Thursday, August 20, 2009

"But when I start to tell them, they think I'm telling lies..."

I'm in the middle of week four, now, of a twelve-week quarter. Tuesday we discussed literary devices and poems by Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Dylan Thomas, and Robert Frost. The poetry lesson is a brief reprise from comma splices, organization, and logical fallacies, and we do these on the same day we discuss word choice and exact language. Poetry is the best words in the best order, I reiterate.

From "Phenomenal Woman": Pretty women wonder where my secret lies...

From "Dream Deferred": Does it dry up / Like a raisin in the sun?

From "Do Not Go Gentle into that Bright Night": Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

From "The Road Not Taken": Yet knowing how way leads on to way / I doubted if I should ever come back.

Each of these poems, so easily accessible regardless of your prior knowledge of the poet or poetry in general, illustrate that concept: best words, best order. Whether it's a very formal poem, like Frost's ABAAB, ABAAB, or Thomas' Villanelle, or it's a free form poem, without prescribed line length or rhyme, you can't imagine the words in any other order.

Speaking of word order, according to a book I've been reading, there are five basic definitions of grammar: the first is our internalized knowledge about word order and placement, allowing us to speak and write with fluency, without pausing and thinking between words; the second is "scientific attempts to understand and describe" those internalized rules; the third is "the grammar of linguistic etiquette," using standard English as opposed to so-called "bad grammar"; the fourth is the grammar we associate with middle school, learning about phrases and clauses, subjects and verbs; finally is the fifth type, stylistic grammar, concerned about "language beyond the sentence level" (think Zinsser's "On Writing Well," or me, railing against passive voice).

The book points out that knowledge of #2 and #4 doesn't necessarily translate to better #1. I hesitate spending so much time on it: grammar, sentence structure, and style. But then again, this is something I can explicitly, unambiguously teach. These are the rules, and this is when it's important to apply them. Only the past couple of quarters have I realized and articulated that following #3 and #5 depends on the purpose of the writing; the audience. But, I say, language is power. You're judged and classified by language, for better or for worse. Play the game. Master the game.

Oh, the power of story. I love good stories: Actions, personality traits, exchanges of dialogue, all pulled together in a narrative strand.

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