Arrangements of the Line: Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Art of Syntax:
Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song

Art of Syntax

The Art of Syntax: Rhythm
of Thought, Rhythm of Song

BY Ellen Bryant Voigt
(Graywolf Press, 2009)

From the Publisher:

“Ellen Bryant Voigt parses out the deft and alluring shape of poetic language in The Art of Syntax. Through… readings of poems by Bishop, Frost, Kunitz, Lawrence, and others, Voigt examines the signature musical scoring writers deploy to orchestrate meaning. ‘This structure — this architecture — is the essential drama of the poem’s composition,’ she argues.”

“For the past one hundred years,” writes Ellen Bryant Voigt in The Art of Syntax, “poets have been… fretting about the poetic line, what it can do, when released from a priori patterns” (pp. 20-21). As part of The Art of Syntax, one of Graywolf Press’s The Art of series that is edited by Charles Baxter, this book looks at the syntactic structure buried in all verse, from Robert Frost’s controlled iambics to D. H. Lawrence’s ecstatic lines in “The Snake.” Revelatory as a study of how poets manipulate their sentences in subtle, yet crucial ways to create “surprise and energy,” The Art of Syntax is a worthwhile book on craft.

The first chapter, “Language, Literacy, and Literature,” reminds us that “In English, the fundamental building blocks are subject, verb and optional verb object” (p. 6). This structure provides the “crucial unit of coherence and relation,” that is, the sentence, upon which all spoken and written communication depends. With the sentence as its engine, language moves to literacy, and literacy to literature, a natural progression from speaking to reading and writing. This first chapter lays the groundwork for the rest of the book, a detailed explication of the sentence’s role in poetry.

Poets and scholars alike will learn from Chapter 2, “The Sentence and the Line,” which explores how phrasing, meter and pulse exist in both musical measures and poetic lines. Voigt wisely states that “Poetic meter is more dissimilar than similar to musical meter” (p.24), but musical measures and poetic lineation both demonstrate where and when a phrase begins and ends. Using Stanley Kunitz’s poem “King of the River,” she leads us through lineation that is used in a firm, logical way; most lines are end-stopped or pause at a natural caesura, and the poem lacks enjambments. “King of the River,” for all its free-form lines and meandering appearance, is tightly structured; each stanza ends in a period, a complete unit. Kunitz once said, “You cannot write a poem until you hit upon its rhythm. That rhythm belongs to the subject matter… You can ride on that rhythm, it will carry you someplace strange” (p. 42). This quote emphasizes Voigt’s point that line and syntax must work together or in opposition, and that this “dynamic interplay” makes the best poetry in the English language.

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