I endlessly complain about student writing. I am forever scrawling “AWK” or “Huh?” or even “Whaaaat?” along margins and above cryptic sentences that jerk and twitch between lazy slang and stiff, fake formality. I hate weird syntax, wordiness, foggy thinking, limp verbs and the epidemic misuse of words like “portray,” “careless” and “depict.” I dread the insertion of the falsely fancy “Webster’s Dictionary defines,” invariably used to decode the most obvious words.
But once in a while, a slightly awkward sentence lumbers across the page bearing an odd gift in its clumsy paws. Like primitive special effects in monster movies, or wobbly tombstones and melting makeup on old “Dark Shadows” episodes, dopey sentences can cut through the confines of logic and expectation and help us see “beyond.”
While I criticized my class for the anthropomorphic tendencies of their first essay on Mary Oliver’s “The Shark,” strains persist in subsequent drafts:
“Due to its naivete, the shark was caught and killed,” or “Sharks and humans are similar in the sense that…neither of them can understand many aspects of life.”
As absurd and maddeningly vague as the second sentence is (“aspects” is a hallmark of the half-baked thesis), there is a promising glimmer of intrigue:
What are the mysteries of life that vex both human and shark?
I wonder about the limits of our sophisticated intellect, and their keen senses. I consider the loneliness of our respective otherness.
What does that black eye see when the white shark pops his head above the surface and “studies” the men in the boat?
Maybe it’s impossible to bridge the mystery between humans and animals without projecting, exchanging, blurring rational boundaries between man and fish. But maybe selective, purposeful anthropomorphizing, like the accidental power of a sloppy, silly sentence, could open up some understanding between us.
I recently bought a watercolor of a shark wearing a crown and holding a scepter. I wanted the little painting because it was ridiculous and fun, but now I realize that in that picture’s absurdity there’s a certain feeling of justice restored, a reminder of the truth, of the way things should be: sharks are the natural rulers of the sea.
And I declare myself a most loyal subject to the rightful king.
I don’t understand many aspects of life either. I am right there with your student.