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What Sentences Do in Irish Poetry

Phrases dans la poésie irlandaise
Eric Falci
p. 81-93


Dans cet essai, je considère la phrase dans la dynamique de la forme poétique et j’examine comment plusieurs poètes irlandais ont maintenu des structures de phrase conventionnelles, les ont abandonnées, ont déconstruit leur logique, reconfiguré leurs structures internes ou les ont fait sortir des limites habituelles de la grammaire et de la syntaxe. À travers les lectures de poèmes de William Butler Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Sinéad Morrissey et Catherine Walsh, je démontre le travail complexe que les phrases accomplissent dans les poèmes.

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  • 1 See Paul Valéry, The Art of Poetry [1958], Denise Folliot (trans.), Princeton, Princeton University (...)
  • 2 However, for an early consideration of the ways in which characteristic patterns of sentence struct (...)

1As Stéphane Mallarmé made clear to his friend Edgar Degas, poems are made of words.1 In the great majority, poems are made of words that are made into sentences. There are not many poems in which sentences are not at the heart of the enterprise, even if a poet’s project is also invested in the fragmentation, parody, eschewal, or travesty of sentence-making. However, there has been relatively little attention to considering how sentences matter within a poem’s formal and discursive matrix. Certainly, compared to the line, but also compared to other constitutive structures – the stanza, the page, the word –, the sentence has largely gone unnoticed in poetry studies.2

  • 3 Roman Jakobson, “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics”, in Style in Language, Thomas A. Sebeo (...)
  • 4 Ibid., p. 358.

2New Critics did not place any specific interpretive pressure on the role of sentences in the shaping of the well-wrought urns to which they attended. Structuralist and poststructuralist criticism has plenty to say about grammar, syntax, and sentences, but the primary objects of investigation tended to be novels. Concepts that would seem to be helpful in such an investigation and which have had wide currency in poetry criticism and literary studies more generally – Roman Jakobson’s account of “the poetic function” and John Langshaw Austin’s notion of “performative utterances” – are, for the most part, focused on other matters. Jakobson’s “poetic function”, which promotes “palpability of sounds, [and thus] depends on the fundamental dichotomy of signs and objects”, is primarily concerned – as we would expect from a structuralist working in the wake of Saussure – with the nature and function of signs and has little to say about the workings of grammar and syntax.3 Indeed, Jakobson’s definition of the poetic function ensures that grammar and syntax will be elided. If, as he famously writes, “the poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination”, such that “equivalence is promoted to the constitutive device of the sequence”, then grammar’s hierarchical and subordinating energies are, by definition, bound to be quelled as compared to the sonic and rhythmic energies of particular words and their combinations.4

3Considering that the sentences that appear in poems, as in other forms of literary or imaginative writing, are not in the straightforward business of making statements or reporting on some aspect of the world, one cannot help but turn to Austin’s notion of performatives in How to Do Things with Words. For it is certainly the case that the verbal materials that constitute poems are not simply saying something, but are involved in doing something, which something might be simply internal to it, the unfolding configuration of the poem itself. But, of course, Austin excludes poems (and literature) from consideration on the basis of their unseriousness:

  • 5 John Langshaw Austin, How to Do Things with Words, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1962, p. 9.

Surely the words [of a performative] must be spoken “seriously” and so as to be taken “seriously”? This is, though vague, true enough in general – it is an important commonplace in discussing the purport of any utterance whatsoever. I must not be joking, for example, nor writing a poem.5

  • 6 Ibid., p. 22.

Such examples fall under what Austin calls “the doctrine of the etiolations of language” and so are to be disregarded.6 In any case, Austin is not particularly interested in the workings of sentences, as Jan Mieszkowski notes:

  • 7 Jan Mieszkowski, Crises of the Sentence, Chicago – London, The University of Chicago Press, 2019, p (...)

Austin seems to be concerned to distance himself from the concept of the sentence as much as possible, the first step being his decision to speak about performative utterances rather than performative sentences, a move that prefigures his conclusion that to understand the performative powers of language, “what we have to study is not the sentence but the issuing of an utterance in a speech situation”.7

  • 8 See, for instance, the brief essays by poets collected in A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, Emily (...)

