentence poems is that they manage their dissidence largely unnoticed.  The poems flow along, like imbedded soldiers of the resistance, following most of the rules that sentence is supposed to follow, so that the less observant reader might overlook rebellions against the full stop.

Every time I recognize the fact that a poem is executed using only one sentence, it takes my breath away.  There is a lot to manage: the deployment of proper grammar, the pacing of the sentence and its thoughts, the ability to string the reader along without exasperating her, the deft control of subject, tense, case, number…  These are sentences that make me think of my jr. high school English teacher, (Ms./Miss/Mrs.?) Nichols.  M. Nichols was the last of a breed of English teachers who might have been married, partnered, spinsters for all we knew.  We weren’t worried about her personal life, we were just worried she might go back in time a few years and use her ruler to whack us over the knuckles if we didn’t diagram our sentences correctly.  That may sound as if I am disrespecting M. Nichols, but actually, I am quite glad my path crossed hers.  I have an expanded capacity to love a well-wrought sentence thanks to her.

Steve Scafidi’s unhinged rant, “To Whoever Set My Truck on Fire,” became all the more compelling when I realized all eight cinquains create one long, wild sentence.  John Keats’ “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art” feels all the more full of longing given that it is one long wistful sentence.  And Carl Phillips’ “The Grackle” seems to hesitate mid-flight since the thirteen-stanza poem turns out to be an extended, grammatically-correct phrase, completed not with a period but a dash.

What about you, Harriet readers?  Do you have any favorite one-sentence poems, 14 lines or longer?

I’ll end with one more, a poem that catches me up in the rapturous, lawless wanderings of a mind in love. From Adrienne Rich’s Twenty-One Love Poems:

XIII

The rules break like a thermometer,
quicksilver spills across the charted systems,
we’re out in a country that has no language
no laws, we’re chasing the raven and the wren
through gorges unexplored since dawn
whatever we do together is pure invention
the maps they gave us were out of date
by years … we’re driving through the desert
wondering if the water will hold out
the hallucinations turn to simple villages
the music on the radio comes clear—
neither Rosenkavalier nor Götterdämmerung
but a woman’s voice singing old songs
with new words, with a quiet bass, a flute
plucked and fingered by women outside the law.

Comments (14)

  • On June 12, 2009 at 5:58 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    Piedra de Sol (Sunstone) by Octavio Paz is a 584-line one-sentence poem. It’s an incomplete sentence, ending with a colon:

    The sainted M. Nichols would surely rap your knuckles for giving the possessive its an apostrophe.

  • On June 12, 2009 at 6:19 pm Camille Dungy wrote:

    Ah, how correct you are, John Oliver Simon. I see you know the type of woman M. Nichols was. Heaven bless all ye who call us to attend to our language.

    Thanks for the Paz tip. I wonder what M. Earl and other translators on Harriet might have to say about the trials of translating such long sentences.

    –CTD

  • On June 12, 2009 at 7:46 pm Colin Ward wrote:

    Camille,

    I guess I’ll mention Robert Frost’s “Silken Tent” before everyone else does:

    http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-silken-tent/

    -o-

    • On June 19, 2009 at 11:46 pm Judy White wrote:

      Yes. I love that poem–a sonnet. I read it for my mother’s funeral service. It captures strength, feminity, and a solidity that’s at once light and supple–just like Mom.

  • On June 13, 2009 at 9:32 am Jeffrey Thomson wrote:

    How about C.K. Williams’ “Love: Beginnings”

    Love: Beginnings

    They’re at that stage where so much desire streams between them,
    so much frank need and want,
    so much absorption in the other and the self
    and the self-admiring entity and unity they make –
    her mouth so full, breast so lifted, head thrown back
    so far in her laughter at his laughter
    he so solid, planted, oaky, firm, so resonantly factual
    in the headiness of being craved so,
    she almost wreathed upon him as they intertwine again,
    touch again, cheek, lip, shoulder, brow,
    every glance moving toward the sexual, every glance away
    soaring back in flame into the sexual –
    that just to watch them is to feel again that hitching in the groin,
    that filling of the heart,
    the old, sore heart, the battered, foundered, faithful heart,
    snorting again, stamping in its stall.

    – C.K. Williams

  • On June 13, 2009 at 8:06 pm michael robbins wrote:

    No one’s mentioned the first section of “Howl”?

  • On June 13, 2009 at 9:13 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Catherine Halley put up Jane Miller’s one sentence poem, “Miami Heat,” on her recent thread called “Poem I Love.” She describes Jane Miller reading it all in one breath too, or at least giving that impression. So that’s an element in these poems as well–there isn’t time even to breathe to get it all out!

    “Miami Heart” ends with the line, “which is why/one writes with one’s desire.” Indeed, I wonder if perhaps a lot of such poems aren’t sexual–like C.K.Williams ravishing “Love: Beginnings.” Thanks for that. I didn’t know him but used to see him around the streets of Paris, so tall and gaunt he was unmistakable, so the last two lines make me love him too.

  • On June 13, 2009 at 9:36 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    she being Brand

    –new;and you
    know consequently a
    little stiff i was
    careful of her and(having

    thoroughly oiled the universal
    joint tested my gas felt of
    her radiator made sure her springs were O.

