On Writing (Sentences)
What does a sentence do?
How does a sentence sound?
I’m a poet whose job, at the moment, is to teach people how to write sentences. Not just sentences, but in prose writing the sentence is the first unit of making and order, the place where materials begin to become a structure, or a garment, or a fire, or a road, or a river.
In class, my first comparison is often to a machine. What drives the sentence? I ask my students. What moves, and what is moved? What has a bearing on the way it moves? Which parts move which other parts? Later we’ll talk about which parts are necessary, and which could be removed. We’ll talk about precision: what job is each part doing, and could another part—another word or phrase—do it better? We’ll use adjectives like swift, efficient, powerful, smooth, and nouns like impact and goal. We do this most in the academic essay class, where students are learning to argue. Sometimes we act like they’re making an indestructible machine for imposing their will on someone else. A good sentence, in this reading, is a winning sentence, and a bad sentence is a losing sentence.
At home, I try to make some words do what I want. Then I try to let the words do what they want. Both feel strange, maybe because only one of us can “want” anything. But words do demonstrably have both their own meanings—resonances, echoes, histories, possibilities and waveforms proper to each—and the meanings they generate in their interactions with each other, the buzzing and yearning set up as their forms overlap, pushing and pulling on one another.
Where does a sentence lead?
How does a sentence sail?
I’m a poet who’s trying to teach herself how to write sentences. The more I read, the more I write, the more I feel what makes a sentence is its motion.
I read Virginia Woolf and try to write myself into the long game of her grammar, the long flexible phrases and high spires and occasional shortcuts. I read Gertrude Stein and ask: how is this a sentence? (Make it a real question, I say to my students.) I read Bhanu Kapil to feel for a sentence’s stress points, remembering a talk she gave on fragments and dismemberment. I read June Jordan and search my syntax for accountability and presence, and the different kinds of power that different kinds of sentences can have, or give. I hesitate, my hand hovers: how can I know what kind of sentence anyone else needs but me?
Is a sentence that meanders a weak road?
Is a sentence that throws lots of sparks inefficient?
I’m a poet, and it’s tempting to say that a good line of poetry is a bad sentence—does something a sentence would never dare to do, or is free from the rules that a sentence must follow. In fact, most of the poems I love best have in them at least some sentence sense, the power to carry me to a different place in mind. By reading, I offer them that power; by writing, I exert it. If it matters how I use that power, I can try to use it generously, well, in service of illumination. But if it only matters that I have it, how can I then create a sentence—a line, a structure—that gives it, that shares it, that opens it out?
Questions can also be sentences.
Structures can also hold openings open.
Kate Schapira is the author of four books of poetry, most recently The Soft Place (Horse Less Press). Her eighth chapbook, The Ground / The Pass / The Wave, came out last summer with Grey Book Press, and her newest, OVERHEARD WHILE HIDING FROM THE SUN, was recently published by above/ground press. She lives in Providence, RI, where she writes, teaches, and co-runs the Publicly Complex Reading Series.