4If there are relatively few specific attempts to reckon with the work of sentences in poetry, there is simultaneously the pervasive and general sense that the way that sentences matter in poems is a function of how they interact with lines (and so the focus is on the effects of enjambment, meter, rhyme, caesura, and so on), but in this calculus the line always seems to take its place as the more compelling character in the little story.8 As in, for instance, one of the most thrilling accounts we have about how the line functions in relation to the sentence. In The End of the Poem, Giorgio Agamben begins with the idea that poetry is defined by a recurring pattern of interference between lines and sentences; thus, the most fissile points of a poem are at line-endings, when this interference is most fully concretised. In and of itself, this is not surprising. Or, to put it differently, this is exactly the kind of surprise that we have long come to anticipate and savor in poems. It is etymologically baked in: “verse”, from the Latin versus, to turn or bend (as a plough does from one row to the next); “enjambment”, from the French en (in) and jambe (leg), enjambe, to stride over, or go beyond.

  • 9 Giorgio Agamben, The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics, Daniel Heller-Roazen (trans.), Stanford, (...)

5Where Agamben takes this is the thrilling part: if a poem is disclosed as a single, double-threaded strand – one syntactic and semantic and the other semiotic, rhythmic, and sonic – that continually interfere with one another, and if that double strand knots (at least momentarily) at the end of the line, then the final line of the poem is something of a crisis. The end of the poem – that is, the final line – strangely cannot be part of the poem, if the poem as poem is defined by its capacity for line-sentence interference. It is the impossibility of another line that spurs the crisis of a poem’s ending; not that another sentence is not possible, but that another line will not occur and so the recursive logic of a poem dissipates. “As if”, Agamben writes, “the poem as a formal structure would not and could not end, as if the possibility of the end were radically withdrawn from it, since the end would imply a poetic impossibility: the exact coincidence of sound and sense”.9 The sentence is along for the ride in a stirring formal crisis that could not have happened without it but for which it receives little attention.

  • 10 See Ron Silliman, The New Sentence, New York, Roof Books, 1987. Also see Bob Perelman, The Marginal (...)

6As the unmarked portion of a poem’s double strand, the sentence has too often remained outside of the critical frame. One major exception, of course, is in the work of the Language poets and the formative idea of the “new sentence”, as detailed in work by Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, and others. But the new sentence as conceived by Language writers was “new” because of the way that it related to – or, crucially, did not – the sentences around it, and Silliman’s foundational essay, The New Sentence, focuses largely on prose poetry.10 The large-scale theoretical work undertaken by Language writers was motivated in part by a desire to unpick forms of teleological coherence that served as the means and the cover for damaging ideological structures and aesthetic approaches. A “new sentence” worked its syntactical levers like other sentences, but it let semantic coherence drift away, or forcefully pushed it away, whether in non-normative semantic relations within a given sentence, or in cryptic or elusive semantic relations between one sentence and another. However, the notion of the new sentence was not concerned primarily with the sentence-line dialectic. Even as many poems by Language poets appeared in lines, Language poetry and the new sentence did not offer a new approach to or theory of the line and its features (enjambment, rhyme, etc.). Of course, there are many poems by Language poets that enjamb in fascinating ways, and even some that rhyme, but those features are not a part of what the new sentence offered as a working concept. And more generally, my sense is that even as the study of poetry has been revitalised in numerous ways in the past two decades, there are still lacunae in our understanding of, and attention to, some of poetry’s central components and contexts. One of these gaps is what seems to me an underdeveloped sense of what sentences do in poetry.

7For the remainder of this essay, I will undertake a very preliminary investigation of how several Irish poets have approached the making of sentences as part of the composing of poems, how they have maintained them, abandoned them, deconstructed their logics, reconfigured their internal structures, or made them move outside of the usual bounds of grammar and syntax. To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that sentences work in a fundamentally different way in Irish poems in English than in American poems in English or Scottish poems in English. But considering some of the other formal features that have tended to distinguish modern and contemporary Irish poetry, the ways that sentences work and move in Irish poems seems particularly intriguing. This is due to what we might see as Irish poetry’s conservative formal tendencies, its seemingly stronger commitment to sturdy stanza forms than much American and some English poetry in the 20th and 21st centuries, and its reliance on devices and approaches eschewed by varieties of experimental or avant-garde poetry. There are, of course, counterexamples in the tradition of 20th and 21st-century Irish poetry of poems that eschew sentence-forms either occasionally or more systemically (for example, in poems by Denis Devlin, Maurice Scully, or Catherine Walsh) and poems that eschew stanzaic or linear forms in favour of a more adventurous relation to the mise-en-page (e.g., Brian Coffey, Scully and Walsh again, or Nidhi Zak / Aria Eipe). Nonetheless, modern and contemporary Irish poetry might be a particularly good field upon which to begin to understand some of the ways that poets handle sentences within the compositional shaping of a poem.

