Saturday, June 28, 2014

Some thoughts on the line in poetry

The importance of the "line break" in poetry is overstated. Yes, enjambment is a powerful tool, but all parts of the line are important. You can't turn any set of words into a great set of lines just by fussing with the breaks.

The beginnings and ends of lines are thresholds. Breaks are like exits, beginnings are entrances. Too many poets put all their focus on the exits.

The ambiguous line break (a break on a polysemous word, such that the meaning is unclear until you raster over to the next line) is one of the most overused tricks in all of poetry. Half the time the ambiguity doesn't even serve the poem; some poets seem to think this is what line breaks are for, to create cliffhangers and confusion.

I remember bringing a poem to a graduate workshop that included the line "stuck in a running-across shape" (poem about a dead squirrel, pretty cool) and someone (multiple someones?) advised me to change "a" to "the" and break on "running," like so:

the spot where it was last
alive, stuck in the running- 
across shape.

This emphasizes the phrase "in the running," creating an ambiguity, like the squirrel is still "in the running," on the side of the living, in the rat race. In retrospect this was terrible advice; what good is ambiguity based on a cliche?

A much more interesting kind of ambiguity through enjambment happens at the level of syntax, as in these Ashbery lines (I typed up the whole poem here; sorry if only seeing the closed end of the parentheses drives you bonkers):

Then later it's forget-me-not time, and rapturous
Clouds appear above the lawn, and the rose tells
The old old story, the pearl of the orient, occluded
And still apt to rise at times).

In the linked post above I was talking about the importance of obscurity in poetry, how lack of clarity, even incoherence allows meaning to bloom. Here's what I wrote about the break at "rapturous":
Another big thing that makes a poem a poem and not something else is the tension between the line and the sentence. "Then later it's forget-me-not time, and rapturous clouds appear above the lawn" is a fine sentence, but before you get to the clouds, you are forced to pause a moment and concentrate your thinking on the partial sentence: "Then later it's forget-me-not time, and rapturous." We don't yet know that the clouds are rapturous, and so we assign the adjective back to "time." In poem-space, "rapturous" does refer back to time, just as much as it refers forward. Ashbery's choice to break the line there makes the referent ambiguous, so it's a blooming moment.

See what I mean? The word itself is not ambiguous, it's not a homonym; the syntax is ambiguous.

There's another use of the line break that I've been interested in recently, where the break signals a sudden shift in voice, often a disagreement as though the poem were an argument with itself. For example, in this stanza from Ben Lerner's Mean Free Path:

A cry goes up for plain language
In identical cities. Zukofsky appears in my dreams
Selling knives. Each exhibit is a failed futurity
A star survived by its own light. Glass anthers
Confuse bees. Is that pornography? Yes, but
But nothing. Come to reference. A mode of undress
Equal to fascism becomes obligatory
In identical cities. Did I say that already? Did I say
The stranglehold of perspective must be shaken off

The break I refer to is "Yes, but / But nothing." In the tiny pause between lines, an about face. The break introduces a conflict. There's a lot of this going on also in Alice Notley's Culture of One. See "Cellulite":

The pretty cell of your womb presents you with the light of Eve Love.
She shoots heroin of course. Everything turns blue
I'm afraid when it wears off I'll want to do it again.

There, in the space between line 2 and line 3, "she" becomes "I." There is no signal of the shift except for the break. (Often in these breaks there is no punctuation, no period or dash as you would see in prose, which only heightens the abruptness of the interruption.) 

Perfect lines make you forget about the notion of the line break entirely. I never think about Wallace Stevens's "line breaks." Reading Stevens, you don't get the impression that he writes sentences and then breaks them into lines, you get the impression that he writes in lines. Or take these lines from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," one of my favorite stanzas of all time: 

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

One can't imagine these lines occurring otherwise. The only response is to lie down before it and play dead.


  1. I think Maggie Nelson talks about how she just gave up on line breaks for Bluets because her break choices had been criticized in the past. I'm too lazy to look it up though.

    1. There's this:

      She talks about how she realized she couldn't be as ambitious as she wanted to be in poetry. Not sure if that's what you're thinking of. I think differently when I'm thinking in lines versus thinking in sentences/prose. Not the same at all.

