The Literary Apprentice

Poetry Syntax


Syntax is the way in which linguistic elements (as words) are put together to form phrases or clauses. When you are advised to pay attention to the syntax in poetry, you are being told to take these units of meaning into account just as you do ordinarily with prose. Sometimes this is difficult because the word order or the incompleteness of the units can disrupt its usual transparency and make the syntax stand out.

It helps to pay close attention to subject and predicate relationships, subordinate and coordinate relationships, and modifiers; it helps to read beyond line endings to search for the completion of phrase or clause in the next lines (enjambment); it helps to look at punctuation, both what is there and what is omitted as clues to syntax. It helps to accept syntax that is complex and hard to follow as one feature of many poems and not as an error or difficulty imposed for its own sake, but rather as feature with a designed effect.

Most of the time, you can puzzle through the syntax in your head or with your voice, but sometimes you may want to rewrite the poem as prose, or to diagram it as you would a sentence in a grammar lesson to see the core structure and the places where it seems less clear.

Extremely difficult syntax can sometimes be researched. You won't be the first person to wonder about the syntax in famous, more difficult, poems. Perhaps the reference librarian or your own research can take you to articles written about the poem that explicate the syntax.

  • Here is a link to a poem by William Carlos Williams: Spring and All <>
    • It is an especially interesting poem to read in light of these issues of syntax. See if you can tame its meanings and account for the effect of every disruption of it that Williams includes.
  • After you have worked with it yourself, go to Modern American Poetry's selection of many famous critics discussion of "Spring and All." <>
    • Trace through their discussion comments on the syntax of the poem, especially John Hollander's and David Kadlec's discussion of enjambment, to understand better one aspect of syntax.

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