In her book The Art of Syntax (Graywolf Press, 2009), the poet Ellen Bryant Voight places special emphasis on a linguistic concept that she calls the “fundament,” which is the unsubordinated subject and predicate of a sentence. Whenever we read a sentence containing a subordinate clause, such as the one that you are currently reading, we instinctively look for the main noun-verb combo to ground us. That is, after all, the fundamental part of the sentence. Only when we arrive at that particular phrase can we be sure of the sentence’s primary meaning. “To say…that a sentence provides a complete thought,” writes Voight, “is actually to say it resolves the brain’s search for the fundament” (p. 6).
You might think of that search for the fundament as a source of tension in a sentence, one which the fundament itself will relieve. Many poems feature sentences which deliberately delay the fundament to exploit that tension, to place the reader in a state of anticipation that is only satisfied at the poet’s chosen moment.
This strategic delaying of the fundament shows up repeatedly in Edward Mullany’s collection of short poems, If I Falter at the Gallows (Publishing Genius, 2011). Indeed, the ideas of anticipation and incompleteness runs through the book from beginning to end. The title not only suggests an upcoming demise, but also takes the form of a subordinate clause in search of a fundament. To scan the cover art from left-to-right involves moving over an expanse of empty, white space between the silhouettes, breaking the implied image into two discrete sections. A good number of poems feel like premises that lack conclusions, or even vice versa.
Mullany’s syntax is no different; his one sentence poems often delay the main clause until near the end for maximum impact. But what I find most compelling in Mullany’s syntax is how it wrings extra tension out of the fundament even after the reader has discovered it. I’ll look at two such poems to demonstrate.
The first poem is “Widowed,” which originally appeared in the now-defunct literary magazine Keyhole. The first three lines consist of a long abverbial phrase, a sure sign that the fundament is being delayed: “During the previews for a movie / that was playing on a weekday / afternoon in a mall in a small town” (lines 1-3). This clause does a lot to set the scene for the poem, giving us time and location as context for the main action. There’s a fair amount of branching syntax here as well, which slows down the pace: a relative clause, some prepositional phrases. The reader is ready to know what happened at these previews. They will find out, but in due time.
The next line introduces the first half of the fundament, the subject: “a man” (line 4). But the fundament has only been started, not completed, for the speaker inserts two relative clauses to expand on the subject: “who’d entered the theater / alone, and who’d been unsurprised / to find himself still alone” (lines 4-6). Because these relative clauses are in the past perfect, placing the actions they described at some point before the previews started, the reader is in some sense further from the main point of the sentence than they were just a few lines ago.
Just when the reader might be growing frustrated with the poem’s syntax, the speaker finishes off a line with what looks like the second half of the fundament, the main verb phrase: “got up” (line 6). The whole sentence up to this point is an elaborate way of saying, “The man got up.” We of course have the context which makes the poem more interesting than that. But those four words are the core of the thought.
Except, the predicate doesn’t end with “got up.” It’s not even the predicate’s only main verb phrase, because the next line coordinates it with a second: “and went out to the lobby” (line 7). If anything, “went out” is the dominant verb phrase of the sentence, because the poem immediately tacks on two more phrases parallel to it: “and out / through the front doors and out into / the bright light” (lines 7-9). In the same way that getting up is a prelude to the real action, the phrase “got up” proved to be a prelude to the “real” predicate.
The second poem I’ll consider, “The Not So Simple Truth,” goes a step further than “Widowed,” in that it delays not just the fundament of the sentence but the sentence itself. The first lines of this poem are a series of sentence fragments:
Potatoes. Dirt and
water. And a soft
towel left for us while
we shower. (1-4)
The reader is presented with a list of items, with no guarantee that a predicate will ever appear (although the “and” which starts the third fragment does suggest the list is concluding). The fact that this list will function as the subject of the poem’s one grammatical sentence only becomes apparent from the next two words: “These // things” (4-5).
Already we see how Mullany uses punctuation to delay delivering the subject. One could easily rewrite the sentence with more standard punctuation, for example with a colon: “Potatoes, dirt, water, and a soft towel left for us while we shower: these things…” It’s not necessarily elegant, but it is grammatical. Yet Mullany uses periods, rather than serial commas, to separate items. The reader must first consider each item as a discrete item, rather than as part of a collective grouping that the above rewriting might suggest.
“These // things” gives us the subject’s noun phrase. The predicate’s verb phrase follows immediately. The main verb is “are” (5), but that’s as nondescript a verb as one can have. We technically have the fundament, in that we have the head of the predicate phrase, but not the satisfaction it provides. “Are what?” the reader must ask. The sentence responds: “no / truer” (5-6). The topic of the sentence is becoming clearer: the “truth,” in whatever sense, of the aforementioned things. However, the word “truer” is a comparative, which implies a point of comparison. One mystery solved, another presented.
Instead of simply providing us with that point of comparison, the poem first mentions the grounds of that comparison: “for their // plainness” (6-7). This phrase is useful for understanding the predicate, in that we’d like to know what the speaker means by “truth.” But the phrase also returns us to “these things,” encouraging us to see the items as plain. (Easy with the potatoes, perhaps a challenge for the soft towel.) When one might expect the poem to move forward through the predicate, it instead cycles back to the subject.
What does such backward-looking move achieve? I’d call it a mental smash-cut. The reader’s mind has just reproduced the starting images when the poem finishes by throwing on several new ones: “than peas / or pus or leprosy” (7-8). Finally, the point of comparison arrives. While the peas might not be so different from the potatoes, the diseased imagery of the final line represents a sharp break from the rest of the poem and its quotidian objects. The reader, anticipating mere completion, receives a broken-skinned punch.
The takeaway for your poetry: consider the holding back the fundament of a sentence, letting the reader anticipate the next move. You might, as in “Widowed,” use that delay to weave in context or show a character’s thought process. You might, as in “The Not So Simple Truth,” decide it best serves to set-up a punchy ending. Whatever the case, the reader will thank you for making the wait worthwhile.