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Amber Paulen

Some Thoughts on Sentences

I used to think that the most beautiful part of a book was its ideas: big ideas powerful enough to shake people out of hibernation. In the ocean that is a book, the sentences were the waves I blindly rode, rocking to their rhythm compelling me over climb and fall, and only occasionally drawing attention to themselves as waves. Those were wonderful times, when the waves dragged me down and I would stay there in the quiet on the bottom of the ocean of the book.

Everything is different now. I have no idea what is the the most beautiful part of a book. But I now know that sentences can be oceans unto themselves. Here is a kingly sentence found at the end of James Joyce’s story The Dead:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

The last paragraph of the short story is worth reading, and probably the whole story as well—I haven’t gotten to the beginning of it yet, but how could I with a last sentence like that. The alliteration moves it until sounding “universe” off of “descent,” leading to the final prepositional phrase standing out in full relief. Francine Prose wrote in Reading Like a Writer that such lyrical sentences are often used to signify the end of a story. If you had paragraphs full of the stuff readers wouldn’t get anywhere, gawking as they would be at the poetics.

But what makes a good sentence, I think, is subjective, excluding, of course, the objective rules of making good sentences. I’m almost half-way through with an online grammar course—one reason for my blogging absence—that has devoted three weeks to The Sentence. Three weeks! The sentence is a complex little beast that can convey so much, can pack in so many clauses or have only one independent waving its flag at the top of the fort. Within sentences there can be power struggles or a sense of harmony can infuse through it all.

After the rules the sentence is yours; good sentences, like much else, depend on opinion. In this article in the Believer (thanks Ryan!), Gary Lutz breaks down what he admires about sentences, and me, not being much of an admirer of Lutz’s fiction, admire a sentence that looks and sounds completely different. (But his tips at the end seem pretty right on.) Contemporary fiction tends to lean towards short sentences and words packed with meaning, which I read feeling as if I’m getting punched in the face.

The sentences of my dreams are like I described in the opening paragraph, wave-like, rhythmic, almost lulling, sentences to get lost in. I think some of the best sentences I’ve read in awhile are in John Updike’s Couples. Unfortunately, I can’t go back to the text to fish one of them out. So I’ll go to my favorites found in Henry Miller’s “story” The Third or Fourth Day of Spring. They are written with a high-tone and authorial authority; they pack powerful images in their elaborate unwinding.

The evidence of death is before my eyes constantly; but this death of the world, a death constantly going on, does not move from the periphery in, to engulf me, this death is at my very feet, moving from me outward, my own death a step in advance of me always. The world is the mirror of myself dying, the world not dying any more than I die, I more alive a thousand years from now than this moment and this world in which I am now dying also more alive then than now though dead a thousand years.

For me, sentences like this clobber those sentences that rely heavily on being clever. Sure Miller is also playing; he’s flipping tricks with structure, rhythm, and repetition. He’s building a web of images that both become entangled and clear at the end. The entanglement might be more obvious than the clarity, which I see as the final phrases representing the complex chaos of death and life. I like sentences that overwhelm me; I like heavy description.

I sometimes wonder if I’m being too old fashioned, not falling into the groove of the mostly short and sweet. But really, I just don’t care.


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