Sentence Structure in Poetry: The Movement

Modernist poetry tries not to use existing language in new ways so much as to create a new language (or languages) altogether, dispensing with logic in favour of:

Vivid images only tenuously connected with narrative or general argument of the poem.
Collages of remembered thought or conversation.
Ready-mades of life around, the more arbitrary the better.
Themes continuously drawn from the process of writing: poem seen as process rather than object.
Private/recondite symbols and allusions.

Only partial success has met these efforts. The theory is at least dubious, and the work often fails in its primary objective, which is to communicate. Some ordering of material is inescapable, as in these examples of sentence structure.

Types of Sentence Structure and Examples

Great licence is given poetry, but effective sentences are still essential. Many patterns have been developed down the centuries: a simple listing: {1}
1. Two short sentences linked by a semicolon, actual or implied.
Prose example: Verse is one thing; poetry is another.

Verse illustration:

Ash on an old man's sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where the story ended. {2}

2. Repeated structure with the verb understood and therefore omitted.
Prose example: Verse is one thing, poetry another.

Verse illustration:

All day it has rained, and we on the edge of the moors
Have sprawled in our bell-tents, moody and dull as boors,
Groundsheets and blankets spread on the muddy ground
And from the first grey wakening we have found
No refuge from the skirmishing fine rain
And the wind that made the canvas heave and flap. {3}

3. Compound sentence(s) ending with explanatory statement.
Prose example: The book he wrote, with its balanced arguments, its brief case histories and restrained phrasing, achieved more than had the political tracts over the previous century: it spoke the truth.

Verse illustration:

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. {4}

4. A series without a conjunction.
Prose example: The poem he wrote on this occasion was his best: simple, heartfelt, unanswerable.

Verse illustration:

It stuck in a barbed wire snare,
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene.
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen. {5}

5. A series of clauses linked by and or by or.
Prose example: He made the poem express his private thoughts, and to give voice to his inner doubts and quandaries, and to what he had not before found the courage to confront or understand or suppose were the confusions of so many of his own countrymen.

Verse illustration:

And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t’other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age —
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage —
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child. {6}

6. Balanced pairs.
Prose example: The piece he wrote on this occasion was his best: researched and referenced, restrained and sincere, unswerving and unanswerable.

Verse illustration:

And Pan by noon and Bacchus by night,
Fleeter of foot than the fleet-foot kid,
Follows with dancing and fills with delight
The Mænad and the Bassarid;
And soft as lips that laugh and hide
The laughing leaves of the trees divide,
And screen from seeing and leave in sight
The god pursuing, the maiden hid.

The ivy falls with the Bacchanal's hair
Over her eyebrows hiding her eyes;
The wild vine slipping down leaves bare
Her bright breast shortening into sighs;
The wild vine slips with the weight of its leaves,
But the berried ivy catches and cleaves
To the limbs that glitter, the feet that scare
The wolf that follows, the fawn that flies. {7}

7. Introduction with appositives.
Prose example: Barbed, audacious, truthful — the article struck home.

Verse illustration:

So smooth, so sweet, so silvery, is thy voice
As, could they hear, the damned would make no noise,
But listen to thee (walking in thy chamber)
Melting melodious words to lutes of amber. {8}

8. Apposites or modifiers within the sentence.
Prose example: The poem he wrote on this occasion — sincere, audacious and unsparing — was his best.

Verse illustration:

When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see description of the fairest wights,
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme,
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,
Then in the blazon of sweet beauty's best,
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their antique pen would have expressed
Even such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophesies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring;
And, for they looked but with divining eyes,
They had not skill enough your worth to sing:
For we, which now behold these present days,
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise. {9}

9. Emphatic apposite at sentence end, usually after a colon:
Prose example: Whatever the feints and countermovements of the previous years, the elaborate and illiberal measures against free speech and their immediate removal, the unions' actions now left no doubt of their intentions: total opposition.

Verse illustration:

Should Beauty blunt on Fops her fatal Dart,
Nor claim the triumph of a letter'd Heart;
Should no Disease thy torpid Veins invade,
Nor Melancholy's Phantoms haunt thy Shade;
Yet hope not Life from Grief or Danger free,
Nor think the Doom of Man revers'd for thee:
Deign on the passing World to turn thine Eyes,
And pause awhile from Learning to be wise;
There mark what Ills the Scholar's Life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Garret, and the Jail. {10}

10. Using a single appositive or a pair.
Prose example: The poem he wrote on this occasion — his last day of freedom — though seeming so ordinary — was his best.

