Friday, February 08, 2013

On poetic polysyndeton

Lists are useful: to encourage my advanced writing students to attend to the rhythms and sounds of language, I get them to make lists and arrange them in sentences in particularly euphonious ways. An excellent example of this practice appears in an article called "Street Life" in the Feb. 11&18 New Yorker, in which Joseph Mitchell describes his fascination with the ornamentation of buildings:

I never get tired of gazing from the back seats of buses at the stone eagles and the stone owls and the stone dolphins and the stone lions' heads and the stone bulls' heads and the stone rams' heads and the stone urns and the stone tassels and the stone laurel wreaths and the stone scallop shells  and the cast-iron stars and the cast-iron rosettes and the cast-iron medallions and the clusters of cast-iron acanthus leaves bolted to the capitals of cast-iron Corinthian columns and the festoons of cast-iron flowers and the swags of cast-iron fruit and the zinc brackets in the shape of oak leaves propping up the zinc cornices of brownstone houses and the scroll-sawed bargeboards framing the dormers of decaying old mansard-roofed mansions and the terra-cotta cherubs and nymphs and satyrs and sibyls and sphinxes and Atlases and Dianas and Medusas serving as keystones in arches over the doorways and windows of tenement houses.

The polysyndeton and repetition would be right at home in those Old Testament passages describing the ornamentation of the Temple, and if you read it out loud the incantatory rhythm casts a poetic spell. Phrasing controls pace, with the short phrases at the beginning expanding into longer phrases before moving toward that final swift outpouring of "nymphs and satyrs and sibyls and sphinxes" and so on. 

The repetitions and lists continue in the next paragraph, culminating in a short, simple sentence that punctuates the whole:

There are some remarkably silly-looking things among these ornaments, but they are silly-looking things that have lasted for a hundred years or more in the dirtiest and most corrosive air in the world, the equivalent of a thousand years in an olive grove in Greece, and there is something triumphant about them--they have triumphed over time and ice and frost and heat and humidity and wind and rain and brutally abrupt temperature fluctuations and rust and pigeon droppings and smoke and soot and sulfuric acid, not to speak of the perpetual nail-loosening and timber-weakening and stone-cracking and mortar-crumbling vibration from the traffic down below. Furthermore, they have triumphed over profound changes in architectural styles. I revere them. 

That's the way to make a list. That's the way to make a statement. That's the way to make me want to go to New York.   

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