Thursday, May 16, 2013

Poetry and Prose

I did not intend to be "provocative" when I said that the paragraph is the smallest unit of scholarly composition. Though it's increasingly unfashionable (for good reason), I could cite Strunk and White's Elements of Style for support. Instead, however, I'm going to take up the challenge and show what I mean by comparing the poetry and prose of my favorite poet, Tony Tost.

Consider this paragraph (you can read it in context at The Rumpus), taken from his book Johnny's Cash's American Recordings (Continuum, 2011):

If Cash’s violence was often excessive, it was never gratuitous. “Blessed with a profound imagination,” Dylan wrote of Cash, “he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul.” Cash took residence within songs in which sinners too were brought into conversation with the possibilities of grace and human dignity, songs in which even the wicked were invited to share their song. When he conjured moral authority expertly in his work, that authority was derived not from his ability to embody normative values but from his drive to sing powerfully from a location outside of a moralistic middle-range. Cash had a unique genius for bridging and containing these locations within the mythic version of himself: not as contradictions, but as a total vision.

Tony is obviously a capable writer of prose. In this paragraph it is clear what he is trying to get us to believe. He tells us in the first sentence. In order to support his claim he uses a standard rhetorical move, namely, the appeal to authority (here, one step short of an appeal to God, namely, an appeal to Bob). He then explains what Dylan might have meant by "lost causes of the human souls" by describing the place Cash granted to sinners. It is because Cash's work does not exclude "the wicked" that the violence we find in his songs is not gratuitous.

You don't have to agree with Tony to grant that he has here composed a perfectly good paragraph. And if you go back and read it in its context, it should become immediately clear how a paragraph supporting the claim that "Cash's violence was never gratuitous" fits into his larger argument. It is a unit of that argument that had to be composed to function in precisely that larger context. If Tony had just just left it at the first sentence, assuming we would take his word for it, rather than Dylan's, or just left it at a quotation of Dylan, without explaining what that quote is supposed to mean for his own purposes, he would have accomplished very little.

But compare his accomplishment in prose with the following excerpt from a project he called "1001 Sentences":

Every successful sentence lessens one’s reliance on memory.

What we do we do because of what we didn’t.

Erotic silence.

Unimportant themes are thrust forward to protect the more important ones.

The sun is also in the wrong.

I am assured that this poem is actually myself or at least that part of me which demands always to be before the camera.

Sometimes freedom is found in the teeth of the ladder.

My career is distinguished by how shamelessly I judge my enemy (the reader).

I see everything in you.

The center of all ignorance is found to pulsate a few miles behind your eyes.

This is the work of the same writer. And while it consists of sentences, and is certainly as accomplished in its way as the paragraph about Cash, it is clearly not prose. We could, perhaps, imagine this as a kind of "after the fact outline" of the key sentences of a ten-paragraph essay. The sort of thing that would happen if we extracted only the most pregnant phrases from the Cash piece:

It is grieving for the downtrodden while ignoring how one’s own boot heel leaves a mark on their throats.

His violence was often excessive, it was never gratuitous.

This is not a generalized desire to be free, but a very specific lust for freedom.

"I had a friend who was playing guitar with him at the time."


This is not quite poetry, but it's getting there. One of the most important differences between Tony's paragraphs and his sentences is that his paragraphs are clearly about something, they "represent" something, namely, the music of Johnny Cash. But a sentence by itself does not do this. In fact, in "1001" Tony is intentionally undermining the ability of each sentence to be about anything specific, by putting it in the context of the others. We can imagine writing a paragraph around each sentence that would make perfect sense of it. This is plausible precisely because we know how the "aboutness" of those sentences that were originally about Johnny Cash was lost. We'd just be doing that sort of thing in reverse.

There's a homework assignment here. First, turn Tony's prose about Johnny Cash into 10 sentences of poetry. Next, write a ten-paragraph essay that uses ten of Tony's "1001 Sentences" as key sentences. This will teach you something about what prose is (and isn't), perhaps even something mildly provocative.


