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What Is a Beautiful Sentence?

Posted on Mon, Nov 30 2015 9:00 am by Josh Cook

CC: Steve Johnson

Gertrude Stein once said, “Why should a sequence of words be anything but a pleasure?” I’m crazy about this sentence. It’s sly, simple, and perfectly arranged.

Look at the diction. She favors “sequence of words” over “sentence.” Why? She knows—and illustrates here—that it’s not the thought, not the proposition, not the foggy idea that makes a sentence, but rather the sequence. And what is a sequence? A particular order. Let’s look at hers.

The rhythms flounce between stressed and unstressed and then end on a hammering, “an-y-thing-but-a-plea-sure.” It’s a concerto in miniature. Considering the idea expressed, essentially “sentences=pleasure,” think about the other less pleasurable ways she could have ordered this:

  • Why should a sequence of words not be a pleasure?
  • Why should a sequence of words not give pleasure?
  • Shouldn’t a sequence of words always give pleasure?
  • A sequence of words should always be a pleasure.
  • A sequence of words should always be pleasurable.
  • Words in sequence should always give pleasure.
  • We should always find pleasure in a sequence of words.
  • Why should a sequence of words not always give us pleasure?

Further, the sentence is a statement masquerading as a rhetorical question masquerading as an interrogative. It’s so cunning it almost hurts. Its not-so-hidden agenda? A forceful declaration of the possible beauty to be found in sentences. But it’s also a taunt, an exclamation, a pronouncement, and an argument all in one. Up on the pulpit of Stein, you can hear the gavel come down: “Words in a sentence—always a pleasure!” And you fear for your life, your syntax quivers and bites its arrhythmic tongue and cowers in the corner of boring. The musical ease with which she begins—why should a sequence of words—the alliterative S’s in “sequence” and “words,” and the repeating W’s almost a mimic of heavy breath that comes down hard and fast on “Words,” the hefty “wh” holding forth, establishing authority; and then she slides right into the firework show, the quiet enjambments and stress, stress, stress, of the plosives: the p’s and the b’s. The last word, of course, being the thing we’re after: pleasure. The arrangement itself says this: I dare you to questions me, that words: the center, shouldn’t be pleasurable, you little prudish ninny!

There are no arguments to be made here. The Stein has spoken. End of story.


Josh Cook is teaching "The Art of the Sentence" this winter at the Loft. He is a fiction writer, reviewer, and freelance editor. His prose has appeared or is forthcoming in The Iowa ReviewSugar House ReviewThe RumpusThe Millions, and elsewhere. He is a regular critic for the Star TribuneRain Taxi Review of Books, and Foreword Magazine, and the former editor-at-large for Thirty-Two Magazine. He holds an MFA from Pacific University, writes poetry in secret, and lives in Saint Paul with his wife and daughter. More here: www.joshuaphilipcook.com