The Poetry of Prose: A Brief Study of Justin Torres’s "We the Animals"

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Lately I’ve been obsessing about the liminal spaces between prose and poetry, how one can inform the other, and how—stripping bare the artifices for a second—one is essentially the other. Prosody (rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, assonance, etc.) can be used in prose as much as it can be for poetry, although the expected intensity and frequency within each tradition differs. Even line, which is perhaps the best marker of poetry, is mostly a virtual artifice, similar to the paragraph for prose. When read out loud and without unnatural attempts to emphasize, lines and paragraphs tend to disappear.

artofsyntaxI’ve been very impressed with Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song, in which, among other things, she convincingly draws from music theory and apply the principles to poetry. Her parsing of poems into distinct clauses to show patterns we might intuit but not otherwise consciously detect was instructive (and reminded me of my undergraduate syntax class drawing tree diagrams). I was inspired enough by this to take on the challenge of analyzing prose in a similar (though rather neophyte) manner. If what I said earlier about prose and poetry not being that much different is true, then this should hopefully be a worthwhile endeavor. I picked up Justin Torres’s We the Animals because his style obviously straddles the two genres. It’s marketed as fiction, a novel, though his prose has been described as “lyrical” and even “concentrated”—“goes down hot like strong liquor” (says Tayari Jones). On a very superficial level, when reading Torres’s prose, one immediately notices the liberal use of word repetition. Here’s the opening to the chapter titled, “Lina”:

Paps disappeared for a while, and Ma stopped showing up for work, stopped eating, stopped cooking for us, stopped flushing cigarette butts down the toilet, and let them pile up instead, inside of empty bottles and in teacups; wet cigarette butts clogged the drain of the sink. She stopped sleeping in her bed and took to the couch instead, or the floor, or sometimes she slept at the kitchen table, with her head in one arm and the other arm dangling down toward the linoleum, where little heaps of cigarette butts and empty packs and ash piled up around her.

The words “stopped,” “pile up,” “cigarette butts,” “sleep,” and “arm” appear more than once in this two-sentence paragraph. I think that bears restating: yes, folks, this long passage is made up of only two sentences. The repeated words give off a nice, percussive rhythm, but they also serve as connective tissues, stitching clauses together so the length of the paragraph doesn’t threaten the whole structure to collapse under its own weight.

The repeated words are useful when we consider the complexity in the kind of clauses that Torres deploys. The patterns help us parse the semantics—a compass, so to speak, through the dense foliage. Here is the paragraph mapped out:

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Within the two sentences are different levels of arguments and modifiers. For example, the paragraph opens with “Paps” disappearing but it is really the second independent clause (connected by the coordinating clause “and”) that the paragraph focuses on: “Ma stopped showing up for work.” Whenever we see the word stop, it reminds us of the fundament. And when the fundament in the second sentence is introduced (“She stopped sleeping in her bed”), we shift our attention slightly to another way that mom has ceased doing something (the many ways that she has stopped sleeping). The monotony in repeated parallel structures is broken up by the varying levels of subordinate clauses (like a matryoshka doll)—the majority being secondary with some tertiary and even quaternary. The location of the repeating words “cigarette butts” gives the paragraph cohesion but also a relief from tedium, surprising us on which syntactic level it reappears. Finally, this 109-word paragraph is followed by the next paragraph that starts with a two-word sentence (“We tiptoed”), to catch us off guard and keep us on our toes.

Another way of thinking about syntax in what Ellen Bryant Voigt calls “large-scale phrasing” (as opposed to “small-scale,” which involves in-line patterns such as accents and syllables) is in noticing how the clauses branch out. Right-branching clauses are the most common in English, but subverting this expectation, especially in prose, can powerfully affect the shape of a sentence/paragraph. The chapter called “Big-Dick Truck” opens this way:

Paps drove off to the car dealership, and the three of us staked out in the front lawn all afternoon, snapping the yellow dandelion heads off their stems and streaking them down our arms, painting ourselves in gold, waiting for him to return.

This is a classic right-branching structure with prepositional and participial phrases each occurring after a more important idea that precedes it:

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There is a pleasurable, albeit overtly neat, pattern going on with the alternating prepositional phrases followed by participial phrases: Someone is doing something … Where? How? Where? How? Variation is achieved by the mixed use of transitive and intransitive verbs, with the paragraph opening with two intransitives, sandwiched by three transitives and finally ending on another intransitive for balance.

A few paragraphs later, Torres gives us an almost mirror image of the above:

By the time Paps killed the engine and slid out of the door and onto the gravel driveway, there were at least half a dozen kids examining the truck, climbing into the bed, opening up the glove compartment, running their hands along the leather.

Here, however, we have a left-branching structure, with the fundament not appearing until the middle (“there were at least half a dozen kids examining the truck”). Again, parallel construction guides us through the sentence and gives it coherence. And just like before, variation can be found in the mixed use of transitivity: We start with a transitive verb, followed by three intransitives (one elided), and ending with two more transitives to give it a balanced shape:

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This preliminary study of syntax focuses entirely on large-scale phrasing effects and already a lot can be gleaned. To be sure, small-scale phrasings are also employed in Torres’s prose (not surprisingly, iambic pentameters abound as well as inversions). Absent the advantage of employing lines, prose must sometimes go one step further in asserting syntactic patterns if it is to achieve some degree of language play. Robert Frost is famous for having said that free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. I can only wonder what kind of tennis prose writers play.

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