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grammar

Grammar didn’t come natural to me. The first time, when I learned there was such a thing as grammar, when we were introduced — like, “Daniel, meet grammar,” “Grammar, Daniel” — things did not go smoothly.

It was more like sliding bare-bottomed down a sandpaper hill.

I was in first grade, and we had “writing time.” The teacher was young and teaching a split, first-and-second grade class. There were too many students, and even at 6, 7, 8 and 9, we knew her control was kind of tenuous. The class was always on the edge of anarchy. As the year went on, the teacher, Miss Lane, added an increasing number of “quiet times” into her lesson plan. We had story time, where all of us were supposed to put our heads down and listen to the story. We had writing time, where you could go anywhere in the class room, sit anywhere, lay anywhere, as long as you were quiet and turned something in at the end of the hour that looked like writing.

I loved writing time. I went to the little side room where the assorted recess equipment was kept and spread out on the floor and chewed my pencil and wrote. I remember the first story was about a saber-toothed man. It was awesome. He was part superhero, part prehistoric creature, and he was walking through the woods, a saber-toothed man.

I’m pretty sure that was the whole story. My strong suit was description, not narrative arc.

I got it back about a week later. Maybe it was two weeks. Miss Lane had, in that time, very carefully murdered my story. As far as I could tell, she hadn’t paid attention to the story part of the story, which was awesome, but she had marked each and every sentence as wrong. That’s how I learned what grammar was. She’d written “GRAMMAR” on the top, in the same bleedy, red, felt-tip pen she’d used to draw angry squiggles all over my story.

I felt kind of like I’d just been criticized for walking. Or breathing. Like, this was something I felt I knew how to do. It seemed like it was just natural, I’d been doing it and everything had been fine, and now someone stops me to tell me there are rules. And I’m doing it wrong. I was walking along just fine, and now I’m getting yelled at.

“STOOOOOP! That’s NOT how you walk!”

“Wait, what?”

“Are you ignorant? Are you from a bad family? Is your family poor?”

“I don’t understand.”

“There are rules. And everyone knows them except you. It’s called GRAMMAR. Now everyone thinks you’re stupid.”

This was how I became a descriptivist. I have since learned that there are some really good reasons to be a descriptivist. At the time, though, it was purely defensive. I was a descriptivist in exactly the same way I was a put-your-arms-around-your-head-and-duck-tivist when the 6th graders yelled “faggot” and threw rocks. It wasn’t exactly a philosophical decision.
The one grammatical correction I remember, from that murdered story, was about how you shouldn’t start sentences with conjunctions.

“What’s ‘conjunctions’?” I said.

“Like ‘and,’” she said, “or ‘but.’”

“You can’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“It’s against the rules. It’s GRAMMAR.”

The whole idea that there were rules, out there somewhere, was a little disturbing. How was I supposed to know what they were? Who decided the rules were the rules? Also, they seemed kind of arbitrary. What was wrong with conjunctions? Was I the only one who was starting sentences with conjunctions and I just never noticed that no one else did it?

This is a little like wondering if you are retarded, and everyone’s just been too nice to tell you. Or maybe they tried to tell you, and you were just too slow to actually get what they were saying.

But wait — I wasn’t the only one who started sentences with “but” or “and.” The Bible has sentences that stat with “but” and “and,” which meant that my grammar was like the same as God’s.

I tried that defense with Miss Lane, but she said I was still wrong. She didn’t say so, but apparently she would’ve marked up God’s writing too.

Which didn’t really make me feel better. And I still didn’t like grammar.

I did learn grammar, eventually, though not from Miss Lane. A whole slew of copy editors and editors taught it to me during my time as a journalist, and I took several years of Latin in college, where I got poor grades but finally figured out what “dative” meant and what an adjective was. I figuring out how clauses worked in the middle of an Episcopalian morning prayer service, where they used the old prayer book, which has a lot of archaically-constructed sentences. I’ve actually spent a lot of time with grammar in the last few years, as I’ve been working as a grammar teacher, teaching German university students who want to study English, and as a freelance proofreader and line editor. I think about that first experience I had, though, that slide down a sandpaper hill, when I hand back papers I’ve marred with my markings.

