A poet’s sentence
How conscious are you of sentences when you write? My exercises for this month’s workshop have been influenced by the fact that I’ve been reading Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence. Fish believes that form is more important than content – in prose, at any rate. He analyses a sample of what he considers the best sentences ever written in English and suggests that by attempting to follow the pattern of these sentences ourselves, we might become better writers.
I have been wondering whether some of Fish’s ideas could be applied to poems. Poetry has a fretful, tense, ambiguous, but occasionally also calm and submissive relationship to the sentence. Except in futurist poetry, the sentence is usually still there in a poem, though fretted with line breaks and enjambment, or rendered telegrammatic by the omission of words. The tendency to end-focus in most English sentences (putting the important part of the message at the end) is also reflected in the punchline-type endings of many striking poems. Some of my favourite poems (William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’) are constructed out of a single sentence.
This month I’m inviting poems inspired by the idea of the sentence. You can interpret this theme any way you like (including other meanings of ‘sentence’) or you can follow the prompts below. I’ve included a few prompts inspired by non-sentence topics too.
Send your poems pasted inside the body of an email headed SLiP October poetry workshop to the SLiP editor firstname.lastname@example.org by no later than Sunday 9 October 2011. Please give your poem a title. I’ll respond with general comments about all the entries, and select a few of the best for publication here.
1. A poem, written in the present tense and taking the form of one single sentence, about things observed/experienced/reflected upon while taking a walk.
2. Take any ordinary English sentence and attempt to render it as poetry by removing some of the words so that the neat ‘prose-y-ness’ of the original is destroyed.
3. Play with some of the sentence types held up as models by Stanley Fish. Keep the structure of the original sentence, but supply your own content, and see whether this playing around leads you to a poem. These are some of the sentences Fish singles out:
a) William Trevor: It was in France, in the Hotel St.-Georges during their September holiday seven years ago, that Mrs. Lethwes found out about her husband's other woman
b) W.G. Sebald : After I had made an appointment to meet Austerlitz the next day Pereria, having inquired after my wishes, led me upstairs to the first floor and showed me into a room containing a great deal of wine-red velvet, brocade, and dark mahogany furniture, where I sat until almost three in the morning at a secretaire faintly illuminated by the street lighting—the cast-iron radiator clicked quietly, and only occasionally did a black cab drive past outside in Liverpool Street—writing down, in the form of notes and disconnected sentences, as much as possible of what Austerlitz had told me that evening.
c) Gertrude Stein: When I first began writing I felt that writing should go on I still do feel that it should go on but when I first began writing I was completely possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and if writing should go on what had commas and semi-colons to do with it what had commas to do with it what had periods to do with it what had small letters and capitals to do with writing going on which was at the time the most profound need I had in connection with writing.
d) Ford Madox Ford: And I shall go on talking in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.
e) John Bunyan: Now he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it, began crying after him to return, but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, Life! Life! eternal life.
f) Jonathan Swift: Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her appearance for the worse.
g) Walter Pater: To such a tremulous wisp constantly re-forming itself on the stream, to a single sharp impression, with a sense in it, a relic more or less fleeting, of such moments gone by, what is real in our lives fines itself down
4. A poem about the dead, forgotten or non-existent siblings of famous people (exercise inspired by Audeguy’s novel The only Son about Jean Jacques’ Rousseau’s brother).
5. What have you inherited, or what do you have to say about heritage?
6. Elegy for Wangari Maathai.
7. In his book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, David Eagleman imagines that there is an interim, pre-final stage when a person is not entirely dead because his/her name is still mentioned on earth. Who are you keeping alive? Or: Who will keep you alive?
Man must live; must die
And so you have
Responded to the call of your ancestors
To grace the occasion of heroines’ festival
In the land of no return.
I wished I could wind you back
But sorrow could not swallow the speed
Of your canoe
As the old lady had already prepared
For you your bed of roses
In anticipation of your welcome.
You lived like a jungle animal
Crawling; hoping; jumping
And roaring like the lion
To escape the hands of your hunters
Today, I see your voice waving away
But before I say my final bye
To you I salute
With the rhythm of my flute
Which will continue to sing your good songs
Till all the deaf start to hear
The message you wished to send.
