Friday, June 23, 2006


Rain drips from the broad green leaves of the catalpa tree in our front yard. The neighborhood is silent, save for jostling of wind and rain brushed leaves and the sound of the storm slicking the streets.

Michelle and the dogs are upstairs, asleep, perhaps stirring ever so slightly as the rain patters down against the skylight near our bed. I am tired. Today, for the most part, was an exercise in frustration. Much of the day, I sat here in this office, as the dogs bolted back and forth across the slight descending hill of our backyard, pausing now and then to growl at each other or an errant squirrel chattering down at them from the relative safety of tree-top branches.

In this office, filled with sun, I spent much of the day trying to think like a first-generation Chinese-American from Connecticut who moved to San Francisco in 1998. I had her voice for a moment or two, but the textures and the variations in syntax escaped me for the most part. Still, I kept trying, frustrating myself with my inability to find a rhythm I had discovered about a month ago.

Strange, but in many ways, this was the whole of my day. Of course, I spent stretches of time snoozing with the puppies. I used a few minutes here or there to rub the delicate space behind Dixie’s floppy canine ears. I spent a few minutes tossing a squeaking red plastic ball for Archie, watching him hop on his hind legs toward the ball in my hand. And I spent a few evening hours with my wife, eating dinner and watching a DVD of The Thin Man.


Regardless of what else I may think about the day, my mind keeps circling back, like a shark that can never stop swimming, to the subtle variations in syntax I just couldn’t manage.

Syntax, of course, is vital to writing, but in an essay, a proposal, or even a memoir, the use of syntax is, typically, little more than a stylistic choice. You can use the shape of your sentences, the interplay of complex, compound, and simple sentences (and sometimes fragments) to reflect your own voice. In poetry and fiction, however, syntax seems to me to mean so much more.

Consider, for example, the case of the persona poem. Imagine writing a poem from the perspective of an 18th century courtesan. How would your language change? Would you modify phrases differently? Would you be satisfied with simple, direct statements of the Hemmingway ilk? Or would your sentences loll on and on, couched like gilded patterns in red velvet, as threads of thought wound from participle to participle?

More, in a poem, you have those nasty line breaks to navigate. Should this line be enjambed? Should the line be end-stopped? Should a sentence flow from line to line to line like one of the complex metaphors that glisten from Satan’s slithering lips in Milton’s Paradise Lost?

Oh, there is much to think about!

But, somehow, you will know. You will find the rhythms (one hopes) that cling to the content you are trying to convey. You will know the phrases that can be elided and the participles that can be dangled—against reason—to convey the simulation of speech from a particular person at a particular time in a particular place.

The key, I suppose, is to listen.


Post a Comment

<< Home