Tag Archives: sentence tasting

So it goes

This is my third sentence tasting. Shall I write a book of them?

Kurt Vonnegut survived the cataclysmic firebombing of Dresden, at least one suicide attempt, and seventy years of smoking, and then fell down in his house and died from brain injuries. So it goes. He wrote fourteen novels, almost all of which I read when I was younger, and some large number of short stories, most of which I have not read. In his fiction he suggested numerous epitaphs for his various characters and for himself, perhaps the most famous of which was for Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five: “EVERYTHING WAS BEAUTIFUL, AND NOTHING HURT.” It was a lovely lie. Other people have that epitaph, thanks to him. They are also dead. So it goes. Many people think Vonnegut’s grave has that epitaph. But no one (except, I suppose, his family) knows where he is buried, so it’s probably not true.

Kurt Vonnegut’s most vaunted novel is Slaughterhouse-Five, which features an awkward man named Billy Pilgrim, who, like Kurt Vonnegut, survives the firebombing of Dresden in 1945, and, unlike Kurt Vonnegut, as far as I know, is later abducted by space aliens from Tralfamadore and spends some time in a zoo on their planet and learns that time is not a one-way trip. The book ends like this: “One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’” The bird says this because, as Vonnegut says early in the book, “Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. ¶ And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?’” The bird says that because it is in Dresden just after Nazi Germany has surrendered, but also because it is a bird and that is what it says.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut says the book “begins like this: ¶ Listen: ¶ Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” This is not true. I can say that it is not true because Kurt Vonnegut says that before the book says that, which means that the book says the book says that before the book says that, although in saying that it says that it also says that, which is like coming unstuck in time. But I can also say that because there is a whole chapter before the book says that, and almost a whole chapter before the book says that it says that. And that first chapter begins “All this happened, more or less.” It’s an introduction, not part of the story as such, but it’s there, and it’s chapter number one. And Kurt Vonnegut himself appears in cameos later in the novel, so it’s in-world.

There’s one other thing that the book says, which means Kurt Vonnegut says in the book, over and over again, and that one thing is the sentence I am looking at today, the sentence that is the title of this article: “So it goes.”

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By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept

Here is another sentence tasting. This one is 4000 words long, but it is divided in ten parts.

I

Sentences do not pass through you like trains through a station. Ideas and words and strings of words come together in your mind, they have affairs, and they give birth to sentences through your tongue and your lips and your teeth and your fingertips.

Everything you hear is like something you’ve heard before. Every sentence you read reminds you of previous sentences and evokes feelings you had about those sentences. Sometimes the resemblance is weak and general, like a face in the crowd that is like other faces you’ve seen in other places. Sometimes the resemblance is strong and deliberate, calling forth all the memories you have of an old friend, or like someone you have not known but have long wanted to meet. Sometimes a sentence takes familiar bits and puts them together in a new way that is like someone you’ve never known before but suddenly feel like you have wanted to know all your life. And when you now meet, you are carried away, captured by the fame – no, you capture it and you carry it away. And make a new meaning.

And then life moves on. With or without you, it moves on. But you still are still pregnant with this sense. And you may dwell with it in palaces or in flophouses, on clean silk or on reeking cotton, or both by turns, but it is always yours, in paradise and in exile.

II

Have you ever read “By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept”?

Have you ever read By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept? Continue reading

To be, or not to be, that is the question

Why stop at word tastings? That’s like filling your cupboards with food but never cooking it. Here’s a sentence tasting, which is really using a sentence as an excuse to explorations. It’s a long read.

The year is anno domini 1600, or perhaps 1601. We are across the river from London, in the middle of watching a play. Richard Burbage, a short, stout, utterly entrancing thirty-two-year-old actor, walks onto the stage of the Globe Theatre. The ground and galleries of the open wooden O are full of people, but Burbage takes the front of a broad, nearly empty rectangle jutting into it and claims the heart of a zero, a full nothing – or, depending on how you look at it, a Q.

There are three other people on stage, though Burbage seems not to see them: in the alcove in the back are two actors, playing a king and his adviser, present as an absence, and over to one side, kneeling as if praying, is a boy dressed as a young woman to play the paramour of the prince Burbage portrays. The two hidden men, according to the plot of the play, are using the young woman in hopes of drawing out the protagonist’s secrets. They expect professions of love, confessions of plans, the revelation of what is rolling around in the locked box of his head. They are about to be disappointed. Nobody – characters or audience – will get what they see or see what they get.

Burbage, who is holding perhaps a book, perhaps a weapon, perhaps nothing, but definitely not a skull (not in this scene), starts speaking towards the audience, who in the world of the play are not there but are in fact the entire reason this is even happening. He says words written by his friend and business partner, the successful 36-year-old actor and playwright William Shakespeare. His first line will become one of the most famous lines in the English language: Continue reading