Verse illustration:

I knew a man who used to say,
Not once but twenty times a day,
That in the turmoil and the strife
(His very words) of Public Life
The thing of ultimate effect
Was Character — not Intellect.
He therefore was at strenuous pains
To atrophy his puny brains
And registered success in this
Beyond the dreams of avarice,
Till, when he had at last become
Blind, paralytic, deaf and dumb,
Insensible and cretinous,
He was admitted ONE OF US. {11}

11. Dependent clauses in a pair or series.
Prose example: If he had not chosen to record his own private doubts, and had only expressed what was being shouted in every house and tavern in the country, the outcome would have been very different.

Verse illustration:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light. {12}

12. Repetition of a key word or phrase.
Prose example: The article he wrote on this occasion was inflammatory, and the inflammatory response the government made to its publication brought confrontation one step closer.

Verse illustration:

Calm is the morn without a sound,
Calm as to suit a calmer grief,
And only thro’ the faded leaf
The chestnut pattering to the ground:
Calm and deep peace on this high wold,
And on these dews that drench the furze,
And all the silvery gossamers
That twinkle into green and gold:

Calm and still light on yon great plain
That sweeps with all its autumn bowers,
And crowded farms and lessening towers,
To mingle with the bounding main:

Calm and deep peace in this wide air,
These leaves that redden to the fall;
And in my heart, if calm at all,
If any calm, a calm despair:

Calm on the seas, and silver sleep,
And waves that sway themselves in rest,
And dead calm in that noble breast
Which heaves but with the heaving deep. {13}

13. Repetition of word in a parallel structure.
Prose example: The article he wrote on this occasion — calculated in its timing, calculated in its laboured phrasing and honest perplexity, calculated in its very deployment of terms that the government had removed from the political agenda — had a success that even his own supporters could scarcely have hoped for.

Verse illustration:

Too quick despairer, wherefore wilt thou go?
Soon will the high Midsummer pomps come on,
Soon will the musk carnations break and swell,
Soon shall we have gold-dusted snapdragon,
Sweet-William with his homely cottage-smell,
And stocks in fragrant blow;
Roses that down the alleys shine afar,
And open, jasmine-muffled lattices,
And groups under the dreaming garden-trees,
And the full moon, and the white evening-star. {13}

14. Subject and verb separated by comment or aside.
Prose example: So poetry, whatever the aim, has to be verse.
Verse illustration:

Where the quiet-coloured end of evening smiles,
          Miles and miles
On the solitary pastures where our sheep
Tinkle homeward through the twilight, stray or stop
          As they crop —
Was the site of a city great and gay,
          (So they say)
Of our country's very capital, its prince
          Ages since
held his court, in gathered councils, wielding far
          Peace or war. {15}

15. A full sentence as an interrupting modifier.
Prose example: So poetry — it cannot be repeated enough — has to be verse.

Verse illustration:

The coast — I think it was the coast that I
Was just describing — Yes, it was the coast

Lay at this period quiet as the sky,
The sands untumbled, the blue waves untost,
And all was stillness, save the sea-bird's cry,
And dolphin's leap, and little billow crost
By some low rock or shelve, that made it fret
Against the boundary it scarcely wet. {16}

16. Introductory or concluding participles.
Prose example: Unswerving from the truth, ignoring his own supporters, he completed the reading.

Verse illustration:

The seas are quiet, when the winds give o'er,
So calm are we, when passions are no more:
For then we know how vain it was to boast
Of fleeting things, so certain to be lost.
Clouds of affection from our younger eyes
Conceal that emptiness, which age descries.
The soul's dark cottage, batter'd and decay'd,
Lets in new light through chinks that time has made;
Stronger by weakness, wiser men become
As they draw near to their eternal home:
Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view,
That stand upon the threshold of the new. {17}

17. A single modifier, out of place for emphasis.
Prose example: Whatever he might have said to save the measure, poignantly, remained unuttered, and the opportunity did not return. 

Verse illustration:

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific - and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien. {18}

18. Introduction with prepositional phrase.
Prose example: In most of us, poetry is an intermittent and dormant faculty.

Verse illustration: 

In pious times, e're priestcraft did begin
Before polygamy was made a sin;
When man on many multiplied his kind,
Ere one to one was cursedly confined;
When nature prompted and no law denied
Promiscuous use of concubine and bride;
Then Israel's monarch after Heaven's own heart,
His vigorous warmth did variously impart
To wives and slaves; and, wide as his command,
Scattered his Maker's image through the land. {19}

19. Inversion of the normal subject-verb order.
Prose example: Humbug we necessarily hate in poetry.

Verse illustration: 

Still falls the Rain —
Dark as the world of man, black as our loss —
Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails
Upon the Cross. 
Still falls the Rain
With a sound like the pulse of the heart that is changed to the hammer-beat
In the Potter's Field, and the sound of the impious feet
On the Tomb: 
Still falls the Rain
In the Field of Blood where the small hopes breed and the human brain
Nurtures its greed, that worm with the brow of Cain. {20}

20. Complete inversion of normal pattern.
Prose example: Necessarily, humbug we hate in poetry, and also sentiment that is too simple to be genuine.

