A Journal of Poetry and Kindred Prose

An Umbrella Stand

Those Sad Cases of Syntactical Arrest

by katebb

Turning up in contemporary poems everywhere is a syntactical oddity in which conjunctions and participles are jettisoned in favor of clipped phrases separated by a comma.

I could easily exemplify with lines from each week’s Po Daily trove or every lit mag online and in print or prize-winning collections. Rather than point fingers, I’ll make something up that is deliberately pedestrian:

The van speeds ’round the bend, veers at me.

There we have it: a linestopper, a flatliner, a sad case of syntactical arrest. What’s required here, for readability’s sake, is a present participle:

The van speeds round the bend, veering at me.

“The RV speeds round the bend and veers at me” would also be correct, though not as smooth. The present participle is an elegant modifier. After all, the speeding and veering are happening simultaneously and there’s nothing quite like an “-ing” form to express simultaneity. Indeed, choosing “veers” spoils the sense of simultaneity. Instead we have a sense of stopped time, when what is being described is furious motion.

But, you may wonder, what if you want to convey a sense of choppiness?

To which I reply, fine, yes, that may be essential to your umbrella idea. But then consider using sentence fragments and periods rather than phrases separated by commas. To wit:

The RV speeds round the bend.
Veers toward the pines.
Burns rubber.

Even commas would work better here than in the first instance because there are three phrases instead of one. Syntactical arrest usually afflicts simpler sentences. At any rate, seldom do I detect an artistic need for choppiness in the linestoppers I encounter. What I detect instead is an almost slavish copying of a common style: a McPoem.

I don’t know when this trend got going or who started it, though I would guess some poet/teacher gave birth to it in the 1970’s and, thanks to MFA programs and workshops, it has been metastasizing ever since. Why have poets glommed onto a style which sounds like the clipped style of tabloid headlines? (Selby arrested, claims foul play). Some otherwise superb and eminently non-McPoemish poems are spoiled by just one line of it!

I can’t say that Umbrella has never published a poem with this affliction but I have persuaded a couple of poets to reconsider and I have rejected poems on this basis alone. Umbrella will not be publishing such lines in the future. Not even even if your name is Heinous Sheamy.