Surprised by Syntax: Stanley Fish on the Sentence’s Turns

21 04 2012

I recently read and enjoyed Stanley Fish’s How To Write a Sentence: And How To Read One.  At one level, Fish’s book is chock-full of lovely language, and the loving investigation of such language, and so it will appeal to anyone who, as Keats defined himself, is a “lover of fine phrases.”  On another level, Fish’s book appeals to this particular reader because, in some interesting ways, it parallels Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns.

How To Write a Sentence is a kind of Structure & Surprise of the sentence.  Although the linguistic effect Fish is most taken by is enactment—when the structure of a sentence behaves in a way similar to what the words in the sentence attempt to describe—Fish also loves the turn.  For Fish, an admirable sentence often is one that turns, and, in fact, often incorporates both structure and surprise.  When discussing a sentence he admires, Fish often points out the sentence’s “fulcrum (9), ” “hinge” (58), or “turn” (67; 143).  Fish also is interested in the powerful use of structure in amazing sentences.  He notes of a sentence from Milton’s An Apology Against a Pamphlet that “[t]he basic structure of the sentence is ‘although…yet’” (57).  A sentence from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is, though Fish does not label it so, a magisterial list-with-a-twist (see pp. 52-3).

Fish’s interest in turns becomes palpable in chapter 7, “The Satiric Style: The Return of Content.”  According to Fish, he decided to focus on satire, “one kind of content,” “arbitrarily” (89).  While that may be the case, it also is the case that this selection allows Fish to highlight turns.  Turns abound in this chapter, which features sentences that are, in the words Fish uses to describe one particular sentence, “snappy and whiplike” (91).  Twice, Fish refers to the “turn” in sentences by Oscar Wilde, even noting in one instance that “[t]he trick in writing sentences like these is to open with a deadpan observation that gives no clue to the nasty turn the performance will soon take” (93).

More broadly, Fish admires sentences that play with expectation.  Commenting on a sentence by Jonathan Swift—“Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse” (95)—Fish states, “The form Swift deploys is fairly simple.  Put together two mildly affirmed assertions, the second of which reacts to the first in a way that is absurdly inadequate…” (96).

In his chapter on “First Sentences,” Fish investigates the dynamics of first sentences, finding in them “an angle of lean,” that is, the manner in which “they lean forward, inclining in the direction of the elaborations they anticipate” (99).  Many of these sentences, especially those that open novels and short stories, involve the subversion of expectation.  Discussing the opening line of Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus—“The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses”—Fish states:

“The economy of this is marvelous.  ‘The first time I saw’ is a narrative cliché; it is often followed by something romantic, like ‘The first time I saw her my breath was taken away’ or ‘The first time I saw her I couldn’t stop staring.’  (Working against expectations is something skilled writers often do; it gives them two for one, the assertion they deliver and the one a reader may have been anticipating.)” (102-3)

And Fish compares the opening line of Leonard Michaels’s “Honeymoon”—“One summer, at a honeymoon resort in the Catskill mountains, I saw a young woman named Sheila Kahn fall in love with her waiter”—to a joke, referring to its “setup” and “punch line” (103).

While, of course, I do not mean to imply any causal connection between my work and Fish’s, I do mean to point out that our work overlaps, and, I believe, that our projects corroborate and support each other.  And, in fact, that How To Write a Sentence is a kind of Structure & Surprise of the micro-levels of writing is confirmed when Fish discusses the relation between writing and form.  While he wants, and, in fact, his book focuses on, attention to form, Fish is wary of an empty formalism.  Fish states, “The conclusion to be drawn…is not that focusing on forms is irrelevant to the act of composing, but that the focus one finds in the grammar books is on the wrong forms, on forms detached from the underlying (or overarching) form that must be in place before any technical terms can be meaningful and alive” (15).  (This mirrors the critique of certain uses of form that Randall Jarrell makes in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” and that I use to open my essay “Poetic Structure and Poetic Form: A Necessary Differentiation.”)  And, further on, Fish links the kinds of form in which he is interested with “rhetorical structures,” the kinds of structure discussed in Structure & Surprise and on this blog.  Fish states,

