Friday, March 4, 2011

A small touch of Fish before I head for the Island

Class having ended early--as it was barely all my students could do to contain themselves for the 35 minutes we sat there, in their last class of the day, on the last day before Spring Break--I returned to my office to figure out what I should do with myself until it was time to depart.  The students with whom I am carpooling are to arrive at 4:00. At that time we shall decide whether or not to buy tickets for a play before we go.

A small problem in my Internet program required me to restart my computer, so tooling through meaningless (or meaningful) web pages was out.  So what to do?

Ah! But I got a package in my mailbox today! An exciting even as I didn't remembered buying anything lately.  It was a desk copy of a book I ordered, to see if I wanted to use it in my Freshmen Composition classes, or perhaps in my Advanced Grammar class.  How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Mr. Stanley Fish. 

Mr. Fish is prolific in the literary criticism world, and I am familiar with his work. He is often witty, often sharp, and (though not for either of those) not my favorite of authors.  And yet, the idea behind the book is a brilliant one.  For lovers of words, we don't usually love them for their meaning or sounds alone, but rather the contexts in which we've seen them dance and sing.  For lovers of books, we are well aware that without the bits, there'd be no whole.

And yet, I have consistently forgotten about the sentence. That middling level building block between clauses and phrases and paragraphs. That essence of meaning and, as Fish points out, pleasure.  There is delight in a truly good sentence, and the ones in his Introduction do not disappoint. A smattering of the ones he mentions:

Eli Wallach as the head bandit in The Magnificent Seven: "If God didn't want them sheared, he wouldn't have made them sheep" (5).

An anonymous fourth grader on the appearance of a mysterious box at school: "I was already on the second floor when I heard about the box" (5).

John Updike on Ted Williams hitting a home run in his last at bat in Fenway Park: "It was in the books while it was still in the sky" (9).

And my favorite, Joan Crawford on why she dressed like she was on her way to a premier every time she left her house: "If you want to see the girl next door, go next door" (4).

Fish spends some time explaining why these are great without destroying them (a talent in any kind of literary criticism), and I won't go into it here.  He brings the chapter to its last point by suggesting the following:
"[...] the practice of analyzing and imitating sentences is also the practice of learning how to read them with an informed appreciation. Here's the formula: Sentence craft equals sentence comprehension equals sentence appreciation" (11).  For anyone who writes anything and wants it to be beyond simply the competent conveyance of information, this should be a mantra.  He ends the chapter with a gesture to chapter two, in which he seeks answers to the "what is a sentence" question.

And so I will go back to reading it, until life begins its frantic movement again and I don't have time to sit and luxuriate in the artistry that is the sentence.

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