Syntax is the arrangement of language and order of words used to convey the poem’s content.
More About Syntax
Syntax stems directly from the Greek syntassein, which contains the preface syn- meaning “together” and tassein “arrange.” Syntax also comes from the French syntaxe, which means the “systematic arrangement of parts,” and specifically to grammar, “construction of sentences, arrangement of words.” Syntax differs from diction because the poetic device encompasses the unique placement of words together and grammatical conventions employed by the poet, not the word choice given in a sentence or word order.
Syntax in Poetry
In poetry, syntax not only informs the reader of the poem’s speaker but also influences the poem’s tone and imagery through the grammatical placement of language. For instance, in “Blind Fish” by Yusef Komunyakaa, the poem employs punctuation and contains five sentences, with the penultimate sentence as a question:
Caught here in your limestone cave,
lost in a limbo of slow water torture,
for you, each day is always night.
Condemned to circle contours of a god’s
state of mind, all pale swimmers
in this light are a deck of cards
shuffled by a pro. I back away
& you come forth like falling
leaves, & when I come closer,
you ease away. How do you see
into darkness? I wonder if you know
the shape of gone, of never been born.
The first two sentences mirror each other in structure, as they establish that the speaker of the poem is addressing the reader as the animal that the speaker is observing. The tone is one of tension, distress, sadness, and yearning. Both sentences begin with a verb that instantly creates an image for the reader to experience.
Syntax also produces the poem’s rhythm through the repetition of words and sounds of words, i.e. “caught” and “condemned” as alliteration. The melody that comes from a poem is unique based on the poem’s syntax. In “Blind Fish,” the syntax constructs a wave-like rhythm in how the arranged words sound together. Other poems use syntax for a specific type of meter, such as “Lycidas” by John Milton, which alternates between iambic pentameter and iambic trimeter. Because of the poem’s syntax, the rhythm supports and carries the theme of grief found throughout the poem.
The ways in which poets select words to be grammatically arranged together and how these words sound together serve as the poet’s fingerprint or signature voice. Through syntax, the reader experiences the poem.