Poetry Sunday: “Geese,” Ellen Bryant Voigt (Part 1– Syntax)



there is no cure for temperament it’s how
we recognize ourselves but sometimes within it
a narrowing imprisons or is opened such as when my mother
in her last illness snarled and spat and how this lifted my dour father
into a patient tenderness thereby astounding everyone
but mostly it hardens who we always were

if you’ve been let’s say a glass-half-empty kind of girl
you wake to the chorus of geese overhead forlorn that something
has softened their nasal voices their ugly aggression
on the ground they’re worse than chickens
but flying one leader falling back another moving up to pierce the wind
no one in charge or every one in charge in flight each limited goose
adjusts its part in the cluster just under the clouds
do they mean together to duplicate the cloud
like the pelicans on the pond rearranging their shadows
to fool the fish another collective that constantly recalibrates but fish
don’t need to reinvent themselves the way geese do
when they negotiate the sky
                                                          on the fixed

unyielding ground there is no end to hierarchy
the flock the pack the family you know it’s true if you’re
a take-charge kind of girl I recommend
house plants in the windows facing south
the cacti the cyclamen are blooming on the brink
of winter all it took was a little enforced deprivation
a little premature and structured dark



First published in Granta and Reprinted from Headwaters: Poems by Ellen Bryant Voigt. Copyright © 2013 by Ellen Bryant Voigt. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. Author Photo Attribution: CC- BY. Purchase Headwaters at the online booksellers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo (ebook only).






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Ellen Bryant Voigt_Attribution CC- BY_11-9-15Ellen Bryant Voigt has published eight volumes of poetry, most recently Messenger: New and Selected Poems (2007) and Headwaters (2013). She also co-edited an anthology of essays, Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World and published her own essays on craft in The Flexible Lyric (1999) and The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song (2009).  Her collections have been finalists for the National Book Crit­ics’ Circle Award, the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and she has received recognition from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Academy of American Poets, the National Endowment of the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, the Fellowship of Southern Writers and Pushcart.  A former Vermont State Poet and Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she lives in Cabot, Vermont and is a 2015 MacArthur Fellow.


 Part 1: Syntax in “Geese”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor


This week’s poem is by Ellen Bryant Voigt, recent recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award (Read more and watch the video below or here). A brilliant star in the poetry universe, Voigt is much admired for her poetry, critical writing, and teaching. The MFA program she founded at Goddard College in 1976 (now Warren Wilson) was this country’s first and has served as the model for the programs that followed (44 at my last count). While at Warren Wilson from 2008-10, I was privileged to attend five residencies that included her lectures and craft talks.


WVFC is preparing an interview of Ellen Bryant Voigt that will go to print sometime in 2016. In the meantime, I’ll devote this and the next column to an analysis of a poem from Voigt’s most recent book, hailed as a groundbreaking departure from her previous work. What primarily distinguishes Headwaters from Voigt’s other books (called “formalist by some) is its lack of punctuation and reliance on syntax and other internal elements to maintain structure and coherence in its poems. It’s no accident that Headwaters followed shortly after publication of Voigt’s The Art of Syntax (Graywolf 2009). Reading the two books together inspired me to talk about how syntax works to preserve clarity in “Geese,” the subject of this week’s column. Next week I’ll use the poem to focus on tone and how it is conveyed through a poem’s music or sounds.

Syntax in “Geese”

Like all the poems in Headwaters, “Geese” lacks punctuation, capitalization, or even the now conventional un-convention of inserting extra spacing to indicate where pauses or stops occur in the text. Some line and stanza breaks cue us about when to insert commas, periods, and other marks of punctuation, but others do not.  Something else must save the poem from chaos, and that something is syntax.

“Geese” consists of twenty-six lines of variable length (ranging from three to nineteen syllables) organized into three stanzas of six, sixteen, and four lines apiece, with one line (19) severely indented and so truncated that the left half of the line is blank, giving the appearance of a stanza break. I spent a long time puzzling over that odd, short line, wondering at one point if Voigt intended to recreate a visual of the pattern of geese make in the sky (some moving forward, some falling back), and I will return to it later in this column.

“Geese,” punctuated

I began by printing out a copy of “Geese” and inserting punctuation in order to identify its sentences or sentence fragments. The number of complete sentences and fragments varies between six and nine, depending upon my willingness to use semicolons to join independent clauses. What matters is that it was, for the most part, clear where at least some kind punctuation had to come, and what made it clear were the rules of grammar and syntax.  I say “for the most part” because while these laws absolutely forbade stops in some places, in others I had a choice about where to place a period or whether to place a period versus some other mark, and each decision changed the meaning of the sentence or clause under review. I discovered that punctuation pins down meaning, the flip side of a point I make below, that removing punctuation permits words, phrases and sentences to be read “in two directions” and creates simultaneous multiple meanings. To see how I would punctuate “Geese,” see Figure 1.

