The Poetry of the Paragraph: Some Notes
By Gary Lutz.
I want to talk about paragraphs, the shapes paragraphs take in the fiction of some writers I admire, but I probably have to talk first (at least a little) about individual sentences and what goes on in them when a writer is fully awake to their creation. What has struck me is how the writers I return to again and again are uncannily attentive to sound, not just to rhythm and cadence but to the patterns of vowels and consonants. In discussions of prose fiction, we are so accustomed to thinking about plots and characters and themes and such that we often lose sight of the fact that a story proceeds one sentence at a time and that a sentence is ultimately an object, a thing, a layout of language. It took me many years to realize how a sentence in prose can afford the reader many of the pleasures we have been taught to regard as being exclusive to the precincts of poetry. Two of my favorite contemporary fiction writers are Christine Schutt and Sam Lipsyte. Both are writers of dark fiction, but the tones and emotionality of the stories and novels written by Schutt and those by Lipsyte could not be more different; Lipsyte writes dark comedy, and Schutt writes dark drama. Yet if we look closely at their sentences, we can see that both writers are often operating with a similar set of principles. I want to discuss and illustrate a few of them.
Let’s look first at some specimens from Lipsyte’s most recent novel, The Ask, and Schutt’s first novel, Florida:
Viola tones rose from a carved alcove.
Our intimacy was largely civic.
The bile was a good sign.
Men of his station were bred for such pettiness.
Once you’ve tasted the hate, it’s hard to forsake that unique and heavenly flavor.
So maybe I wanted all these memories, the sorrows and the hollows.
I lived in the bliss of mystery.
Arthur found my mother’s missing glove in the shoveling.
[Describing a house] Here was a spinster closed for winter.
The coarse repair of what that girl tore.
I was twenty-seven; I saw death behind every sentence.
Among other things, what holds these sentences together is assonance — the repetition of a dominating vowel sound in prominent words of the sentence. Notice how in the first example, the long o appears not only in the subject and in the verb, but also in the adjective modifying the subject and in the object of the preposition in the adverbial prepositional phrase following the verb. In the second and third examples, the principal vowel declares itself in the subject and in the complement of the linking verb was, giving the sentence an acoustical symmetry. Unobtrusive assonance is one of the ways in which a writer can unite the words of a sentence so that the relations between words are not simply grammatical and syntactical but also acoustical as well. Furthermore, when a writer is searching for a word to fill a vacant slot in a sentence, the writer can look to the other prominent words in the sentence, examine their sonic disposition, and borrow something of their sound: this can lead the writer to a word that might not otherwise occur to him or her. In the last of the Lipsyte examples, for instance, notice how unusual, unexpected, and striking that farewell word is. Lipsyte wanted to follow the direct object of the sentence with an appositive consisting of two nouns. The first noun, “sorrows,” has an expectable quality to it, because memories, after all, often have to do with loss. But Lipsyte obviously wanted the sentence to end in a way a reader cannot predict, and he solved his problem by looking closely at the noun that appears first in the appositive, and then not only did he carry forward the long o sound, but he also carried forward the shape of the syllable containing the long o; he was looking for a word ending in a silent w, and he found it in “hollows.”
Let’s consider another technique that Schutt and Lipsyte often use.
Why did I slaver for slaughter?
Grizzled men grilling meat.
I had learned long ago how to refine the raw guilt into a sweet, granulated resentment.
His bookplated books show my father had affection for bullying poets — hairy, bearish, mad.
Nonna’s heart was ridged, rough, dry.
For lunch, he ate dryly cooked fish he only flicked at with his fork…
In each of these sentences, we see the writers working with alliteration — the patterned repetition of consonants. Often, when alliteration is discussed, the emphasis is on only the repetition of consonants at the beginnings of words, but writers can also alliterate by reaching into the insides of words, and to the ends of words, as we can see, for instance, in the third Lipsyte specimen, in which the most conspicuous alliteration is in the initial r’s of “refine,” “raw,” and “resentment,” and in which there are two more subtle forms of alliteration — first of the t’s in “to,” “ guilt,” “into,” “sweet,” “granulated,” and “resentment,” and finally of the liquid l’s in “learned,” “long,” “guilt,” and “granulated.” The second of the Schutt examples also illustrates how alliteration can carry over into the interiors of words: we see the r’s at the beginnings of “ridged” and “rough,” but the alliteration is extended as well into “heart” and “dry.”
