In search of the remarkable sentence
A writer friend of mine lamented to me not long ago that his books sold well enough but had not achieved the success and recognition of a single volume by a writer who had much less experience and information and yet wrote on the same kinds of subjects.
I had to agree with him that his books could be trusted to be far more reliable and less idiosyncratic than that of the other writer. What I didn't say was that I enjoyed the quirky, sometimes wry, often piercingly touching style of the other writer more than I did his.
Later, I pondered some passages of one of his texts, asking myself why I felt this way. Plainly the writing was beautifully crafted, smooth in all its transitions, constructed with a care so meticulous one saw no joints. He was a writer of fine paragraphs, which he taped, grouted, and sanded together so that they merged perfectly into a single plain surface.
What was wrong? He was not a writer of remarkable sentences. His were buttery slick. The eye slid down his pages like a skier on a gently sloping field. No dangers reared to be avoided. No one took a tumble over some crux of thought or language. Nor would anyone slide to a stop to examine any startling thought.
I began thinking of the fine stylists I knew. Thoreau, who is one of the most quoted writers in American literary history, was a writer of great sentences. As we all know, whether we believe it or not, ''the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.'' Or ''if a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.''
Nor are all Thoreau's remarkable sentences so aphoristic. Some passages may start that way but balloon out into larger thoughts, each in a sentence so perfect that it sends chills down the spine. ''Time,'' he writes, ''is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.''
With the help of my friends, I began collecting sentences we thought were very fine ones. A number of them turned out to be aphorisms. Most contained arresting ideas. Cleverness of expression helped raise some above the average.
I began to see also that a style composed of nothing but great sentences would be as impossible to bear as a supper of all fudge. Each one needed to be either the piquant part of solid but standard fare or else had to be part of a significant passage that jutted above the surrounding prose like a great rock rising from a meadow.
In the middle of my musings I got a letter from my writer friend and realized that its prose contained flashes of wit and insight that his published work tended to omit. I saw that perhaps he worked too hard putting a public face on his writing and that it revealed as little of the real him as a Bachrach portrait might of the friends we picnic with. Later, a writer who collaborated with him on one project volunteered virtually the same opinion, and I began to see that remarkable sentences might involve a willingness to let our own individualities show. Such sentences often show freckles. They are deft, as our faces are in their athletic chance expressiveness, before they are blandly retouched in a studio.
My writer friend loved language, as I well knew from his conversation, but perhaps he respected it too much, as the formality of his tuxedoed pages seemed to show. Had he revised the spontaneity out of his prose without touching in the flashes of perception that long pondering of an idea will bring? I didn't know. I was beginning to think, though, that there can be no great style without a tumbling out of extraordinary sentences here and there. Whether they came in a first rush of insight or arrived later, they had to be there.
I concluded that most readers could easily tolerate some truly homely, even ugly, sentences in an interesting style more easily than they could stay interested in a fashion mannequin prose without a rough spot but frozen in place. I thought of Paul's epistles, which contain, in English translation, some true monstrosities of style, at which we squint in baffled incomprehension, and from which we go scuttling to our commentaries and alternate translations. But these same epistles also contain a wealth of limpid, concise, thrilling statements which make us eager to pursue an understanding of the opaque ones.
Who that has read and pondered I Corinthians 13 can ever forget its perfect economy, its rhetorical balances, its vibrant imagery, its casual statement of ideas of imponderable depth? To have perceived and written such a passage would be a satisfying lifework, and yet one impossible without his having written much more of less perfection.
I happen to think that the endlessly praised ''ask not what your country can do for you'' sentence of President Kennedy is not great but execrable. And yet Mr. Kennedy used language with a deftness, ability, and love of it that no other recent president has matched. There it was - the official statement of desired political attitude, with its awkward inversion, as clumsy footed as Neil Armstrong's ''one small step for man'' pontification.
Perhaps this leads us to another concept. Great sentences will likely have the quality of private confessions. Though they tend to come from practiced users of language, they are earnestly felt. They are not manipulative. They take us by the shoulders and shake us as only wholehearted friends do. We know them by their craft, but also by their effect on us. Hand in hand with them, we leap across whatever distance, whatever barriers, to match the writer's thought stride for stride. We feel for a moment the liberation of perfect rapport.
For the writer, they must come from his attempt to see beyond his words. They come to stand by his side and help his search for meaning. The surest way never to write a great sentence is no doubt to try to. Great sentences happen. What a delight it must be to the assiduous writer to see them happen. It must be a matter of astonisment as well. And how difficult to leave alone lest they fade into the ordinary.
I think this must have often happened to my writing friend. I return to his books for the pleasure their care and craft give. But I reread his letters, and remember his laughing commentary across the table, with more pleasure, no doubt from his trust in the purity of the moment, which allowed the moment to express its own spontaneous art and insight, clearly and without interference.
Even with the criteria offered above, I find myself as much at a loss to define a really great sentence as everyone seems to at the task of defining a poem. There will always be disagreement, no doubt, about what sentences are truly great.
That is less important than that we see them and know that for us they ring with the chime of crystal unflawed. They give us one of the true pleasures of life and thought. What a fine thing that there are such structures, such helps, free resources that give themselves wholly to any thinker and yet remain undiminished and always fresh for future perceivers.