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The Poetic Use of Sentence Fragments
Seth R. Katz, Bradley University
Sentence fragments are acceptable in current poetic language but, typically, unacceptable in most genres of English prose. Sentence fragments thus mark one of the grammatically identifiable differences between poetic and non-poetic language (my dissertation was a study of another grammatical feature of poetic language: the use of definite noun phrases to introduce new discourse topics). Fragment use has, however, only become common in poetry in English over about the last 150 years. Prior to that, fragments seem to be extremely rare.
Fragments have been a significant feature of the works of three groups of poets: the American Transcendentalists, the Imagists, and a range of Postmodern poets, including the Beats and the Language Poets. For each of these groups of poets, fragments help to mark both differences and commonalities among these poets' works, goals, and their understandings of the nature of human perception. The Transcendentalists use catalogues of fragments, assembling large collections of detail with the goal of creating for their readers a sense of how all things in the universe fit together. The Imagists use a few juxtaposed fragments to try to give their readers an immediate, clear sense of the particular thing being described. Postmodern poets have used fragments to achieve two opposing sorts of goals. First, in attempting to reproduce the character and aesthetic of haiku and other Japanese and Chinese poetic forms, some poets have used fragments in a manner akin to that of the Imagists--to give the reader an immediate sense of a particular moment of perception, and so to provide the reader with a feeling of certainty about having properly understood the poet's meaning. By contrast, a second group of poets have taken the techniques of the Transcendentalist catalogue of fragments and the Imagist juxtaposition of fragments and used them to create in the reader a sense of uncertainty--the feeling that it is impossible to reach any universal or particular understanding of our experience of the world. As I will show, however, whatever their goals, in using fragments, all of these poets assert that the nature of raw human perception is fragmentary. For the Transcendentalists and Imagists, and for some Postmodernists, those fragments can lead us to certainty. For other Postmodernists, those fragments of perception can only foster doubt and confusion.
Rather than detailing the history of fragment use in poetry in English, or cataloging and discussing the whole range of grammatically definable types of fragments, I would like to focus on a few specific examples of ways in which poets have used fragments and the kinds of effects they have achieved. In this way, I will lead to some conclusions about the unifying features of fragment use in poetry in English. The most common uses of fragments include catalogues; scene setting and the presentation of clinical details; and fragments in haiku and haiku-like passages.
Catalogues consisting of a series of fragments are a common feature of the poetry of Walt Whitman and the Transcendalists. In the following passage from the second section of Song of Myself, Whitman uses a catalogue consisting of more than twenty noun phrases (NPs):
The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, buzz'd whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and
air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color'd sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belch'd words of my voice loos'd to the eddies of the wind,
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,
The play of the shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health, the full-moon trill, the song of me rising from bed and
meeting the sun. (29, ll. 21-28)
This string of nominal expressions is a subject waiting for a predicate that never comes. In his discussion of the rhetoric of Transcendentalist catalogues, Lawrence Buell argues that the Transcendentalist poets use catalogues (whether with fragments or full sentences) to "express a sense of universal order": to show that all things are "manifestations of the divine plenitude." By accumulating a great mass of details, the Transcendentalist poet's goal is to transcend the sense of the individual things named and to achieve some sense of the divine (Buell 169; see also Smith).
We find another version of the fragment catalogue in Postmodernist Gregory Corso's "God? She's Black," which uses the NP-fragment catalogue in an ironic and satiric variation on Whitman's use of the same form. Corso's catalogue has the same liturgical tone as Whitman's.
Gases & liquids Her nature
spewing stars like eggs
from Her All Central Womb
Solids & solutions Her procedure
setting solar systems like babies
on Her All Genetic Knee
Formulae & equations Her law
punishing evolution like bad boys
by the slap of Her All Void Hand
Metals & alloys Her chore
raising telescopes like puberty
towards Her All Encompassed Eye
Sound & Light Her store
giving speed like youth
thus all Her Sons leave home
Nuclear & space Their war
creating rockets like dead men
--ever to reach Her again? (29)
Buell explains the Transcendentalist catalogue as building up a large number of fragments in order to give the reader some sense of the universal and the divine. Corso's catalogue works in the opposite direction: rather than building towards certainty in a sense of the divine, Corso's catalogue of fragments leads the reader towards the final question of whether we will ever be able to reach the divine. Instead of the accumulation of understanding, his fragments represent its dissolution--the fragmentation of knowledge, as it were.
In sharp contrast to the massive, liturgical rhetoric of the catalogue, fragments are also often used to set a scene, as in the first four lines of the opening stanza of Matthew Arnold's "The Hayswater Boat" (32-33).
A region desolate and wild.
Black, chafing water: and afloat,
And lonely as a truant child
In a waste wood, a single boat:
No mast, no sails are set thereon;
It moves, but never moveth on:
And welters like a human thing
Amid the wild waves weltering.