Alliteration, when handled carefully and unobtrusively, is one of the techniques by which a writer can fasten words to the page in a way that feels final and definitive. The repeated consonants give the sentence a finish and a permanence that’s physically visual and acoustical as well. But how does such a writer proceed from the stand-alone beauty of a sentence to the expanse of a paragraph — in particular, a paragraphic alternative to the “this happened, and then that happened” mass of sentences, with (too often) its dead matter of mere exposition, mere narration?
One way to get a paragraph going boldly is to set a single sentence in motion and then let each of the coming sentences challenge or overturn or reformulate the one just before it, in a procedure that is not one of addition or accretion but instead a revisionary process; each new sentence breaks away from, or reconstitutes, its predecessor in maneuvers that the master teacher and editor Gordon Lish has called the swerve and consecution. Think of Samuel Beckett’s often-cited independent clauses ending the flow of the long, final sentence in his novel The Unnameable — the clauses “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” — and you confront the swerve in purest form, but let’s look at how a paragraph can emerge by means of the swerve.
Three pages into Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever, a novel composed of five hundred and thirty-six short segments, comes the seventh segment, which consists in its entirety of the following four sentences laid out as a single paragraph:
Nowadays, I don’t try to talk. I try to do the talking. So I don’t talk. Or, at least, I try not to.
The jumpy poetry, the eloquently agitated speech, of this paragraph arises from the narrator’s reconstitution of each previous utterance. Notice how in the fourth sentence the four core words of the independent clause “I try not to” were already present in the first sentence and have been allowed to emerge in permutational form in the sequence of restatings that make up the paragraph. Every sentence pivots or swivels off its foregoer and carries forward some of its language. No new content-delivering words are introduced. Each sentence plays itself out into the next, overthrowing the earlier, antecedent one, by reframing it or reversing it. The paragraph gives us three swerves off the first sentence.
A variation on this form of paragraph is the almost overaggressive paragraph in which it’s as if each new sentence were shouldering the previous ones aside, all but obliterating them, and asserting its dominance, so that the paragraph, instead of building to a climax, delivers a series of climaxes. There is not so much forward movement as a sequence of declarations, each of which is crying out for eternal visibility and audibility, and seeking preeminence. This sort of paragraph derives from the paragraphs in the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, which, as it is famously known, were usually assembled from loose sentences in his journals. Each sentence does not so much develop the idea expressed in its predecessor as deliver an audaciously fresh statement that has an independent, often aphoristic presence. The relationship between each sentence and its neighbors in the paragraph is expressed not by means of traditional transitional devices, such as conjunctive adverbs; instead, the connections need to be inferred. Writing to Thomas Carlyle, Emerson said of his paragraphs that they were masses of “infinitely repellent particles,” the particles being of course the sentences withdrawn from his journals; and the literary critic F. O. Matthiessen, in his landmark study of mid-nineteenth-century American writers, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, said of Emerson’s affinity for aphoristically compressed expression that “such intensification of the moment in literature would be the natural instrument of the man for whom the intensification of the moment was the meaning in life.” Emerson’s belief in the primacy of the sentence is also at the fore in his declaration that “the way to write is to throw your body at the mark when all your arrows are spent.” Matthiessen’s further statement that “the problem of Emerson’s prose was the same as that of his philosophy, how to reconcile the individual with society, how to join his sentences into a paragraph.” I cite these two quotations because they bear on what has been happening in the paragraphs of certain contemporary writers whose pursuit of an extreme individuality of style in their every sentence has its consequences in the disposition of their paragraphs. I’m thinking in particular of the late Barry Hannah and a single paragraph illustrative of the brawling, roughhouse aphoristicity of his finest work. It’s the first paragraph from the third segment of his short story “It Spoke of Exactly the Things,” in his very short collection Captain Maximus. This is a paragraph of nine sentences, all short, some in fact extremely short:
California is an excellent place for polishing your hatreds. The countryside is gorgeous and has made all the Californians into morons. They all deserve a drunken, abusive stepfather, like I was. They call for the mirror always. Ah, well, what you cannot correct you can at least insult. They need plenty of rest and expensive food and constant petting. It requires high health to murder the day with banality. Mom bathes a lot. The odor of cradlepuke from grown children must get dire at times.
