Gary Lutz on Sentences

I just read this speech by Gary Lutz, which was printed in “The Believer” earlier this year. Lutz describes the feeling of writing a sentence —

“Once the words begin to settle into their circumstance in a sentence and decide to make the most of their predicament, they look around and take notice of their neighbors. They seek out affinities, they adapt to each other, they begin to make adjustments in their appearance to try to blend in with each other better and enhance any resemblance. Pretty soon in the writer’s eyes the words in the sentence are all vibrating and destabilizing themselves: no longer solid and immutable, they start to flutter this way and that in playful receptivity, taking into themselves parts of neighboring words, or shedding parts of themselves into the gutter of the page or screen; and in this process of intimate mutation and transformation, the words swap alphabetary vitals and viscera, tiny bits and dabs of their languagey inner and outer natures; the words intermingle and blend and smear and recompose themselves. They begin to take on a similar typographical physique. The phrasing now feels literally all of a piece. The lonely space of the sentence feels colonized. There’s a sumptuousness, a roundedness, a dimensionality to what has emerged. The sentence feels filled in from end to end; there are no vacant segments along its length, no pockets of unperforming or underperforming verbal matter. The words of the sentence have in fact formed a united community.”

Lutz records that he became a keen reader relatively late in his childhood, and this may have something to do with his extreme sensitivity to the impact of a sentence. Here’s more —

“In Christine Schutt’s two-clause formation ‘her lips stuck when she licked them to talk,’ the second half of a sentence from the short story ‘Young,’ the conspicuous content words are lips, stuck, licked, and talk. These four words are not all that varied consonantically. The reappearing consonants are l and k. Three of the four words have an l: two have the l at the very start of the word (lips and licked), and in the final word (talk), the l has slid into the interior. Three of the four words have a k in common—we go from a terminal k (stuck) to a k that has worked its way backward into the very core (licked) and then again to a terminal k (talk). In the first three words, the l and the k keep their distance from each other: in the first two words, they don’t appear together; inside the third word, licked, they are now within kiss-blowing range of each other over the low-rising i and c that stand between them. In the final word, talk, the l and the k are side-by-side at last — coupled just before the period brings the curtain down. A romance between two letters has been enacted in the sentence: there has been an amorous progression toward union.”

“Close reading” isn’t even an adequate term for what Lutz is doing here – I find myself expecting him to start telling us which synapses are firing, and how they’re interacting with each other. Which is to say that his analysis strikes me as consistent with a neural networks approach to the reading process, whereby phoneme recognition, sentence comprehension, and so on, are explained as effects of the computational properties of large networks of neurons.

Lutz also notes, “Granted, there can be a downside to the kinds of isolative attentions to the sentence I have been advocating. Such a fixation on the individual sentence might threaten the enclosive forces of the larger structure in which the sentences reside. Psychiatrists use the term weak central coherence to pinpoint the difficulty of certain autistic persons to get the big picture, to see the forest instead of the trees.” And indeed that danger exists – it might be argued James Joyce’s problem was that he finally got so good at writing sentences that his books ceased to be readable…
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