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Dai George on the Problem of Syntax

In the postmodern era, the word “syntax” has meant many different things in different poets’ mouths, with the term gravitating progressively further away from its basic linguistic definition of “‘sentence construction’: how words group together to make phrases and sentences” (Maggie Tallerman, Understanding Syntax). For two years I’ve been researching a PhD on the subject, following the migration of this shifty little concept from postwar New Criticism to poststructuralist theory, Donald Davie to Charles Bernstein. For Davie and other traditionalists – a vanishingly small clique these days, at least in learned circles – poetic syntax owes a non-negotiable debt to the syntax of everyday speech, that is, to the grammar that linguistic cultures have developed through long experiment to govern what things it makes sense to say and what not. In this grand inheritance we find the only viable, enduring ‘contract’ that Davie can imagine between a writer and his reader. Yet in the preface to a 1975 edition of Articulate Energy (his seminal “Enquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry”) Davie sounds a note of disgruntled defeat. The twenty years that had elapsed since the publication of the first edition straddled the 1960s, “that terrible decade” when “the arts of literature were enlisted on the side of all that was insane and suicidal, without order and without proportion, against civilization.” The scene had shifted from a postwar poetic culture of “symbolism” – one that respected linguistic and literary heritage – to a riotous celebration of “the intuitive, the improvisatory, the fragmentary, as against reason, syntax, order.”

We can read that triumvirate (“reason, syntax, order”) as the hyperbolic fantasy of a dinosaur stranded on the wrong side of history. In part, I suppose, it is. But Davie’s jeremiad would be less interesting today if it didn’t comprehend the forces leagued against it, in a way that illuminates the wider history. He concedes that “not all poets who abandon or disrupt syntax do so for aggressive or egotistical reasons”:

There are some who would claim by doing so to celebrate through imitation certain natural or cosmic processes which know nothing of transitive or intransitive, of subjects, verbs or object […]

One such poet Davie might have had in mind was Charles Olson. His famous 1950 manifesto “Projective Verse” claims that the imperative to make poetry new again, in 1950,

brings us up, immediately, bang, against tenses, in fact against syntax, in fact against grammar generally, that is, as we have inherited it. Do not tenses, must they not also be kicked around anew, in order that time, that other governing absolute may be kept, as must the space-tensions of a poem, immediate, contemporary to the acting-on-you of the poem?

Olson’s claim in the form of a question – that tenses must be “kicked around anew” – moves him away from the traditional program of western grammars, whose sentences are designed to predicate discrete actions on an axis of past, present and future. For him, that’s not the way the world works, so it’s not the way that language ought to work. The metaphysical promise of this new syntax is spelled out later in “Projective Verse,” with a vow that “if he [the poet] stays inside himself, if he is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share.” Easy to dismiss this as loose talk, amped up for effect, but I think we should follow Davie in taking Olson’s boast seriously. By a process of “imitation,” the projective poet hopes to tap in to what Davie refers to as “natural or cosmic processes,” or what Olson himself appeals to in more shamanic terms as the “secrets objects share.”

Grammatical syntax doesn’t seek to mimic the world; it seeks, rather, to report, to declare, to order, to refer. It’s an artificial compact between speaker and audience, undertaken for pragmatic purposes. This move from grammar to mimesis is the big heave that Davie is sensing in the water. The dichotomy is real, and biting. Can the formal, grammatical type of syntax favoured by Davie succeed in saying anything pertinent or true? Can it latch on to the world? Or does our best chance of saying something about the world come through mimicking it through extemporary, ungovernable linguistic gestures? If the universe is relative, fluctuating and indeterminate, as the wisdom of last century’s scientific consensus would suggest, then it is a strange decision to strap oneself to the mast of a constricted, rule-bound grammar; at any rate, the mode of discourse seems heroically ill suited to the object of enquiry.

Good postmoderns that we are, we might wish to celebrate Olson’s putsch on syntax as the liberating event that it was. But the revolution, as always, comes with consequences, not least in this case for our very sense of what syntax really means at all. For many poets writing in Olson’s wake, it came to encompass everything from diction to spatial typography, from the general stylistic pose of the author to the wider attitudes or values encoded in their work. Whether or not this radical expansion serves a purpose, there have been times recently when I’ve empathised with Robin Blaser, as he writes in gentle bafflement to his would-be mentor Olson:

The problem of syntax: you say it is difficult to tell me what to do. It’s wrong that I ask you to. Beyond the indications given. As I don’t know what this syntax is. It is an awkward word for what every poet has to find out for himself – or he ain’t.[1]

“An awkward word for what every poet has to find out for himself”: I’m not sure Davie would like this definition, self-centered and unbounded as it is, but it captures the heady spirit of the New American Poets on their quest to discover an active, mimetic syntax beyond the jurisdiction of the grammar books. And intentionally or not, it also captures the difficulty – the disorientating “problem” – that arises, whenever you wrest an existing concept into new and indeterminate shapes.

[Dai’s first book of poems is The Claims Office (Seren, 2013). He’s an editor at the journal Prac Crit and a PhD candidate at University College London.]


[1] Correspondence from Robin Blaser to Charles Olson, 29 March 1959, Box 129, Charles Olson Research Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.