Loose and Fast Sentences
A loose sentence begins with subject and verb and then drifts off
into a potentially endless series of modifiers and clauses. Take,
for example, that sentence of Thomas Hardy’s that Monty Python
made such sport of, the one that begins on Saturday afternoon
and doesn’t end, presumably, until Sunday: “A Saturday afternoon
in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast
tract of land known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment
by moment.” Subject? “afternoon”; verb? “was approaching.”
But does anyone remember what we were approaching? Anyone?
While this mystery was playing out in England, a new poetry written
in America by Whitman was reviving the periodic sentence: “Of Life
immense in passion, pulse, and power,/ Cheerful, for freest action
form’d under the laws divine,/ the Modern Man I sing.” Hear that?
We build up to verb and subject. And Whitman is always the subject.
Christ is calling everyone here and I am standing alone in rebellion.
That was the complaint of sixteen-year-old Emily Dickinson during
her year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where she decided
to be done for good with Puritanism. She found the atmosphere
of religion thoroughly oppressive — roofed New England churches
that let in little light, Calvinist ministers who uncharitably presumed
the number of the “elect” in their congregations to be very few, and
parishioners who built elaborate mausoleums in the mistaken view
that they were reserving spaces in Heaven. Even the tonalities of
organ music, Dickinson observed, held some mysterious power to
make sinners feel a “Heavenly Hurt” when they’d done nothing wrong.
And so she retreated to Amherst to write her own therapeutic verses.
She would skewer the Resurrectionists, gentrify sin and death until
they’d lost their terror, and reject predestination in favor of possibility.
Greek sculpture is a highly mimetic art, fashioning its gods in
humankind’s image. Unlike a two-dimensional painting or
characters on the page, it reminds us directly of our divinity.
You must not walk away from it before your fledgling self
has had a chance to recognize its own like. Likewise, you must
not walk away if you’ve never heard a work of art speak to you
personally and urgently, and therefore you continue to labor
under a false dichotomy of body and spirit. Or likewise, mistake
the eyes in the mirror and all of your physical infirmities for
the whole and fail to see the divine essence emergent in yourself,
that same emergence that gives birth to new stars and souls.
Now feel that inner sun burst into flame: Apollo has decreed it.
He was the Almighty God of Poetry, and never to appreciate his
potentiality and power would be to go through life a broken ruin.
Asking the imagination to summon a forest unassisted is no easy task,
but here’s a little conjuring trick that may help. Take this Mason jar.
It’s nothing but a prop, a mnemonic — clear and colorless, perhaps a
little grey in the morning light. But feel its smoothness on all sides.
Contrast that with the unhewn wilds one envisions in Tennessee.
The jar is like nothing else there, man-made, and because it’s empty
it’s a powerful vacuum that sucks in every live thing you can imagine,
from fireflies and frogs to fresh pickled preserves. Take a minute to
collect unruly specimens. Then play an association game with sound:
round, around, surround. Observe how the added letters send ripples
through the imagination until the wilderness shoots up on all sides.
The jar also supplies the necessary topography: to experience this,
turn it face-down on your writing table and press. Feel the hills rise.
Press down harder, and those hills press back, asserting their dominion.