In the first section of "Preludes," T. S. Eliot (12) also uses NP fragments for scene setting in the third, fourth, and final lines:
The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
In both poems, the poet presents the fragments in the tone of a reporter, delivering the facts. I suspect we have been conditioned by newspapers, movies, and television to hear a short, choppy passage consisting of fragments and short, simple declarative sentences as a presentation of "the facts"; and my sense is that that tone of just delivering the facts gives the ring of truth to both poets' descriptions of their respective scenes.
Though Arnold's poem predates the Imagist movement, both Arnold and Eliot's poems employ fragments in an Imagist manner, simply juxtaposing phrases and requiring the reader to discover the relationship among those fragments. The most frequently cited poem in this tradition is Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro":
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough. (109)
The terseness of the fragments in the title and the poem's two lines gives the poem a compelling immediacy, and to convey the sense that some truth is being conveyed here--if only the reader can decipher it.
We find an even stronger example of fragments used to give a description the feel of fact in Postmodernist Weldon Kees' poem "Saratoga Ending" (109-110). Kees uses simple, declarative sentences and fragments to give a sense that he is reporting facts and clinical details.
Iron, sulphur, steam: the wastes
Of all resorts like this have left their traces.
Old canes and crutches line the walls. Light
Floods the room, stripped from the pool, broken
And shimmering like scales. Hidden
By curtains, women dry themselves
Before the fire and review
The service at hotels,
The ways of dying, ways of sleep,
The blind ataxia patient from New York,
And all the others who were here a year ago.
However, in the second section of the poem, which is mostly made up of a mix of different kinds of fragments, the syntax itself breaks up as it describes the piecemeal experience of those suffering terrible pain and living on heavy doses of narcotics.
Visconti, mad with pain. Each day,
Two hundred drops of laudanum. Hagen, who writhes
With every step. The Count, a shrunken penis
And a monocle, dreaming of horses in the sun,
Covered with flies. -- Last night I woke in sweat
To see my hands, white, curled upon the sheet
Like withered leaves. I thought of days
So many years ago, hauling driftwood up from the shore,
Waking at noon, the harbor birds following
Boats from the mainland. And then no thoughts at all.
Morphine at five. A cold dawn breaking. Rain.
In the third stanza Kees again mixes complete sentences with fragments. He again uses simple declaratives and fragments to describe the facts of his situation: "The driveway lights blur / In the rain. A rubber-tired metal cart goes by / . . . something rattles / . . . Test tubes, beakers, graduates, thermometers." Interestingly, Kees uses complex sentences in discussing memory, and in connecting the present reality of the persona's situation to memories and images: "I lie here in the dark, trying to remember / What my life has taught me. . . / . . . and something rattles / Like glasses being removed after / A party is over and the guests have gone. / Test tubes, beakers, graduates, thermometers -- /
Companions of these years that I no longer count." Interestingly, though, in the final six lines of the poem, the persona falls entirely into recounting a memory; but that memory is stated in an elaborate fragment--which for the persona, is all that the memory really is:
I lie here in the dark, trying to remember
What my life has taught me. The driveway lights blur
In the rain. A rubber-tired metal cart goes by,
Followed by a nurse; and something rattles
Like glasses being removed after
A party is over and the guests have gone.
Test tubes, beakers, graduates, thermometers --
Companions of these years that I no longer count.
I reach for a cigarette and my fingers
Touch a tongue depressor that I use
As a bookmark; and all I know
Is the touch of this wood in the darkness, remembering
The warmth of one bright summer half a life ago --
A blue sky and a blinding sun, the face
Of one long dead who, high above the shore,
Looked down on waves across the sand, on rows of yellow jars
In which the lemon trees were ripening.
Poems that use fragments as in haiku, or in recreating the aesthetic of haiku in other forms take advantage of fragments' potential for clipped brevity, and seem to be very much akin to Imagist poems (e.g. Pound's "In a Station of the Metro"), and those that use fragments for scene setting. The following haiku by William J. Higginson (van den Heuvel 40) simply juxtaposes two images in two noun phrase fragments:
atop the rock
the rising tide
The haiku simply describes a scene from nature: the two noun phrases name things that might, literally, be seen together. Nonetheless, the juxtaposition of the "caterpillar / atop the rock" and "the rising tide" is a little startling in that, in imagining the caterpillar, we probably do not immediately imagine it in danger. Placing the rock in the context of the rising tide presses the reader to think on the dangers that must constantly beset a caterpillar. In this way Higginson's poem fulfills one of the traditional aesthetic functions of haiku: one of haiku's goals is to force the reader to examine nature, and the world more closely; to see that, what seems a small, peaceful, and harmless creature is, in the course of things, surrounded by threats to its very life. The haiku author's intention is that a well-selected set of compact images will lead the reader to a much larger set of coherent thoughts and reflections.
