friday roundup: the art of syntax, the personal universe deck, and ‘the doorway that watches you go’

Reader, don’t look now… but here at the Wee, Small House we’ve nearly made it through one whole week without anyone getting sick or otherwise needing unplanned care. It’s been so nice to have a bit more time for poetry this week! Without further adieu:

the art of syntax On the recommendation of Sally Rosen Kindred, whose poems you should read, I’ve been reading Ellen Bryant Voight’s The Art of Syntax (one of several books in the Art of… series from Graywolf). Holy smokes, Reader, word-nerd-alert of the century! This book is awesome! Although I’m only about one-third of the way through the book, I feel I’ve learned so much about what particular syntactical structures can do, and how different structures work together to “sort and arrange” perception over a chunk of text (a poem, a passage). She says that, although we poets have been fretting about line since free verse became the norm in poetry, “It is useful to remember that we write in sentences too, and that the infinite variations of generative syntax take another quantum leap when they can be reinforced, or reconfigured — rechunked — by the poetic line.” I feel I could devote the rest of my 40s to pulling this book apart and learning from it, and I highly recommend it to all you poets, writers of other stripes, and teachers of writing.

the personal universe deck  Amongst other things, The Art of Syntax looks at the development of one’s lexicon (“one’s individual stash of words”), which reminded me of a resource I’ve used a lot in the past, but not so much lately. The “personal universe deck” is the product of a guided exercise found in The Practice of Poetry and it goes like this: On 100 index cards write:

  • 16 words that suggest each of the 5 senses (80 words all together)
  • 10 words that suggest motion (not necessarily verbs)
  • 3 abstractions
  • 7 anything else
  • All words must be significant to you, specific (“crow” not “bird”) and sound good to your ear.
  • No adverbs, no plurals.

Now you have 100 “drive words” that can fuel your poems. Grab 10 and use them all in a draft. Or use them with other constraints: I’ve found that using a personal universe deck in combination with words that I sense are important in whatever poet’s work I’m reading at the moment can produce surprising results. It’s been a few years since I’ve refreshed my personal universe deck. Office supply store, here I come. (Oh dear, this will mean many index cards spread out on my combination kitchen/dining/living room floor).

the doorway that watches you go  This week I’ve been reading Hadara Bar-Nadav‘s Lullaby (with exit sign) — yet another book I highly recommend. These poems take elegy to a whole new level. I love how this poet uses lines from Emily Dickinson (all hail the Undisputed Queen of Everything), to launch into small but sonically packed poems of the body, mortality, and grief. Here is the title poem of this collection (which actually doesn’t use lines from E.D., but which is still really amazing).

I hope the doorway to your weekend stands wide and inviting. Thanks, as always, for reading.

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