Safe journey, Wangari Maathai.
And the Trees of Africa Shall Mourn (Elegy for Wangari Maathai)
Peace by Peace (Elegy for Wangari Maathai)
Where do you start when there’s so much to do?
You begin where you are,
And you know where to go.
You take one small step
In the right direction
And then another
ever give up.
With enough small steps,
You can get from anywhere to anywhere:
Step by step, peace by peace.
I want to walk over, rub my face rough against your skin, let green sink down like when you were a child and barked your shin or slid a kneecap raw, bent over the heady odours of grass and copper quickening spit in the back of your mouth; lusty, gusty, golden and green, who knows a day so beautiful as this?
A Big Screen Cinematic Event
Screeching wheels seer the light-bleed tarmac as rack of black sheet metal racers drop-clutch at green-light go snatching screaming seconds falling into furious full throttle fight gnawing at each other’s tyres ravenous beasts on the straight dipping into drift on the curves catapulting out of corners, faster, faster to the finish. My god Vin Diesel is hot.
Every month my great, great grandmother, who gave piano lessons to naughty children, took her pug in a handbag to the bioscope, to hear the lion roar.
Those were the days when you smoked through the show
‘til the curtains dropped to whistles and applause;
standing in a ticket line with a nickel or dime
or whatever money they used back then.
Before Steve Jobs. Before Google.
Before online ticketing and clickable theatre plans.
Back then, you just packed your pug and ciggies
and sat in the front row to watch the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lion roar
then you left before the main attraction bored the dog to barking.
I tried piano lessons. I tried being naughty. I even tried cigarettes.
But I’ve never tried to get my German Shepherd
to fit into my handbag
and he’s a very well trained dog.
It’s a funny thing, inheritance.
There’s no accounting for what you’ll get –
furniture, unit trusts, diamond rings, frizzy hair, blue eyes, a love for dogs.
Write a poem in only sixty seconds
I heard her movements behind the thin wall,
the radio sliding between stations
and the tumble of water filling her bathtub.
A coat hanger squeaked along a steel rail,
then a stillness, a sharp intake of breath,
(Sorry, time’s up.)
A sentence-long poem about observations made while walking
I walk in i am
A walking sentence. A sentence, walking.
A poem about a walking
sentence. A sentence,
walking. A walking
sentence. A sentence
long poem about walking.
A walking poem, a sentence.
A long sentence about a walking
poem. A sentence as a poem, walking.
Walking as a sentence, a poem.
A grossly abridged prayer
Art be thy name,
Lead us into temptation;
evil, power, and glory,
A sentence is free
to ramble like spring ivy
‘til I chop, lop, stop.
Shamim Omar Nassar
We sat down in the end,
On the green, pretty lawn
By the little pond with no fish
Us, exhausted from our walk
They, exhausted from my talk
Telling of my Monday
At the Dentist’s
When He broke my tooth
Couldn’t talk till Tuesday
When I met the man from last Wednesday
With the piercing eyes and riveting gaze
Whom I hadn't stop talking about
But now he greeted me and grinned
And I, hand over my swollen cheek
Turned my face away, walked away
Embarrassed at my unrehearsed escape
Easily mistaken for heightened shyness
Wishing that on Thursday
When my ache would be less
I would train my one tooth less smile
For Friday when he sits with his friends
By the front staircase
Next to the big plant growing in forever dry soil
Yet it never loses its shiny green
I, would have apologized, but he wasn’t there
Not until Saturday, saw him in a coffee shop
Walked past then back
Walked in, walked to him
Sat across him and apologized
Smiled my trained one tooth less smile
Made him laugh, he understood,
It was nice, I wouldn’t stop talking about it
On Sunday, when we sat down,
Ode to a Car Park
A magpie lollop-erupts from the undergrowth, the branch of a tree thickens at a right-angle, leaves dance, stop and dance, looking over their shoulders at the wind.
Gary cooks for one hundred on North Sea oil rig, dreams of fine dining.
It isn’t time for tea
So down the High Street
I walk and
Keep on walking
Like Johnny Walker
But rejecting the label
I dislike whiskey
(which I do)
I dislike labels
Does it matter?