    2. And when I took a lot of the line breaks out of a lot of the poems, I didn’t feel like they lost anything. A lot of reviews of the poems I’d written recently were like, Why is this even poetry? She just put line breaks and stuff into what should’ve been prose. I felt like, Fair enough, maybe that’s exactly so.

    3. Oh yes -- I read that interview recently but had forgotten that part.

      I don't think line breaks are always logically defensible though...I heard Anne Carson talk once and she said something like "I just break it wherever I feel like it."

  2. When I'm writing poems, I pay close attention to the tension between lines and sentences, one of the things you talk about here. I've found that how/where a line is broken can either slow the movement of a sentence slightly, or make the sentence move slightly faster. Punctuation before and after the line break can add to the effect or act counter to it, depending on the punctuation and the line break. Sometimes a line break causes thought or the inner ear to pause; sometimes it causes thought or the inner ear to hasten.

    In most of my poems I use irregular margins on both the left and right sides. An early sort-of model or example of this for me was Allen Ginsberg's poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra," though Ginsberg said he wrote a lot of the poem initially by talking into a tape recorder, then transcribing it into paper later, fine-tuning, etc., and I've never written by talking into a tape recorder, or by trying to write how I talk. * There other examples/models besides Ginsberg's poem -- some of Ferlinghetti, some of Walter Lowenfels, various others I'm not thinking of immediately at the moment.

    My feeling is that a poem is a different kind of speech from more commonplace than talking. So the line breaks -- and the left- and right-side margins -- don't necessarily reflect ordinary speech, though they might reflect a kind of hybrid speech that is partly deeply interior and partly elevated and public. Sam Hamill, describing the Chinese written character for "poetry," said that it's made up of a character that means "word" or "speech" and a character that means "temple" or "hall." (Copper Canyon Press began using the character as a logo for their press during the last few years that Hamill was the publisher, and the press still features the character as the logo on the spines of their books.) So, maybe (my own notion here), "sacred word," and/or "public speech," or something or each. The poet Etheridge Knight once said poetry is "spoken song."

    And so, the sentences and the line breaks in a poem -- even a poem that has some qualities in common with common speech -- will tend to be different in some essential ways from line breaks (actual or imagined) in ordinary speech.

    Much of the articulated thought I have about how sentences and lines work in poems -- the theory of it, apart from existing examples -- is spelled out by Denise Levertov in a few essays of hers, all of which are included in her New and Selected Essays published by New Directions in 1992. The specific essays are:

    "On the Function of the Line"
    "Linebreaks, Stanza-Spaces, and the Inner Voice"
    "Technique and Tune-up"
    "On Williams' Triadic Line"

    Levertov's essays, especially "Technique and Tune-up" (where she talks, among other things, about how indentations affect the length of the inner-ear pause from the end of one line to the beginning of the next) didn't necessarily form my ideas about lines and line breaks and sentences, etc., but to one degree or another articulated or confirmed notions I'd had half-formed in my thinking for a while.

    1. Levertov has an essay where she says a line break is equivalent to half a comma. I always liked that.

  3. I am going through a thing where I want lots of space in poems and I want it to feel like falling off the edge of a cliff or jumping into blank space -- a sort of agility reading/skipping.

    I think it is worth noting that in certain traditional/received verse forms the line breaks are also about metrical schemes where the line is a very specific type of unit of length/duration. When I have gone through formal verse periods, I have found that I begin to compose in metrical chunks w/o even really thinking about it. Which is just to say that I have a different relationship to line breaks in those situations.

    I've been rereading bits of Paradise Lost as I revise my erasure project, and it's def made me much more aware of the limitations around creating "lines" in that form. It's also, um, humbling.

    1. Yes, in some forms line breaks are determined by metrics, but that never means you just have to let the chips fall where they may; if the "line break" after five feet (for example) then you need to write a better know?

      I like how erasures and a lot of vispo sort of break the whole idea of the line break, or create "breaks" all around the words and phrases rather than just to the right of them.

    2. Will Bill Knott references become a poetry trick, like Jack Spicer references?

      I've long thought that people who worry overmuch about line breaks haven't thought about how they're determining their lines. They're betraying the callowness prevalent among MFAs. Line breaks are like jail breaks. If you legalize drugs and prostitution, you'll reduce crime and overcrowding of prisons, and you won't have to try to prevent jail breaks by tightening prison security. Similarly, if you experiment with various prosodic schemes, the line breaks will take care of themselves. There it is then: if you don't know where to break your lines, legalize it.