I try to remind them and to remind myself what grammar’s good for. Besides beating people over the head, besides flaunting one’s class or excellent education, besides pedantry and dickishness, what grammar does, what grammar can do, is give one excellent control over language. I am still a descriptivist — I believe usage is paramount, that there are no rules, really, only use — so grammar is not, for me, about being right, but about breaking down the language and taking it apart, so that one can know how it works and can make it work most effectively. I try to teach it the way I would teach mechanics.

It’s like, I sometimes tell my students, I know you know how to breathe, but I want to teach you how to breathe so you can run for hours.

What grammar did for me was enable me to analyze sentences. This has made me a better writer, but also — and this is something I’ve never seen promoted in a grammar book, never heard in a grammar rules rant — it made me a better reader. I am able, now, in a way I wasn’t before, to analyze a writer’s writing by looking at the writing itself. I can dig in, on the sentence level, and see what’s happening.

Consider a few examples, just looking at how independent and dependant clauses are used. I teach clauses to my students so they’ll know how to avoid sentence fragments and comma splices in their academic writing. I want them to be able to identify simple, compound and complex sentences, and use a variety of sentences to write with a more sophisticated rhythm. Too often, beginning writers, especially those, like my students, who are writing in their second or third language, write with the rhythm of a Dick and Jane book. It’s just DUM dum dum, DUM dum dum, forever and ever. I teach it for the sake of their writing, but it’s also helped me be a better reader.

For example, Joan Didion opens her novel Democracy with a single complex sentence, followed by fragmentary rephrasings, followed by a simple sentence that’s repeated with increasing complexity, increasing specificity. It’s structured as a struggle to find the right phrase, and the altered iterations expand outwards like ripples:

“The light at dawn during those Pacific tests was something to see.

Something to behold.

Something that could almost make you think you saw God, he said.

He said to her.

Jack Lovett said to Inez Victor.

Inez Victor who was born Inez Christian.

He said: The sky was this pink … ”

Then, in crescendo, Didion lets this sentence that’s the sentence of a writer trying to write, trying to find the right words, take off and just go. It’s a description of the pink of the Pacific island sky after the blast of a test bomb and it starts with a banality and unfurls from there, a description that tells us more about the man than the sky described, and then as it almost falls apart she puts in a comma and a complete sentence — a comma splice, technically an error — as if everything should be ignored and this is the thing, the sentence has resolved with the phrase the narrator wants:

“The sky was this pink and the air was wet from the night rain, soft and wet and smelling like flowers, smelling like those flowers you used to pin in your hair when you drove out to Schofield, gardenias, the air in the morning smelled like gardenias, never mind there were not too many flowers around those shot islands.”

Her comma splice communicates this need to re-state or re-phrase, which captures both the problem of the moment of these two characters and the whole novel’s expression of an ennui that isn’t boredom but an inability to exactly say. The whole problem or project of the novel is expressed, actually, in that comma splice, which is brilliant, I think, and which I wouldn’t have known except that I’ve been focusing on clauses.

Or consider, for another example, Walt Whitman’s poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Almost the whole first stanza is dependent clauses — “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking, / Out of the mocking-bird’s throat,” — cascading down in one long sentence without a subject until, finally, in the 20th line, we get the subject “I.” There’s a missing “what” for 19 lines, and an ambiguity about the subject of the poem that is sustained by the structure of the sentence.

A lot of times people talk about Whitman like he was just wild, like his free verse had all the structure of a kite-high hippie dance. If you look at it, though, if you look at the grammar of it, this is a very carefully constructed sentence that very carefully puts the “I” of the poem in a very specific relationship to the world around it. The grammar isn’t incidental to Whitman’s poem; it is the working out of a major part of Whitman’s project.

One doesn’t need grammar to read Whitman or Didion or anyone else, of course. It’s not even necessary to read them well. Part of what makes good writers good, though, is their ability to sometimes, somehow, do everything they’re trying to do with the placement of a single comma. I want to be able to read that comma, to see what’s happening when the subject of a sentence turns up in a place you wouldn’t usually find it.

I know that’s not the point of grammar, and it certainly wasn’t what Miss Lane was trying to teach me when she wrote GRAMMAR on the top of my paper, but this is the other thing that grammar’s good for.

For most of us, I think, grammar is a brutal, brutal thing. It doesn’t come natural. Most of the time, even the word signals a fear, a panic even, at being embarrassed about being wrong. There’s something about it that can evoke deep shame. We imagine our mothers’ being embarrassed for us, as embarrassed as if we’d went out in shit-stained pants. We’re afraid of grammar because “grammar” means making stupid mistakes — there, their or they’re, or something like that — and we imagine stupid mistakes being taken as evidence of our real intelligence and value. That’s too bad, though, because it doesn’t have to be that way.