Verse illustration: 

May I for my own self song's truth reckon,
Journey's jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care's hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship's head
While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed. {21}

21. Paired constructions: subject-verb, so too subject-verb, etc.
Prose example: As three hard years of his life had gone into the writing of the poem, so would three hard years in fruitless efforts to have it published.

Verse illustration: 

Oh! if to dance all Night, and dress all Day,
Charm'd the Small-pox, or chas'd old Age away;
Who would not scorn what Huswife's Cares produce,
Or who would learn one earthly Thing of Use?
To patch, nay ogle, might become a Saint,
Nor could it sure be such a Sin to paint.
But since, alas! frail Beauty must decay,
Curl'd or uncurl'd, since Locks will turn to grey,
Since paint'd, or not paint'd, all shall fade,
And she who scorns a Man, must die a Maid; {22}

23. A this, not that construction (or the reverse) used for contrast.
Prose example: Poetry is a vocation, not a career.

Verse illustration: 

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day. {23}

24. Dependent clause (usually starting with if, why, when, etc.).
Prose example: Because he so trawled the newspapers for material of current interest, and because he sent work to outlets of every political colour, not neglecting to call on editors and harangue journalists for long hours in bars afterwards, his became a name that even a trade magazine would not publish.

Verse illustration: 

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke. {24}

25. Independent clauses (i.e. no grammatical connection between clauses and sentence, the sentence being entirely modified).
Prose example: He trawled the newspapers for material of current interest; he sent his work to every political magazine in the country; he called on editors and harangued journalists at his own expense in bars of their own choosing; he left nothing to chance and became unpublishable.

Verse illustration: 

No; cast by Fortune on a frowning coast,
Which neither groves nor happy valleys boast;
Where other cares than those the Muse relates,
And other shepherds dwell with other mates;
By such examples taught, I paint the Cot,
As Truth will paint it, and as Bards will not: {25}

26. Short simple sentence for relief or dramatic effect.
Prose example: Despairing of the confusion, the discordant voices and abortive measures of the party, he sat down that night to write the manifesto that would open his long-delayed campaign for leadership. It failed.

Verse illustration: 

O, my luve's like a red, red rose
That's newly sprung in June:
O, my luve's like the melodie
That's sweetly play'd in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonie lass
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my Dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.
Till a' the seas gang dry, my Dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun!
O I will luve thee still, my Dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.
And fare thee weel, my only Luve,
And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho' it were ten thousand mile. {26}

27. Short question for dramatic effect.

Prose example: Why did he write it?

Verse illustration: 

The time is not remote, when I
Must by the course of nature die;
When I foresee my special friends
Will try to find their private ends,
Though it is hardly understood
Which way my death can do them good;
Yet thus, methinks, I hear 'em speak:
'See, how the Dean begins to break:
Poor gentleman, he droops apace,
You plainly find it in his face;
That old vertigo in his head
Will never leave him, till he's dead.
Besides, his memory decays,
He recollects not what he says;
He cannot call his friends to mind,
Forgets the place where last he dined;
Plies you with stories o'er and o'er:
He told them fifty times before.
How does he fancy we can sit
To hear his out-of-fashioned wit? {27}

28. Deliberate fragment(s).
Prose example: The effect of his article, which is still debated, is perhaps not to be fully appreciated even now, unpredictable in its consequences, imponderable to those who study such things, vagrant and irrelevant to the parties concerned, brought about his downfall.

Verse illustration: 

They looking back, all th' Eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late thir happie seat,
Wav'd over by that flaming Brand, the Gate
With dreadful Faces throng'd and fierie Armes:
Som natural tears they drop'd, but wip'd them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way. {28}

Successful lines of course use several such patterns at the same time, and add variations to these basic patterns. Sentence structure is only one element in a poem, of course. Equally important in shaping reader expectations are word choice, genres and stanza forms. Besides neglect of these aspects, poems fail as other forms of writing do, because they have nothing informative, entertaining or moving to say.

Examples in The Movement Poets

In 1953, Robert Conquest grouped British poets writing a new Modernism under the term The Movement. It was only loosely a group, in fact, but, as Philip Larkin emphasized, their work was certainly more expository, documentary, empirical, and rational than was the poetry of Eliot and Pound. It was also opposed to the new Romanticism of Dylan Thomas and his followers. Best known in The Movement were Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, John Wain, Elizabeth Jennings, Thorm Gunn, Donald Davie, and D.J. Enright. {29-30}

Philip Larkin: Ambulances

In that arresting first line, Larkin gives ambulances their special nature, both part of the human conditions with its sins and mortality, and something pertaining to another world, as messengers of death. {31}

Closed like confessionals, they thread
Loud noons of cities, giving back
None of the glances they absorb.
Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque,
They come to rest at any kerb:
All streets in time are visited.

