Syntactic Complexity

And she, her back to him, seems only what she shows
as she bends over, reaching between her splayed legs
to pick it up, her face a moment upside down
beneath her crotch, her pink tongue flickering level
with the face she watches watching her, the face void

of expression, dense as stone, clinical as light,
unmoved, as if the fantasy is that there isn’t one,
that she isn’t dancing any gesture of what she
imagines he imagines she would feel like if he
were doing to her what she pretends he does.

–from “The Naked Eye” by Alan Shapiro

I haven’t tried to diagram a sentence since the 6th grade, and I’m not about to start. A diagram of this sentence would take a scroll. The only action is the simple clause “She bends over.” The rest of the sentence — another 100 words spanning 10 lines — twists and contorts around its one movement like a nimble stripper around her pole (so to speak). It’s actually difficult to trace where each limb connects to the body.

At workshops everyone talks about diction, about similes and metaphors, about using fresh language and avoiding cliches — but syntactic complexity seems to me the unsung hero of great poetry, the secret tool that’s also one of the hardest to develop. Compare a great poet like Shapiro to any of the million lesser poets, and you’ll find they address similar topics, use similar images, have a similar vocabulary — there aren’t any words in that sentence a 6th-grader wouldn’t know. And yet Shapiro’s poems are engrossing, engaging, alive, while the others lie flat on the page.

And of course it’s not just a matter of writing the longest, most convoluted, Nabokovian sentences one can manage. Here are Shapiro’s next two:

The fantasy is wholly of the eye. The eye is his.

The intricate avalanche of the 103 words preceding it, all their mass and momentum, fall onto those last four: “The eye is his.” The effect is as dramatic as a gasp; it echoes. First with the amazingly dexterous acrobatics, and then with the long fall.

The need to vary your sentences, a simple matter of rhythm and pacing, is no great secret, but it’s one that amateur poets most often ignore. When reading the countless submissions that come in there’s something intuitive that you start to sense within the first few lines, where you know the voice just isn’t singing. We always keep reading, of course, but despite that, you know what the ultimate decision will be. Looking more closely at why those poems aren’t working, it always seems to be a bland, repetitive syntax. One could be writing the most profound thoughts in the world, but if the sentences don’t work like a song, the inflections of the voice like notes, then it’s not a poem.

Unless, of course, it’s a different kind of poem, an experimental poem that doesn’t care about voice…but that’s a different topic altogether, and that isn’t the goal for the majority of poets who send us work.

2 thoughts on “Syntactic Complexity

  1. Very much enjoyed the time I spent here, leisurely strolling through your site. As a poet, and an avid reader, I found it both enlightening and enriching…Thank you.

  2. Hi Tim

    I found your thoughts about pacing and sentence lengths to be very interesting- you distilled a thought i tried to express today while critiquing poetry online. Successful sentences are for me one of the fundamentally important aspects of that nebulous concept, ‘voice.’ There’s something that happens with rhythm, hard to define, but you sure know when it does.

    sam byfield

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