Let’s consider, to use a word that has fallen out of use, the facture of this paragraph and its constituent sentences, facture meaning, as Merriam-Webster explains, “the manner in which something ([such] as an artistic work) is made,” its “execution.”
Notice, first, how Hannah’s sentences rush out at you as leveling generalizations, each presenting itself as a definitive pronouncement, an inevitable assessment of a culture, each a fresh blast of criticism, each shoving aside the sentence that comes before. The arrangement of the sentence is deliberately deprived of the transitional apparatus of the conventional orderly prose of exposition and argument, the only stab at achieving coherence being the plural third-person pronoun they, which, positioned at the start of three sentences, lends a parallelism to three sentences at the paragraph’s center. The paragraph otherwise assaults us with a spatter of sentences sufficient unto themselves, each having the force of a conclusion or summation. What we get is a series of snarled denunciations with no cushioning between them. The result is a paragraph of extraordinary verbal pressure. Every sentence is a focal point; there’s no periphery to this paragraph. Its every sentence is its own nucleus. Each would have been the culmination of a lesser writer’s paragraph. To borrow some other phrases of Emerson’s, this paragraph is “a shower of bullets”; it “has salt & fire in it”; “every sentence [is] a surprise.” “All writing,” Emerson wrote, “should be selection in order to drop every dead word.”
Second, consider the facture of the individual sentences themselves. At first, they may seem blunt and rough-hewn, but the more you stare at them, the more you realize that what accounts for their power is their carefully worked shapes and their acoustical ambitions. The first sentence — “California is an excellent place for polishing your hatreds” — is held together by the assonance of the long a and the alliteration of the p’s. Unifying the elements of the second sentence — “The countryside is gorgeous and has made all the Californians into morons” — is the sound of or in three words, though, subordinately, there are alliterations of the c and the m. As we get further into the paragraph, the sentences become more strikingly epigrammatic in their design: “They call for the mirror always” has the framing al sound in two of its most conspicuous positions,” and after the colloquial interjections at the head of “Ah, well, what you cannot correct you can at least insult,” we find that the stricture of the pronouncement is reinforced by the hard, alliterated, terminal t’s of six of the words in the eleven-word utterance (“what,” “cannot,” “correct,” “at,” “least,” “insult”) — further reminder that alliteration can occur not only at the beginnings of words but at their ends as well. This sentence is a vivid illustration of a statement by Roland Barthes about the nature of the maxim in his essay on the seventeenth-century writer La Rochefoucauld. Barthes writes that “the maxim is a hard, shiny — and fragile — object, like an insect’s thorax; like an insect, too, the maxim possesses a sting, that hook of sharp-pointed words which conclude and crown it — which close it even as they arm it (the maxim is armed because it is closed).” Elsewhere in the essay, he writes that a maxim must have a “hook” that “catches.”
Hannah’s next sentence — “They need plenty of rest and expensive food and constant petting” — is stabilized by its alliterated short e in “plenty,” “rest,” “expensive,” and “petting,” as well as by alliterated p’s and t’s throughout the words. And have a look at the final three sentences: “It requires high health to murder the day with banality. Mom bathes a lot. The odor of cradlepuke from grown children must get dire at times.” They shift defiantly in register from the casual to the hyperformal, from homely words like “bathe” to the neologism of “cradlepuke,” and together the sentences offer a sonic richness of long a’s. The paragraph resultant from these nine sentences has the permanence and unchallengeability characteristic of the finest writing.
Another category of paragraph is one through much of which runs a single, dominant, unifying vowel—in other words, an assonantal paragraph. Christine Schutt is a perfectionist of this sort of paragraph. Here is a sample of hers in which the ow sound—the sound of ouch, the sound of hurt—is conspicuous and predominant. Though it doesn’t make its entrance until the second sentence, every ensuing sentence except one short one offers this plangent diphthong. No matter where you travel in this paragraph, you are never far from this vowelly outcry. It’s as if Schutt were following this sound, heeding it as she moved forward. The paragraph appears about midway in her first novel, Florida:
My father never came back—no matter what he may have promised. He took off one morning in the car we called the Mouse: gray, rounded fenders, a grill that looked like a snout and a decoration of chrome banding the hood for whiskers. The Mouse was a harmless name for a harmless-looking car, and it killed him; or it was the water that took his life though he drove to it. The rolled up-windows imploded, sounding the glassy dazzle and rush of water as my father passed down and down in what might have been a lie, the story of how he died. I never did see him again. He was elsewhere buried after he was found.