  • 11 I consider this feature of Yeats’s poetry in relation to the work of Paula Meehan in “Meehan’s Stan (...)

8A quick turn to the poetry of William Butler Yeats can help to establish the matter. Throughout his career, Yeats typically aligned stanzas and sentences – there are just a few instances in his Collected Poems in which the end of a stanza is not also the end of a sentence.11 There is, unsurprisingly, a powerful will to fit the one form to the other. Especially in Yeats’s long-stanza poems, this makes for a sense of the sentence as an expandable, accretive space, as other forms of syntactic organisation become embedded within the sentence-stanza. For instance, here is the first stanza of “The Municipal Gallery Revisited”:

  • 12 William Butler Yeats, “The Municipal Gallery Revisited”, in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, Ric (...)

Around me the images of thirty years;
An ambush; pilgrims at the water-side;
Casement upon trial, half hidden by the bars,
Guarded; Griffith staring in hysterical pride;
Kevin O’Higgins’ countenance that wears
A gentle questioning look that cannot hide
A soul incapable of remorse or rest;
A revolutionary soldier kneeling to be blessed.12

  • 13 In the margin of his copy of Paradise Lost, Keats describes Milton’s brilliance at “stationing or s (...)

The coincidence of sentence and stanza is typical, as is the use of a catalogue to catalyse Yeats’s meditation. The sentence has – to borrow a term that John Keats used to describe John Milton’s style in Paradise Lost – a “stationing” effect: it becomes architectural, a composition of situated space as much as an arrangement of syntax.13 This is, of course, made easier by the lack of verbal motion. The sentence-stanza has no explicit main verb, although we understand that the present plural of “to be” (“Around me [are] the images”) is implied but elided in the first line. All verbal energy is confined to its particular nominative station, the figures in the paintings that Yeats is looking at in the gallery. The stationary sentence form (a list of snippets about the paintings) cuts against the two forms of movement that subtend it: the movement of the lyric speaker who turns and strolls in order to see the paintings mentioned, which are not, presumably, all on the same wall, and which may not be in the same room of the gallery; and the suspended action that is depicted in some of the paintings: Griffith staring, the soldier kneeling. Behind this presentation of stillness is the past sustained activity of the painters who made the paintings, who exist obliquely in relation to their works as the speaker Yeats exists in relation to the phrasal stubs about the paintings that he sees: the unseen see-er.

9What seems to be at work here is Yeats’s own attempt to think his way through the Laocoon problem, as famously framed by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766). By suspending the forward motion of the sentence in the stanza (cinched by the half-rhyme on “years” and “bars”), Yeats seeks a kind of painterly mimesis (based, at least according to Lessing, on the depiction of bodies and objects in spaces) rather than a poetic one, which (again, says Lessing) necessarily relies on action. It is important, then, that the details of actions from the paintings that Yeats chooses to include are hardly actions at all. The first two figures – “me” and “pilgrims” – are simply stuck in place. The next three are depicted performing imperceptible actions – either somatic or psychological. And the last one – the “revolutionary soldier” – is verbally moving (the gerund “kneeling”) but depicted as unmoving. He is presumably in a kneeling position, rather than being caught in the painting at the exact moment that he lowers himself to kneel, as in the image’s likely source, Sir John Lavery’s The Blessing of the Colours, which Lavery donated to the museum in 1935. The passage is the poetic analogue of the gallery that the speaker stands in, which occurs as Yeats lodges a visual logic inside the sentence-stanza, by stilling it of verbal motion, and a temporal, sentence-like logic inside of its still images: they are carefully stationed in phrases with verbs that signal no motion at all.

10Seamus Heaney’s work provides another example of what we might call centripetal sentence force. There are relatively few “non” or “incomplete” sentences in Heaney’s work, which is somewhat surprising considering the familiar noun-based, thingy quality of Heaney’s poetry. Here is the opening of the seventh of the “Glanmore Sonnets”:

  • 14 Seamus Heaney, Sonnet VII from “Glanmore Sonnets”, in Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996, New (...)

