Ellen Bryant Voigt on the Craft of Syntax

file00089154203When a poet doesn’t want to explore sentence structure in poetry, I opined at the last Book Club for Poets discussion, it’s as serious as saying that he or she isn’t interested in imagery or metaphor or alliteration. Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Art of Syntax offers numerous examples of the ways in which syntax is a powerful poetic tool: it heightens the music and rhythm of a poem, affects the pacing and unfolding of ideas and images, creates and varies patterns of language, and reinforces or plays against the unit of the line. And this tool is as essential in free verse as it is in metrical verse. Voigt says toward the end of the book,

It’s true that during the twentieth century, coincident with a greater tolerance for dissonance in all the arts, more room was sought for asymmetry and variation in poetry, but this now seems less a revolution than an evolution of aesthetic intent. And after one hundred years of free verse invention and mastery, contemporary poets need not focus solely on lineation … Lineation affords quite evident and audible opportunities for making pattern, and we will and should go on exploring them all. But it’s useful to remember that other sorts of pattern are also there for us to use—rhythms inherent to the language we write in, the source of its muscle and sinew and music, its clarity and its resonance and its power. (144)

Those patterns-beneath-the-patterns are what we focused on in our discussion of The Art of Syntax. In Donald Justice’s “To the Hawks,” for instance, the sentence structure creates certain kinds of repetition and variation, in addition to the more obvious couplets and internal rhymes. Voigt notes, for instance, that the poem both begins and ends with sentences that are complete, end-stopped, within the couplet stanza (101–102; 108). Here are the opening stanzas:

Farewell is the bell
Beginning to ring.

The children singing
Do not year hear it.

And here are the concluding stanzas:

Her mouth is open
To sound the alarm.

The mouth of the world
Grows round with the sound.

In between this opening and ending, the sentences begin to overflow the unit of the couplet, so that the fourth and fifth sentences are much longer (104): the fifth sentence is over ten lines long; the fifth, eight lines. The syntax also becomes more complex, including “hypotaxis” (sentences that include both a main and dependent clauses) (104-105):

… The sun Is in fact shining
Upon the schoolyard,

On children swinging
Like tongues of a bell

Swung out on the long
Arc of a silence

That will not seem to
Have been a silence

Till it is broken
As it is breaking.

Justice’s poem also shows how syntax can unfold in a way that puts particular emphasis on an image. See how the delayed predicate in these lines emphasizes “farewell”:

The young schoolteacher,
Waving one arm in

Time to the music,
Is waving farewell.

What Voigt calls a “violent enjambment” (107) also slows our comprehension of what is happening here: “Waving one arm in” seems to be a description of movement—as in, I’m not waving my arm outward toward the world but inward, toward myself or toward the interior of a building. But the rest of the sentence “corrects” this initial reading: the teacher is waving “in / Time to the music.” After that momentary adjustment, our minds are hit with the final line and, with it, the reality of what’s happening in the poem: students and teacher in a schoolyard being interrupted mid-gesture, mid-song, as a nuclear bomb hits.

In our discussion, we also spent time reviewing statements Voigt makes about English in particular—that it is a language that relies on the stress of syllables to create meaning and that our syntax depends heavily on the order of words in a sentence (rather than word endings to indicate “subject,” “direct object” and so on). What all this means is that the tension between metrical patterns and speech rhythms is particularly marked in English. I have already discussed meter and syntax—quoting Voigt—in my post about Larkin’s “The Trees” and “Cut Grass,” so for now I’ll point out what Voigt notices about the “flexible grid” (54) that meter often has to be in English poetry, as illustrated in Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29.” She notes how the Bard slowly unfolds the “fundament” of subject and predicate, delaying the completion of his first sentence—while varying the iambic pattern in virtually every line of the poem (54-61). Try reading the poem aloud and listen especially for the bunched stresses, as in men’s eyes, outcast state, deaf heaven.

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising
Haply I think on thee—and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Do you see it? The first main clause of the poem does not appear until line 10: “Haply I think on thee—” And at this point, the entire mood of the poem also shifts, from despair to joy. What also anticipates this shift—in terms of sound—is the truly iambic rhythm of “With what I most enjoy contented least,” which Voigt identifies as “the poem’s first exactly iambic pentameter line, one that is completely consistent with lexical, syntactical, and rhetorical stresses” (57-58). This line concludes the poem’s opening octave, and the following sestet also ends with a line in which the spoken rhythms of English match the abstract pattern of iambic pentameter: “That then I scorn to change my state with kings.” The emotional resolution of the poem is mirrored by the regularity of the iambic pentameter, which gives the poem what Voigt calls its “unmistakable and gratifying closure” (61). Far from being a “flaw” in English poetry, this tension between meter and syntax gives poets an opportunity to embody and resolve tension and drama.

For this session of the Book Club for Poets, we had time not only to look at one of Voigt’s own poems in terms of its syntax but also to do a writing exercise ourselves. I’m hoping to do more exercises in the future.

We were also so taken with Donald Justice’s poems in Voigt’s discussions that we decided to discuss Justice’s Collected Poems (Knopf, 2006) for our April 16, 2013, meeting. If you have favorite poems within the collection, let me know, and I’ll try to fit them into our discussion.


Voigt, Ellen Bryant. The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song. (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2009).

© 2013 Martha Carlson-Bradley