I teach writing to international graduate students, who regularly charm me with their wildly inventive word order. When they are enrolled in an academic writing course, I am required, sadly, to help them standardize their sentences; but in my creative writing classes, we examine their haphazardly inverted phrases, delighting in the strangeness, sometimes stretching syntactical anomalies as far as we can, seeing what we can make the English language do.
Iterative restructuring of word order is not only a pedagogical tool, but also an effective syntactical strategy in poetry, where it is often employed to mirror the speaker’s grappling with a difficult subject. Again and again, the poet arranges a group of words into different phrases or sentences, allowing the reader to observe the speaker’s attempts to land on a line that resonates with an inexplicable event, or a difficult thought or feeling. These ruminations let the reader imagine the speaker’s (perhaps subconscious) thinking: If I could just get the word order correct, then I could understand what is happening.
Laura Kasischke uses this strategy in her volume Space, In Chains, in the opening stanzas of the poem ‘Dawn.’ Here, the speaker struggles to come to terms with a friend’s mental health crisis:
She was my friend who went crazy.
She was my crazy friend. Was
she crazy that day on the way to the lake, at
the mall, the luncheonette, my
bridal shower—was she crazy then?
In the first line the speaker uses the idiom ‘went crazy,’ suggesting by the verb choice that the friend has moved away from the speaker; in choosing this wording, the speaker emphasizes the distance between them. However, by the second line, the focus is on the relationship, so that by rearranging words and deleting ‘went,’ the speaker now pulls her friend closer, reclaiming the friendship, perhaps having repented of shoving her away in the previous line. The second and third stanzas turn to the interrogative to show the speaker worrying about event order, in particular wondering at which point in the timeline of the memorable events of their friendship the mental break occurred. The reordering of words echoes the reordering of events in the speaker’s mind, as she tries to pinpoint exactly when the friend ‘went crazy.’ In this way the syntactical choices double the effect.
It is often the incomprehensible that provokes this kind of iterative syntactical reordering. One of the most difficult subjects, the nature of God, inspires Christian Wiman to this strategy in the title poem from his collection Every Riven Thing: Poems. In the opening lines of each of four stanzas, an identical string of words is broken into different phrases and clauses through the use of punctuation. This allows the syntax to be altered greatly; for example, phrases that had previously ended a sentence will, in a later iteration, instead begin a sentence, creating lines that diverge in meaning as well as structure. Wiman has settled on the best words and the best order for his opening line(s), but he nonetheless struggles with syntax the way humans struggle to comprehend how the perfect nature of God can coexist with the brokenness of a world that is of his creation. Because this poem is about the riven nature of all things, this strategy of repeatedly breaking a word string is a particularly apt way to play with syntax.
God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why
God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he’s made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into the stillness where
God goes belonging. To every riven thing he’s made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself:
under the tree a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see
God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,
God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.
The initial assertion that ‘God goes’ is a stronger assertion than that ‘God exists,’ suggesting a God who acts and moves, although this movement is away from the speaker, going rather than coming. Yet, in God’s going he still paradoxically belongs to everything that ‘he’s made / sing his being,’ or that he has caused to testify of him, including man who ‘wonders why // God goes [away].’ This final phrase of the opening sentence begins the second iteration of the repeated word string, as it wraps into the first line of the second stanza. God is no longer the subject of the main clause, and later in the line, the ‘Belonging’ belongs not to God, but is instead now the subject as gerund, and such belonging brings the oxymoronic ‘storm of peace,’ as the grasping of speaker toward God continues to be reflected in the syntactical struggles. Additionally, the string of words is broken so that ‘made’ in this line has the expected meaning of ‘created,’ in contrast with the previous stanza where ‘made’ meant ‘caused.’
Beginning in the final line of the second stanza, man tries to enter ‘the stillness where // God goes belonging.’ Again the sentence crosses into the next (third) stanza, where man continues to be the subject, and the fact that man tries to enter the space where ‘God goes belonging’ suggests that so far man has failed, and thus must continue to adjust his understanding of an ineffable God, and accordingly his struggle with wording to express such.
The first line of the third stanza continues, ‘To every riven thing he’s made,’ a prepositional phrase front-loaded in a sentence in which the assertion is that all created things have a darker self ‘shaped exactly to the thing itself,’ and it is this darker version of man that is ‘the only man to see // God goes belonging to every riven thing.’ Again the sentence crosses a stanza break, a repeated and interesting choice, inasmuch as the universe of all broken things where ‘God goes belonging’ necessarily includes these very lines and stanzas themselves, which are thus, by virtue of being in this world, broken. It is fractal-like, this breaking of the word string into grammatical units, along with this breaking of sentences over lines, of sentences over stanzas, and of all things over the riven world.
The poem ends in the monostitch, ‘God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made,’ where the entire string of words is both finally unbroken by punctuation and undiluted by further rumination, though preceded in the prior stanza with the cleverly contradictory lines that ‘A part of what man knows, / apart from what man knows [is].’ One gets the sense that the speaker has finally made peace with the fact that all his relentless reasoning, all his gorgeous wordplay, cannot transcend an only partial knowledge of God, cannot explain the dissonance of a God who both goes [away from] and belongs to the riven things of the world, which is everything.
It’s interesting how the syntactical strategy of reordering the same words differs from the more common poetic practice of exactly repeating lines or phrases within a poem. The latter strategy gives import, surety, and strength to the lines, while the former introduces tentativeness, insecurity, doubt, and/or discomfort. Two years before his death, W. B. Yeats looked back at his body of work and commented, “As I altered my syntax, I altered my intellect.” In iterating syntax within the same poem, a poet seeks to alter their intellect concerning an unknowable topic, a human response to a human yearning, and a strategy for poets interested in the incomprehensible to consider.
Kasischke, Laura. “Dawn.” Space, in Chains, Copper Canyon Press, 2011.
Wiman, Christian. ‘Every Riven Thing.’ Every Riven Thing: Poems, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.