Grammar can be empowering. It can be about being a better writer and a better reader. It was, eventually, for me. I now know that it can be about knowing how the language works, instead of just driving along, listening to the rattle and choke under the hood, waiting, clenched up tense inside and waiting, until the whole thing breaks down.

Brooks Lampe reviews Andrew Joron’s Trance Archive

What a desperate trance!—The skyboat resembles a flying vulva; the city, the arc of an abandoned soliloquy.

Andrew Joron represents a small, almost indistinguishable enclave of contemporary poets who know (and appreciate that) they have been influenced by surrealism. Versus the rest of the contemporary poets who do not know they have.

Surrealism has been a controversial topic in recent decades, and there have been few poets or scholars willing (or courageous enough?) to acknowledge their indebtedness to the movement. (But not these poets! Thank God.) The biggest problem, supposedly, is one of identification and definition. Suffice it to say, in broad strokes, surrealist poetry demonstrates:

  • Radically disjunctive imagery (usually through mismatching terms from unrelated semantic fields)
  • An analogical vision of reality, wherein irreconcilable things are conceived in relations and thus are (potentially) made reconcilable
  • Undertones of Hegelian dialectic, Marxism, revolution and utopianism

At its heart, surrealism wages a political and ideological battle through language. By creating impossible images through placing disparate objects side-by-side, poetry dismantles and re-formulates our perceptions and conceptions of reality.

[click to continue…]

We begin with an Interview with David Shapiro responding to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn and much more. (You can catch up on the conversation by checking out last week’s post which included contributions from Alfred Corn, Richard Howard, Don Share, Dara Wier, and Richard Zenith.)

MORE RESPONSES FROM POETS AND CRITICS


That urn is cold. I find it strange that several poets and scholars speak of the beauty-truth equation as the last lines of the poem. That equation has called forth so much fuss – its bald assertiveness is immensely persuasive at first hearing, then almost instantly the mind rebels against the symmetry of identity. The equation seems like a handsome face you glimpse in the crowd—it teeters between vapidity and sublimity, depending on whether you keep on gazing or else close your eyes to retain the first impression. This very oscillation is Keats’ work, his way of bracing us for the actual conclusion of the poem: the last words the urn addresses to us, assuring us that the equation, problematic as it seems, is all we know on earth, and all we need to know.

If in fact we are the ‘ye’ –archaic second person plural familiar—spoken of twice in those last lines.

That urn is cold – ‘cold pastoral’ we have heard, the chill ring of marble. The strophes of the ode grow progressively more somber. The passions and delights pictured on the urn are sublated into eternity, which is usually a pretty chilly condition in Christendom – one doesn’t think of eternity as the prolongation of life but as the prolongation of the tomb, the marble replica of life – which this Grecian urn also is.

And the cold, marmoreal, eternal, all-encompassing time-denying Thing speaks to us, from the serene apartness of things, and says …all ye know, and … all ye need to know.

Experiment: Try hearing, just for once, the stress placed firmly on the ye. Then, with the sprezzatura so appropriate to artist and artifact alike, a creature from eternity condescends to speak to our flesh-bound mortality, whose antics the marble creature literally comprehends and (perhaps with infinite, tender subtlety) envies.

All ye know on earth – beauty, truth, these glorious abstractions, easily revered, more easily compromised. And that equation will serve people like you in your contingencies and trivial earthly need for reassurance that there is something to understand in life, and that you understand it. With the stress on the ye, I hear an insinuation that some higher, worthier form of knowing exists, whose propositions and parables far exceed the simplistic equation the urn offers us as our consolation.

Or do humankind and urn console each other? The urn consoles us for our transience and we console it for its inability to feel the kiss it holds suspended for two thousand years, unable to pursue the beloved or be pursued, unable to share in the sacrificial meal when the poor heifer is offered up to those vague and nameless deities towards which, even now, she raises her lustrous amber eyes.

I don’t think Keats meant (not that it’s important whether he did or didn’t) or believed the equation – if he had, he would have set it in his own authorial voice, which speaks with all the immense authority that found Keats in that mild May of 1819, the voice that speaks all the rest of the poem. By putting just those words in the urn’s mouth (so to speak) Keats proposes what our cronies overseas would call a rupture, a chasm in the texture of trust and sincerity we still insist on finding in poems. The urn tells us not what truth is, not what beauty is, but what we are.

