A few months back, we asked Adrian Blevins and Cathy Park Hong to write about the music of sentences. We published Blevins’ essay “In Praise of the Sentence,” on April 10. Hong had a few things to say about Blevins’ essay in her piece, “How Words Fail,” published on Monday. This week, the two poets have agreed to continue their debate in our Journals.

Adrian Blevins / First Response to Cathy Hong

Cathy Hong’s essay favoring “a severed syntax out of a sense of cultural or political displacement” is built partly around a misreading of my speculations about poor dead John Berryman. So, first, to set the record straight: I do not correlate Berryman’s “progressively unraveling mind [to] his unraveling syntax.” Instead, I associate his inventive syntax with his genius. Then, in sideline guesswork, I wonder whether his increasing seriousness could have lead to his death. That is, if syntactical playfulness guides our great poets to what we call “the genuine,” couldn’t losing the will to lark linguistically about cause a fragile and probably drunk man to jump off a bridge? I don’t know why Berryman killed himself, but I speculate in this strange way in my essay because I am, like Cathy Hong, interested in the causes and consequences of—in all the minute particulars of—inventive poetic practice. But nowhere do I say that syntactical inventiveness is a sign of an impending suicide. I do say that the sentences of certain postmodernists “go stark-raving mad”—that seems undisputable—but not in order to insinuate that the postmodernists themselves “must obviously be bonkers,” as Hong proposes. The goal of my essay instead is to illustrate that the sentence—our most underestimated linguistic unit—can do anything.

Hong also assumes that I believe that “a poem represents a person who is a unified whole,” probably because I quote Louise Glück’s ideas about voice and the “the authentic being.” But everybody knows by now (or ought to know by now) that the sound of the “being” in the poem can’t be the same thing as the “being” who washes the dishes or dresses in the dark for work. In fact, the sound of the “being” in one poem is usually not even the sound of the “being” in another. Lyric poetry does not suppose that what is said in one moment can be true in another. Instead, it freezes the feeling of one (complicated and multiple) speaker in one moment in order to riot, if you ask me, against the silence of forgetfulness and death. I suppose it’s possible to use a focus on the “balance or reconciliation” part of Coleridge’s definition of poetry to assume that all who quote Coleridge must believe in the self as a “unified whole,” but I concentrate in my essay on the “discordant qualities” side of the equation, as for example when I praise Hayden Carruth for “his shifts in syntax and tone,” Berryman’s “famous syntactical transgressions,” and C.K. Williams’s 133-word strip tease. And while I associate poetry with talk and speech tones while praising Frank O’Hara and Hayden Carruth, I not only introduce C.K. Williams by saying that he’s “more psychological and cerebral than conversational,” but admit as well that “some poets are interested in dividing the sentence from what Robert Frost called “talking tones.”

One of these poets is obviously Cathy Hong, who also believes that our fractured experience demands a fractured syntax. This is where we do begin to part company. First, to suggest that the splintered self can only be “articulated” in a splintered syntax seems a realist’s take, and realism, by negating the imagination, seems the opposite of inventive. The idea that reality can only be aptly represented in “broken” language is nevertheless so popular that my call for the truly inventive and strange—the truly peculiar—seems even more important than it did last April. In the first place, the poetic practice Hong praises is derived, as she admits and smartly explains, from theory, and theory is a poor excuse for the eyes and ears and nose and tongue and naked thigh-upon-the-horse. (Even Hélène Cixous says that “theory . . . is altogether the opposite of life.”) In the second place, the broken sentence Hong praises in Celan and Taggart can be heard these days almost everywhere. It can no longer represent any kind of rebellion against those in power (whoever they are) because overuse has rendered it cliché. There are exceptions to this assessment, of course, but since so much of today’s poetry is being written out of the assumption that the multitudinous self must sever syntax because its feelings were hurt from being outside the political and cultural network of power, the only political point severed syntax is able to make is that almost everyone assimilates.

More to the point, I fear we are not really talking about the peculiar ways in which sentences can sing when we use poems that background sentences in order to somehow prove that sentences can be backgrounded. As I say in my essay, the sentence “can stand backstage so that smaller units of language..can take the limelight.” The sentence’s willingness to be the bridesmaid is not only one of its many virtues, but also, much more importantly, one of its most predictable lyric uses. The rupture of the sentence “In thy / spite” in Celan’s “Psalm” depends on a line break that is—this far into the 21st century—far from surprising. After all, we know, or ought to know by now, the music that can be made out of the “red wheel / barrow// glazed with rain / water // beside the white / chickens.” Besides, to praise the “haunting and terrifying music” of a translation, as Hong does when she speaks of the “propulsive cadence” of Celan’s “Psalm,” is to assume too much about musical correspondences between languages. The ruptures in the Taggart strike me as also making sounds that have already almost drowned us.

So even one more layer deeper down, I guess, is a difference of opinion as to what language can be made—by trial and error and blood and endurance and guts—to do. Hong thinks it’s a bad thing to think of the English language as “a tricky trap-filled activity that [she] had to somehow master,” while I think one of the greatest blessings on the planet is this “tricky trap-filled activity” we call the English language. That language is tricky and trap-filled and can’t possibly be mastered is, to me, its glory. That it’s tricky and trap-filled and can be made (in any case and anyway and in the right hands) to say two or more opposing things at once is—to me—what makes it magnificent. Take Nabokov’s idea that English is “artificial and stiffish,” to return to Hong. Does “stiffish” sound stiff? No, no, and heavens no. “Artificial,” being an idea word, does operate at a remove from experience, and it can connote the idea of something false if you ignore its meaning as something, like a sentence or a poem, that is made. But that Nabokov—that writer “of some of the most exquisite prose in the English language”—counters that potentially stiff “artificial” with a decidedly unstiff and talkish “stiffish,” thereby illustrating the language’s ability to swing and shimmy into shapes and sounds that are so ironically multiple they can’t help but incorporate us all into the song.

I mean, I believe that the language should—damn straight!—include us all. What's more, I believe it can.

Originally Published: July 31st, 2006

Adrian Blevins’ The Brass Girl Brouhaha was published by Ausable Press in 2003 and won the 2004 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Blevins is also the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Foundation Award for poetry, the Lamar York Prize for Nonfiction, and a Bright Hill Press chapbook award for The...