In our eight-part series Life Sentence, the literary critic Jeff Dolven takes apart and puts back together one beloved or bedeviling sentence. The artist Tom Toro illustrates each sentence Dolven chooses.
There are so many ways to pin a sentence down: the completeness of its thought, the correctness of its grammar; its rhetorical purpose, its narrative closure. Does any of them touch its being?
Night after night this message returns, repeated in the flickering bulbs of the sky, raised past us, taken away from us, yet ours over and over until the end that is past truth, the being of our sentences, in the climate that fostered them, not ours to own, like a book, but to be with, and sometimes to be without, alone and desperate.
John Ashbery is a poet of sentences. No one writing since Milton has had quite so much syntax at his disposal. “Soonest Mended,” the poem from which this sentence is taken, is composed in lines, which make for another order of punctuation—and they make a difference, as you can see if you read the original. Here, though, I want to set the prosody aside in favor of the prose of Ashbery’s commas, and the way the wandering structure sounds the question of what, after all is said and done, a sentence is. After so many formal queries in this column, after trying out so many different frameworks and idioms, permit me a moment of existential free fall. Read More