“Let me say again that by ‘forms’ I do not mean parts of speech or any other bit of abstract machinery.  I mean structures of logic and rhetoric within which and by means of which meanings—lots of them—can be generated.  The logical structures are the ones we have already met: the structure of relationships between actor, actions, and the objects acted upon.  The rhetorical structures are structures of arguments (that is what argument is, the art of argument); they too are formal—abstract, countless—but rather than being the forms that make random words into propositions (sentences), they are forms that link propositions together in more complex units.  Relationships are also central to their operation, but they are relationships among statements, not the relationships that must be in place if there are to be statements at all.” (29)

Interestingly, in his next paragraph Fish mentions Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say, a book I like very much, and a book that I refer to (at one remove: I refer to Graff’s Clueless in Academe, the more theoretical book that clearly gave rise to They Say/I Say) in my essay “The Quarrelsome Poem,” which defines and discusses the cliché-and-critique structure.

The parallels between Fish’s work in How To Write a Sentence and Structure & Surprise are so clear that I would encourage those intrigued by Fish’s book to explore this blog, especially some of the comments on the surprises that can be found in fiction (available here, and here), which fleshes out Fish’s notion of “an angle of lean” by suggesting that a surprising first line enacts the kind of surprise one is bound to discover in high-quality fiction, and the writing on the turn in haiku and in two-line poems, two poetic forms that often are accomplished in the space of a single sentence, and two forms that, like so many forms, rely greatly on the structural turn.

* * *

Though I thought of it on my own, alas, I am not the first one to use the phrase “surprised by syntax”—a play on the title of Fish’s important study of Paradise Lost, called Surprised by Sin.  The credit for that goes to Horace Jeffery Hodges, over at the Gypsy Scholar blog.  Well-played, Horace Jeffery Hodges—well-played.

Nicholas Royle’s Veering

12 04 2012

“Nowhere is this haphazard and disruptive strangeness of veering perhaps more evident than in the space of literature.  Indeed…in a sense this is what literature is.”  –Nicholas Royle

For those interested in the poetic turn as it is discussed on this blog, Nicholas Royle’s Veering: A Theory of Literature is, for the most part, a real treat: it offers the theoretical surround that helps to show why we need to further highlight the turn in poetry.

Royle’s theory is complex and multi-faceted, and I don’t intend to give a full reading of it here–rather, I want to discuss it a bit generally, and then reflect on its intersections with the thinking about the poetic turn.

According to Royle, his book is “a twisted love story” and “a theory of literature,” but “[m]ostly it is about the love for one word: ‘veering’.”  Royle notes, and then explains: “This word does not occur with enormous frequency, either in literature or in everyday language, but that is perhaps part of its charm.  In the pages that follow I explore ‘veering’ as a sort of pivot for thinking about literature and its relation to the world.”

As one might gather from the above, Royle, who also refers to veering as “a sort of creative and critical, literary and theoretical figure in motion, a dream-shifter,” means many, many things by veering.  At one level, veering is an existential truth; it offers an new orientation to what we are as humans, and to the place that humans possess in the world.  Royle states:

“Veering involves an economy of desire.  Everybody veers in his or her own fashion.  But this is never simply a matter of choice, volition or ‘personal preferences’.   There is always something other about veering.  Veering offers fresh slants on the classical notion of clinamen (‘leaning’, ‘inclination’) as a basis for thinking about the strangeness of life, the singularity of being in the world, as well as about that peculiar thing we call literature.

“Veering is not human, or not only human.  Other animals veer.  So do objects, such as stars.  The theory of veering is non-anthropocentric.  It gets away from the supposition that we human animals are at the centre of ‘our’ environment.  As we will see, the word ‘environment’ has veering–the French verb, virer, ‘to turn’–inscribed within it.  Veering orients us towards a new understanding of ‘the environment’.”

