Editing Workshop: The Poetics of Sentences

October 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

As we have seen and read, Emerson is thought to have applied his poetic theory best in his prose. His sentences are his poetic lines.

When we revise and when we edit, we can also think of our sentences and our words with reference to poetics, ways for making  the essay move. Here are some ways for giving more attention to the specificity of sentences and words.

  1. Varieties of Sentence Style. A useful overview of what sentences are, how they work, the different kinds.Sentence variation is effective poetically and rhetorically in an essay–so having a better grasp of sentence variety will help. A
  2. Syntax: Parataxis vs. Hypotaxis. See this short article for a discussion of the two basic ways of organizing sentences. Emerson’s sentence style is known for its parataxis.There is also further discussion of this here that extends to periodic vs. running style of sentences. Since variety, again, is effective, think of providing some variation of paratactic and hypotactic.
  3. Topic Sentences and Signposting. Topic sentences are a key element in the arrangement of the essay–how the writer moves the reader through the argument. Signposts are key for coherence. Emerson’s essays, despite appearances, effectively and deliberately use both. In fact, part of the problem may be, as the philosopher Stanley Cavell noted, that every sentence in an Emerson essay functions like a topic sentence.
  4. Specificity of Language. Edit out phrases that leave things the argument or idea  vague; replace with more specific reference. Sometimes this is a matter of selecting stronger verbs and more complex nouns; sometimes, this is a matter of substituting for some of the pronouns we use too frequently (it, he, she) or too loosely (this, without a reference to what this is: this idea of creation…). It is also a matter of editing for more specific verbs. Consider, as one tool for getting a better grasp on the implications of words (as well as relations, synonyms), using Wordnik.
    1. Consider: is there a word in Emerson’s essays, or in Dickinson’s poems, or even in the entirety of Leaves of Grass, that you could argue wasn’t somehow deliberate and specific in its purpose? For a good poetic demonstration of, and argument for, specificity, read Robert PInsky’s poem “Shirt.”
  5. Worst sentence ever? You can try your hand, with an international contest–The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, named for the guy who wrote this sentence:
    1. It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” — Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)
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