The first sentence making up the stanza is of type 16, (with introductory modifiers within the sentence), but the second is of type 3 (compound sentence ending with explanatory statement) — which illustrates the variety in even an apparently simple, non-nonsense stanza.

Kingsley Amis: Something Nasty in the Bookshop

In Something Nasty in the Bookshop, {32} that most unsentimental of poets, Kingsley Amis, employs the type 3 sentence structure in each of his stanzas: here are the last four:

Should poets bicycle-pump the human heart
Or squash it flat?
Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart;
Girls aren’t like that.

We men have got love well weighed up; our stuff
Can get by without it.
Women don’t seem to think that’s good enough;
They write about it.

And the awful way their poems lay them open
Just doesn’t strike them.
Women are really much nicer than men:
No wonder we like them.

Deciding this, we can forget those times
We stayed up half the night
Chock-full of love, crammed with bright thoughts, names, rhymes,
And couldn’t write.

John Wain: Poem Without a Main Verb

Occasionally a poem is without a sentence structure at all, as here, where the concluding lines echo the confusion we feel in reading it. {33-34}

Watching oneself
Being clever, being clever:
Keeping the keen equipoise between always and never;
Delicately divining
(the gambler’s sick art)
which of the strands must hold, and which may part;
playing off, playing off
with pointless cunning
the risk of remaining against the risk of running;
balancing balancing
(alert and knowing)
the carelessly hidden with the carefully left showing;
endlessly, endlessly
finely elaborating
the filigree threads in the web and bars in the grating:
at last minutely and thoroughly lost
in the delta where profit fans into cost;
with superb navigation
afloat on that darkening, deepening sea,
helplessly, helplessly.

Elizabeth Jennings: From Rembrandt's Late Self-Portraits

Short, blunt sentences can be telling if they hammer home the same message. The last two stanzas of this four-stanza poem by Elizabeth Jennings. {35}:

Love of the art and others. To the last
Experiment went on. You stared beyond
Your age, the times. You also plucked the past
And tempered it. Self-portraits understand,
And old age can divest,
With truthful changes, us of fear of death.
Look, a new anguish. There, the bloated nose,
The sadness and the joy. To paint's to breathe,
And all the darknesses are dared. You chose
What each must reckon with.

are simple sentences. Both To the last / Experiment went on. and With truthful changes, us of fear of death belong to type 18.

Thom Gunn: Considering the Snail (opening)

The snail pushes through a green
night, for the grass is heavy
with water and meets over
the bright path he makes, where rain
has darkened the earth’s dark. He
moves in a wood of desire,

pale antlers barely stirring
as he hunts. {36}

Exact description, which benefits from simple sentence structures: type 5 in the first and type 28 in the second stanza.

Donald Davie: Remembering the Thirties (opening)

 Hearing one saga, we enact the next.
 We please our elders when we sit enthralled;
 But then they're puzzled; and at last they're vexed
 To have their youth so avidly recalled.

 It dawns upon the veterans after all
 That what for them were agonies, for us
 Are high-brow thrillers, though historical;
 And all their feats quite strictly fabulous. {37}

In this, probably his best-known but rather tongue-in-cheek account of his literary forebears, Davie marries clarity with strict form. In order of appearance, the sentences belong to types 16, 5 and again 5 (as the second stanza).

D. J. Enright: Don't smile please

Finally, in case The Movement poets seem too serious, a piece from the quietly individual D.J. Enright: {38}

Since the primary school is next door
You can't help passing the playground
 But don't you smile at the children
 Whether a small girl or a little boy
 Don't you even look
 You know what people will think
 And you really can't blame them.

What a world we live in! What went wrong?
 If there's another world to come
 Let's hope it's one where people smile
 And you can smile back safely.

Once they asked you to return their ball
 It had sailed over the palings —
 Eyes cast discreetly upwards, you stepped
 Into the street and were nearly run down
 Still, a little boy said 'Thank you, mister'
 A small girl almost smiled.

Again — as is often the case with The Movement poets, who distrusted too overt a show of emotion — the sentences are simple in the extreme, though If there's another world to come /  Let's hope it's one where people smile /  And you can smile back safely. is a type 24 sentence.

In general, the language employed by The Movement poets was carefully organised and crafted, and in this respect very different from that of today's poetry. {39} It was also emotionally 'cool', probably because both sentence structure and rhetoric were simple. Very different were the Neo-Romantics led by Dylan Thomas. The sentence structure in his Fern Hill {40} can be tagged as follows, but it is the flowing accumulation of image on image that works the magic. The first stanza:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
     The night above the dingle starry,
          Time let me hail and climb
     Golden in the heydays of his eyes, {18}
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
          Trail with daisies and barley
     Down the rivers of the windfall light. {5}

References and Resources

References can now be found in a free pdf compilation of Ocaso Press's Modernism articles.