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice,
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.14

Like the other poems in the series, this sonnet focuses on the Heaney family’s move to Glanmore cottage in Wicklow in the mid-1970s, after they decided to leave the North. It is one of the more famous BBC-shipping-forecast poems in the contemporary canon: the primary energy of the poem is nominal, exemplified in the hypnotic run of sea and weather areas in the forecast’s famous litany of zones of UK and Irish waters. Snippets of the forecast start and end the poem, and Heaney doubles down on nomination by inserting two mid-poem catalogues: the list of sea kennings in the sixth line and the names of ships in Wicklow Harbor in the ninth. For my purposes here, what is remarkable is the way in which Heaney’s impulse towards the sturdiness of sonically rich placenames spurs an investigation into the possibilities of predication. Perhaps taking an oblique hint from the forms of delay that are built into the shipping forecast – what feels like “present news” when one hears the bare litany on the radio is actually the end point of a series of relays that moves the information from one instrument, one measuring device, one location to the “here” of the listener, timed precisely so that it sounds exactly when listeners expect it.

11The poem’s first sentence becomes a study of recessed agency, and of the difficulty of articulating the sentence form with its subjects and objects with the much less well-defined forces of a storm. Part of the sentence’s task seems to be to scumble what is happening and muddle any clear sense of what might be acting on what. The quartet of sea areas in the first line is replaced by what initially seems like a compound subject phrase of the second line, but which in the third line is shown to be the object of another subject, that “strong gale-warning voice” whose reported speech is, it turns out, given in the first line. The fourth line reverses syntactical engines again, as the compound phrase in line two is reinstalled as the subject of the sentence, and this double grammar pulls the poem’s double diegesis to the surface: a person listening to the shipping forecast in the vicinity of Wicklow Bay, and some spot in the North Atlantic imagined off the back of the names spoken over the radio. It is, perhaps too perfectly, a sentence that does what it says – subjects and objects upsurge and are in flux. The phrase “sibilant penumbra” (as in “Irish Sea”) is the switch-point between the two diegetic spaces. A brief non-sentence sentence functions not to “close down” the discourse, but to signal a shift of attention away from the specifics of the forecast (which return at the end of the poem) and toward the local scene via a mythic scrim, the “Sirens” keening their kennings through baize sails of the trawlers. Against expectations and appearances, what motivates the poem is not the word-hoard, but the problems and possibilities that inevitably emerge when those words take on syntactical functions, as they must. It is important that the “found speech” of the first line and the final half of the last line are given “false” grammatical tasks: the quartet at the top is sort of the subject, if we take those four names to be figurally reiterated in the compound subject of the second line.

12But the opening words largely float free of grammar and syntax. They are the initiating and most notable parts of a sentence to which they do not quite belong. And the final sentence recapitulates some of these same grammatical and discursive gestures, embedding another moment of reported speech prefaced by self-reported speech. The spoken word – “haven”, referring to the cottage, the grounds, the bay, Wicklow, the south, its own sonic dimensions and proximity to “heaven” – then ramifies out into the poem’s other, unseen diegesis as the speaker attends back to the forecast and catches the announcer moving north to the Minches then west across Scotland then well north to the Faroe Islands – a final moment of “North Atlantic flux”. The “flux” here is more thoroughly fixed into the sentence, which features a pair of poorly soldered independent clauses, but again we see instances of subject and objects shifting or switching places within the syntax’s morphing texture. Again, too perfectly, the sestet’s workings enact the description inside them, phrases toiling “like mortar”.

  • 15 Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus [1604], Act 5, scene i.

13The examples from Yeats and Heaney demonstrate the centripetal force of sentences within bounded poetic shapes – Yeats’s octave and Heaney’s sonnet. Both poems feature powerful forms of formal and syntactical convergence that subtend their rhetorical and thematic freight. The two texts I turn to now also feature bounded shape, but both exploit the centripetal momentum of bounded shapes as well as the dialectical energy of sentences working with and against lines to quite different – often centrifugal – effects. Like Yeats’s speaker at the start of “The Municipal Gallery Revisited”, Sinéad Morrissey attempts to mobilise a still-life in “The Millihelen”, a poem consisting of thirty-four lines wrapped in a single stanza and unspooling in a single, run-on sentence. A “millihelen” is a term derived from Christopher Marlowe’s description of Helen of Troy as “the face that launched a thousand ships”15 in Dr. Faustus: a “millihelen” is the imagined unit of beauty required to launch just one ship. The poem takes its opening cue from photographs of the Titanic launching into Belfast Lough in 1911 and then seeks to catch the varieties of anticipation and expectancy that subtend that moment when the ship leaves the dock. Here are the opening lines:

  • 16 Sinéad Morrissey, “The Millihelen”, in On Balance, Manchester, Carcanet Press, 2017, p. 9. The poem (...)

