Cranking Out Sentences

How come cranks, who are full of bunk, so often take a “debunking” tone? I’m interested in sentences & where they come from & I was hopeful that Verlyn Klinkenborg’s little essay in the NY Times would shed some light on that deep question. But all that we find out reading the essay is that sentences come from inside you & that they have a mysterious quality called rhythm. Now, I’m a poet & even more interested in sentences’ rhythm than in their origins, but rhythm too remains undefined. So why did I then buy the Kindle edition of Mr. Klinkenborg’s book? Well, I’m always looking for little nuggets of writing wisdom for my students & I suppose I thought I might find out more about where sentences come from in the book than in the newspaper essay. The book, called Several Short Sentences about Writing, more than lives up to its name — it ought to be called Several Hundred Short Sentences about Writing. I didn’t actually count them, at least in part because I could not read more than about twenty pages. This book is mind-numbingly boring. Perhaps if you aspire to develop a sort of hectoring version of a Mr. Rogers prose style, you will find this book helpful. It is, quite literally, a series of short sentences that purport to be about writing but which are more about the author’s belief that everything you learned in school about writing is wrong. Except that you should learn to diagram sentences.1   There is, as far as I can tell, no actual argument ion the book, no sequence of ideas that add up to anything like an actual idea. Klinkenborg strives to be aphoristic, but just sounds peeved. And why is the text presented as lines of “poetry”? In the Kindle edition, at least, the series of sentences are each given their own typographical paragraph, but then first letters of lines that are not first letters of sentences are capitalized as they would be in some presentations of verse. This is not verse, so what is the point of this weirdly misused convention.

Someone once said that writing a bad review is like swerving so as to intentionally hit the chipmunk crossing the road in front of you & in general I no longer bother to write such pieces; but the author of this book is on the Editorial Board of the NY Times & people might actually think he can help them learn something about sentences. He can’t. Get Stanley Fish’s little book on sentences if you’re looking for advice from a Times writer. Fish can be a twit in his column, but he know more than a little about writing, including the writing of sentences. Or if you are really ambitious about your sentences, you could take a look at Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, or the even more elegant The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt, though this last title, by a poet, is aimed more at poets & readers of poetry than the other books noted here. In any case,2 there are plenty of alternatives to the hectoring, “debunking” & ultimately boring advice of Several Short Sentences about Writing.

Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century

Just finished reading Andrés Neuman’s audacious novel, Traveler of the Century & am still thinking about the way the title frames the novel, which is sent in 19th century Germany. My current idea is that Hans, the novel’s protagonist, is a kind of time-traveler from the 21st century who has gone back to the period in which modern literature was born. For this is a very literary novel about literature; more specifically, about translation. I should add that nothing in the novel except perhaps the title suggests the idea of time-travel: in many ways, this is a fairly conventional historical novel that focuses on the intellectual history of 19th century Europe & the confluence of poetics & politics.

I discovered the novel reading Chris Feliciano Arnold’s review-meditation in  the LA Book Review. I strongly recommend his essay as an introduction to the novel & to some alternative ways of thinking about translation. Who & what is the translator? The most stable, sensitive, & reliable character in the novel is Franz, who cannot speak because he is a dog. Everyone else gathered together in the city of Wandernburg — including the city itself — lacks any sort of consistent identity. They have come from elsewhere & settled in a city that itself has a tendency to wander. No character, except for Franz & perhaps his master, an old man known only as “the organ grinder,” has anything like a consistent self-identity. All are fabulists of their own identities, whether they are aware of this or not. (Some ore more aware than others.) All are in some way divided against themselves.

That is the context into which Neuman brings the idea of literary translation. Translation, in fact, is the main action of this very talky novel. Hans takes up with Sophie, already betrothed to Rudi, the son of local aristocrats. Soiphie & Hans become lovers & co-translators, the act of translation mixed into their love-making & their love-making mixed into their acts of translation. Do lovers absorb & transform each other? Do translators absorb & transform the texts they translate? Neuman has a lot of fun with this theme & my only complaint is that the love affair is described at such great length that it begins to become tedious. I much prefer the scenes in which Hans goes to visit the organ grinder, who lives in a cave outside of town. The old man is sort of a bodhisattva who dwells in the earth (literally) & seeks to bring happiness to the people of Wandernburg by playing music on his hurdy-gurdy.

By the end of the story it becomes clear that everyone except the old organ grinder & his dog are impostors, playing roles they have only half-consciously adopted. Even the organ grinder is not really a musician: he only turns the handle of a machine that is programmed to make music. And at the end of the story, each one is alone, though, Hans, the translator & traveler, has inherited the barrel organ, the idea, I think, being that being a translator is a bit like being a hurdy-gurdy man, just turning the handle of the machine.

Hurdy-Gurdy Man

A Dog in Hanoi

Hữu Ngọc asked me yesterday on the way to lunch whether I had written any poems about Hanoi. “Only one,” I told him. This appeared a while back in the Beloit Poetry Journal & it is the second poem (currently) in the book manuscript I’m trying to finish putting together:

A Dog in Hanoi

Maybe Ngoc Ha is nothing
but a vivid dream & here
I am nothing but an animal
who does not understand

the higher order of things.
Maybe the traffic is only
a tumbling hallucination
& I am nothing but one of

these charming, silent dogs
who watch & listen with
detachment—the way that
I listen to the language of

my fellow creatures. Maybe
only quiet dogs survived
the war. They walk along
the curb but seldom speak.

Redundancy & Style in Vietnamese

Vietnamese poets—this may be common in everyday speech, but I haven’t run across it—will pile up two words with essentially the same meaning. Here is an example: The poet Tô Ngọc Thạch begins a line with the phrase “Lớp lớp địa tầng” in which, as near as I can tell by dictionary crawling, both “Lớp lớp” and “địa tầng” can straightforwardly be translated as “layers” or “strata” in English. I don’t know whether I should render this as just “layers” or “strata” or something more like “layers of strata.” Clearly, I need to seek the help of a Vietnamese poet on this, but I’m beginning to think that Vietnamese writers use these doublings & sometimes triplings to elicit shades of meaning. That is, redundancy — that’s what we’d call it in the West — is a fundamental element of style in Vietnamese, particularly in literature, but also in everyday speech.