    K.)i went right to it flooded-the-carburetor cranked her

    up,slipped the
    clutch(and then somehow got into reverse she
    kicked what
    the hell)next
    minute I was back in neutral tried and

    again slow-ly;bare,ly nudg. ing(my

    lev-er Right-
    oh and her gears being in
    A 1 shape passed
    from low through
    second-in-to-high like
    greased lightning just as we turned to corner of Divinity

    avenue i touched the accelerator and give

    her the juice,good

    …………………………it

    was the first ride and believe i we was
    happy to see how nice she acted right up to
    the last minute coming back down by the Public
    Gardens i slammed on
    the

    internalexpanding
    &
    externalcontracting
    brakes Bothatonce and

    brought allof her tremB
    -ling
    to a:dead.

    stand-
    ;Still)

    ………………………………………e.e.cummings

    Note:
    [I used periods to get both "it" and the name of the author way out to the right because the blog format doesn't support extra spaces.

    The interesting thing about the "it" is whether or not it starts a new sentence. The little pronoun's position is key to the poems success, I would say. the space being the gas itself ("the juice,good") filling in, almost like an appositive, so in my opinion the sentence does go right on as does what it's describing. You don't stop here!]

  • On June 15, 2009 at 12:03 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    There’s nothing like putting a poem up for auction to find out what you had neglected to value in it before you let it go.

    I think my analysis of the long space before “it” is spot on, but I don’t think I fully grasped the remainder of the poem, and why though bifurcated, and perhaps even a run-on, it still functions as one sentence.

    Wow!

    (Anyone else see what I mean? Or is it so obvious you all assumed that of course I had noticed.)

    Christopher

  • On June 15, 2009 at 10:53 am mearl wrote:

    Camille,

    A very interesting post. I’ve trained myself away from the long sentence, both in poetry and prose. I still use them, and admire them in others (sometimes) but the dose of theoretical and philosophical writing that I found myself wading through in the 1980s made me want to distinguish myself from that style of writing. Orwell was a major influence as soon a I got to Europe, not to mention the fact that I spent many years teaching kids [in fact I was only twenty-one when I started] how to construct sentences and essays. A lot of that meant breaking rhetorical habits that they’d formed in their own languages.

    Translating long sentences from foreign languages (my experiences are French, Spanish and Portuguese) involves many of the same difficulties as reading them, but at a more exaggerated level.

    Long sentences in English tend to be enumerative and often use parallel construction, like in the C.K. Williams poem posted above by Jeffrey Thomson, or “Howl”, mentioned by Michael Robbins. Whitman is another good example. It’s interesting to note that this tendency gains a foothold initially in a project of translation: The King James Bible.

    One famous passage in English prose that perfectly illustrates these devices, and which has a biblical rhythm to it, is from A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens). “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

    There are plenty of exceptions. Thomas De Quincey and Samuel Johnson both favored the complexities (contrary to what Orwell would later espouse) of our Latin heritage. Which brings me to my point. The most difficult thing about translating long sentences from Latin Languages into English, is that the grammar and syntax of these languages are less restrictive, more malleable and generally follow a different set of rules. Trying to translate a long sentence from a Romance language into English can be like trying to fit a square into a circle.

    Portuguese, probably the most flexible of all modern Romance languages even dispenses, in many cases, with the pronoun, which is subsumed by the verb terminations. But of course, at this level, there are often duplications. In the middle of a paragraph-long sentence it becomes very difficult to trace antecedents, or to follow the relationship between the principal predication and the clausal flow. Often new principal predicates will be introduced half way through. Decoding meanings is often half the problem (even, I’ve found, for the authors that have written the sentences in the first place). After decoding, you have to fit the square into the circle. Imagine using Photoshop to try to change a Mannerist portrait by Parmigianino into a Renaissance fresco by Piero della Francesca.

    Martin

  • On June 15, 2009 at 10:54 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Woody,

    I started reading that cummings and swore it was creeley. I think you can find that style of poetry carved in the lavatories at Harvard; the cummings/creeley style was invented at Harvard, by William James, I imagine, while he was on nitrous oxide; he did some experiments with Gertrude Stein while she was at Radcliffe (look into my eyes…you are getting sleepy…now I want you to write…write…write whatever comes into your head…good…good…) cummings got a bachelors and a masters at harvard, magna cum laude, imagine that, and then creeley, he went to harvard and studied those things…so there you go.

    i went to harvard i sd
    & i learned this
    stuff in thayer hall
    i sd you know me
    better than that
    don’t you?

    Thomas

  • On June 15, 2009 at 11:12 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Oh Tom, you’re such an old lady sometimes.

    What you say is almost always correct in general but you lose out so much on the particular. Like so much depends on it!

    This is a great poem. I read it first as a teenager and hadn’t had sex yet, so I was really interested in what it might mean. And even though I couldn’t yet fill in that blank in apposition before the “it,” I laughed my head off. Because sex is so silly, of course–imagine the absurd positions we human beings get into, what is more argue!

    Still I want someone to tell me:

    a.) what happens after “it;”

    b.) is the poem one sentence or a run-on or what, and what does this tell us about the dynamics of this particular fuck?

    The genius of Cummings is the fun, and even when it’s spring again for the umpteenth time the hurdy-gurdy of his poetry has to makes anybody dance!

    Christopher

    • On June 16, 2009 at 1:25 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

      (You’re not an old lady really, Tom, you’re more a young tough. You know the neighborhood better than any of the patsies who have moved in just recently, and you’re doing your best to clean it up: sabotaging the gentrifications, ripping down the scaffolding, turning up the volume and walking on the grass. Because you know poetry doesn’t have to be neat and proper, that it doesn’t have to have a pedicure or a pedigree, or hide behind a nose job or a nice white fence.)

  • On June 17, 2009 at 3:19 am Elizabeth wrote:

    Thank you for posting that sentence diagram. I love to see diagrams out there, as I’m writing a website devoted to learning grammar with diagramming.

    :) Elizabeth

    http://www.english-grammar-revolution.com


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, June 12th, 2009 by Camille Dungy.