 “Geese,” diagrammed

For this task I was tempted to call in the cavalry—Ginger Murchison, a friend and poet who’s written a book about diagramming poetry and taught a graduate class on that subject while I was at Warren Wilson. I did my best and my diagram certainly contains errors, but it’s accurate enough to show that the syntax of “Geese” is mostly hypotactic (a complex series of subordinated clauses signaled by linking words (including “like,” “such as,” “when,” “how,” and “but”) with incidences of parataxis (items listed without linking words). Overall, it creates the image of an exuberantly right-branching tree. To see my diagram, click Figure 2.

The exercise enabled me to see a more simplified form of the poem that eliminates most of the smaller-branching dependent clauses and so isolates what Voigt calls “fundaments”—core syntactical elements (main branches) that connect to the poem’s through-line or (trunk). Seeing that simpler form helped me figure out where to insert punctuation in order to parse and understand the poem, and also to appreciate how removing the punctuation adds layers of meaning.

Fundaments in “Geese”

Voigt defines a fundament as “the most basic powerful, and essential unit of syntax; the minimum prerequisite for a sentence; in English, an unsubordinated subject and predicate (verb)” [The Art of Syntax, pp. 152-3, emphasis in original]. The lines below appear as the main branches in my diagram of “Geese,” along with a few (indented) side branches retained where necessary to complete the thought.

There is no cure for temperament.
It’s how we recognize ourselves.
[But] Sometimes within it a narrowing imprisons or is opened.
But mostly it hardens who we always were.
If you’ve been a glass-half-empty kind of girl, you wake to geese overhead,
                                                                                            forlorn that something has softened their aggression.
On the ground they’re worse than chickens, but flying,
                                                                                               no one in charge or everyone in charge.
On the ground there is no end to hierarchy—
                                the flock, the pack, the family. 
If you’re a take-charge kind of girl, I recommend house plants
                                                                  in the windows facing south.
The cacti, the cyclamen are blooming
                                                                               on the brink of winter;
all it took was a little enforced deprivation, a little premature and structured dark.

It’s obvious that a world of vivid image and complexity of thought has been lost with this pruning, but clearing away the foliage of subordinate clauses does make it easier to trace the trajectory of the poem. First, let’s acknowledge that within the rules of grammar, different permutations of even my simplified version are possible. Some readers might isolate my clauses separated by semicolons into sentences end-stopped with periods. Others might clump more than I did, connecting my “sentences” with semicolons as independent clauses. There are some groupings, though, that the laws of syntax forbid. The “but” at the beginning of “but mostly it hardens who we always were” keeps me from joining it with the sentence that precedes it, already burdened with a “but” clause.

The fundaments listed above sketch out the through-line of the poem, its plot bare of tone, image, and music, and emotive content. It provides only the surface meaning of “Geese,” what we used to call the “MFA flyover” that summarizes a poem’s narrative or dramatic situation. Diagramming the poem made me appreciate the heavy lifting done by syntax to sort and negotiate the dense thicket of its branching subordinate clauses. Clarity, but not at the sacrifice of complexity and resonance—that is what Voigt’s masterful manipulation of syntax does for this poem.

Line Breaks and Syntax

I expected line breaks to help me with parsing the poem, and in fact at least eleven line breaks are also syntactic, that is, they coincide with where syntax would require a mark indicating a pause or stop. Look at the line (and stanza) break in line 6: “But mostly it hardens who we always were.” That line by itself makes a complete sentence or independent clause, whose subject is very different from what follows in the next line. In another example, the line break between lines 18 and 19 reinforces my decision to start an entirely new sentence with “On the fixed.”

On the other hand, the line break after the word “how” at the poem’s very first line break does not correspond to where syntax and grammar want me to pause or stop (after the word “temperament”). In a more dramatic example, the hard line-plus-stanza break after “recommend” in line 22 ruptures a syntactic unit, coming in the middle of a sentence I read as “I recommend / / house plants in the windows facing south.” The best we can say about line breaks here is that they sometimes correlate with where to place pauses and stops in the poem and sometimes do not, and whether they do or not cannot be predicted.

