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.




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