A Single-Sentence Performance on the Subject of Polly Jean Harvey

by Hilton Als

In the March 7, 1970, issue of the New Yorker, the short-story writer, playwright, and novelist Donald Barthelme (1931-89) published “Sentence,” a story about matrimony and other matters told in one sentence, a continuous exhalation of words that had meaning for the author and, in the process, becomes a kind of brilliant verbal object, recognizable as such to all writers who know what inspiration looks like on the page, a bit of singing, a string of words passionately spoken with hardly any periods and barely a semi-colon making insects between words, a technical feat that shows prosody for what it is—the meaning is in the rhythm—and Barthelme’s text, a gorgeous object, really, may or may not have grown out of his interest in Gertrude Stein, who constructed beautiful verbal objects as well, they are so solid and glistening and murky, like the best company, sentences so solid one can practically put them on one’s knee and have them stay awhile, in any case some of her sentences sound like a single breath, charming but exhausting, filled with certain philosophical investigations that are so startling and new, still, that, relatively speaking, hardly anyone reads her, still, for fear they won’t understand her narrative interest in, but abstracted commitment to, detailing the lives of personalities, the individuality and sameness to be had in any number of what she called “types,” and I wonder what she would have thought about the performer as a type, one who generally speaking responds to one’s writing in a guarded way when they express an opinion about it at all, it’s very curious, it’s as though to them one’s language were another kind of show altogether, a performance on paper that, because it requires reflection, diminishes their continuous desire for the visceral, the now, it’s strange, they never think of a paper performance as being in support of let alone a complement to their own show, in any case their métier is not the page but the stage, which can barely contain their naked and beautiful and exhausting need for attention and desire to change your mind because of their presence, so what they want generally speaking is for an audience to validate their body’s breath…

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Hilton Als is a staff writer at the New Yorker. He is also a Jacobson Fellow at Smith College.

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