"I love Peter Gilmour’s syntax."
It’s what I found myself saying last week at the launch of the two new publications. Oh dear – five years ago I would never have said anything half so pompous. Now I’m reading submissions of poems and writing in pencil – all over the place – comments like ‘the syntax doesn’t work for me here’.
Perhaps I shouldn’t even use the word, or at least I should clarify what I mean by it. Here is the Merriam Webster definition. In fact, Merriam Webster has three versions, and I think what I have in mind is chiefly the second: “a connected or orderly system: harmonious arrangement of parts or elements”.
To add insult to injury, these days there’s computer syntax. I’m not a programmer, but so far as I understand it, if there’s an error in ‘syntax’, the program won’t run. Sometimes a comma out of place puts the whole thing up the spout.
It’s the same in poetry. Often something in the sentence – a punctuation symbol perhaps, or a subject/verb dissonance, or a descriptive clause that doesn’t seem to know where it belongs – pulls the reader up and stops the poem working. Contemporary poets are fond of fragments – sentences without finite verbs. These certainly have their place. But there are an awful lot of them around.
I have a weakness for single-sentence poems, though only if they’re beautiful. It’s rare for a poet to handle the structure of a sentence so properly and so harmoniously that it can run over several stanzas without the reader once feeling disconcerted or dizzy. Besides, it’s easier to write in impressionistic fragments.
Give me a writer who can construct a prose sentence with elegance and style. It provides me with the sensual pleasure I imagine others get from wine, or a 50-year-old malt. It’s why I love the work of Carson McCullers and Gerald Murnane (and they’re not even poets).
There are writers who can carry a beautiful sentence into a poem. They do it without dropping subjects or toppling weighty descriptive clauses on top of each other. Their nouns don’t look like verbs at first sight and their verbs don’t look like nouns. The work is harmonious to the eye, to the ear, to the brain.
Peter Gilmour is one of these. I’ll close with a sentence from ‘Rupture’:
.......I was enjoying myself in truth,
.......hurrying not just the car but the marriage,
.......not just this last journey but our pilgrimage,
.......to a hot and hellish end.
...........[from Taking Account, HappenStance, 2011]