Other assonantal patterns here and there arise and deliquesce within a single sentence, but the ow is persistent and it literally gets the last word — and it also plays through the single-sentence paragraph that immediately follows and that closes the short chapter: “Late spring, hard ground, then from out of nowhere nodding flowers and loaded branches.”
Then there’s the multi-pattern paragraph, a writerly feat often found in Lipsyte’s fiction. Here’s a sample from his first novel, The Subject Steve:
I drove to Cudahy’s grave. Cudahy has no grave. I parked and walked the pathways of the tony boneyard where somewhere a sandwich-sized wedge of granite bore his name. We’d cindered him, after all, old Cudahy, poured him into the Florentine—where were his ashes now? In mini-storage? On a hock-shop shelf? Beside the chipped china and warped seventy-eights at some old biddy’s going-out-of-subsistence yard sale?—but an anonymous donor had sprung for a marker, a simple stone in this spare outer lawn, this necropolitan burb, set aside for the absentee dead.
The paragraph begins with the swerve of “I drove to Cudahy’s grave. Cudahy has no grave.” Throughout the remainder of the paragraph, a particular sound is picked up and repeated into phrasing that introduces yet another sound that is then pursued into later words. Let’s look closely at the third sentence. In “parked,” the p and the k prepare us for the k of “walked,” the p of “pathways,” the direct object in the independent clause; and the long a of the second syllable of that direct object prepares us for the long a of the direct object ending the sentence in a dependent clause: “name.” At the end of the independent clause, the long o unites the object of the preposition with its predecessive adjective. And, importantly, the or sound in the transitive verb in the dependent clause, “bore,” prepares us for the or sounds in “poured” and “Florentine” and “storage” in the two sentences that follow — two sentences that also have a short i running through them. In “On a hock-shop shelf?,” the short o of “hock” delivers us to the short o in “shop,” and the sh in “shop” gives us the sh in “shelf.” Short and long i’s mostly have the run of half of the next sentence before the dash divides it, though a long a sound is set down at the midpoint, in “seventy-eights” and directly before the dash in “sale.” After the dash, the lone o of the subject, “donor,” is repeated in the headword of the appositive phrase, “stone”; “set,” at the start of the sentence-ending participial phrase, continues the spray of sibilances of the phrasing before the dash and prepares us for further sibilances in “aside” and “absentee,” and “set” also gives us the vowel that will end the sentence, in “dead.”
But let’s not overlook paragraphs of just a sentence or two. Two consecutive short paragraphs appear at the end of the fourth segment of Lipsyte’s sad but funny summer-camp story, “Admiral of the Swiss Navy,” in his first book, a collection of short stories called Venus Drive:
I didn’t mind the cracks, but I missed the camaraderie.
I calcified, got crusty. I lost my boxball crown.
So much is going on acoustically in the space of a mere nineteen words: not just the alliteration of k sounds in the c’s but also of the kr sounds. Notice the symmetry in the two independent clauses of the first sentence: the principal verb in each begins with an m, and the progression of vowels in those two verbs is from the confidently long i to the diminished sound of the short i in “missed” — reinforcing the sense of the sentence. In the second paragraph, the al in “calcified” has its counterpart in the al of “boxball,” and the short o of “got,” in the first sentence, furthers itself into “lost” and “boxball” of the second sentence. Notice how a k or kr sound appears at the start of the final word in each of the four independent clauses.
Finally, there’s the solitude of a single-sentence paragraph, which often earns its keep with assonance and alliteration. Here are some loner-sentence paragraphs from Schutt’s Florida:
More and more that was how Mother had worn her face: all mouth.
Nonna’s wide-awake company, wet eyes on me!
Daddy’s mistress had a heart that wasn’t bitter.
Like me, she had to sleep near a glass of water.
The urge to loll in a warm place is the same wherever I go.
Writers as singular and as unexampled as Schutt and Lipsyte, each with a distinctive vision of the world and a distinctive voice with which to express it, make every syllable work, both in the close quarters of the sentence and in the roomier realm of the paragraph.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gary Lutz‘s books include The Gotham Grammarian, Divorcer, and Stories in the Worst Way (all from Calamari Press); I Looked Alive (Black Square Editions); and Partial List of People to Bleach (Future Tense Books). A chapbook of new fiction, Assisted Living, will be published by Future Tense Books in late 2016.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 1st, 2016.