A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line Pt 1
One of the books I’m enjoying quite a bit this fall is A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee. It’s similar to Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson, in that it collects many short essays rather than fewer long ones. I like the short essay. There are things it can handle that a longer essay couldn’t. The short take, the quick dip. And then we—if we see fit—can continue the thinking as we go about our day.
Anyway, there are two introductions. The first, Vander Zee’s, is a general introduction to the topic, going through the recent history of conversations regarding the line in American poetry. The second, Rosko’s, gives an idea of what each of the many contributors is writing on.
You can read the full introductions here:
I’ll post Rosko’s introduction tomorrow, but for now, here are a couple snippets (the beginning and the ending) from Vander Zee’s introduction:
New Minds, New Lines
Anton Vander Zee
In a short letter to Kenneth Burke from November 1945, William Carlos Williams thanks his friend for his hospitality on a recent visit and proceeds to reflect on one particularly meaningful exchange: “I liked your manner of explanation when you lowered your voice and spoke of the elementals that interest us both, the humane particulars of realization and communication”. Such thoughts made it into his half-remembered dreams, for he continues: “I woke in the night with a half-sentence on my metaphorical lips: ‘the limitations of form.’ It seemed to mean something of importance.” Burke, in his response dated a few days later, suggests that the substance of Williams’s formal concern reminds him of their discussions from the 1920s, which, he writes, “were always about ‘form,’ though God only knows what we meant by it”.
The limitations of form must have been particularly pressing for Williams near the end of 1945, just three months after Hiroshima and one month into the Nuremberg trials. Narratives of twentieth-century American poetry often describe a highly aestheticized and experimental 1920s giving way to a more socially engaged posture in the 30s and 40s as artists responded to economic depression and world war. An oversimplification to be sure, but a useful one when we consider how this apparent divide between the art of the 20s and 30s establishes the contours of the durable struggle that we see reflected in the Williams-Burke exchange, and that the most significant works of art since then engage: how to move from word to world, from poetics to politics, and from the limitations of form to life itself. Then, as now, a strong commitment to form persisted despite, against, and alongside multiple crises that remind us constantly—even in the middle of the night in half-remembered dreams—of form’s limitations in light of what Wallace Stevens called “things as they are”.
In the arena of poetry and poetics over the last century, no idea has been more generative, variable, and contentious than the idea of form. And no technical aspect of form has more emphatically sponsored and substantiated this marked formal expansiveness than the line in poetry. But what, exactly, is the line? Should it be defined in strictly prosodic terms? Is there value in identifying certain line-genres as Chris Beyers does in A History of Free Verse (2001), or as Allen Grossman attempts more economically in his Summa Lyrica (1980)? Or should we instead attend to what Stephen Cushman names the numerous fictions of form—those ways in which American poets since Whitman have tended to “overvalue the formal aspects of their art, investing those aspects with tremendous significance,” resulting in a poetry that “distinguishes itself not only by the unique ways in which it foregrounds signifiers but also by the unique ways in which it promotes the significance of its own formation”?
Perhaps all of the above, for these questions suggest a certain lack of conceptual literacy and critical consensus regarding the line that A Broken Thing does not seek to correct. Instead, this general disagreement marks out a uniquely charged area of poetic as well as critical concern that reflects what the poetry of the last century is, in some elemental way, about. The line, in its many ulterior projections, might be an engine for certain ideals of progress—political, ethical, or otherwise. For some, it touches upon the most fundamental epistemological and ontological questions. One finds it caught up in theories of language, and in the very beginnings and endings of things. Remarkably, the line has become an aesthetic, sociopolitical, and, at times, metaphysical variable even as it remains deeply invested in the formal minutiae of rhythm and metrics, rhyme and sound. More than ever, the line is poetry, the radical against which even alternate and emerging poetic forms that foreground the visual or the auditory, the page or the screen, can be distinguished and understood. Extending Burke’s statement to the present context, the line does indeed seem to mean something of importance, but God only knows what—and how—we mean by it.