Veering also is a theoretical construct.  Veering offers new ways to read literature:

“Veering is kinetic and dynamic.  At once literal and figurative, it offers a mobile arsenal of images and ideas for thinking differently about literature–about genre, plot and narration, character and point of view, voice, tone and music, authorial attention and desire.  It opens up new possibilities for responding to what is on the move and uncertain in the very moment of reading, to what is slippery, unpredictable and chancy in the experience of literature.”

Much of Veering–including the chapters “Reading a Novel,” “Reading a Poem,” “Veerer: Where Ghosts Live,” “Veerer: Reading Melville’s ‘Bartlebey,'” and “Veering with Lawrence”–is taken up with showing the kinds of insights and perspective one gains from thinking about literature through the clarifying/distorting lens of veering.  Of particular interest is Royle’s development of the concept of the “veerer,” a concept, as Royle himself admits, one “cannot pin down.”  “Veerer,” however, seems to be the name for any instantiation of slipperiness or shiftingness in the text: “Veerer might also be a name for that experience in which you find yourself coming into another track…A veerer…may involve a feeling of uncanny surprise.”  To at least approximate a definition of the slippery veerer, Royle offers fifteen aphorisms to suggest possible meanings/uses of the term; among them:

“1. A veerer is someone or something that veers or makes veer.  You cannot pin down a veerer any more than you can categorize the place of a supplement or finalize the relationship between literature and the secret.”

“4. No aphorism without a veerer.

“12. ‘Veerer’ is at once micrological and macrological.  It might refer, for example, to a movement to be picked up in a single word or piece of a word, or indeed a single item of punctuation or spacing, as well as to an entire text.

“15. The greatest literary works, the most haunting and compelling but also the most resistant to reading, are the most veering.  A masterpiece is always a veerer.”

Veerers can be many things, and vice versa.  Poetic turns, as they are defined in Structure & Surprise and on this blog (as a shift in the rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory of a poem), certainly are veerers.  Royle often recognizes the relationship between veering and turning:

–“‘Veering’ involves contemplating all sorts of turns, funny and otherwise.”

–“To engage with the verb ‘to veer’ is to find ourselves in Latin, French and other so-called foreign waters.  We are already adrift.  We must turn and turn about.  Besides ‘veer’ itself and other words linked to the French virer, for example, there are all the words related to the Latin verb vertere (‘to turn’)…Then there are the inexhaustible riches of the word ‘turn’ (from the Latin tornare, ‘to turn in a lathe’, from tornus, ‘turner’s wheel’, from Greek tornos, ‘lathe’)…”

–In his brief chapter on drama (“Drama: An Aside”), Royle notes that “[w]hile there’s no veering, in a literal sense, in Shakespeare’s writings…Shakespeare is…the greatest turner in the English language,” and he recognizes that in Shakespeare’s oeuvre “there are hundreds of instances of ‘turn’.”

–“‘A story, to be a story, must have a turning-point’, [Elizabeth Bowen] declares.”

What Royle says about veering also often can be applied to turns; and points that have been made about the turn can be applied to veering:

The turn often creates surprise, as does veering.  Royle states, “Veering can be deliberate or unintentional.  Either way, there is a suggestion of something sudden, unexpected, or unpredictable….Veering, then, entails an experience of untapped and unpredictable energy.”

Considering the turn makes us think about the power and the intrigue of poems in new ways, as does veering.  Royle states, “Veering offers a new and different way of construing the nature of plot and storytelling: changes in subject, narrator, time and location; alterations in characterization, or in a character’s perception, knowledge, belief or feelings; deviation, digression or twisting at the level of the individual sentence, syntax or word.”

Jokes turn from set-up to punch line.  And Royle also recognizes the role of the veer for creating humor: “No humour without veering.”  Aphorisms work in ways similar to jokes, and, was we already know: “No aphorism without a veerer.”

So, turning is a kind of veering, and many of the insights Royle offers about veering can be applied to turning.  I want to turn now offer a few insights into how some of the work done on the turn can help to supplement some of the ideas in Veering.