—Robert Kelly, February 2010

The quotes given, except for Bridges, don’t have much range – from I.A. Richards to M.H. Abrams, we are throughout in the realm of the New Criticism, with the “Word According to Eliot” holding supreme sway.  For all that I admire them, these critics shared two limitations evident in their commentary on Keats:

  1. They’re prejudiced against Romanticism and skeptical of the philosophical underpinnings of Romantic aesthetics (Bloom called them out on this).
  2. They looked for complexity to the point that they imposed it — mostly, it would seem, as a way of satisfying their own intellectual vanity (7 types, etc.).  No one was going to out-sophisticate them!  Richards’s disdain for the gullibility of the common reader and Eliot’s mock-modest “I fail to understand it” and his  “grammatically meaningless” exemplify this tendency.  Eliot wants to prove his superiority to Keats himself (by looking down his nose at Keats’s sentimental abstraction), not just Keats’s readers – and yet Eliot’s the poet of “in my beginning is my end, in my end is my beginning,” etc. and “What the Thunder Said” – a pseudo-philosopher among poets if ever there was one.

Also, there’s the newfound aspiration to a “scientific” kind of literary criticism, modeled on empiricism and the scientific method (doubt as the vehicle of truth), most purely exemplified by Richards. Ask any real scientist – this is largely a sentimental construct in itself.

Brooks and Abrams waffle more sympathetically with their invocation of dramatic context, though frankly this poem is hardly King Lear (nor was it meant to be) and the Urn is hardly a character in the Shakespearian sense.  The Urn is an emblem and the quotes are not, cannot be, meant to denote a speaking Urn.  This bespeaks another overdone motif of mid-20th century critical orthodoxy: Persona is all.  What they really mean is much closer to Williams’s “no ideas but in things” (which Keats is one of the greatest exemplars of, as a supreme poet of the senses and of startlingly immediate   imagery) than it is to anything specifically “dramatic.”

Don’t get me wrong, I admire all these critics tremendously, love and admire Eliot’s poetry, and I believe that the New Criticism was a far cry better than most of the ideological and theoretical criticism that followed.  But I think they are all (except maybe Bridges), missing the point almost deliberately.

The context of the quote, and the thrust of the poem, is pretty straightforward, actually — and pretty run-of-the-mill for its time.  It’s the execution that makes the poem special.

The predominant philosopher for all the Romantics, from Blake to Yeats, was Plato.  Plato was the prime philosopher behind 19th century idealist philosophy, and so he was the philosopher that the 20th century empiricists (logical positivists, Popper, etc.), including the aestheticians, rejected first. Keats’s main man in this respect was Joshua Reynolds.  Joshua Reynolds’s aesthetics were influenced by Locke, but they were first and foremost Platonic, and Keats’s poem is an extraordinary expression of this most admired contemporary intellectual’s belief in the source of the power of art:  the Platonic tenets that a) the contemplation of Beauty leads to Truth and b) the highest forms of art refer to things eternal and immutable.

It’s as simple as that, but I’d add that in this context there are two moments in the poem that wonderfully presage the conclusion in this context:

  1. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter…” == pure Platonism (out of Pythagoras).  Yeats couldn’t have said it better
  2. “Cold Pastoral!” – a great moment in the poem, and tougher and brighter and more surprising by far than the ending.  Here we’re in the realm of “the sublime” as it was defined by Longinus, then Baudelaire, and more recently by Anne Carson.  The sublime is cold, truth is cold, beauty is cold.  So much for sentimentality.  And so:

The value of Beauty cooled by Truth, hardened by truth, made honest by truth, the sense that all the pleasures of the senses are belated and second-hand: this is at the heart of what Keats (speaking through his megaphonic Urn) has to say as a “friend to man.”  This is another way of saying that we can’t really appreciate the value of beauty, or create an honest beauty, without admitting the truth of death to the equation.

One last observation, maybe too cute, but irresistible in the face of Eliot’s huffy “grammatically meaningless”:

If you read the famous statement (pace I.A.) as an equation, i.e. “Beauty = truth truth beauty” what you have is a recipe – a recipe for beauty that is not mere “beauty,” but aesthetically ideal “Beauty.”  In other words:  real Beauty = one part beauty, two parts truth.

—Bill Wadsworth