It never looks warm or properly daytime
in black-and-white photographs the sheer cliff-
face of the ship still enveloped in its scaffolding
backside against the launching cradle16

This composite ekphrastic text packs in as much present-tense, simultaneous motion as it can, quickly panning over the “ladies lining the quay” and the boys’ choir singing “They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships” before turning to the ship, the “grandstand of iron palace of rivets”, as it starts to move down the greased slipway at a gradual pace, held in check by “heavy chains and anchors kicking in / lest it outdoes itself” and capsizes or “drenches / the aldermen” who have assembled with the crowd. The slipway is “slathered” with the oil of a “rendered whale”, which Morrissey positions as the “millihelen” itself: that quantity of “her [the whale’s] beauty” that is required to launch the ship. After a slight wobble, the ship and the scene snap back into place, and we return to the still-life of the photograph that presumably sources the poem:

  • 17 Ibid.

[…] the ship sits back in the sea
as though it were ordinary and wobbles
ever so slightly and then it and the sun-splashed
tilted hills the railings the pin-striped awning
in fact everything regains its equilibrium.17

A consciously bravura performance by the poet renders the bravura feat of engineering that allows the massive ship to slip safely into the lough. The poem both is and is not a single sentence, and its formal energy is motivated by this toggling between centripetal and centrifugal forces: the opening capitalisation and the final period provide the semblance of a contained sentence that its continually run-on clauses belie. The onrushing phrases, uncoordinated by punctuation or grammatical subordination, generate a faster than usual reading speed, as a reader – somewhat counterintuitively – is caught up in the momentum of the thing and rushes perhaps a bit too much in the hope that a syntactical pause is upcoming.

14We often understand line endings to provide the possibility of a moment’s rest as a reader turns back to the next line and the left-hand margin. But here the constant and heavy enjambment creates its own forward propulsion. The default move at this point would be to suggest that Morrissey is, as so many poets have done and as Alexander Pope counselled with regards to sound and sense, enacting content via form. However, it is no straightforward mimesis that is taking place, such as occurs with another famous poem about the ship, Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain”, in which each three-line stanza both approximates the shape of the Titanic and enacts the convergence of ship and iceberg again and again in its metrical scheme. Bound within a single, wholly unruly sentence whose grammatical fitness does not pass muster but whose compositional fit cannot be gainsaid, “The Millihelen” approaches Lessing’s Laocoon problem from the other direction. Morrissey exploits the baggy potential of a run-on sentence in order to animate a photograph’s still-life, embedding a filmic visual logic that mimes not quite the movement of the ship into the water, but the perceptual dynamics of someone watching – at a distance, from an angle, perhaps a bit obscured – the scene of a ship setting out to sea. The usual poetic ratio, in which the shaping of lines superintends the progress of sentences, is reversed in the indomitable downward force of the poem’s inoperable sentence – rather than any metrical, rhythmic, syntactic, or sonic feature determining the breaking of lines. Balance is re-asserted at the end of the poem, but it is a hazardous, vertiginous sort of equilibrium that can merely be asserted. The force of the sentence that has been let loose in the bounded space of the long stanza overbrims the poem.

  • 18 Thomas Hardy, “The Convergence of the Twain”, in Collected Poems, London, Macmillan, 1923, p. 289.

15The poem’s title suggests a species of appropriate measure that the poem’s form then disregards, its mimetic qualities geared not only to confect some aspect of the ship’s launch but also to position its sentence-form as a kind of premonition about the delusive qualities of equilibrium. Such anxieties surface momentarily earlier in the poem, as Morrissey, beginning a run of delicate objects (“catgut- / about-to-snap with ice picks hawks’ wings / pine needles eggshells”) to serve as figural counterweights to the massive bulk of the ship about to stir, provides a quick glimpse of the darker forces that seem to surround the proceedings: “evil skitters off and looks askance / for now a switch is flicked at a distance”. The “switch flicked at a distance” is the actual mechanism used to initiate the ship’s journey down the drydock and into the lough, but the phrase also hearkens back to the conclusion of Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain”, when Fate, having long prepared for the collision of ship and iceberg, is set in motion: “the Spinner of the Years / Said ‘Now!’ And each one hears, / And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres”.18 Barely apprehensible in Morrissey’s poem, the colossal unbalancing that will be the ship’s ultimate end is just glimpsed, as “evil skitters off and looks askance”. Catalysed and bound by the scrim of sentence-form, “The Millihelen” revels in but worries over just that kind of disequilibrium that its title and its conclusion seek to shunt aside.

