Teaching Lessons

Everything In Its Right Place

By Stanley Plumly | June 6, 2016


You learn from any number of teachers, more often than not in bits and pieces—a remembered word, a phrase, a critical comment, and, of course, by example. But for a whole and sustained “lesson,” I’d have to say that poet Hollis Summers’s graduate course in stylistics (1964, Ohio University) was transformative for me, in that it taught me the often hairline difference between an almost good sentence and an excellent sentence; and, even more, the absolute need of sentences to move together, effectively and beautifully, in a paragraph—which involves a power beyond mere music.

Summers’s teaching method involved, primarily, the reading of bad prose (genre fiction mostly), which we were tasked to edit into something better—leaner, meaner, word to word. No additions, only subtractions. For me, the most lasting part of the exercise, so many decades later, is the ongoing realization that good poetry is good prose (as Pound says) and that the best words in their best order (as Coleridge says) applies as well to the best sentences in their best order. Hemingway advances on the same lesson in A Moveable Feast: “You could omit anything if you knew that … the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.”

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