      What were you trying to do in the poem about the dead squirrel? Say something about him, e.g., "poor squirrel"? (Isn't the paraphrasable content of most good poems that simple?) Is it about a subject, like a Frost poem, or about bric-a-brac, like a Stevens poem? Because ambiguity--through syntax, polysemy, or thwarting the reader's expectation of a cliche, I see no objective criterion for preferring one means of achieving ambiguity to another-- does serve the poem if your main intent is subversion of the expected.

    3. It was so long ago (~11 years?!!?!) I really don't remember....I still like the first few lines, which go:

      Squirrel in the road, squashed
      to an outline of itself: cute,
      even in death. I can't miss it

      if I never knew it. Can I?

      blah blah etc. At the time it seemed like every great poet has a roadkill poem, maybe I thought it would be funny to write out about squirrel. Plus I really did see a cute dead squirrel. It's the old familiar story: see a flattened squirrel, meditate on death.

  4. I'm going to be unappeased at the squirrel's squashing. I'm going to behave like a Jew and think hard for us all, then microwave her for lunch--my only serving.

  5. Please write endless pages regarding Stevens! I'm with you in that I usually adore his lines, but rarely do I feel energized by his line breaks. Bishop is another poet whose whole poems I often really love, but whose breaks rarely do much for me. Where would Plath fall for you--by which I mean--by default--late Plath; I'm not impressed by the breaks, usually, but enjoy her making raggedy what feels, often, like ultra formal poetry to me. Melvin Tolson's Harlem Gallery has many amazing moments of pulling sentences down the page/pacing. if you haven't read it--please do the gender politics are mostly annoying, but the poem is awesome...and I'd argue gorgeously feminist in its potential implications: Cezanne likened to Toissant l' Ouveture (wrongly spelled, apologies) which, yah, radically conflates aesthetics to racial liberation and if this metaphysical yoking can occur via slave revolts I'd like to believe it could be a model for gender liberation too, though simultaneously I am not sure: the monitoring of strategies for Black writers is in many ways of its own and may not adequately apply to "women's writing," with l'ecriture feminine etc having something like canonical discursive status in some circles.

    1. See, again, with Plath, I don't think about her breaks, I just think about her lines. She's so rhythmic.

    2. Ever try linking up the short lines of Plath's tercets like fridge magnets to approximate pentameter lines? You can really do that with some chopped-up and scattered lines of Crane's "The Bridge." With Plath it's just almost. But it's fun to think about how her lineation calls attention to the often ghostly end-rhymes--which would be internal if the lines weren't chopped up-- and jerks you around with enjambment.

  6. Your Ashbery point reminds me of some moments of Cole S's in her essay Bedouin Hotel. For years now I've been really engaged by the notion/motion of using white space gaps within lines, but then also using enjambment, so that instead of two rhythms, that of the line itself and its "break," there's the wind-tunnel or glottal-stoppage/propulsion of the space gaps, and an altering of the enjambment element/right margin; this certainly could I guess qualify as visually driven, except for my own poems I'm interested in visual elements further allowing for rhythmic motion and just the sheer look seems pretty inessential even as the look can be quite nice. Another pitch for Harlem Gallery and Feminisms: this poem is so tremendously multicultural/whole-wide-world in its topography/references, and this heterodox wholeness does seem Feminist to me. Do you ever feel that short-lines can really lend themselves to very sharp enjambment, and end-up displaying sensual contours in the process, whereas with longish lines the same can make for a just plain broken quality? Some of Williams, for example, comes to my mind. I do believe it's a good thing for poems to not just work the horizontal axis, but to also really work the vertical, and to get these two (or more!) in dynamic interplay--indentation may accentuate this too. Too often I read poems that really don't seem to try and capitalize on all available vortices, which is not to say strophic poems are inevitably thudding bores. Paradise Last impresses me prosody-wise because page after page of ten or roughly ten syllables ought to be boring as all get out, but Milton does about as much with that mode as possible so it's engaging not dulling! Am thinking this could gel with part of MD's comment.

