Michael Kimball Guest Lecture #5: Language and Sentences

Posted by @ 2:33 pm on March 3rd, 2010

We are writers. Writers use language. There are lots of things we can do with language. As Robert Lopez says: “I always start with language.” And when he says that, he means his language, his particular language, and that every writer should have their own particular language. Raymond Carver gets at that with this (from “On Writing”): “It’s akin to style, what I’m talking about, but it isn’t style alone. It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another.”

When I think of language, I think of sentences. As John Banville says: “The sentence is the greatest human invention of civilization.” There are lots of things that we can do with a sentence. We can manipulate the syntax, the diction, the stresses, the tenses, the acoustics, the morphemes and the phonemes, syllables and prefixes and suffixes, the speed, and the length. As Andy Devine says: “The English sentence – because of English syntax – is infinitely expandable.”

We can manipulate objects, subjects, predicates, infinitives, participles, gerunds, phrases, clauses, and determiners. We can manipulate articles, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, and prepositions. Joseph Young says: “Articles propel the sentence, push it off and keep it moving.” Stephen King says: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Joseph Brodsky says: “Don’t use too many adjectives.” Andy Devine says: “Adjectives are not as bad as adverbs.”

For instance, I like to structure sentences around articles and conjunctions and prepositions—the more perennial parts of language—so that my narrator has a singular way to speak. And I like to move prepositions to the end of the phrase or the end of the sentence. That was one of the first sentence things that I figured out for myself. It’s not what we’re taught to do, but it is still quite obviously English, and it creates a kind of semantic link in the sentence—and this vaguely unsettling feeling.

[Punctuation Intermission 1: I probably won’t do one of these things for punctuation, but I have something I want to say about commas: Commas can save your life.]

Here are some other writers talking about working with different parts of language:

Gary Lutz: “Language is matter—it’s a substance to be fingered and disturbed. All sorts of stuff can be pinned onto a word, or poked into it. I like to fasten an unaccustomed affix to the base of a perfectly drab noun or adjective. Oddballery of that kind appears to suit my narrators, who are forever in search of further, fussier ways to insist upon their difference.”

Dawn Raffel: “An acoustical presence can be created, I hope, by sentences that have voice, stance, authority and cadential integrity. I read every sentence aloud and revise it until it sounds right to my ear; I find I can’t go forward more than a few sentences without going back and attending to as many grace notes as possible. I’m not someone who writes ‘drafts.’ If the sentences are sloppy, all the energy goes out of the piece for me. So I might write three sentences and revise them half a dozen times before moving forward. Actually, that part—playing around with syllables—is fun. I could spend hours doing it and be happy as a pig.”

Blake Butler: “I like something that makes my mouth or face feel jogged or deleted some, perhaps. Something that within the syllables both allows the syllables to butt up against one another in ways that variously embrace or attack. I think a lot of it comes out of trying to hypnotize myself: I enjoy feeling locked out of my body. When I am really in it, when I really start to feel channeled and beaten up a little by my mouth without controlling it, that’s when those words are really coming and spitting me up.”

Joanna Howard: “The initial rhythmic instinct drives the sentence length, so that I have a sense of having completed a thought based on the need for a rhythmic pause. Beyond this initial rhythmic constraint, which is perhaps arbitrary or perhaps organic, I like the cause-and-effect relationships built up out of strings of clauses, so that a detail is presented, commented on, resolved to some degree, until it triggers the next detail. I have always liked the way the word ‘sentence’ refers to a grammatical grouping, but also has a definition related to judgment and punishment of criminals: something which indicates verdict, as well as duration. This is how I think about sentences.”

Here’s Gary Lutz again: “I am drawn toward rhythms in which there are lots of stresses and hardnesses, and toward phrasings steeped in, or saturated with, a dominant vowel. I like inclemently declaratory sentences, sentences that disingratiate, sentences that feel full and final.”

[Punctuation Intermission 2: Another things about commas: Please don’t use comma splices. They make me hate whatever I’m reading.]

Here’s a kind of language check from John Gardner: “The writer who cares more about words than about story (characters, action, setting, atmosphere) is unlikely to create a vivid and continuous dream; he gets in his own way too much … his poetic drunkenness.”

Here’s Samuel Ligon with a kind of corollary to the Gardner: “I can’t remember who made the comment about prose being like a window, or exactly what was said, but I like that idea of making it invisible or unnoticeable, not smearing it up with anything that calls attention to itself. The reader needs to slip into a dream-like state through the writing, and it seems like clean, transparent prose can help facilitate that.”

And here is John Gardner, again, with one sentence that explains why I start with language: “Language actively drives the writer to meanings he had no idea he would come to.”

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