Seeing how radical enjambment forces open the syntax between lines 22 and 23 gives me a way to answer a question I posed earlier: why is line 19 (“on the fixed”) less than a third the length of other lines and indented? Here, the line break before line 19 does make syntactic sense; we want to put a period (or question mark) after “sky” in line 18 and to start a new sentence with “On.” The syntax is so clear here that there was no need to emphasize it by breaking the line before and indenting “on the fixed.” So why did Voigt wrench this line out of its slot in the second half of line 18 and drag it down to the second half of the next line? I believe this, along with that rupturing open of syntax across lines 22-3 are examples of violations of the natural order of things (rules of syntax and unity of theme) mimetic of the bulb forcing that is the subject of the poem’s closing image, and perhaps also mimetic of a more general struggle with the idea of hierarchy.

Absence of Punctuation and Multiple Meanings

If you’ve read other poets who don’t punctuate (Merwin for example), then you are familiar with the notion that removing punctuation can allow words and groups of words to be read in two directions, attaching themselves to make a unit with the words that precede them, or instead with the words that follow them to yield different meanings. Without punctuation both (sometimes contradictory) meanings can exist simultaneously in the poem. Let’s look at an example of how this works in “Geese,” focusing on lines 19-22:

                                        On the fixed
unyielding ground there is no end to hierarchy
the flock the pack the family you know it’s true if you’re
a take-charge kind of girl I recommend

What happens if we insert a period after “true” in line 21?

                                        On the fixed
unyielding ground there is no end to hierarchy—
the flock, the pack, the family—you know it’s true. If you’re
a take-charge kind of girl I recommend

That decision compels some kind of stop after hierarchy and before “you” (I chose an em dash) and it also tells us to put commas between the three words in series (flock, pack, family). The main point here is that putting a period after “true” allots it to the text that precedes it and allows it to be read only in one direction, and the meaning becomes an admonishment to “you” to admit the truth about hierarchy reigning on the ground.   

Without that period after “true,” we are free to attach “you know it’s true” to what follows it:

                                        On the fixed
unyielding ground there is no end to hierarchy—
the flock, the pack, the family—you know it’s true if you’re
a take-charge kind of girl. I recommend

Note how the meaning has changed. Now, only a subset of the “you’s” knows “it’s true,” only those who happen to be “take-charge” girls. Placing the period after “you” yields yet another reading:

…………………………….On the fixed
unyielding ground there is no end to hierarchy:
the flock, the pack, the family, you.  Know it’s true. If you’re
a take-charge kind of girl. I recommend

This version locates the “you” among terms in a series of things that exhibit hierarchal behavior. No permutation is the “correct” one, of course; the point is to show how elimination of punctuation allows key phrases to be read forwards and backwards and gives rise to multiple simultaneous meanings.

This exercise begs the question: why present the poem without punctuation if the reader is going to have to go to all the trouble of putting it back in? The answer is that the poem does not need the punctuation and is in fact better without it, not just for the rich layers of meaning thereby created but also for the way it affects the sound.

Voigt says in one essay that tone is the vehicle for a poem’s central meaning and the way it conveys emotional content, and that the best poems communicate tone through sound. The very best of these poems rise to the level of “nondiscursive symbols” [“On Tone,” in The Flexible Lyric, p. 85]. The emotional content of this poem—anguish, grief, a child’s bewilderment at being deemed the author of her own sadness, the deformation and suffering of shy, fragile things forced into a bloom they are not ready for—is of a depth and intensity that comes through with great power. Removal of the punctuation subdues the poem’s discursive functions without entirely muting them and allows the poem to rise to the level of a non-discursive symbol. It multiplies meanings, adding complexity and depth by not limiting the poem’s reading to one situation in one time; in other words, its experience becomes universal.

One last note: doesn’t punctuation impose its own kind of hierarchy, tethering each sentence to a single meaning and telling us precisely which parts of the sentence are dominant and which subordinate? Expunging it is an act of rebellion against hierarchy. The syntax keeps things from devolving into chaos, but removing the punctuation allows for more freedom of choice about where to assign clauses like “you know it’s true” in the examples above. In this way, words and groups of words can sometimes move up, sometimes fall back, just like the geese flying in an ever re-constellating formation where “no one [is] in charge.”



Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com.

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  • Bull Pen: 11 JAN 2016 – Bull City Press January 11, 2016 at 6:25 am

    […] We love when Ellen Bryant Voigt’s work suddenly pops up on an internet site. Her poem, “Geese,” was posted at Women’s Voices for Change. […]