Those interested in animals veering, and how such veering has influenced / plays itself out in literature, really should read Peter Sacks’s “You Only Guide Me by Surprise”: Poetry and the Dolphin’s Turn.  Sacks reads the presence of dolphins in poetry as totemic, signalling an important turn / veer.  (More detailed information may be found here.)

Royle assigns the veer an important role in evaluating literature, stating, “Veering impels us towards new questions about aesthetics.  A literary text is composed of forces.  It is a work of veering.  The literary work may veer well or beautifully, in a shift or turn that pleases, surprises, thrills, fascinates.  Or it can veer poorly, ineffectually, clumsily.  The ‘twist in the tale’, for example, is hardly ever a veering worthy of the name.”  And the role of the turn in evaluating poetry has been something that I’ve explored on this blog and elsewhere.  Here are a few links:

“Fitting Surprise and the Critique of Recent Poetics.”

“Writing Degree [infinite sign].”  Uses the surprising turn to evaluate contemporary haiku.

“Raising the Net.”  Uses the volta, the sonnet’s turn, to evaluate recent collections of sonnets.  In this essay, I state, “I revise Robert Frost’s idea that writing free verse is like ‘playing tennis with the net down.’  Writing formal sonnets, it turns out, is not too difficult; it’s the writing of sonnets without great turns that’s akin to a netless game.  In contrast, crafting sonnets with an eye toward their turns as well as a critical approach that can account for them not only raises the net but also raises the bar on what we expect from sonnets.”

–Additionally, a panel at the 2012 AWP conference investigated the qualities of excellent turns in short stories.  Read Erin Stalcup’s panel presentation here.

Veering and the poetic turn clearly are related.  However, in one of, for me, the very few disappointments of Veering, Royle does little to make the connection clear.  In fact, when he discusses poetry, Royle tends to avoid discussion of the turn, or else he mentions it to quickly bypass it.  For example, in “Reading a Poem,” Royle discusses diataxis, which he, following Francois Roustang, defines as “the stylistic figure of interpretation that tips discourse over, turns it back, or makes it advance.”  And diataxis clearly is related to the turn; Royle states, “Diataxis is pivotal…for thinking about narrative and dramatic turns–not only the major reversals and returns that characterize the plays of Sophocles or Ibsen and literary narratives from fairy tales to Philip Roth…”  As this sentence’s construction indicates, diataxis as rhetorical turn is about to be overtaken:  “…but also the micrological deviations, digressions or divergences that occur mid-sentence.”  And, when Royle discusses how diataxis can be used to read a poem, he essentially skips the turn; Royle states,

“Above and beyond those characteristics we have just noted…, diataxis in poetry would entail (1) a special attentiveness to the surprising or interruptive play of the letter, the twists and turns a word might take or make, the disjunctive or deviant effects of homonyms or homophones, the strangely mobilized energies of etymology, and so on and sew forth; and (2) everything that is at play in the word ‘verse’ as such, the force of turning that is the very veering of a line, diataxis in and across line-endings.”

At the end of his book, Royle even equates “more specifically poetic veerings” with “the turning of a line or sentence, the turning of a word within itself and between its various appearances.”  The larger-scale poetic turn effectively has disappeared from Royle’s account of poetic veering.

Far from being unique to Royle, this kind of bypassing of the poetic turn, or the elision of the poetic turn into the consideration of verse’s line breaks, is familiar.  It’s the kind of elision one also finds in Jeremy Tambling’s RE:Verse–Turning towards Poetry.  (For my investigation into the way in which Tambling shifts a discussion of the poetic turn to a discussion of verse’s line breaks, click here.)  But just because this kind of elision is familiar does not mean it’s good.

Still, of course, the tasks (not to mention the audiences) of theory often differ from those of poetry criticism and pedagogy.  In Veering, Royle focuses on what he needs to focus on.  And in so doing, Royle develops a fascinating new way to consider all manner of literature and experience, a fascinating new way that, in some very big ways, jibes with the overall project of Structure & Surprise, including this blog.  I hope you’ll check it out.