Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The New New Sentence

In these days of bland no-style generic post-Hemingway prose, not to mention the lamentable influence such prose has had on contemporary poetry, is there anyone left who understands that a complex sentence is not necessarily a run-on sentence? You'd think not, based on most of the criticism I've read on the topic.

In Samuel R. Delany's early-career novel Empire Star, a schema is laid out of intersecting ways of interpreting experience, memory, and understanding the universe. It is a set of three progressive and mutually interfingering layers of awareness and consciousness: simplex, complex, multiplex. What's interesting is that the style of the novel changes as the lead character progresses in his awareness from his simplex origins, through the complexification of his awareness, to a multiplex, and equivocal, even circular, ending. Simplex sentences generally complexify, as the novel progresses, till we get to the point where time and space are considered from several angles simultaneously, and traditional (simplex and complex) linear narrative breaks down (becomes multiplex). I find most visionary artwork and poetry to be multiplex in its perspective; and I tend to articulate my experience of the Universe that way, as well. (And thus I get called an experimental poet, for my pains.)

So, the long complex sentence has some potential to affect the way the reader structures experience, which in some way is how we also structure the universe: the world is made of stories.

The problem with the complex sentence these days is environmental: we live in the age of The Short Attention Span. The post-Hemingway no-style style that dominates every work of popular fiction on the bestseller lists nowadays (which itself has become dominated by crime thrillers and literary romance novels) is geared towards short sentences, quick rhythms, and rapid action and dialogue. Plot, not characterization: the anti-Proust. Short, choppy sentences even dominate in poetry, where one might imagine that there is room to stretch out a bit, and spread one's language-making wings. Instead, what we usually get is significant shrinkage.

Case in point: what first drew me to Robert B. Parker's series of mystery novels featuring his character Spenser was the first three novels in the series, which I originally purchased and read while living in Indonesia for a year; these three novels each contained long, complex, occasionally rhapsodic sentences. There is one scene in one of these early novels where Spenser is making account of a fistfight; the writing style causes the reader to forget all else, and focus down to the sheer visceral level of action, which is described in balletic detail, in a paragraph that stretches to almost two pages in length, in the paperback edition of the book that I have. It was a genuinely memorable scene. But the most recent Spenser novels rarely contain a sentence over 10 words long, and most paragraphs are also short and compact. Parker's earlier novels in the Spenser series contained a great deal of poetic prose, even some memorable passages that could qualify, in another context, as prose-poems. More recently, the prose in the Spenser novels is more like a blunt instrument. I dislike thinking that Parker is just phoning in his performances these days, but one does notice a significant shrinkage in his writing style.

We also live in an age where the soundbyte stands in for wisdom, and simplistic, knee-jerk sloganeering stands in for genuine philosophy. Everything is reduced to simple black-and-white equations. Signs and symbols stand in for the wisdom of experience, and discourse is reduced to aphorism. Is it any wonder that genuinely interesting sentences have been replaced by merely serviceable ones?

One of the things I dislike about Language Poetry—besides the basic objection that its theory precedes its praxis, which is almost always a recipe for making bad art—is that it tends to be deconstructionist, and uses reductive analysis rather than organic synthesis as its hallmark methodology. You often end up, in LangPo, with a lot of short, disconnected sentence fragments. But then, LangPo is not at all about sense and meaning, it's about playing with alphabet blocks.

One of the marker indicators of Language Poetry, as illuminated by one of its chief proponents and practitioners (and cheerleaders), Ron Silliman, is what Silliman describes as "the new sentence," which he characterizes, in part, as follows:

1) The paragraph organizes the sentences;

2) The paragraph is a unit of quantity, not logic or argument;

3) Sentence length is a unit of measure;

4) Sentence structure is altered for torque, or increased polysemy/ambiguity;

—from Ron Silliman, The New Sentence, p. 91

George Hartley explicates this in more detail here. Some LangPoet ideas about LangPo are quoted here. Three perspectives on a Silliman's Ketjak can be read here.

What do I think about all this?

Mostly I think it's a smokescreen: a justification. A justification for fracturing and fragmentation. Not in an interesting fractalized way, but as a means of breaking language away from meaning. As a rationale, it doesn't seem ot mean much, or hold much water. The structuralists and deconstructionists argued that All Things Are Text, and thus can be analyzed as text: broken down via reductive analysis. Certainly the inception of Language Poetry began as a (justifiable) rebellion against, in part, the confessional lyric. They broke away from the dramatized personal expression of the Confessional Poets, and focused instead on language's surface action. They broke language away from meaning, and unstitched syntax from sense. But putting language back together again, after you've broken it down into its constituent parts, is a more difficult project. Mere deconstruction ends up in nihilism, and one ends up stranded on the many islands of solipsism.

There is, however, an argument to be made for the sentence to be thought of as the unit of composition, rather than the line, especially in prose-poetry. Silliman argues that Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons presages the new sentence in exactly this way. (Other thoughts about Tender Buttons approach the work from a slightly different perspective.) If the sentence is the basic unit of composition, though, I think we end up with prose, rather than poetry. Certainly much contemporary poetry reads like prose broken into arbitrary lines. It reads like prose in tone and style, rather than like poetry.

The prose-poem has the potential to stitch this all back together. (And Stein remains more readable than most Language Poetry, to this day. Her work has a musical rhythm to it that remains fresh.) One of the benefits of the prose-poem is that one can let go of strict prose grammar and syntax, and experiment with non-narrative (multiplex) time. Prose-poetry has many strengths, and many flexibilities.

In truth, however, I began this meditation on the sentence with a parody, written spontaneously one recent morning as a single complex sentence. Is this a manifesto? No, it's a joke. Is this the way I think poets will mostly write, in the future? Get real. Is the New New Sentence better than the New Sentence? No, it's just different. Take it as a parody, or a polemic, or an antidote, if you wish. It is, essentially, a parodic rebuttal of Silliman's New Sentence, in the form of:

The New New Sentence

is endless, spiral, scrolling, and flexible, goes where it wants, following the brush, following the pen, reeling off its sidebar parenthetical remarks (which when read out loud by Clifford Geertz, each layer of embedded parentheses being read in a softer and softer voice, until some deeper, most important layers are barely audible) with gusto, yet finding its way back to its central point, eventually, if obliquely, before skirting off again into another parallel associative digression, long-winded, perhaps, but unapologetic to the post-Hemingway short-attention-span generation who like their sentences to be short and sharp and bitter (not knowing that irony itself is not a way of life, but only a tool of instigation), making no concessions to the reader that cannot track along, and eventually winding its way towards conclusion, having said a great deal (full of sound and fury) about very little (signifying nothing), very quietly coming to its close, having spread its wings to encompass the world, and now roosting at last on a cliff overlooking a quieted airless planet whose geologic plates ceased lubriciously floating and bumping against each other eons ago.

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Blogger oscar said...

mmmmmmmm... post hemmingway, yes very interesting... so what's your point again? yes, right. i see what you mean. post hemmingway. that's right. spot on.

2:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cool pictures!

5:56 PM  

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