16Among contemporary poets in Ireland, Catherine Walsh is nearly alone in her pursuit of species of textual atomisation that stages the deconstruction of syntax and grammar with a Steinian vibrancy. Typically eschewing normative grammar and largely avoiding features of sentence-making such as punctuation and capitalisation, Walsh may be a curious figure to consider in this essay. A quick glance at an excerpt from her as-yet unpublished project, Barbaric Tales, suggests the thoroughgoing ways in which Walsh steers clear of sentences, and even phrases, as compositional materials:

  • 19 Catherine Walsh, Barbaric Tales, in The Stinging Fly, vol. 46, no. 2, 2022, p. 88.

If any where in when were there in
here as any here in there were
when in where
whenever wherever not as current
casual dismissiveness see deference
to the notion of all as states
their everness as when and where
their whereness as ever and when
there whenness as where and ever
there is in as
as as is encompassed
in is notional loci
in existent states actual
perceptions phenomenal bound
to notional expressivistic constraints
of understandings to be
basic as dirt clay soil19

17If Yeats, Heaney, and Morrissey are experimenting on sentences from within sentences, then Walsh comes at it from the opposite direction: experimenting with all of the parts of sentences – especially the parts of sentences that do not much interest many other Irish poets – in order to compose verbal passages that refuse to become sentences but that present on occasion “notional loci” that are always on the move in order to query the relationship between speech, discourse, sense, and subjective phenomenon. Even though her work looks like that of no other Irish poet in the 20th or 21st centuries, she has been in conversation and confrontation with the ideologies and conventions of Irish poetry throughout her career, as can be seen in the nearly cheeky conclusion of this excerpt, which comes to rest on those building block nouns of Irish poetry – “dirt clay soil” – though here entirely outside of any sort of Irish locale, and torn from any context whatsoever.

18Walsh’s 2017 volume, The Beautiful Untogether provides a particularly compelling example of her project of lyric unbuilding. The title poem is a text in fifty-seven seven-line stanzas: two stanzas appear on each page (except for the final stanza, which appears alone). Apart from a single question mark and one period that, I think, marks an initial of a name (“a.”), there is no punctuation, and apart from two instances of the first-person pronoun, no words are capitalised (two other instances of the first-person pronoun are not capitalised). While one can occasionally make a grammatical or logical link between the end of one stanza and the beginning of the next, there is usually nothing in particular that leads one to link the goings-on in consecutive stanzas. Additionally, a larger than normal amount of white space intervenes between the first and second stanza on each page, further hindering the readerly impulse to read proximate stanzas in sequence. The first stanza or text-block is something of a red herring, in that it offers a kind of verbal clarity and syntactical logic that is absent for much of the rest of the poem:

  • 20 Catherine Walsh, The Beautiful Untogether, s.l., Smithereens Press, 2017, p. 3. A PDF of the volume (...)

there is a yellow notebook
if I could keep this simple
there might be a process
which could figure a task
sorted out from those items
in a spatially exempt
refraction of implication20

Highly self-reflexive, the opening passage is most straightforwardly understood as a phatic meta-commentary on its own unfolding. The “yellow notebook” provides a readerly handhold, though one that is never alluded to again, and the syntactical sense of the opening lines (“if I could keep this simple / there might be a process / which could figure a task”) allows one to read lyrically, which is to say, for anyone who is likely to pick up Walsh’s work, comfortably. Here is something with which poetry readers are quite familiar: a poem that begins by staging its beginning.

  • 21 Ibid., p. 6, 9.