In Cid Corman's poem, "the incident" (n.p.), we find an example of a poem that consists entirely of fragments and uses them like haiku simply to present a scene:
on the train
reaching a bag
down from the rack
on my shoulder
of a priest
In keeping with the character of haiku, Higginson's haiku and Corman's poem are plain, continuous presentations of events, which one may read as no more than that. However, the reader may also choose to read both poems as ironic or symbolic, but neither poem demands to be read that way. Contrast these poems with Pound's "Metro" with its two disparate images: crowded metro stations and flowers on wet branches do not, in reality, appear in the same places. To make any sense of Pound's poem, the reader must resolve the disparity between the images via a metaphoric reading; there is no literal reading of the whole poem (Record 247-248). Similarly, Arnold, Eliot, and Kees's descriptions of scenes all rely on metaphor; and all of them juxtapose images in ways that force the reader to draw metaphoric or ironic connections in order to arrive at a first reading of the poem. In spite of these differences between Higginson and Corman's poems and the preceding examples, part of the sense of the realness of the scenes described in both may arise from the use of fragments and the ring of truth that we associate with fragments used to present clinical details, or to set a scene.
* * * *
What does the use of fragments capture or achieve? I think that, in all cases--whether in the elaborate length of a catalogue, or the staccato delivery of scene setting or clinical details, or in the brevity of haiku--the poet uses fragments to imitate and so to make an assertion about the nature of human perception: perception consists of fragments, fragments that we assemble into meaningful wholes. Even when we are most aware, we do not take in the whole world around us; rather, our senses only recover bits and pieces that we use as the basis for an interpretation that fills in the gaps and conjures context.
A haiku or haiku-like passage frequently uses fragments to present a fragment of experience. Within the conventions of haiku, the poem is intended to convey to the reader a real instant of perception: a haiku should be read within one breath, and should convey no more than the experience that might occur within a single breath (Record 236-237). By using sentence fragments, the haiku poet emphasizes the fragmentary nature of experience, asserting that perception consists of the fragments we sense from moment to moment.
Though the rolling diction of a Transcendentalist catalogue of NP fragments may seem antithetical to the spare language of the haiku, I would argue that the poet uses the catalogue to create a similar kind of effect and make a similar sort of assertion. By creating a poem out of a great pile of fragments, the poet asserts that we perceive the world by collecting many bits of experience and drawing relationships among them. From the relationships we discover within that collection, we abstract an understanding of the world. In using a catalogue, the poet argues that, if we assemble enough fragments, we can reach some sort of universal, or possibly transcendent understanding.
Fragments used as scene setting are like the haiku, in that the poet uses them, in part, to recreate the instant of perception. But diction that uses a series of scene-setting fragments and simple declarative statements about setting and action has come to acquire a conventionalized feel of immediacy and factuality through our experience of news broadcasts, newspaper writing, on-the-spot reporting, and the flat, clipped, telegraphic speech of characters like Joe Friday of Dragnet and the physicians in emergency room dramas on television and in movies, who rattle off lists of fragmentary facts, statistics, circumstances, vital signs, and bodily traumas in a business-like tone, drawing on the authority of reason and science to make their descriptions of the world seem somehow more real and accurate. The poet exploits this conventional, fragmentary diction to assert that his or her persona is the dispassionate reporter, providing the reader with immediate, factual bits of perception.
Postmodern poets like Kees and Corso violate the convention of using fragments to represent factual reality. Instead of using fragments to build up a sense of the completeness or veracity of their accounts, both poets use fragments in showing how impossible it is to achieve either transcendent, universal understanding (as in the catalogue), or clear understanding of the particular moment (as in scene setting and the haiku). In the second section of "Saratoga Ending" Weldon Kees shifts from fragments that present clinical facts to fragments that present the breakdown of perception under the influence of pain and narcotics. Similarly, in "God? She's Black," as in other Beat poems, Corso uses a catalogue of fragments and the diction of a Transcendentalist catalogue, but shatters the effect of the catalogue, turning it from a structure of solid shapes into a heap of shards. Kees and Corso use fragments to argue that the world is not composed of fragments that cohere, but fragments that fly apart, that refuse to be placed, with certainty, in a context, that the world is characterized by pain and the uncertainty and instability of perception. The complexity that surrounds us is ultimately incomprehensible.
Fragments are not the only device that poets use to present the reader with these ideas about perception and reality. Obviously, the poems I have presented as examples of poetic fragment use also employ other kinds of unusual syntax, as well as perfectly straightforward, ordinary prose syntax. However, fragments provide a type of iconic representation of the nature of perception: fragmented syntax represents or reflects fragmented thoughts or perceptions. Though one may use fragments in prose, it would generally be regarded as bad style for prose to use fragments as they are used in these poems. It may be that fragment use not only marks a grammatical difference between poetry and prose, but also a difference in the kinds of thought that may be best presented in each genre.
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Corman, Cid. Sun Rock Man. NY: New Directions. 1970.
Gregory Corso. Selected Poems. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1962.
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Pound, Ezra. Persona. New York: New Directions, 1971. 109.
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Smith, Gayle. "Reading `Song of Myself': Assuming What Whitman Assumes." ATQ 6: 3 (1992): 151-161.
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