Fishing for the Meaning of a Sentence

Most people I know don’t want to like Stanley Fish. They cite with manufactured displeasure his unctuous blog post on Sarah Palin, as if his praise of her autobiography were the greatest betrayal of liberal values since David Mamet came out as a conservative. But I fell in love with form in seventh grade, when I diagrammed a sentence from Silas Marner that covered four blackboards and came out perfect. And so I avidly followed Fish’s New York Times series on using syntax, rather than self-expression, to teach writing. I broke with several rhet-comp friends over his chastisement of their free-writing practices. I can fill your ears with the ways my beloved Blake sentence, “For we are put on earth a little space, that we may learn to bear the beams of love,” works through eye-rhyme, alliteration, aphorismus, aposeipesis, hypallage, and transposition—not to mention iambic pentameter—as much as it does through its message.

So I wanted to like Stanley Fish’s anti-Strunk & White guide, How to Write a Sentence. But I couldn’t. I guess I take issue with his initial premise: “That is what language does: organize the world into manageable, and in some sense artificial, units that can then be inhabited and manipulated.” I simply don’t believe manageable units are language’s main purview.

My discomfort played out in Fish’s practice sessions. I wanted to believe, as he puts it, that “it doesn’t matter what the sentences you practice with say; it doesn’t matter what their content is.” Master the form, and the content will follow when you need it. But when he picks Martin Luther King Jr.’s magisterial sentence from Letter From a Birmingham Jail, in which King builds his passionate case for refusing to wait for racial justice, it seems ridiculous to pretend, as Fish does, that a writer like King has done “finger exercises” in rhetorical forms “as a preliminary to writing in the service of an intention.” I do not believe Martin Luther King ever wrote without an intention, and the more passionately felt his intention, the more flex he put into the muscle of his prose.

I’m happy to acknowledge that King, and the other great writers Fish quotes, read great sentences, lots and lots of them, and even studied such sentences, much as Fish does in the latter half of his book. Although Fish’s emphasis on 17th-century style and DWEM’s is a bit much for me, it’s hard for a language enthusiast not to appreciate Cotton Mather’s sleight of hand as he works his audience to a lather against the local heathens, or the disingenuous idiot-savant sentences that make up Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. But for me, language simply doesn’t work as a set of aesthetic tools the way, say, musical notes do. The note C# means nothing; the word jelly bean means something. If it didn’t, Mad Libs wouldn’t be hilarious; it would just be a set of exercises in subordination or what Fish calls “the additive style.”

I don’t want to launch into a diatribe here. Let me mention one other point of discomfort that How to Write a Sentence brought to the itching stage: voice. Thirty years ago, I heard Eudora Welty read, and a questioner in the audience asked her how she created the marvelous cadences of her sentences. Ms. Welty leaned into the mike and said softly, “Honey, I just listen.” About half the sentences Fish quotes in his book are expository; about half are from fiction. In both cases, but with different shades of gray, the writer is listening—either to the voice of the character she is attempting to embody in prose, or to the persona she is inhabiting as she mounts her persuasive argument. To quote the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice or Goodbye, Columbus without taking into account the effect of voice is to describe cooked chicken without noting that it was curried.

In the end, I am old-fashioned: I am all for practice. But if, as Fish claims, “verbal fluency is the produce of hours spent writing about nothing,” I fear such fluency. After all, as he also writes, “Sentences can save us.” And I want them to save us from anomie, from banality, from inattention. I don’t want them to save us from content, or from the spontaneous eruption of powerful feelings. Do you?



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