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Flash Focus: The Sentence’s Sentence

An arti­cle I encoun­tered recently–Robert Connors’s “The Era­sure of the Sen­tence” from Col­lege Com­po­si­tion and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion (Sep. 2000)–dis­cussed the dis­ap­pear­ance of the sen­tence from com­po­si­tion stud­ies:

The sen­tence was erased by the grad­ual but inevitable hard­en­ing into dis­ci­pli­nary form of the field of com­po­si­tion stud­ies as a sub­field of Eng­lish stud­ies.

In dis­cussing what was lost, Con­nors talked about Fran­cis Chris­tensen and his Rhetoric Pro­gram for the sen­tence and para­graph. I found an old work­book, its pages full of sen­tences from Hem­ing­way, Faulkner, Cather, Fitzger­ald, Porter, each exer­cise ask­ing stu­dents to gen­er­ate their own sen­tences by imi­tat­ing, ana­lyz­ing, expand­ing upon the given sen­tence. Chris­tensen writes in the Fore­word, “The pro­gram is one out­come of a con­vic­tion that in our com­po­si­tion courses we do not so much teach our stu­dents to write bet­ter as sim­ply expect them to writer bet­ter.” To teach writ­ing, Chris­tensen begins with the sen­tence.

Chris­tensen has plenty of inter­est­ing things to say about prose and sen­tences. Such as here:

The induc­tive study of prose revealed as the most inter­est­ing and sig­nif­i­cant fea­ture of sen­tences what is called in this pro­gram ‘free mod­i­fiers.’ These free mod­i­fiers, com­monly called sen­tence mod­i­fiers, are the prin­ci­pal work­ing unit of the pro­fes­sional writer. It is these mod­i­fiers, not sub­or­di­nate clauses, that give him [sic] his most use­ful options and make it pos­si­ble for him to say much in little–to make his writ­ing con­crete and speci­fic with­out mak­ing it pro­lix, to get the move­ment or rhythm that is the life of prose.

Must a prose writer love the sen­tence the way a poet, say, loves the line? I don’t know, and I do know the line break broke my poetic spirit, my inabil­ity to grasp it turn­ing me into a prose writer instead. I do love the sen­tence. This blog entry today isn’t very focused, except to say that I think that I shall gen­er­ate sen­tences more often, both as a writer and teacher. And that when I think of the sen­tence, I surely think of Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, but today I think of Woolf’s Mrs. Dal­loway.

For hav­ing lived in Westminster–how many years now? over twenty,–one feels even in the midst of the traf­fic, or wak­ing at night, Clarissa was pos­i­tive, a par­tic­u­lar hush, or solem­nity; an inde­scrib­able pause; a sus­pense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warn­ing, musi­cal; then the hour, irrev­o­ca­ble.

The sen­tence pauses, strikes, a sus­pense, booms, irrev­o­ca­ble. And that voice embed­ded within Woolf’s final word here. Won­drous. And this:

It rasped her, though, to have stir­ring about in her this bru­tal mon­ster! to hear twigs crack­ing and feel hooves planted down in the depths of that leaf-encum­bered forest, the soul; never to be con­tent quite, or quite secure, for at any moment the brute would be stir­ring, this hatred, which, espe­cially since her ill­ness, had power to make her feel scraped, hurt in her spine; gave her phys­i­cal pain, and made all plea­sure in beauty, in friend­ship, in being well, in being loved and mak­ing her home delight­ful rock, quiver, and bend as if indeed there were a mon­ster grub­bing at the roots, as if the whole panoply of con­tent were noth­ing but self love! this hatred!

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From Trish

O the sen­tence! How I miss its ways. I don’t see much of the sen­tence these days now that he’s taken up with face­book­ers and text scallawags. I, do, after all, teach high school Eng­lish and the sen­tence (to many of my stu­dents) seems like a quaint indul­gence allowed Eng­lish instruc­tors of a cer­tain age. 

From Todd B Stevens

Era­sure of the Sen­tence” was an inter­est­ing piece. I think, as a poet, I think in terms of phrases. I occa­sion­ally have prob­lems with run-ons, and frag­ments because of this. When I deign to build a real, work­man­like, sen­tence I want it to be a majes­tic thing, mag­nif­i­cent and com­pli­cated, sub­tle but pow­er­ful. I don’t do that very often. Most of the time I have a phrase I like, and am work­ing about that. After all, I am a poet, and your petty sen­tences mean naught to me, if my muse is on me. I deal in ideas, and think in phrases. I’m think­ing of the begin­ning of *The Beau­ti­ful and the Damned* as a great sen­tence. Fitzger­ald keeps on com­ing up on this sub­ject, though Hem­ing­way in his Sub­ject. Verb. Object. min­i­mal­ism has some­thing to say.

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