Lines are to poems what laws are to governments—they create a tangible form of control—and since the advent of free verse they have been extended, subverted, overturned, and eliminated entirely by poets. Flip through any recent anthology and you can see the parliamentary negotiations.
Yet all the while, another powerful but more shadowy operation has been taking place. This is syntax. Prose writers use it, too. They write a long, languorous sentence that rolls and tumbles down the page, drifting and eddying away from its initial clause, circling back, and rising like a great green wave before crashing to its end. Or they write a short hard sentence, like a clap. Or a fragment. Snap.
No contemporary poet speaks more eloquently about this covert craft than Ellen Bryant Voigt, author of eight volumes of poetry, a former Vermont Poet Laureate, and a two-time finalist for the National Book Award. In her 2009 book, The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song, Voigt delivered a brilliant examination of syntax in poems, and how the sentence and the line operate together. As a poet and teacher, Voigt is known for her clarity and rhetorical authority, and The Art of Syntax is no exception, detailing exactly how a Frost or Kunitz poem works with and against English sentence structure to create its effect.
All this makes it particularly astonishing and wonderful to read Voigt’s new collection, Headwaters. At first glance, it appears as if Voigt uses no sentences at all. Certainly there are no periods, no commas, no colons, no dashes. The long lines twist down the page, one thought spilling into the next. The voice is wry, uncertain, as in the start of the title poem:
I made a large mistake I left my house I went into the world it was not
the most perilous hostile part but I couldn’t tell among the people there
And on it goes, unstoppable to the last line: “but don’t you think I’m doing better in this regard I try to do better.”
Although Voigt isn’t the first poet to work without punctuation, her formalist bent gives this book an extraordinary power. That is, Voigt’s lifelong interest in poetic structures makes the individual poems of Headwaters feel spontaneous, but the book itself highly composed, a monument to the conscious mind’s compulsion to order and interpret a chaotic world.
Voigt answered questions about her new collection, and the poetic process behind it, from her home in Vermont.
The Rumpus: This is your first poetry book after your collected poems, surely a moment of self-reckoning. And yet, Headwaters: the source of a river, the flow of a mind—the poems are so fresh and unleashed. What surprised you most when you started writing them?
Ellen Bryant Voigt: I think their tolerance of a certain kind of excess, particularly their double-stitching, that amount of direct repetition. It’s borne, perhaps, from recognition of impermanence, rather the opposite of chiseling a poem into stone—and unlike the chisel, it allows faster, multiple shifts of tone, redirections, mid-course corrections.
Rumpus: When you say “impermanence,” are you talking about the impermanence of language, of life, or… ? Why recognize it now?
Bryant Voigt: Yes: life, art, and these days even the planet—don’t you think? Seems to me it has always been absolutely in evidence, although one prefers to ignore it, that impermanence, or labor against it. That gets harder to do as one ages.
Rumpus: In The Art of Syntax, you use the image of the right-branching tree to talk about how an English sentence works. In my mind’s eye, I kept seeing a really lopsided tree, everything hanging off that initial clause. The syntactical tension in the Headwaters poems feels more Andy Goldsworthy—your clauses like twigs balanced against each other to create different patterns and shapes. Can you talk about your relationship to the sentence in these poems?
Bryant Voigt: I agree with you about that imbalanced tree! It’s a common simile in the world of grammarians that somehow stuck, even though it doesn’t accommodate introductory syntax, or the fact that we read English sentences left to right—a “left-branching” sentence would be oxymoronic. It’s somewhat useful in its isolation of the fundamental subject and verb, but that may be better caught in another simile, that of the “engine” of the sentence pulling its baggage cars behind it, or maybe pushing them.
What I have always loved about poetry is its two rhythmic systems—the rhythm of the sentence, which is the given, how we think, how we make meaning; and the rhythm of the poetic line, which is wholly artifice, made by the poet every time, in every poem, in every line—and the relationship between them. And yet, my preoccupation and my allegiance had been with and to line, not sentence. That’s what I tried to reverse in these poems. By removing the “markers” of punctuation, I had to rely on other syntactical signals, meanwhile disconnecting the brain’s “chunking” of syntactical units from moments of pause or rest, which punctuation also provides. No rest except at the end of the line or (a longer pause) the stanza. This was a way to enforce my own attention to the syntax, since I certainly still wanted clarity. The ideal was what Cristanne Miller called the “recoverable syntax” in Dickinson—there, of course, it’s achieved through excessive punctuation, all those dashes that give chunks of syntax both a backward and a forward connection. It seemed possible to approach something similar with a long, irregular-length line.
Rumpus: I love how this works on the page, but now I’m curious what happens when you read them aloud: if your voice pauses or stresses particular chunks that would flow together with a silent reading.
Bryant Voigt: No—I don’t think it’s different, except for the residues of my Southern accent, which tends to elongate vowels and add a few spondees. I’ve always been very strict about following what is scored on the page when I read the poem aloud, just as I am at every stage of composition. And I recommend that a reader do the same. A silent reading misses a substantial portion of what’s going on in almost any poem—its aural components, its connection to poetry’s beginnings as an art that was sung or danced or spoken. This is one of poetry’s great achievements—that paradox: the carefully made thing remains an utterance.
Rumpus: Did your writing process change for this book?
Bryant Voigt: All of these poems required a totally different approach to composition and revision, and I had to generate many drafts of about two-dozen of them before I had any clear sense of how to go about it. Some of those struggles were against the impulse toward brute economy, some of them were to avoid falling into a surface or linguistic mannerism, some were to create structural variety in a collection so highly repetitive, and idiosyncratic, in its formal protocol.
Rumpus: In “Privet Hedge” and other poems, a doubting voice talks about knowledge, especially the kind derived from classifying the world: “when my friend said/ knowledge does nothing for him I felt at once superior/ and chastised I’d just deduced the five new birds in my yard.” Does the poet in you ever war with the critic?
Bryant Voigt: I’m not a critic, so that’s one battle I am spared. In general, my war is with my temperament: I want to know things. But I also know enough to know that the most important things remain mysteries—isn’t that the nature of the human condition?
Rumpus: Do you have periods of self-doubt as a writer? What do you do to get through them?
Bryant Voigt: Always. I can’t really say I get through them at all. Eventually, you simply write anyway, or you don’t. It must be some sort of survival instinct that kicks in—the Habit of Mind, as Flannery called it, a soul-necessity.
Rumpus: You’ve spent years sorting out narrative and lyric impulses, i.e. poems that are stories and poems that are songs. What’s your take on the argument that poetry is in an “anti-narrative” moment?
Bryant Voigt: These things are cyclical. Prose rhythms and prose values—a recognizable speaker in a recognizable place with an accessible, perhaps autobiographical central event, in short declarative sentences and fairly regular lines—were a reaction against another sort of poem, and led to its own conventions. Efforts now abound to honor some greater indeterminacy—even to challenge the necessity for “meaning”—as has also happened at other points in literary history. I’m more interested in locating the choices, the strategies, that can enable one’s poems, which is why my own distinction between narrative and lyric centers on structure. Aristotle laid this out for us in the Poetics. A string quartet can play certain songs better than a brass band, but the reverse is also true.