Think back to elementary school and the most fundamental of grammar lessons. The teacher defines the sentence for us:
“A sentence is a complete thought.”
We trust her definition and work carefully to write complete thoughts.
A few years later, we begin to learn the fundamentals of geometry. What is a point? What is a line? The teacher first draws what seems to be a straight line in white chalk across the blackboard.
But no: he adds dots, sort of like periods, to the ends to the line: it is not a line; it is a line segment.
A line, he tells us, never ends. He rubs out the dots with his fingers and they leave a blur on the chalkboard. Over the blur, he draws arrows that extend from the line in both directions. “The line never ends,” he repeats.
Also: a line is made up of points; it is an infinite series of points:
If you think of the grammatical and the geometric as fundamentally philosophical (rather than in the practical mode that these teachers thought they were invoking), you can see a beautiful incommensurateness. One philosophy tells us that it is possible to find and create complete, consistent entities, and the other says that all patterns are representations of events or phenomena that extend infinitely beyond our apprehension. Enter poetry. Here, one finds a site that, as Joan Retallack says, reconfigures geometries of attention. If the sentence is finite and the line is not, poetry constructs a reality in which both possibilities co-exist.
In a Denver Quarterly interview, prose writer Gail Scott asks a question that seems pertinent to this query. “What happens,” she inquires, “to the sentence when […] the usual driver is not one but pieces of everything?”
Scott’s question both disrupts the possibility of a complete thought (it embraces “pieces of everything”) and opens to a larger inclusivity that suggests a different conception of the complete thought (it includes “pieces of everything”). The constituent pieces would, potentially, be the points that fuse to create that ever-extending line.
The best way to test this hypothesis is to apply it to the language we use in poetry. I’d like to do that by studying some sentences/lines from Layli Long Soldier’s poem “Atontansni.” Among the things that interest me about this poem are that it looks pretty much like prose on the page. Lineation in the way that we typically understand it (i.e., visible line breaks that mark the phrasing and meter of the line) are not a formal feature of the piece. Long Soldier’s shaping of the poem seems to suggest a reliance on the sentence as its building block . Here goes:
——I wanted to write about Atontansni a word translated into English as poor
——comma which means more precisely to have nothing of one’s own.
Toward the beginning of the poem, Long Soldier offers an English translation of the word “atontansni:” poor. This sentence at first seems to present us with a complete thought, but we note the immediate correction Long Soldier makes on the definition (to have nothing of one’s own), so there are two semantic “completions” that compete with each other and the phrasing of the poem is slowed by her decision to put these definitions in italics. There is another formal quirk in the sentence that interjects phrasing or lineation into the regularity of the sentence. Rather than giving the reader the punctuation mark for the comma,
Long Soldier spells out the word:
The effect of this decision is to make the pause implied by the comma much more substantive, both in pure visual terms and in terms of the meter of the sentence. In The Art of Syntax, Ellen Bryant Voigt observes “The shorter line achieves new emphasis or nuance by increasing the frequency of temporarily suspended syntax.” However, Long Soldier’s line is not lineated. It extends to the margins and its breaks are a function of the width of the page. Even so, that unexpected word, “comma,” creates exactly the suspension of syntax that Bryant Voigt notes in conventional poems. The “usual driver” of the sentence is placed under pressure, not only because Long Soldier alters the conventions of punctuation, but because the English in which the poem is written proves inadequate. Its grammar and lexicon cannot obey their own given conventions. How can a thought be complete when language itself cannot support the thought? The poem, and the lines within it, question the authority by which they are created. Perhaps this disobedience, this challenge, is intrinsic to the grammar and geometry of poetry.
The second sentence from “Atontansni” I want to comment on further unsteadies the idea of “sentence” as complete thought:
-—–Then a friend remarks When we speak comma question marks dashes
——lines little black dots don’t flash or jiggle in the air before us comma in
——truth it’s the rise and fall of the voice we must capture to mean a thing in
A friend’s comment becomes part of the sentence, widening it to include two speakers, just as the first example included two definitions, two languages. The semantic agency of the line/sentence is thus fractured by the multiple presences it enfolds. Further, the rhythm and meaning of this line are charged by the varying ways that punctuation is conjured: initially, the sentence avers that “comma question marks dashes lines little black dots don’t flash or jiggle in the air before us” –but of course they do, because Long Soldier, through the voice of her friend, has illuminated these marks as vivid and graphic images.
, ??- – ….
