Making a Sentence (Article)

(for Rachel, my word-wizard)

J.S. Porter

To write a good sentence. That was Hemingway’s aim. And when he couldn’t write a good sentence, he reached for his shotgun. Some writers write more polished lines. They embalm human bone in perfume. Nabokov, Updike and Durrell write with fragrant adverbs and scented adjectives, sentences beaded with pearls. Hemingway stays with the bone, nouns and verbs and his King James “and.” He leaves a certain sound in the ear, a certain sad sound in the ear, found in Irish poetry and the Japanese novel. Somewhere Updike asks: Did anyone ever take language more seriously? Hemingway wrote some good sentences. He put things together in a single sentence that you wouldn’t think could be put together and work. He knows how to make a sentence jump. “In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.”

He gets a lot of music in a sentence too. “In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more.” You can juggle that sentence any way you like, but you won’t do any better than that. Suppose you said, “In the fall there was always the war…” The beat isn’t the same, you lose the music, nine syllables before the comma and nine syllables after it. Rhythmically, a perfect sentence.

Suppose you said, “The war was always there in the fall…” Not so good, is it? You have to have the season first, the season of dying leaves, then the war and then some people not going to it anymore as if war was something you could choose not to go to. Stein thought it was easy to write a Hemingway sentence, but it isn’t. She thought you could jumble up the words and keep repeating them in a different order, but you can’t.

Sometimes a Hemingway sentence works because of its rhythm, sometimes because of its restraint, and sometimes because, like a river, it carries so much memory and melancholy that you want to cry. “The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves.”

Sometimes a Hemingway sentence contains so many words that they spill out of their vessel. And sometimes he packs so many images into a sentence you feel your head go off. “…sometimes, if the day was bright, I would buy a liter of wine and a piece of bread and some sausage and sit in the sun and read some of the books I had bought and watch the fishing.”

His sentences have to do with missing someone, with not being able to sleep, with losing control or losing what you once had, with not being able to think about certain things because the pain is too great, with pacing. More cargo floats into his sentences than the current can syntactically bear: too much experience, too many images, too much memory, too much sensitivity. No wonder he can’t hold the line taut at times, and the words lapse into mawkishness. The sentences threaten sometimes to burst like over-ripe milkweed pods, expelling rogue words off into a space disconnected from their source. In these sentences, as Beckett said in another context, “you lose your heart drop by drop.”

Most of the time I feel like crying when I read Hemingway, so I try not to read him. I remember too many things. Like watching the first Ali-Frazier fight on a big screen and reading “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” between rounds. I remember how I used lines from For Whom The Bell Tolls as love letters to my first girlfriend, how I was reading A Moveable Feast in a Quebec city hotel, laughing over its vitriol, and how I tried to make sentences like his and couldn’t. Years ago in Quebec I gave a French friend The Old Man and The Sea, and he gave me Exupery’s Le Petit Prince. I fought with the exquisite French as I knew he would have to fight with the sinewy English. I insisted he read the novel in English because there is a coarseness, a bluntness, a directness about English that goes with catching a big fish and losing it. It’s a language, as Atwood says, for the gutting of hogs, and, as Hemingway knew, for the gutting of marlin.

Good sentences have pictures in them, or sad sounds, or unbearable memories. Like Noah’s doves they are sent out in the Flood to keep us from drowning. They bring back evidence of the land we once knew. They make the world fresh and strange again, like orchids in a rainforest. But a good sentence needs more than a dove in it; it needs a raven too, a slight odour of death, for as Hemingway knew in every sentence he wrote, “Death is the mother of beauty.” Sentences, like us, have beginnings and endings. They intimate, gently, our mortality. They come out of the writer’s body and they go into the reader’s body. They make you pull in your breath or hiss it out slowly. They enter your bloodstream like alcohol, like Demerol.

Another writer of good sentences is Henry David Thoreau. No one brings the body into sentences as gracefully, the body of the world. “You must try a thousand themes before you find the right one, as nature makes a thousand acorns to get one oak.” He’s a metaphor man. Maybe the best in the business. “A greater baldness my life seeks, as the crest of some bare hill, which towns and cities do not afford. I want a directer relation with the sun.” He lets nature into his lines. He connects the human to older forms of growth, to more ancient presences.

He wants you to express yourself the way nature expresses herself. “Nature never indulges in exclamations, never says Ah! or Alas! She is not of French descent…” Thoreau walked long distances; his fingers could distinguish the featherliness of the mushroom’s underpad from the felt of moss, his ears knew the difference between a brook and a creek, his eyes could distinguish between hemlock and balsam, and he could hear a bird and name it. Like Hemingway, he wants us to get the names of things right.

Thoreau writes only about what he loves. About a tanager in full red-wing spread: “It flies through the green foliage as if it would ignite the leaves.” About the seasons: “We are hunters pursuing the summer on snowshoes and skates, all winter long. There is really but one season in our hearts.” He conceives in metaphor. He loves what is around him: “I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows.” He is the poet of the seasons and of day and night. Sometimes the night slips in, and he takes your breath away: “My thoughts have left no track, and I cannot find the path again.”

So you’ve got rhythm and sadness and nature and metaphor in your sentences, what else do you need? Beckett says shape. You need shape in a sentence. He gives an example from Saint Augustine. “Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.” It’s the shape of the sentence, the balance, not the idea, that’s important, says Beckett. Take his own work. How It Is, say, which he writes without punctuation, one long breath. He puts space into his sentences, like bread in a desert.

my life last state last version ill-said ill-heard ill-recaptured ill-murmured in the mud brief movements of the lower face losses everywhere

suddenly afar the step the voice nothing then

suddenly something something then suddenly nothing

suddenly afar the silence

Beckett, the best ear in English, says it as he hears it. His sentences have shape; they have a bleak balance in their bare benedictions, hypnotic in their biblical parallelism. Not many metaphors in Beckett’s sentences, some images, heart-breaking sadness, but mostly bare bones, an unadorned voice, sounds—grunts, gasps, gurgles. He puts his tongue in your ear. Like Hemingway, he leaves a lot out. Listen to these two sentences from How It Is. There’s an unsaid novel between them—

all these calculations yes explanations yes the

the whole story from beginning to end yes completely

false yes

and the mud yes the dark yes the mud and the dark

are true yes nothing to regret there no

—and unsent telegrams to a non-existent lover.

Hemingway and Thoreau and Beckett, they keep the line pure, close to the body. For Hemingway there are words like “patriotism” and “honour” that make you sick. You can’t smell those words or taste them. No grandiloquence in Beckett either. He loves the sound of “b.” Take everything to the bone. With his scatological vision he never strays far from buttocks and bowels; he stays in the human stink-sack, sucks, swallows and shits the world. For Thoreau too there are certain blasphemous words, like “business” and “success” that have “death and sin” in them. “Let not the children hear them,” he says in his journal. These writers write good sentences, the kind Hemingway shot himself for want of. These writers know the truth of Thoreau’s words: “Nothing goes by luck in composition…The best you can write will be the best you are.”


  • Published by Indirections, Vol. 17, No. 3, September, 1992

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