Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Life Sentences #10

Barry Hannah. April 23, 1942 - March 1, 2010

Sentence of the Day:

From “Testimony of Pilot.”

I knew a large boy with dirty blond hair, name of Wyatt, who played viola in the Jackson Symphony and sousaphone in our band – one of the rare closet transmutations of our time – who was forever claiming to have discovered the central Bolero one Sunday afternoon over FM radio as he had seven distinct sexual moments with a certain B., girl flutist with black bangs and skin like mayonnaise, while the drums of Ravel carried them on and on in a ceremony of Spanish sex.


I (subject) knew (transitive verb) a large boy (direct object and also a noun phrase) with dirty blond hair (free modifier functioning as an object complement), name of Wyatt (appositive, further defining the boy by giving him a name), who played viola in the Jackson Symphony and sousaphone in our band (non-restrictive relative clause with parallel prepositional phrases functioning as adverbials) – one of the rare closest transmutations of our time (another appositive, or parenthetical, which in this case expands the sentence into a broader historical context beyond the boy named Wyatt who is the object of it) – who was forever claiming to have discovered the central Bolero (parallel non-restrictive relative clause) one Sunday afternoon (time marker, an adverbial, and if one should discover the central Bolero, is it not perfectly fitting to do so on a Sunday afternoon?) over FM radio (adverbial) as he had seven distinct sexual moments (subordinate clause functioning as an adverbial) with a certain B. (adverbial introducing character), girl flutist with black bangs and skin like mayonnaise (appositive that further defines B, and note also that we have ‘flutist’ instead of the proper ‘flautist,’ which serves to reinforce the often improper voice of our first-person narrator), while the drums of Ravel carried them on and on (subordinate clause functioning as an adverbial) in a ceremony of Spanish sex (prepositional phrase functioning, as most of them do, as an adverbial).

Further analysis:

This may be my favorite of Barry Hannah’s sentences, but then again, he wrote so many hundreds of magnificent, original, precise sentences in his life that it’s a shame to pick out one and say, “Yeah, this one I like best.” At any rate, I know this sentence by heart, and a lot of writers of my generation know this one by heart, too. I’ve stood with writers at parties and listened to them quote Barry Hannah lines and laugh or even just mention some of his story titles and laugh: “Upstairs, Mona Bayed For Dong.” “Herman Is in Another State.” “Ride Westerly for Pusalina.” “The Vision of Esther by Clem.” “Death of a Bitch.” “Ride, Fly, Penetrate, Loiter.” “Pete Resists the Old Man of His Room.” “Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet.” And of course the amazing multi-level title of the story from which I took today’s sentence, “Testimony of Pilot.”

Barry Hannah was easily the funniest and smartest writer of his generation, and without question he was the most interesting prose stylist of his time. His trademark sentence pattern, much like the one I selected from “Testimony of Pilot,” avoided including material in the optional slot before the subject, which is to say he tended to begin his sentences with the subject. When you first read Barry Hannah, you will notice this immediately; his rhythm, his cadence, his variation of pace and tone, these things grow out of the subject and the predicate – they come from within – as opposed to coming before the reader knows what the sentence is about. What’s so fascinating about the sentence from “Testimony of Pilot” is that the full subject and predicate of the sentence is “I knew a large boy,” and the brilliant and funny flow of information about this boy is actually separate from the basic meaning of the sentence’s independent clause. This type of sentence is known as the cumulative sentence – meaning the sentence completes it subject and predicate and then elaborates, often in a list form, on the completed meaning. Another long type of sentence is known as the periodic sentence, which often delays the completion of the subject and the predicate through a series of appositions and other forms of modifiers. The great miracle of Barry Hannah’s sentences is that he essentially has written them all in the cumulative sentence pattern, but at the same time all of his sentences tend toward the periodic because they continually modify themselves and generate delays in meaning or amplifications of meaning in the process. This means, my friends, that Barry Hannah’s sentences are able to walk and chew bubblegum and juggle bowling pins at the same time. No one has ever been a greater writer of sentences than Barry Hannah.

He died yesterday. This is a sad occasion for American literature. He changed the lives of so many writers and lifted a light over dark places that, without him, we would never have seen. Rest in peace, Mr. Hannah. Your words will not die in those of us left to wander for a time longer on this earth.


  1. I just started watching The Teaching Companies' class Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft by Brooks Landon of University of Iowa. Only two lessons in his shtick is the cumulative sentence. His cumulative sentence patron saint it Don DeLillo. DeLillo's new book was reviewed in my Sunday fishwrap, the Oakland Tribune.

    Before last week I'd never heard of cumulative sentences, Delillo, or Hannah. Sorry about the loss of an inspiring writer, but I'm happy to know his cumulative sentences survive him.

    Mag what is the first work of Hannah you'd recommend to a novice.

  2. I was just in Oxford this past weekend. This year's Oxford Conference for the Book begins on Thursday and is dedicated to Barry's work. Posters are plastered all over the Ole Miss campus and town square. Barry's books are prominently displayed at Square Books and he's on the cover of their monthly newsletter. I cannot imagine the mood surrounding the conference now. How heartbreaking.

    I found out early this morning that he passed away yesterday and I sat at my desk in slack-jawed disbelief for several minutes before trying to imagine my way through the rest of the work day. I haven't been this affected by a person's death (let alone someone I didn't even really know) in a long, long time.

    RIP, Barry.


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