February 06, 2024

torturing poets

Of course The New York Times sought out actual poets who would comment on the title of the upcoming Taylor Swift album, “The Tortured Poets Department.” Some loved it! Some were worried about the whole “tortured” typecasting thing! And one even likened Taylor to Wordsworth!

But this 35 word sentence towards the end of the piece floored me.

Some hoped that Ms. Swift’s next era would increase interest in American poetry, a precarious market for academics in real-life poetry departments — usually subsumed by English departments, which themselves face existential threats — across the country.

There’s a lot going on here. It kicks off with the classic indefinite subject (“Some”), and then pins a massive subordinate clause on “hoped” and then twists and turns through…the politics of academia?

My brain hurt trying to deconstruct it all, so I did what any diehard Swift fan / long lost English major would do: I went to Chat GPT and asked it to diagram this sentence.

Alas, GPT-4 was sort of cantankerous, and while it did a lovely job explaining different parts of grammar, it wasn’t terribly helpful in actually drawing anything.

While I can’t draw this visually here, imagine the main clause as the top line of your diagram, with each additional element branching off below it according to its function in the sentence. Each level of the diagram would represent a different layer of complexity within the sentence, from the main clause at the top to the most detailed modifiers and descriptive elements at the bottom.

OK! Yes! That’s what I was imagining!

For actual diagramming, drawing software or a pen and paper would be best to accurately represent these relationships visually.

Oh…OK, sure.

Thank goodness for the marketplace of ideas, because it turns out that Bard is an excellent sentence diagrammer. It spat out an ASCII representation of the sentence diagram in Reed-Kellogg format (full text here, image pasted below), as well as a very detailed description of what’s going on in this sentence.

Sentence Diagram

  • Main Clause: The main clause of the sentence is “Some hoped,” which establishes the basic subject-verb relationship. “Some” acts as the indefinite subject, and “hoped” is the past tense verb.
  • Subordinate Clause: The clause “that Ms. Swift’s next era would increase interest in American poetry” modifies the verb “hoped.” It functions as an adverbial clause, providing more context about the object of hope.
    • Subject: “Ms. Swift’s next era” acts as the subject of the subordinate clause. The possessive construction “Ms. Swift’s” indicates ownership of the “era.”
    • Verb: “Would increase” is the modal verb combined with the base verb “increase,” expressing a conditional possibility.
    • Object: “Interest in American poetry” is the direct object of the verb “increase.” The prepositional phrase “in American poetry” clarifies what is being increased.
  • Appositive Phrase: The phrase “a precarious market for academics in real-life poetry departments” serves as an appositive to “American poetry,” providing additional information and clarification about its nature.
    • Adjective: “Precarious” modifies “market,” describing its uncertain and unstable nature.
    • Prepositional Phrase: “For academics in real-life poetry departments” clarifies who is affected by the precariousness of the market.
      • Preposition: “For” indicates the beneficiaries or recipients of the precarious market.
      • Noun Phrase: “Academics in real-life poetry departments” specifies the group facing the precarious market conditions.
        • Noun: “Academics” refers to the people working in the field.
        • Prepositional Phrase: “In real-life poetry departments” restricts the type of academics to those specifically associated with poetry departments, excluding theoretical or purely literary-focused academics.
  • Participial Phrase: The phrase “usually subsumed by English departments” modifies “poetry departments,” providing further context about their status.
    • Participle: “Subsumed” is the past participle of the verb “subsume,” indicating an action that has already happened.
    • Prepositional Phrase: “By English departments” clarifies who is doing the subsuming.
  • Relative Clause: The clause “which themselves face existential threats” modifies “English departments,” adding another layer of information.
    • Subject: “English departments” acts as the subject of the relative clause.
    • Verb: “Face” is the present tense verb indicating an ongoing situation.
    • Object: “Existential threats” is the direct object of the verb “face.”
    • Reflexive Pronoun: “Themselves” emphasizes that the English departments are facing the threats directly.
  • Adverbial Phrase: The phrase “across the country” modifies the verb “increase,” specifying the geographical scope of the potential rise in interest.

I hope this more detailed explanation clarifies the sentence’s structure and the relationships between its parts!

What were we talking about? Oh yeah, tortured poets. April 19. Can’t wait.