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Poetry and the Joys of Syntax

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 (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?

This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. What do you mean merely a highly-gifted represenative of the “New Apocalypse”?
    Do you have any idea how good GS Fraser, Geoffrey Trease, Moore, Hendry et al really were?

  2. Duncan, apologies for the ambiguity in my phrasing. I didn’t mean that there weren’t other excellent poets associated with the movement. Only that WSG was one of them. But WSG went on to produce poetry that is amongst the 20th century’s greatest.

  3. No, not “a dry topic” at all. Such language devices are an important part of the poet’s kit and if they reject them as “dry” it’s like a gardener rejecting a spade. Good article. Thank you. I love the WS Graham poem — good example to use and helpful analysis.

  4. Dylan Thomas was also part of the New Apocalypse, he simply didn’t want to sign one its so-called “manifestos.” It is time this entire group was re-evaluated since the “Movement” and “Group” poets did a hatchet job on them. I agree on your estimate of Graham. I was saying so when I was seventeen. How slowly things change!

  5. Excellent examples Rob. I agree, though I think that in poetry apparently conventional syntax may often turn out to be slyly different. Take the ‘sentence sounds’ in Frost’s perfectly straightforward ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.’ ‘Whose woods these are I think I know…’ If it were a more prosaic poem it should logically begin: ‘I think I know whose woods these are…’.

    Your above examples aside, odd syntax (broken, mangled, etc.) can put me off, especially if it these effects are so obtuse that it rapidly becomes clear that I will have to essentially decode the poem in order to work out what the poet is getting at (which, ten to one, may not be all that interesting anyway).

    Sly lineation and gnomic openings can seem ridiculously coy and perhaps a bit smug, and anyway in themselves they are nothing new. I sometimes want to shout at such poems, ‘For fuck’s sake, just Say It!’ I’ll admit this may partly be due to my own shortcomings; I am useless at crossword puzzles. But clarity can also be magic. Poets, disposed to rummaging in the postmodern box of tricks (cut n paste, Ouilipo, etc.) tend to forget this. Take another poem by W.S Graham, with these classically simple first lines:

    Imagine a forest
    A real forest.

    I always feel (and this can often be a constraint) that it’s important to have a surprise, or at least hint at one, in the first line: some kind of estrangement, something slant or off-key in the syntax, and/or it might be in the imagery or vocabulary. Here’s the first stanza (and title) of a recent one, where, although the syntax is fairly straightforward, I tried for certain comic/mimetic effects in the lineation, rhymes and imagery:


    grappling fast and tight
    so something desperate as a fire escape
    into each grimace
    and coat-hangers and kitchen surfaces
    put up a fight

    Anyway, as you know, there are many ways into a poem, and many ways to keep a reader, and oneself, surprised. Syntax is certainly one of these.

  6. On the other issue (since no-one seems to know the New Apocalypse poets) surely the question of word-order depends on Edward Thomas -type Modernism having moved away from inversions stretched on 19th C. Saintsbury style English prosody for the sake of scansion or rhyme.

    Yet the early 20th C. came up with absurdities of its own, such as the idea of the subconscious(or Hamburger’s “chthonic”) breaking the rules of syntax to burst open some mystical inexpressible. The “purity” of Donald Davidson was a reaction to this.

    Now we are in a position to revalue the issue. As poets we want to surprise, but to surprise consistently. The critical issue is never to use an inversion that wrongs the colloquial.

    I was born in Greenock and Graham writes as the people spoke in Greenock. It’s the same with Murray. A few evenings in the Melbourne pubs and will overhear spoken and effective inversions.

    I don’t think we need to disparage some so-called “box of tricks.” Language poetry, especially in the hands of Bernstein, or Elizabeth James, may break with syntax but does so with an ear to the “uptake of intent” as speculated on by Alfred Austin et al.

  7. Nice one Rob. Good to point up a little discussed but actually crucial subject: strategically used non-standard syntax as one way of getting the mix of clarity and obscurity which can help a poem to survive two readings. Graham of course is a great example of style through syntax. Seán Rafferty another one. I shall quote (the punctuation is as in the original):

    Who walk this side of silence still?
    long since to sleep a day’s work done
    across the fields over the hill
    the harvesters are home and gone.
    Who walk this side of silence still?

    The harvesters are home and gone;
    their meadows sleep till early light
    the water sleeps beside the stone.
    Who calls this late their last goodnight?
    the harvesters are home and gone.

    Who call this late their last goodnight?
    their roads are dark, how far their bed?
    Listen. Beyond our blindfold sight
    are they the living we the dead.
    Who call this late their last goodnight?

  8. “Do you have any idea how good GS Fraser, Geoffrey Trease, Moore, Hendry et al really were?”
    I think you mean Henry Treece. Both Geoffrey Trease and Henry Treece wrote historical fiction for children but only Henry Treece wrote poetry.

  9. Dead right that syntax is underappreciated… thanks for this piece. WSG is an all-time syntax hero: still, today, he reads stranger than just about anyone else, maybe because only slightly so. Here he is in ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’:

    Have I not been trying to use the obstacle
    Of language well? It freezes round us all.

    And thanks to Duncan McGibbon for the comment on Greenock speech. I’ve often wondered how much in WSG comes from that. Surely someone must have done a PhD on the subject by now…

  10. mackenzie, i like this piece a good deal because it tastes like real food, breakfast, imagine, that will stick to the ribs through the course of a day, if necessary. long cooked oatmeal and the llke. thanks for a decent piece!

  11. Thanks Rob, great article. I’ve written a poem about an accident – perfect opportunity to use syntax to elongate and distort the moment of impact – thought the poem was finished, but am going back to play!

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