Saturday, August 02, 2008

Ellen Bryant Voigt: Syntax in Poetry

There will soon be a new tool available for lyric and narrative poets: Ellen Bryant Voigt is now finishing a book on syntax -- the way words are put together, and in poetry, the way the poem is a poem, not just a story or reflection. With this work in mind, Voigt's session with Advanced Placement Institute teachers in St. Johnsbury,Vermont, this week focused on how one of her poems, "The Hive" (found in her new collection THE MESSENGER), does its work. It begins:

To do something with it; to make something of it;
language races alongside, any given minute,

anything that happens--flies ahead of it
or lags behind, looking for meaning, beyond us yet,

Voigt pointed to the couplet structure of the poem and mentioned that each is a stanza (the word derives from the Italian for "little room") and that the white space of the stanza break insists that the reader pause, allowing a question to register of "why is this space here?" She noted that the stanza "is another opportunity that we poets have that the poor fiction writers do not." When one teacher asked her about a pair of the poem's questions crammed into one couplet, with one of the questions broken off by the stanza break, Voigt explained, "What I'm trying to do is to rearrange that, to make you hear something else."

and little bits of paper handy in your pocket,
are you not a monster? But is the human mind not

monstrous in its secret appetites, its habits?

Comparing the work to prose, where the effort of reading is for "discursive information" and the form is promptly forgotten, as long as it contains subject and verb, Voigt said, "What poetry does is slow your brain down so you won't do that as quickly." It creates additional information that is not just discursive, but emotive, in response to the words being read. In "The Hive," the emotional moment of the poem is yet to come, fastened upon in a hospital waiting room. I won't spoil the suspense by giving the rest of the poem here -- it's worth reading in its entirety.

"Structure is the order in which information is released to the reader," she emphasized, drawing the teachers into exploring her sequence of words in the final line of the poem, "back to the humming, hungry, constricted hive." And for the buildup to that in the poem, "If it doesn't move, if it doesn't change, if it doesn't develop and change, it's not a poem. That's what we mean by structure."

For many in the room, this level of analysis was clearly new. Voigt's teaching style insists on participation and on the "students" taking risks in answering her questions, though, and after she'd worked with the group for 45 minutes on "The Hive," some were grappling successfully with the concepts she introduced. They adjusted seats quickly to be able to look into shared copies of her book as she gave them a quick introduction to "Rubato," a poem written as a sequence: "Sequence is something that I've gotten into over the years; it gives you a chance to come at something from seven different directions."

I'll be watching eagerly for Voigt's new work on syntax, to add to her earlier exploration of the underpinnings of poetry in THE FLEXIBLE LYRIC. Meanwhile, it's time for another, more informed reading of her National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle award finalist, THE MESSENGER.

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