19The final phrase of the first stanza – “a spatially exempt / refraction of implication” – is the first of several primers that the poem offers to explain its own process or project, each of which promise by way of an explanatory figure an analogical description of the poem that does not, in the end, provide sufficient explanation: “neatly mapping dispersion”, or “patterns of seemly patternlessness”.21 Contending with ceaseless estrangement while clinging to the glimpses of sense-making as they emerge and then aiming to read those moments as clues by which to read further, a reader is most often stymied. Such a bracing resistance to normative modes of linguistic sense is pervasive in Walsh’s body of work: her longstanding commitment to critiquing the ideologies of contemporary Ireland by anatomising the formal and thematic ideologies of Irish poetry occurs at the ground level of language: words and phrases are not allowed to build into larger patterns of rhetoric and discourse. What seems distinctive about the form that this project takes in The Beautiful Untogether is Walsh’s insistence on bounded shapes. As though providing the tidy travesty of a sonnet sequence – fourteen lines per page, split into two seven-line sections that feature none of the internal dynamics of a sonnet and which are separated by a chasm of white space – The Beautiful Untogether comprises a paratactic series of isomorphic passages that harness lyric forms and syntactical conventions in suspension or negation:

or aspects of themselves prefer
not to dance to go out and play
hey you can collapse a sentence
phrases beat residually to
points of advance no such
meanings imagined is intent
requisite to a mechanical skill

  • 22 Ibid., p. 6. I have not reproduced the additional spaces that appear between stanzas.

instead there are happenings
merging these existences to
responsive patternings unable
to say or see this way forward
as angles bouncing ineptly
reading the iconic smell of smoke
meanders as neatly mapping dispersion22

There are numerous kinds of provisional or momentary order here, and again and again the text prompts us to read it as an account of itself despite the occasional referential moments (“the iconic smell of smoke / meanders”). We might understand these stanzas as exemplifying the materiality of language, whether we think specifically in terms of Jakobson’s “poetic function” or of a more general way in which Walsh’s poetry takes its place in a line of modernist and postmodernist poetry that works by way of a systemic defamiliarisation of the bind between signifier and signified. What we are given in The Beautiful Untogether is a double injunction: to read the fifty-seven identically shaped stanzas together, as part of a single composition, and also to read them as untogether. The constant disruption of the accrual of grammatical meaning requires that one begin again every time, finding local instances of syntactical connection that elude further development, “patterns of seemly patternlessness”. As Walsh promised in the opening stanza, all lexical and phrasal implications will be almost immediately refracted through subsequent phrases that they abut but with which they rarely align. The Beautiful Untogether’s bid seems to be to ask a reader to fully reckon with linguistic parataxis at a granular level. It does this not by providing a set of stationary effects that we can easily appreciate in isolation, even if we are not able to understand their relation (as with the first line of Heaney’s poem above), but by offering a word-hoard chock-a-block with all the words that tend not to be featured in Irish poetry: prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns, abstractions.

20If such a word- and phrase-hoard provides a reader with less immediate verbal pleasure than the rich noun-chains in Heaney’s work, then what Walsh’s work does provide is an immanent and lively unspooling of all those relational forms that make sentences sentences, and from which poems shape their shapes. What I have aimed to sketch here is an alternate vantage point from which to consider the large question of “form” in Irish poetry. As tends to happen within studies of contemporary American and English poetry, one critical impulse has been to rest too easily in conventional understandings of such terms as “mainstream”, “traditional”, “experimental”, “avant-garde”, or “innovative”. Certain poets, groups of poets, or shared formations are understood to be experimental or innovative, with other poets or groups labelled as mainstream or conservative, and the subsequent critical debate too often attends away from the particular poetry that has been so labelled in favour of ongoing debates about the stylistic, aesthetic, and ideological dichotomy that has been drawn. Critiquing the critical frame becomes its own end, with the poetry at the core of the matter too often left aside or treated instrumentally rather than thoroughly and immanently. All too often, we find ourselves having under-read the texts and bodies of work that are putatively in front of us in favour of varieties of meta-critical discourse to which the poetic texts become adjuncts. I do not mean to imply that vigorous and vibrant theoretical, historical, and conceptual frames have no place in poetry studies – of course they do. I merely mean to nudge the balance back a bit so that we attend to complex, various, and changeable textures and structures of poems at least as much as we attend to the larger and crucial contexts that subtend and surround them. My focus here on the ways that sentences unfold in several Irish poems results, to be sure, in a mode of formalist criticism, but it is a formalism that might be able to reckon with historical, political, and ideological context without leaving the densities and granularities of those poems’ shapes unattended.

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1 See Paul Valéry, The Art of Poetry [1958], Denise Folliot (trans.), Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 63.

2 However, for an early consideration of the ways in which characteristic patterns of sentence structure provide a way to understand the periodisation of the history of English poetry, see Josephine Miles, “Eras in English Poetry”, PMLA, vol. 70, no. 4, 1955, p. 853-875.

