Writing Lessons

The Art of the Sentence

By Stanley Plumly | November 10, 2014


W. H. Auden says that the mark of a true writer is liking to hang around words. Edgar Degas once complained to his friend Stéphane Mallarmé that although he had great ideas, he could not manage to write a real poem. To which Mallarmé responded that poems are made of words not ideas. Words, as means and matter, were my first take on the art of writing—the obvious fact that writing is first and last words, and that, as Coleridge says, good writing is the best words in their best order.

I came to writing, therefore, through writing: through the discovery of what good American English and English writing is. I came to poetry through good prose, for as Pound puts it, poetry ought to be at least as good as good prose. I’m talking about the art of the sentence, especially the modern sentence as practiced by Henry James, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, James Agee, and Saul Bellow, in which writing becomes the language of the experience. I’m not talking about a writer such as John Updike, who, too often—notably in his fiction—writes exclusively in the experience of the language.

My high school English teacher, Nellie Otte, was the first person to rub my nose into bad sentence-making; she, in effect gave me permission to speak on paper in a language of truth, of transparency. She helped me understand that language is what we see through, think through, know through. So my first poems were prose poems, moments of specific experience realized in sentences, best words, best order. After the sentence, then, comes the paragraph, which is really a form of the sentence writ larger, fuller, deeper, filled with balance. The balance is the beautiful part. And after the paragraph or the stanza comes the whole piece, whatever. Or as Hemingway puts it, in Death in the Afternoon, prose is architecture, not interior design. The so-called subject will always be there, since words fail us. It’s just that we must not fail the words.

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