Grammar I and Grammar II

Elliott M. Freeman

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Grammar I: The Instructor Speaks in Defense of the Casually Heterodox

Sentence, paragraph are not units of length
but meaning—

every inch must push forward, a crescendo
of brass and oboes

until we reach the moment of breath. Under the bones,
there’s a rushing vein

of sound. A good paragraph is like a blanket fort
in the living room—

space within space, a partition as partable
as the skin on the sea.

Verb yourself righteous and silly, pestle what must be
pestled, but that and only that—

the blender’s smoothie, the mother bird’s nutrition.
Except poem-wise, then bend

everything with a spade or trowel; all the language
is silt. Lather your tongue

in love of syllables, roll the candy-color lozenge
of a vowel

in the pocket of a cheek. Your mongrel lexicon
eats like a starving man:

crack the bone, lick the marrow. The best nutrition
is hidden under a snap.

Run a tie around the neck of your words, but only
when you must:

don’t let someone teethe themselves on your grammar
or make it into a noose.
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Grammar II: The Instructor is a Descriptivist Anarchist

When people make grammar into a rustwire trap,
all syntaxteeth and rulebarbs eager for fleshbites—

When the world seems to turn on the too’s and to’s,
irreconcilable wordknots and soundknots simply not

worthy of worry—Think Darwin. Every bird’s blueplume
or redplume started as a freak’s feather, deviant

by way of accident. Why shouldn’t we speak that
feathertongue, freaktongue, apply ourselves

to the bendability of language, its cleverquick
knotability, not naughtability—why not get lost

on the road to somewhere unimportant? Why not
trip yourself into accidental brilliance?

 

 

I’ve spent the past seven years in and around writing centers, an experience which has sharpened my writing and deepened my frustration at how many educators see grammar as the sum total of good writing. It’s inspired me to write in praise of the accidental poetry that can arise from errors; in many of my poems, I write to and for the students who have come to my office, sometimes eagerly and other times in tears. I try to write with a willingness to vivisect my own work, because that is at the core of so much writing center pedagogy: What kind of hypocrite would I be if I wasn’t willing to kill my own darlings even as I help students to understand their own quiet biases and tendencies? A big one, yo.

The greatest advantage of being a working writer in the writing center is the ability to say, with absolute sincerity: I know this is painful, awkward, and intimate. All writing is. Yes, reading aloud hurts your ego, but it also heals your prose. You’ll never have unlimited confidence in your writing, and that’s the best of all possible burdens. People who worry about what they wrote know they can do better. They know it! And eventually, they do.  

 

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