Syntax, or the Poet’s Signature

The poet Mary Ruefle has playfully suggested that our entire spoken life is a single long sentence, one that begins when we first come to language and gets its final punctuation when we take our last breaths. If we follow this idea through, it seems that each of us speaks a totally unique utterance, one that no one else on earth can say.

Syntax involves a great many tools and elements, but it’s fundamentally about how a thing gets said. “It’s the last door on your left” and “Go to the last door on the left” might mean the same thing, but their qualitative differences are enormous. Good poets develop their own syntactic tendencies and make essential use of them—not just as a personal style, but as a crucial aspect of what poetry means specifically in the world of their work.

In this craft lab, we’ll explore poetic syntax by looking at a number of examples by contemporary poets, including sam sax, Robyn Schiff, Timothy Donnelly, Charif Shanahan, Mark Strand, Jorie Graham, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Frank Bidart and more. By noting patterns in the shapes of their sentences, we’ll reach deeper into our own capacity to observe and wield syntax to our own poetic ends. Along the way we’ll draw upon the work of Ellen Bryant Voigt, Carl Phillips and James Longenbach—poet-critics who have made great headway in the study of syntax. Participants will also have time to work on multiple sentence-level prompts to help them generate surprise, authenticity and range in the construction of their lines.

All participants will have access to a cloud recording of the craft lab for one month afterward.

Craft Lab Details


Jay DeshpandeJay Deshpande is the author of Love the Stranger (YesYes Books, 2015), named one of the top debuts of 2015 by Poets & Writers, and the chapbooks The Rest of the Body (YesYes Books, 2017) and The Umbrian Sonnets (PANK Books, 2020). A 2018–20 Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and the winner of the Scotti Merrill Memorial Award and Narrative‘s Annual Poetry Contest, he has also received fellowships from Kundiman, Civitella Ranieri, and the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. His poems have appeared in the American Poetry ReviewNew Republic and New England Review, among many other places. He is an advisory editor for Northwest Review and writes criticism for GuernicaPleiadesKenyon Review and Boston Review. He holds a BA in English from Harvard and an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University and has taught workshops for Poets House, the Academy of American Poets and Columbia’s MFA program. Deshpande started teaching for Brooklyn Poets in 2017, quickly becoming one of our most popular teachers and selling out all of his workshops and mentorship courses since that time.