How to Kiss Your Readers with the Syntax of Things

Note: Several writers, bloggers, and web-preneurs ask me questions about “finding their voice.” I suggest you won’t find it. You’ll craft it. And you’ll craft it by studying your medium. Your medium is not the web. That’s the vehicle. Your medium is language. I’m also glad to see some discussion about bloggers wanting to be taken seriously as writers. In which case, my response is not to toy with language but to study it. Play with it. But play with it by studying other writers who for centuries have taken their life’s work to innovate language.
This article is the second in a series about voice and mastering your craft as a writer, blogger, or web-preneur.

“Whoever pays attention to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you,” e.e. cummings writes. With all due respect to the master of grammatical lyricism and whim, I disagree.

If you want to be remarkable as a writer or blogger or web-preneur, fall in love with sentences. And then learn to send your love out to readers via rhythmic sentences.

In short, approach something as simple as sentences with wide-open wonder as if you’ve discovered how to write again for the first time.

Syntactical patterns haunt and shape our thinking. Sentence rhythms that we hear and read can recall, in our brain’s neuronal wiring, the ebb and flow in which predecessors uttered first syllables and words. Over years of thinking, of breathing, of listening and of reading, in certain patterns, we’re drawn back along ancestral waves to interior caves where we write in patterns that we’ve unconsciously inherited.

Syntax, simply defined, is the patterned structure of words in a sentence.

Syntax is not an arbitrary term devised by rhetoricians; it is a natural expression and translation of our body’s (especially our central nervous system’s) rhythms. Our body’s natural rhythms suggest that we’re formed as much for sentence shaping as for lovemaking.

Although thinking about sentence structures while enjoying writing might seem like being on vacation with an uptight lover obsessed with rigid rules, tending to the syntax of things actually may liberate us from unconscious patterns of thinking and writing.

Words and sentences are writers’ raw material, and if a writer has no love of them, then her writing likely may never move beyond the transliteral or the purplish.

Our sentences may pucker up and peck or be way too much tongue and saliva, but a writer tuned into syntax’s rhythms may be able to wield sentences and lines that will kiss a reader from cell to sole.

If we can hear syntax’s rhythms, we can learn how to use or vary them according to our intent. A sentence often spirals or shrivels depending upon its rhythm—a sentence’s basic unit that gives it musicality.

Rhythm is patterned repetition. (I was glad to see a blogger such as Jonathan Fields tackling this evasive topic recently.) A sentence can repeat words, phrases, or clauses for a consistent musical rhythm and for emphasis of ideas or feelings; a sentence can repeat grammatical structures and parts of speech, too, to play upon readers’ conscious or unconscious expectations of what idea or impression will come next.

Some writers’ sentences kiss. In A Natural History of the Senses, Dianne Ackerman recounts how in the early sixties many girls made kissing an art form:

[W]e kissed inventively, clutching our boyfriends from behind as we straddled motorcycles, whose vibrations turned our hips to jelly; we kissed extravagantly beside a turtlearium in the park, or at the local rose garden or zoo; we kissed delicately, in waves of sipping and puckering; we kissed torridly, with tongues like hot pokers….

Ackerman knows how to kiss with her lips and with her tongue (her language, that is). The repeated subject-verb-adverb pattern torques her idea and reinforces how inventive the teenagers were with their kisses just as the writer is with her sentences.

The opening of Rick Moody’s Purple America uses a similar pattern for a different effect: The repetition of the arcane “whosoever” elevates the protagonist’s personal sacrifice to something religious and reinforces the overwhelming nature of being a middle-aged son who must care for, in every way, his debilitated mother:

Whosoever knows the folds and complexities of his own mother’s body, he shall never die. Whosoever knows the latitudes of his mother’s body, whosoever has taken her into his arms and immersed her baptismally in the first-floor tub, lifting one of her alabaster legs and then the other over its lip, whosoever bathes her with Woolworth’s soaps in sample sizes … he shall never die.

That last sentence runs for four pages, its momentum overwhelming the reader. Nonetheless, this sentence’s kiss is so tender, so complex, so angry and confused and loving.

Emotion has its own rhythm and syntax. Sometimes, we write with such fury or reverie, disgust or jubilation, that our voice beckons us to repeat phrases and clauses. In such writing, our writing bodies and voice may need the shapes of anaphora or epistrophe. Ackerman’s kissing sentences and Moody’s caretaking sentences excerpted earlier in this chapter employed anaphora, the repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginnings of successive clauses or sentences.

At this moment, your body breathes. We each breathe about 23,040 times a day. The palpable fact of breath’s undulations reminds us of our body’s rhythms.

You played with your breath when a boy or girl. You’d hold your breath underwater or challenge your friends to breath-holding contests. You’d hold your breath so long you made yourself dizzy, and the world’s form for a moment jiggled like Jell-O—your first taste of altering your own state of body-mind-imagination.

As you read the following lines from Maxine Kumin’s “Morning Swim,” try to read as you heed the rhythms of your breath. That is, inhale as you read the first line, exhale as you read the second, and so forth:

and in the rhythm of the swim

I hummed a two-four-time slow hymn.

I hummed “Abide with Me.” The beat

rose in the fine thrash of my feet.

rose in the bubbles I put out

slantwise, trailing through my mouth.6

The line’s steady length and rhythm reinforce the speaker’s bodily rhythms and the song’s rhythms. Each line’s pace follows your breath’s pace, each inhalation and exhalation’s length approximately a four-count. That English-writing poets for centuries have written verse so often in these four-beat and five-beat (pentameter) lines should be no surprise: They wrote with what came natural to their breath and with what brought the most embodied pleasure to their audiences.

Most prose writers also know the value of writing with measured rhythm. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau wrote, wittingly or not, in a mostly iambic beat.

Once we sense how a basic sentence’s fundamental rhythms work, we can play with our sentences’ breath, so to speak, by repetition and length. Each sentence breathes. Some stutter. Raspy heaves. Hacks. Other sentences blow on, their momentum carried by a phrase’s or a clause’s wind, sometimes their subject, hidden behind a flock of geese or an amateur glider, separated from its action

With practice, we get the hang of some basic patterns, and then we alter them. As we learn to respond to how our body, breath, and imagination need a thought and image to unfold, writing memorable sentences that swim into our reader’s unconscious, while still a miracle, may no longer be such a mystery.

Rumi writes, “When I want to kiss God / I just lift my own hand to my mouth.” A writer could do worse than lift a hand to the page and lay out a line of kisses.

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  3. Hi Jeffrey, this post is so timely … two of the books I aspire in my dreams that my book would the same shelf with (aka mine) is Ackerman’s History of the Senses and David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous What you’re saying about poetry rings true for me as well: David Whyte’s work is so resonant for me, especially hearing him read it. If there is a credo for being heroic, for me, his poem Self-Portrait is it.

  4. Thank you Jeffrey. I’ve recently decided to blog more frequently, and recommit to writing quality pieces. I’ve found that reading my writing out loud is immensely helpful for finding rhythm. It’s lovely to take a piece of raw writing and listen for strands of pattern and form.

  5. Rhythm and cadence capture the soul because of their ability to entrain the mind’s ear. Emotions become palpable when they are formed into a words that impress us like music. So, I agree with your insights, Jeffrey!