Jonathan said...

I agree that the aphorism is not a genre of prose, per se. The aphorism has to "click" with the poetic function (Jacobson) to work. Tost's models here are the new sentences of the language poets.

Rachael Cayley said...

I didn't do the homework, but I did want to clarify that I meant 'provacative' in the best possible sense! That is, I thought the claim was one that could elicit a valuable form of self-reflection from writers. Mostly, I was just interested to see someone who was more hard-core about paragraphs that I am! Here's my take: Thus, while I might argue that sentences carry more weight that you've suggested, I am basically in agreement about the great importance of the paragraph. Thanks!

Thomas said...

I think we're about equally hard-core about paragraphs, as far as I can tell. And I don't have anything against a good strong sentence. It's just that we can't let good sentences do all the work for us. That was point in that old post about "sententiousness".

Sentences are the focus of writing, not composition.

This gets me thinking, actually. Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon is great writing. His sentences are rightly famous. But is it particularly good composition? His paragraphs are often unwieldy.

Thomas said...

@Jonathan: an aphorism is sort in between, I guess. In some ways it can be considered a stand-alone paragraph, a unit-whole, if you will, where the paragraph is a unit-part.

As a form, the aphorism also suggests the possibility of the one-sentene paragraph. I.e., a sentence that accomplishes its aboutness on its own.

(We agree that Tony's sentences are not aphorisms. They are not enough about anything.)

At this blog, however, I prefer, like Eliot, to "halt at the frontier of metaphysics or mysticism".

Rachael Cayley said...

I enjoyed your post on sentences (and its excellent title)--I'm very glad I found your blog. (But I can't believe that I misspelled 'provocative' in a comment that doesn't allow me to edit!)

Thomas said...

No worries. This is the blogosphere. There are no spelling mistakes here, just typos.

Happy to have you along!

j. said...

a couple stray thoughts on aphorisms and paragraphs and sentences:

when nietzsche has cause to provide a term for his one-sentence aphorisms, he seems to prefer 'arrows', a term that he also seems to me not to apply to the longer aphorisms (which are given other names, though in 'human, all too human' he seems to count most of them as 'maxims' according to the loose french model he invokes).

the name suggests he thinks of their functioning primarily in terms of their effect upon the recipient. (this could be elaborated a lot: for example, the idea of an intended recipient, or target, seems appropriate. you don't hit a crowd of people with an arrow.) the effect is obviously not thought to be entirely benign.

but not exhausted by the single sentence, either, as is shown by the regular associations he makes between aphorisms and (discursive) thinking (e.g. one of the most famous ones at the beginning of the last 'genealogy' essay).

the source of an aphorism is probably pretty relevant to distinguishing them from prose paragraphs, too. (so it's significant that nietzsche often has something to say about how they're produced, e.g. in walking, or about how they're rooted in a perspective, a bodily condition, etc.) it usually seems important to them that they bear their aversive relation to some other thought on their face, so that it can be gathered (perhaps not immediately) from the aphorism alone.

in contrast, it doesn't seem to me to be as much of an issue, or the same kind of an issue, 'where paragraphs come from'. (for aphorisms, i find it pretty mysterious.)

Presskorn said...

@j: I really like your sentence, or if you will aphorism, "You don't hit a crowd of people with an arrow.". It is alike to Wittgenstein's grammatical remarks, which (@Thomas:) are also, in an important sense, not "about" anything.

j. said...

grammatical remarks are about whatever ordinary language is about!

Presskorn said...

If we take W.'s example from the lectures on religious belief, "You cannot hide, e.g. behind a chair, from God's eye.", it is important that this sentence is not about hiding nor about God and especially not about the properties of chairs, but rather about the concept of God's eye. So in this there is something peculiar to "about-ness" of grammatical remarks.

But I think I hold this and still agree with you that grammatical remarks are about whatever ordinary language about - or perhaps rather: It is immensely important that grammatical remarks are not about some special realm out reach from ordinary language.