One evening, the bell rang
Softly around the port.
Is that poetry? If it is (highly debatable!), it has little poetic quality. It reads like prose cut up into lines. Somehow, it has a prose rhythm, and there’s little attention to sound. If it’s prose-with-line-breaks, it’s not even especially good prose. But see what happens if we mess around with the syntax and compress things a little:
Very gently struck
The quay night bell.
Rather better! No one reading those lines with a working ear could possibly fail to recognise these lines as poetry, even if they couldn’t see the line-breaks. They are the opening two lines of W.S. Graham’s great poem, ‘The Nightfishing’ (1955), from his New Collected Poems (Faber 2004), which marked a dramatic change in Graham’s style. He went from being merely a highly gifted representative of the ‘new apocalyptic’ poetry typical of his generation to a singular poet with an entirely distinct voice. The lines are poetic (in a positive sense) for many reasons, but it’s the odd syntax that allows the prevailing tone and mood and rhythm of the poem to assert itself. Even a more conventional but similar rendering, such as “The quay night bell/ Was very gently struck” doesn’t cut it. In Graham’s original, you hear a strike with each stress of “quay night bell” which “very gently struck” has prepared you for.
Poets have been skewing conventional syntax for many decades now, some in quite extreme ways beyond the scope of this article. I’m interested here simply in how manipulating syntax can help make a free verse poem distinctive, not in how ‘experimental’ or otherwise it might be. Just as in Graham’s poem, imaginative use of syntax can affect the tone, mood and rhythm of a poem.
Another intriguing example can be found in a new poem by Frances Leviston, Midsummer Loop. You can read the poem in full here (well worth doing!) but it’s the first eight lines I want to highlight:
now in the stillness, the two still hours
between this meeting and that,
hours of silence in which the angel of conversation deserts us
to beat her wings above another gathering,
another long room, magnificent table and solemn pronouncement
made to the detriment of everybody else
and the glorification of the subject,
now we are abandoned to our own resources…
When a poem begins with the word “now”, the first question I’d ask is “now….what?” It takes another seven lines to find out. Leviston interjects a description of an event happening elsewhere and stretches this out so much that she has to repeat the word “now” to remind readers she is indeed continuing from her opening phrase. This stretched syntax contributes decisively to the poem’s tone and form. The poem is a loop, ending where it began. It’s also a single sentence – a sentence which takes 52 lines (or a ‘year’) of poetry to enact if you include the repeated lines at the end, but there’s so much variation and so much of interest that I didn’t notice it was a single sentence the first time I read it. There’s a certain tension created by the long, sprawling sentence. As a reader, I’m always feeling that something is awaiting resolution and quite a bit does happen, but a loop poem can never be fully resolved. The tension is held for another loop and then another etc. Much of this poem’s success comes down not only to great phrases and an interesting mind at work, but to skilful use of syntax.
Sometimes poems with entirely conventional syntax stand out from the crowd for many other reasons and sometimes poems with convoluted syntax stand out for all the wrong reasons. But breaking ordinary syntactical rules isn’t a cheap gimmick when done well. Les Murray shows not only how it can create something distinctive and exciting but also how syntax can mirror a poem’s content:
When I ran to snatch the wires off our roof
hands bloomed teeth shouted I was almost seized
held back from this life
That’s the beginning of Murray’s poem, The Powerline Incarnation, which you can find in his New Selected Poems (Carcanet 2012) or online here, alongside a fine commentary by Kate Middleton (the Australian poet, not the other one…). The conventional opening line is a masterstroke. Immediately after contact is made with the live wires, the poem becomes like an electric shock. That’s partly to do with the vigorous diction (“teeth shouted”) and the ecstatic religious overtones of “seized” and “held back from this life”, but the lack of punctuation that comes to dominate the poem possesses its own frenetic charge. The poem isn’t just describing an extraordinary event, but enacts it within its own form. If you punctuated this poem conventionally, it would make a kind of syntactical sense, but what you’d lose would be huge. The absence of punctuation and the consequent syntactical ambiguities are simultaneously disruptive and energising – the way collision and confusion often are. The control Murray sustains alongside the illusion of chaos is the mark of a brilliant writer.
Some poems are best written in conventional syntax, but I do think it’s often worth experimenting with syntactical variations when beginning a poem until a distinctive, captivating tone emerges. I imagine many people immediately switch off when, on rare occasions, syntax is mentioned. It might seem like a dry topic but, for poets and poetry readers, I don’t think it is. Graham, Leviston and Murray are three good reasons why syntax can become suddenly fascinating. What do you think?