Saturday, September 03, 2016


Because my floor is covered with boxes of books, some to sell, some to give away, some to take to Good Will, some to reshelve in a different place, it’s impossible to find the book that I want to point out here.  I can’t even remember the title and evidently they didn’t slip Amazon a bit of coin, so I can’t find it there.  But it was a revelation, not because it showed me something new but because it finally pulled together a lot of things I’d known for a long time.  It is about “how to write” and is somewhere between grammar and rhetoric.

For a long time now schools have been teaching “creative writing” and the importance of the personal, the startling, the deeply felt.  Since it’s hard to get one’s “connectome” settled into the right brainweb-shape for doing this, most of the advice is about mood, theme, memory, and personal morality.  One is rather at the mercy of inspiration.

Agnes Carter with my mother

At the cusp of the Forties/Fifties we learned hard-core grammar, with a certain amount of memorization and a LOT of outlining.  But not even my bow-legged, red-headed, devotedly Catholic, old 8th grade teacher, the formidable Miss Carter, could get us pushed along fast enough to get past gerunds and participles by June.  In the end we had a lot of beads but no string for making sentences.  It seemed useless.  Today few teachers can even understand grammar themselves.

When I took writing classes from Richard Stern, I got closer to pulling it together.  He was a beautiful writer, but rather covert emotionally.  His best books were about reality thinly disguised.  One was a man who had betrayed his son, a spy, but only gradually came to understand how he had.  The other, the only one that hit the best-seller lists, was “Other Men’s Daughters” about falling in love and marrying a student.  (Certain UU people should get this book and read it.)  In the end everyone was much happier.  It was real.

Richard Stern

When Stern corrected one of my papers, he covered it with lines and arrows, changes, few additions but many crossings-out, many tiny marginal remarks, which generally left the whole thing nearly unreadable until about half way down the first page.  Then he would write, “This is hopeless.  There’s no use in going on.”  

He didn’t address the content, neither as to worthiness or logic.  He was after clarity and most of it amounted to presenting the material in a way that was natural for a reader to assimilate.  Some was sequencing, some was presenting information as it was needed, some was creating an underlying order — something like those old Stegner-written high school grammar books (Enjoying English was the series name) that had exercises about paragraph order.  “Describe a room or landscape.  Use ONE of the following orders:  left to right, top to bottom, near to far, far to near, past to present, present to future.  Stay consistent.”

The book I found (but have temporarily lost again) that turned on the lights was concentrating on something similar: the word order of the sections of the sentence.  I was good at chunking sentences because of outlining, which the kids I taught refused to learn, so I made them underline every noun, put a wiggle line under every verb, put parentheses around every preposition phrase or participial phrase, and so on.  I did teach parallel construction, so that if there were a sequence I made sure they all matched in grammatical terms:  nouns with nouns, gerunds with gerunds, past tense with past tense.  I wasn’t quite as reliable when it came to making verbs match their antecedents: plural with plural, gender with gender.  Much of my proofing addresses this.

English is a language that depends upon word order.  I didn’t get that except that I knew all adjectives come just before the noun they modify, but adverbs can go anywhere in the sentence.  To separate adverbs from adjectives, resort to two short list of questions thus:  adjectives tell what kind, what color, how many, how big, whose, which one.  (This is not secret knowledge.  You can google it.)  Adverbs (which modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs) answer how, why, when, where, to what extent.  

I had all this down pat.  Today there are a lot of great materials in the home schooling and self-teaching context.  Public schools do not teach these things.  Indeed, they are not appropriate for every kind of writing or for every kind of student.  Some brains just don’t work this way.  Much of language is unconscious, acquired by matching other people over time.  This is why learning a new language is not just about naming things.

What I did NOT think about was that phrases (chunks) obey the same rules as single words and are either nouns — which means they relate to a verb and must agree — or adjectives or adverbs AS A CHUNK.  In English the adjectives come just ahead of what they describe.  In other languages they come just after.  Adverb chunks can go anywhere but if they are in the wrong place they can be totally misleading as to meaning.  

Romance languages (related to Rome/Latin) will more or less use placement to offer meaning.  Some languages will not.  The reason Stern was so particular was that he was a translator during WWII and working with code messages meant getting them exactly right.  His secular specialty was translating poems — again, getting them as close as possible to the original.  He had the kind of mind that enjoyed detail, arcane knowledge, systemic metaphor, and so he was most inspired by translating Ezra Pound and wrote novels about meeting the stubborn old renegade.

I taught this idea of word order in junior high by using Yoda’s Celtic word order.  Fascinated were they!  In the Sixties these were Blackfeet kids who probably heard Blackfeet as toddlers but were prevented from speaking it when school age.  It was still embedded in their subconscious.  If they had been hypnotized, they could probably speak it.


Their parents were the ones brutally taught not to speak Blackfeet as part of their education, and they didn’t want their children to be punished, so they joined the prohibition.  Much ignorance was circulating.  And all the time the understanding of language was growing and developing.  By now the kids are speaking something close to hip-hop.  I laugh!  Now the older people value correctness, the intermediate people value knowing Blackfeet words but no Blackfeet grammar (which is totally different from English — not chunkable), and the kids go “whatevah.”  They have abandoned sentences.

Arthur Rimbaud

Here’s Stern’s translation of Rimbaud’s poem, “My Bohemia.

Underway, my pockets split only with fist,
My topcoat as well looking somewhat platonic;
Under the skies I walked, the muses’ sidekick.
Oh la la!  What lovely dreams I kissed.

In my one pair of pants a large hole,
Hop-of-my thumb dreamer, I shelled rimes
En route.  Put up for the night where the dipper climbs;

My stars in the sky had the sweetest roll
And I heard them, squatting at the roadbelt,
Those good September evenings with I felt
The dewdrops on my brow like a wine of spirit,

And where, amidst the fantastic shadows,
I drew the laces of my injured shoes

Like lyres, one foot approaching my heart.

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