This rejection of labels
Is Life in the label?
Nike / Addidas
Mac / Microsoft
BMW / Merc
Burberry / Vuiton
BOSS / Diesel
The man “born free
Glittering store fronts
Draw sleeping shoppers
At the flickering altars
That pass out TV ads
Like tabs at a trance party
I hurray on by
Scared I too succumb
To the magnetic morsels
That tempt my fragile flesh
And now it’s time for tea
The pot is brewed
What will it be?
Joko or Five Roses
And of course
It’s Five Roses
I caught a fish
Lying listlessly on the muddy green pond
The snaking line harnesses a twitching fly
When all at once a furious frothing
Ruptures the tranquil scene and acts as
A referee’s whistle heralding the start of battle
The alerted line tensions along its length
Bending the graphite pole in supplication
Filling the air with heightened expectation
As the silvery fish jumps wildly to break free
Suddenly it is gone coursing the darkened depths
Hiding from the light that would steal its freedom
I strain at the reel and inch my quarry closer
Until at length valiant resistance yields its strength
To the relentless drawing of line from the middle
To waters’ edge and now flaps wildly in protest
Until the deceiving hook is extracted and the last gasp
Of air rushes across the trembling gills and glassy eyes
Stare vacantly without memory while I hold aloft
My trophy and yet somehow victory is not sweet
As I reflect on the family below missing its mate
Dad arrives at my house with a suitcase of nappies
and a vial of morphine.
Mom delivers him to spend the morning
Does this make you want to weep?
It ought to.
Still, there’s more than one way to skin a cat
or babysit your own father.
And I could think of a million things he did wrong
not one of them bad enough to
halted in midair , the deadweight wings
lose the sky
to the deck of a deserted ship.
So lay him on the couch
Read him The Ancient Mariner .
He’ll listen, through the mist of morphine
as he never listened in the ordinary days
when he was too busy
Checked at last, he’ll steeple fingers
above withered chest and sigh:
I never thought
I never thought your mother and I
a fine-boned daughter who loved
Wangari Maathai’s death brought great sadness and many admiring obituaries, yet I felt that she deserved poems too.
Please read the marvelous elegies on the death of Wangari Maathai by Pamela Newham, Michael Rolfe and Philip Ado. It’s not easy to write an elegy for someone you didn’t know personally, but these three poems stood out for me because of the very different yet individually perfect techniques they brought to bear: Newham’s spare, stark acrostic; Rolfe’s subtle indirectness and Addo’s poetic apostrophe with its metaphorical allusion to Maathai’s enemies.
Even people who never read poetry seek poems for weddings and funerals, so let’s hope these poems will bring us a few converts.
Yvette Morey’s ‘Tree’ prose poem fits very well with these elegies and brings with it an unexpected rush of childhood joy – it’s so difficult to write about happiness, I feel, that anyone who does so successfully deserves a cheer.
A rush of blood to the head is what we like. Michael Keeling and Jenna Mervis’ responses to the ‘Car Chase’ prompt will have you on a high. I love their evocations of speed and excitement – Jenna’s through an absence of line breaks and Michael’s through rollicking, wheel-spinning rhyme. Both poems end with a similar twist: we realize we’ve been watching a movie car chase.
Jenna also responded with the most way-out, subversive take on the theme of heritage/inheritance in her hilariously titled ‘Every month my great, great grandmother, who gave piano lessons to naughty children, took her pug in a handbag to the bioscope, to hear the lion roar.’
Graham Dukas shows us how to make a poem tantalising in his inventive instruction to ‘Write a poem in only sixty seconds.’ JD Warner, Yvette Morey and Annel Pieterse gave object lessons in brevity and wit.
The walking poems by Stephen Roberts and Shamim Omar Nassar brought exactly the kind of unexpected delights one would hope for in a ramble. Stephen’s ‘I caught a fish’ poem is, I think, an early draft of what will turn out to be a very strong poem.
Finally, we have an exquisite poem – both funny and moving – from one of the Sol Plaatje poetry prize finalists, Bev Rycroft. ‘Albatross’ is a poem about a father whose dying has rendered him both a burden and a blessing.