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Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Pleasure of the Sentence

Reading some sentences written by Emerson, by Guy Davenport, by Gilbert Sorrentino, or by Roland Barthes produces in me a certain frisson. One advantage we have in literary criticism is having our models close by--not only in the poems, plays, and novels we read but also in literary essayists of extraordinary stylistic flair.

Style should not be monochromatic: it should be a palette of possibilities. Often a professor will guide a student toward a certain stylistic norm, working narrowly to get the student to be able to write well enough within certain parameters of acceptability. The professor might even enforce certain "zombie rules." The problem is never getting to that level where style is an active set of options rather than a set of restrictions or "guard rails."

Here I find myself questioning my own practice. In an essay I reviewed for a journal a few years ago I found the style too florid, too purple. Was I imposing my own preferences too strictly?

Here would be an example of one mode of writing. This is the final paragraph of Sorrentino's essay on WCW's short story "The Knife of the Times."

"The Knife of the Times" fulfills the requirements that Williams set for himself. More importantly, it proved to him that it was possible to write in a debased language without satiric or parodic intent, to write, that is to say, in a language that seemed to have no possibilities for literature. This empty and pathetic story of two human beings caught in a language unfit to assist or relieve them, and unaware of it, is, in a sense, made of the Speech of Polish mothers become Americans. It was, for Williams, an act of absolute creative recovery.

The force and clarity of Sorrentino's prose gives him a certain authority to talk about Williams Carlos Williams's use of language. This is one expert prose writer elucidating the prose of another. Imagine if Sorrentino had expressed these thoughts in a weak or confused way.

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