But note the “comma” that comes right after this phrase: it makes the comma a non-graphic representation once again,
a pause that shapes meaning, that demonstrates that any given phrase is incomplete and susceptible to modification by another. It is also a pause that shapes meter. Bryant Voigt describes the sentence as a unit that “sorts and arranges perception.” The striking effect of this sentence is to place semantic, imagistic, and rhythmic perception in such tight proximity that the reader is forced to read simultaneously from multiple modalities. It’s as though we look at the (geometric) line and just as we begin to comprehend its extension through space, we see also that each point that composes it is bisected by a perpendicular line that has its own radical directionality and movement, its consonance and contradiction.
The breakdown of the usual, unified driver/narrator of the sentence is something that Long Soldier acknowledges and this becomes part of the resource of the poem: “So I disassemble mechanics comma how to score sound music movement across the page.” The operative word for me in this line/sentence is “score,” for two lines earlier, Long Soldier has disrupted her friend’s revery on the nature of punctuation marks to say, “in truth it’s the rise and fall of the voice we must capture to mean a thing in language.”
The sentence-as-thought collapses: it functions as merely the score that struggles to capture the motility of the voice. The speaker-as-agent fragments into invisibility, into, indeed, the Lakota definition of “atontansni,” one who has nothing of one’s own. Around and about the sentence, the fragments encompass multiple languages, multiple speakers, and now a voice that, this poem reveals to us, lives outside the sentence altogether struggling to sort through these perceptions.
The voice rides the sentence, the line, as a line segment, a phrase lifted between two commas. Where the sentence lapses into finitude, Long Soldier suggests, the voice continues rising and falling. Here is where we can meditate on the difference between grammatical sentence and poetic line. By interposing the commas so that they refuse the transparency of conventional punctuation, Long Soldier highlights voice.
I hesitate to speculate on the nature of voice, because the danger is of becoming too transcendent, or even metaphysical. But I will try anyway. Voice interacts with sentence to make phrase. Voice entails breath, and the limits of the breath make meter that we know as lyricism. Lyricism (and thus voice) would be the way that the sentence or line is made viscous, embodied, and semantically non-transparent. For poets, our voice is the means by which we disrupt the conventional flow of the sentence and the assumptiveness with which most reading unfolds. In geometric terms, voice interacts with the line-as-unending to insist on the array and texture of points that constitute that line. Certainly we can employ the sentence as a grammatical structure, a structure that proposes completion. But within the line, the very truncations, the rhythms and hesitations, of voice and phrasing are ways of bracketing each apparently fulfilled thought as merely a line segment, a sample that exists within a continuum of possibility that extends indefinitely, that resists conclusion. As Long Soldier writes, “And if it’s true that what begins as trouble will double over to the end will raise its head as a period to our sentence then I admit I perform best to the music of a comma in-between the rise and fall of the voice.”
Voice, in this poem, is never my voice, never subject to a personal possessive pronoun. Voice comes with a definite article, the voice. The syntactical units of the poem appear at first standard and easy to transact, but then quietly shift through Long Soldier’s use of multiple voices, languages, and forms of punctuation. Voice, too, always given in singular, shifts and somehow becomes plural. I question whether this would be possible if Long Soldier used typical lyric lineation with its overt enjambments and suspensions. The lack of enjambments here make for a solid wall of text: paragraphs, not stanzas. These paragraphs have justified margins and no indents. In geometric terms, they look like squares or planes.
Remember later in geometry, when you get past point and line to plane? What happens when you have two planes intersecting? The site of intersection is…a line. It remains a line made up of points, but also the intersection of two infinite planes, and thus, still, an infinite line.
Long Soldier walks the complex path of this intersection. She writes her poem in English, but she desires that she could employ instead “a language I dare to call my language.”
Like sentences, the planes inevitably modify each other, clauses that will not permit the fundament to attain settled meaning. To honor the poem properly, I must acknowledge that I am studying it as a model of language but that it’s formal shape has everything to do with some of the socio-political and material forms of poverty that Long Soldier also makes a vital part of her struggle with language. Her lines refuse simplifying linearity. Her commas pause the forward movement of the sentence to show the skew lines, the alternative planes that intersect them. The poetic sentence invokes these geometries as stop-gap map, schema for “a spill-over translation for how I cannot speak my mind/meta-phrase for the ache of being language-poor.”
In this untenable space, she keeps the poem aloft, for the intersecting/dividing line becomes something more than gestural or ostensive. The line marks the meeting of two realms. The voice rides that intersection as a comma, a pause that recognizes the multiplicity of presence and perception and the ways that each realm, political or poetic, also always will proceed on, made up of pieces of everything and having nothing of its own.
1. Bryant Voigt, Ellen, The Art of Syntax (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2009).
2. Long Soldier, Layli, “Atontansni.” Denver Quarterly, Volume 48, Number 2 (2014): 38-39.
3. Retallack, Joan. The Poethical Wager (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
4. Scott, Gail, Interview with Brenda Coultas, Denver Quarterly, Volume 48, Number 1 (2013): 99-108.