    1. Historically I never liked short lines, but lately I'm working with a shorter line length and generally a lot more white space on the page; since I'm writing in the voice of a character from a play, this started with me wanting the manuscript to *look* like a play, with those wide margins and the dialogue kind of coming down the center. (The poems aren't centered though!!)

  7. I'm not usually a fan of lots of white space as ambience--I like, at best, gaps twixt words or phrases, but poems of 20 words taking up a whole page usually annoy me; and I'm not referencing your project--it doesn't sound like that's what you're doing. I'm thinking of, like, Late Barbara Guest. Simultaneously, her precious, quasi-hermetic, sort-of pretentious mode (Rocks on a Platter etc) grabs me, and I can't actually speak to whether or not the work is sincere (none of the prior terms are necessarily at odds)--with sincere not being synonym for an aw-shucks homeliness. Her late work does though strike me as very still, as arrested, as still-life, or carved marble in a museum with a velvet rope cordoning it off, and I think prose-poems may be better for that: Tender Buttons!

  8. Interesting regarding Plath--I actually don't find her Ariel lines, mostly, rhythmically remarkable; it's the ragged right edge that makes the motion for me; I do though find some cognitive gems in her lines: "Pure, what does it mean," though this moment that syntax is striking me as a little too conventionally poetic; but "The world is blood hot and personal" is perfect! It's Plath's early work that really works rhythm at the line level for me; God Bless 1950s Formalism!

    1. I find a lot of her lines almost sing-songy, which I think is intentional, they are meant to have a mock-nursery-rhyme effect (as in "Daddy" for example). Also, in general, I don't think she wastes a lot of words, so her lines almost always end on strong words. For example scan down the end words in "Lady Lazarus" -- a lot of the breaks create slant rhymes, too.

  9. I think DG's enjambment as jerk in Plath is feeling more apt than my ragged; it's too bad the word has such saturating echoes of jerking-off; male supremacism is a pain in the ass--guess it's good I'm not much of a bottom.

  10. I love that you mention ending lines on stressed syllables--particularly because H Vendler has written on her use of ending on un-stressed ones; and that reality doesn't cancel out the one you call attention to! "Daddy" for me is funny because it's so unlike her other poems--I think. My favorite late Plath is "Elm." "Tulips" strikes me as terribly wordy! It'd probably be fine with some writer who isn't excellent, but then when the writer is I find it hard not to have over the top standards. I can't--currently--help but feel that had she lived, she'd go on to be a prose writer primarily: her journals demonstrate a gift for it!

    1. I just quoted from "Elm" on Twitter the other day! (That last stanza!!)

    2. Too bad "top" has such cum-drenching echoes of enjambment of masculine endings.

  11. DG--grins; but I feel like the ribbing at me would work even better if I actually wrote top. It's interesting the way you seem to be assuming bare-back/raw style; condoms, to my mind-heart, are totally hot. Oh, lol, I did write "over the top standards," true-true. And really why I've assumed you're addressing me is dubious--a riff is a riff is a riff, and I dig yours! EG--yep, goodness gracious to those "isolate, slow faults--that kill, that kill, that kill" and make life so lively! I love the "know it with my great tap root" line!

    1. Actually top/bottom send my mind staight to BDSM, Adam. Other--perhaps earlier--senses of those words might occur to me later. But no, I woldn't assume that topping entailed barebacking. I was just riffing, as you put it, off "saturating."
      I don't like rubbers too much, though I use them, of course. (Sorry if that's TMI.) If you're roused by a necessary safeguard, that's fortunate.

  12. EG--you are amazing for even allowing these riffs! I think more people should entertain my reasoning for why condoms are hot: they call attention to hard-cock, highlight a tool of the trade. Yah, one could argue they render stiff meat flaccid for many, but I have major doubts that is other than macho culture become normative miasma become, well, sad reality; even a dear friend of mine who has had lots of sex and I'm thinking is really good at it seems to agree that the feeling of raw is pretty overstated. I think it may be a case of favoring the "natural," like how real fur is more sensuous than fake, though the right artificial fibers could surely render the difference so tiny it's undetectable except via mental association. Aside from condoms, I am guilty of this sort of thinking: no absolute immunity to this critique regarding my own person here!

  13. Oh wow but my argument totally works way better for conventionally attractive dicks; I guess if you're not aesthetically endowed my point could trigger anxiety. OK, I have got to stop clowning: nothing but prosody from here on out.

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