Sentence End V. Line End in Narrative Verse, with Frederick Turner’s The New World

Sentence End V. Line End in Narrative Verse, with Frederick Turner’s The New World
Photo by Patrick Perkins / Unsplash

In current times, the vast majority of narratives we receive are composed in either prose or are portrayed acted out on the silver screen. It was not always like this, and at a time rather distant from our own, the popular mode was that of the epic. These tales were told in verse, of which varied depending on its author and place of origin, yet nonetheless employed poetics to great degree to tell a story. Traditionally, these epics followed a distinction among other narratives regarding their content, being of a scale grandiose. However, this way of storytelling, in its most pure form, is almost entirely lost. Yet the poet Frederick Turner, considered amongst that first wave of the New Formalists, challenges this notion in his self-declared ‘epic poem’ The New World. His poem dances delicately between a verse epic and a contemporary science-fiction novel, and one of his elements of craft utilized throughout exhibits this shifting movement of genre. This is none other than his use of the period, or, better put, where he chooses to end each sentence in relation to the start, middle, or ending of a line.

Now, in a note on the verse, Turner details what mechanics drive his composition, calling it “an enjambed long line divided by a caesura” (Turner viii). Basically, the heavy stresses of each line carry from beginning to end with light stresses filtered between, with a clear (some more than others) break in thought. He further expounds upon this regarding his own balance of different poetic styles: "Much of the pleasure of epic lies in its transitions from style to style, the variations in its intensity, the contrasts between passages of lyric density and passages of narrative simplicity or philosophical complexity" (Turner ix).

In reading The New World, Turner does in fact change his style, and, at times, with it his form. It does not distract or feel forced, either, but instead allows a certain freedom in telling a story while confining the language to strict versification. For the matters mentioned above, they become most clear to the reader in where Turner chooses to end his sentences.

The very choice of the caesura assists the poet greatly in his narrative. Foremost, it allows him to divide shorter sentences within the same line. For instance, he writes:

More and more as they travel west they hear
the rumor of war. The Mad Counties, for once,
have settled their doctrinal differences, banded together
to carry the Gospel to the infidels of Ahiah. (The New World, I.64-67)

Turner introduces the scene with the backdrop present in this part of the narrative: the characters journey as fears of an oncoming war arise. Then the line is cut. “…rumor of war” gives way to “The Mad Counties,” those responsible for this threat. The placement of this break proves purposeful, moving the separate, though related, phrases along, as does the narration move along. This use of the period becomes a pattern throughout the poem, often placed at the beginning of a new scene. The poem itself is heavy on information, light on words, hence the importance and overall need to structure a sentence, whether long or short, quickly becomes apparent.

As with his longer bouts of information, Turner delivers more complex sentences, though still cuts them short enough not to drone on. In Book II, he relays the family history of his heroine, Ruth Jefferson:

A year after Mungo was born, Emily conceived
and gave birth to a daughter, Catherine; she was her father’s
favorite; grew up beautiful, black-haired, spoiled.
Catherine had second sight, and often her dreams
came to pass. She could turn Shaker her father
about her little finger; he would take her up
on his knee, and make her tell one of her wise little stories. (II.67-73)

Over the course of seven lines Turner puts forth three sentences of varied length. Those longer are further broken up by semicolons to build upon the bits of information preceding. The genealogy of his characters is of special note in The New World, especially since the narrative deals with the two major families in this world, and how they intertwine. Again, the caesura is clearly defined in “came to pass” as the poet moves to an interaction between Catherine and her father concerning the dreams mentioned in the previous sentence. Notice too how the middle sentence in this passage, beginning with “Catherine had second sight”, introduces another concept. This ultimately builds upon the other characteristics initially stated. These are the ways that make Turner’s epic cross the boundary into a seemingly unlike form: the novel. Elements of the science-fiction genre are at play in this regard, yet it most strongly comes out in the character development.
Take the conclusion of the scene in the “War of the Vales” segment of the poem, where James first experiences battle. Beginning with the latter half of a line:

				He props it up
Over the corpse of his horse, training it carefully 
into the tank-visor, fires, and the tank erupts
in a blue poppy of incandescent methanol.
The shock wave lifts him up; he grunts and blacks out. (I.174-78)

Moments of action fill this passage, flowing down in these lines of verse. Then, as sudden as the explosion of the tank, Turner throws in a single line, a single sentence spanning the length of that line, to relay that scene’s conclusion of James passing out. It is an important scene, making the use of the poetic form here that much more pivotal.

Another similarity seemingly pulled from the novel, conveyed in Turner’s use of sentences, is that of dialogue. Early on when a larger group of characters share the same scenes, whole passages of verse appear like this:

“I vouch for him,” says Rollo, “A harmless Vaisya
who buys and sells on the road.” “Then that he not sell
where we are to the enemy, he must come ride with us.
Will you go with us, Master Quincy? The way to Ahiah
must be carved through the ranks of our enemies, but there’s no safety
anywhere this side of the river.” “We will come.” (I.71-76) 

In writing prose, one would break each piece of dialogue, as it switches from character to character, into new paragraphs. Verse is structured differently, and more specifically concerning Turner’s structure for The New World, he already features a natural break in the line, and thus needs no extra division to break up the dialogue. All he needs to do is add the punctuation, such as the opened and closed quotations to show when a new speaker enters and the periods that close off the speaker’s thought. And yet, those like the passage selected, may be deconstructed into a prose layout, appearing as a rhythmically sounding excerpt from a novel. In line 72, the speaker changes, though they remain residing within the same line. Again, in line 76, the runoff enjambment from the previous speech finishes, and the line concludes with the short response “We will come.”
With all this being said, there are parts of Turner’s poem where these choices do not work as well. For example, the following fragment:

in series along the line of the road. Now
the second cavalry wedge moves over the crest,
and sweeps down the slope toward the eaves of the wood (I.135-37)

One sentence ends, and the next begins with a single monosyllabic word, leaving the enjambment open into a longer sentence that goes on for the next five lines. In this case it does not seem as useful than the previous models. Here it seems more present to satisfy the form, instead of the form satisfying the poem, where genius is brought out in artistic choice. However, another way of looking at it could find the author’s intention. The sentence which follows begins, similarly, at the end of a line:

					At last
some enemy soldiers around the two tanks
that have not been hit, begin in confusion returning
the fire. 							(I.140-43)

It can be argued that “At last” brings the reader to an anticipating pause before the next stage of the battle moves underway. Considering this, the use of “Now” at the end of a line and the start of a new sentence, may be justified.