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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Art of the Sentence: Anthony Hecht
To spare his brother from having to endure
Another agonizing bedside vigil
With sterile pads, syringes but no hope,
He settled all his accounts, distributed
Among a few friends his most valued books,
Weighed all in mind and heart and then performed
The final, generous, extraordinary act
Available to a solitary man,
Abandoning his translation of Boileau,
Dressing himself in a dark, well-pressed suit,
Turning the lights out, lying on his bed,
Having requested neighbors to wake him early
When, as intended, they would find him dead.
—I.M.E.M. by Anthony Hecht, from The Darkness and the Light
I’ve always been both in awe of and terrified by poetry. During my graduate education in writing, where I focused on fiction writing, I avoided poetry classes, preferring to study its nuances on my own, far away from the judging eyes of other writers. And so when I signed up for a syntactic revision course, I assumed I was safe. Poems don’t even have sentences, I thought.
As I soon learned, actually, they do. In fact, poets like Anthony Hecht write better sentences than many fiction writers. “I.M.E.M.” is one 87-word, completely grammatically correct sentence, and part of its awe, for me, is how it tells a life not in a story or a novel, but in one complex sentence.
Hecht begins with a transitive infinitive phrase, “To spare his brother.” Starting here not only signals the beginning of the sentence, but also the beginning of the purpose, the impetus of the rest of the action in the sentence. Everything that comes after this phrase is completed, by “he”, our unnamed main character, in order “to spare his brother.” This phrase also gives us, the readers, a peek into our character’s backstory before this moment, signaling that the brother is another important character.
Inside this introductory transitive infinitive phrase is a prepositional phrase that further develops this backstory. What does “he” have to spare his brother? To protect him from having to endure another agonizing bedside vigil with sterile pads, syringes but no hope. This dense phrase, both emotionally and grammatically, first contains the nominative present participle “having”, signaling that our character, if not his brother, feels like this experience is something the brother must do. Next, there is another infinitive verbal, “to endure.” I think the word choice here is especially important; “endure” connotates a situation that neither our character nor his brother can change. This is further established by the prepositional phrase “with sterile pads, syringes but no hope”, signaling that there is perhaps treatment for whatever ails our character, but no cure.
Next we come to what I consider the scaffolding of the sentence, the independent clause: “he settled all his accounts”. This clause, subject-verb-direct object, structures the most compelling kind of sentence, I think. The subject names the specific being we can latch onto in this story, our main character; the use of the pronoun “he” makes our character seem universal, everyman. The predicate, a transitive verb and noun combination, gives us an action that is performed upon something, rather than an action that is an end in and of itself. Taking into consideration the phrases we get beforehand, this “he settled all his accounts” is ominous; our character is preparing the world for his absence.
But the independent clause doesn’t end there; we get several predicates, several transitive verbs and noun combinations, which build into a list of the actions our character is performing in order “to spare his brother.” Along with settling accounts, our character “distributed…his most valued books, weighed all…and then performed the…act…” What I think is extraordinary about this is the way the sentence construction transforms our character. After the first few phrases, I think of him as a sickly man, and a sickly man often has no agency, no action; everything is happening to him rather than him effecting any action. But our character, as established by the first transitive-direct object predicate and further displayed by the predicates that follow, is able to do a great deal on his own terms. And even as sad as the last predicate is, “performed the final, generous, extraordinary act available to a solitary man,” it is still something he is able to do, rather than have done to him.
After this last predicate, which indeed foreshadows the ending of the sentence, we get a string of transitive adverbial phrases: “abandoning his translation of Boileau, dressing himself in a dark, well-pressed suit, turning the lights out, lying on his bed, having requested neighbors to wake him early.” I enjoy the chronology of the first four phrases; I can picture in my mind’s eye our character moving through his home completing these final steps. Again, these are transitive phrases, so the character is performing a complex action upon something else, and these actions allow us to see more of his life: his translation of Boileau, which must be even more important to him than his other “most valued books,” if he chose to keep it with him in the end; himself, his sickly body which must be failing him but which he can still dress in a good suit; the lights in his house; his bed. We, the readers, move through the end of his life with him.
The last phrase, though, is out of sync, “having requested neighbors to wake him early” at some point before he abandoned Boileau and moved through these other steps. But its asynchronous nature pushes the sentence forward into its final adverbial subordinate clause: “when, as intended, they would find him dead.”
This is the only subordinate clause in the sentence, and of course Hecht planned it that way. By its subordinate nature, the clause depends on the structure that comes before it, just as the content—the neighbors finding our character dead—depends on our character having completed all the steps leading up to this final discovery. Here, both the sentence and our character come to their ends, and nothing could be more fitting. We have traced an entire life through this sentence, and once our character is dead, as we both feared and knew he would be, there is nothing left to say.
Alison Syring is a graduate of the MA in Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University. Her fiction has been published in Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine. She lives in Southern Maryland.