3 Roman Jakobson, “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics”, in Style in Language, Thomas A. Sebeok (ed.), Cambridge, MIT Press, 1960, p. 356.

4 Ibid., p. 358.

5 John Langshaw Austin, How to Do Things with Words, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1962, p. 9.

6 Ibid., p. 22.

7 Jan Mieszkowski, Crises of the Sentence, Chicago – London, The University of Chicago Press, 2019, p. 33.

8 See, for instance, the brief essays by poets collected in A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, Emily Rosko, Anton Vander Zee (eds.), Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 2011; James Longenbach, The Art of the Poetic Line, Saint Paul, Graywolf Press, 2007; and Ellen Bryant Voigt, The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song, Saint Paul, Graywolf Press, 2009. Joshua Clover provides a far-reaching theory of free-verse lineation as a way to conceptualise the workings of value in post-1973 finance capitalism in “Retcon: Value and Temporality in Poetics”, Representations, vol. 126, no. 1, 2014, p. 9-30.

9 Giorgio Agamben, The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics, Daniel Heller-Roazen (trans.), Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 113.

10 See Ron Silliman, The New Sentence, New York, Roof Books, 1987. Also see Bob Perelman, The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1996, esp. p. 59-78.

11 I consider this feature of Yeats’s poetry in relation to the work of Paula Meehan in “Meehan’s Stanzas and the Irish Lyric after Yeats”, An Sionnach: A Journal of Literature, Culture, and the Arts, vol. 5, no. 1-2, 2009, p. 226-238.

12 William Butler Yeats, “The Municipal Gallery Revisited”, in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, Richard Finneran (ed.), New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996, p. 319.

13 In the margin of his copy of Paradise Lost, Keats describes Milton’s brilliance at “stationing or statuary” besides a passage from book VI (lines 420-423); see Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1963, p. 246, note 12.

14 Seamus Heaney, Sonnet VII from “Glanmore Sonnets”, in Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998, p. 162. This version of the article is unable to reproduce the poem in its entirety because it was not possible to obtain an open-ended license from the poem’s publishers.

15 Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus [1604], Act 5, scene i.

16 Sinéad Morrissey, “The Millihelen”, in On Balance, Manchester, Carcanet Press, 2017, p. 9. The poem is also available at the Poetry Foundation website:

17 Ibid.

18 Thomas Hardy, “The Convergence of the Twain”, in Collected Poems, London, Macmillan, 1923, p. 289.

19 Catherine Walsh, Barbaric Tales, in The Stinging Fly, vol. 46, no. 2, 2022, p. 88.

20 Catherine Walsh, The Beautiful Untogether, s.l., Smithereens Press, 2017, p. 3. A PDF of the volume is available online at

21 Ibid., p. 6, 9.

22 Ibid., p. 6. I have not reproduced the additional spaces that appear between stanzas.

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Eric Falci, « What Sentences Do in Irish Poetry »Études irlandaises, 49-1 | 2024, 81-93.

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Eric Falci, « What Sentences Do in Irish Poetry »Études irlandaises [En ligne], 49-1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 28 mars 2024, consulté le 29 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Eric Falci

University of California, Berkeley (United States)

Eric Falci est professeur d’anglais à l’université de Californie à Berkeley (États-Unis). Il est l’auteur de Continuity and Change in Irish Poetry, 1966-2010 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012), de The Cambridge Introduction to British Poetry, 1945-2010 (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2015) et de The Value of Poetry (Cambridge – New York, Cambridge University Press, 2020), ainsi que de plusieurs essais sur la poésie irlandaise et britannique des XXe et XXIe siècles. Avec Paige Reynolds, il est coéditeur de Irish Literature in Transition, 1980-2020 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2020). Son premier livre de poésie, Late along the Edgelands, a été publié en 2019 par Tuumba Press.

Eric Falci is professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley (United States). He is the author of Continuity and Change in Irish Poetry, 1966-2010 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012), The Cambridge Introduction to British Poetry, 1945-2010 (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2015), and The Value of Poetry (Cambridge – New York, Cambridge University Press, 2020), as well as a number of essays on 20th and 21st-century Irish and British poetry. With Paige Reynolds, he is the co-editor of Irish Literature in Transition, 1980-2020 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2020). His first book of poetry, Late along the Edgelands, appeared in 2019 from Tuumba Press.

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