Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The eye and the ear

Some interesting bits in Gary Lutz's Believer piece on the sentence, a unit of language that I am fairly obsessed with myself:
It took me almost another decade after graduate school to figure out what writing really is, or at least what it could be for me; and what prompted this second lesson in language was my discovery of certain remaindered books—mostly of fiction, most notably by Barry Hannah, and all of them, I later learned, edited by Gordon Lish—in which virtually every sentence had the force and feel of a climax, in which almost every sentence was a vivid extremity of language, an abruption, a definitive inquietude. These were books written by writers who recognized the sentence as the one true theater of endeavor, as the place where writing comes to a point and attains its ultimacy. As a reader, I finally knew what I wanted to read, and as someone now yearning to become a writer, I knew exactly what I wanted to try to write: narratives of steep verbal topography, narratives in which the sentence is a complete, portable solitude, a minute immediacy of consummated language—the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself. I once later tried to define this kind of sentence as “an outcry combining the acoustical elegance of the aphorism with the force and utility of the load-bearing, tractional sentence of more or less conventional narrative.” The writers of such sentences became the writers I read and reread. I favored books that you could open to any page and find in every paragraph sentences that had been worked and reworked until their forms and contours and their organizations of sound had about them an air of having been foreordained—as if this combination of words could not be improved upon and had finished readying itself for infinity.
(I had a Lutz post churning away at the back of the head a couple years ago, only the book got buried in a pile - it resurfaced during the move, I should dig it out and write something up...)

Wayne Koestenbaum writes sentences that do this thing Lutz is talking about, and so (obviously) does Lydia Davis. But they are just the most glaring examples that come to mind, the most lavish and gratuitous (Koestenbaum towards the gothic side of things, Davis in a sparer mode) - it is certainly a useful way of thinking about less (what is the word?) outlandish sentences also!

4 comments:

  1. Ed Tufte's mom wrote a nice book (published by Tufte's press) about sentences.

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  2. Love Gary Lutz's writing. Stories in the Worst Way is bets book I think. There are some great prose poets who basically embody this attitude even more so, but for some reason prose poetry never seems to capture attention until the same 'sentence awareness' is extended to longer pieces that can be judged as short stories. And if you wrote a novel with this attitude for some reason you get even more attention. I think Beckett's short prose works and Gertrude Stein's prose are a strong influence on these writers. I must confess I started collecting books edited by Lish and he does have a genius fine tuning for this attitude. His own writing however is a bit more hit and miss.

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  3. I favored books that you could open to any page and find in every paragraph sentences that had been worked and reworked until their forms and contours and their organizations of sound had about them an air of having been foreordained—as if this combination of words could not be improved upon and had finished readying itself for infinity.

    Shouldn't that last word be "eternity"? I imagine Lutz gave this a lot of thought and then went with the less obvious choice.

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  4. Sarah Collins Honenberger1/10/2009 9:48 AM

    I can't help quoting this brilliant blog I just read. "....every sentence had the force and feel of a climax, in which almost every sentence was a vivid extremity of language, an abruption, a definitive inquietude. These were books written by writers who recognized the sentence as the one true theater of endeavor, as the place where writing comes to a point and attains its ultimacy."
    This writer's nirvana, you are so right on, I'm speechless, which is unusual for a writer. Thanks.

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