So yes, the line is overtaxed; it presumes to do too much, and it knows it. What might seem an overextension, however, suggests a core strength of the line that the essays in A Broken Thing collectively embody: its ability to be both critical and self-critical, holding its own elaborate fictions of form at a skeptical, questioning distance. This blend of bold confidence and a self-critical undertow saturates the last century of American poetry. Indeed, the most important American poetry of the twentieth century could be said to display either of the following traits, and often both simultaneously: a penchant for developing ambitious claims about what formal strategies such as the poetic line can accomplish, and a deeply rooted formal concern about such claims. This concern signals a certain anxiety in the face of such ambitious claims for poetry. But it also suggests a certain persistent care, attention, and commitment.
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More recently, in Blue Studios (2006), Rachel Blau DuPlessis distills the most incisive work mentioned above in her probing discussion of the line in poetry as a charged segmentivity. Though her interests here are anchored in Frankfurt School aesthetics, she offers a useful clarification of how fundamental the line is to all poetry: “Something fairly straightforward, but highly distinctive, separates and distinguishes poetry from nearby modes like fiction and drama that also unroll in time and use sequencing tactics of various kinds,” she writes. While narrativity encompasses what is central to the novel, and performativity approximates the concerns of various dramatic forms, segmentivity, which she defines as “the ability to articulate and make meaning by selecting, deploying and combining segments,” fundamentally characterizes poetry. DuPlessis continues:
Many contributors to A Broken Thing share DuPlessis’s commitment to ideas of form in both theory and practice, in both word and world, implicitly endorsing her sense that lines are where “materiality and mystery join dialectically,” embodying a “lively tension between eloquent stasis and driven becoming”.
A defining feature of A Broken Thing in relation to the preceding collections and essays mentioned is its lack of defensiveness. Though echoes of old debates persist in a few of the essays, these essays are, for the most part, unconcerned with policing boundaries between experiment and tradition, between prose and poetry, between good poetry and bad poetry. “Free verse” itself—that vague varietal of twentieth-century poetry that has vexed American poets ever since the modernists simultaneously maligned its connotations while exploiting the liberties it offered—has become a much more neutral descriptor here. That said, we should note the reaction that many poets who have committed themselves, often radically and with great innovation, to more traditional or metrical forms might have to the collection’s title: A Broken Thing. Doesn’t the title seem to value the line solely for its potential to break? Such a notion, one could argue, sponsors a very narrow conception of the line. That we foreground the work of William Carlos Williams, an early master of the free-verse broken line, and even go so far as to yank the title directly from his experimental Kora in Hell, certainly makes this all seem like a sly partisan move that belies the supposedly ecumenical vision of its editors. It is a valid point: one can enjamb the metrical line, can stretch the line, and one can elide, substitute, and behead metrical units. And there is certainly a line-break between lines. But one rarely breaks a metrical line—that’s part of a different game called free verse.
To answer this critique, one could argue that, for better or worse, the language of the “line-break” has taken on a much broader sense nearly synonymous with enjambment, which occurs in free and formal verse alike. Or, one could argue that the rhetoric of brokenness—from the recovered shards of Greek lyric poetry to the romantic cult of the fragment and beyond—echoes something crucial within the history of poetry. But a more direct defense of the language of brokenness reveals a dominant fiction about form that has guided us throughout this project, and that many of the essays included here speak to as well. After what Walter Benjamin would call the catastrophe of history, poetry as broken reflects a world as broken, even as its constructive powers collect and collate and—if only rarely and with great difficulty—transcend. We like to think that this more philosophical sense of brokenness is not utterly at odds with a poetics that seeks to reclaim the body of poetry, and for which gestures of wholeness guard against the inclination to rupture. Thus, we hope that poets and critics inclined to balk at our title will take it not as a unilateral declaration of free-verse hegemony, but as an invitation to repair, to counter this force of brokenness. As though in answer to this hope, many of the contributors who reflect on the metrical line here do just that, as they prize integrity above brokenness, form above fragment. If nothing else, a common ground persists as the line exceeds its trappings as a partisan counter, becoming a poetic variable for all manner of extra-aesthetic concerns. Such concerns are less predictable and more wide-ranging than ever, and it is on this stage—where fictions of form converge and collide—that this conversation about contemporary poetry and poetics takes its place.
Noting a similar sense of a post-partisan poetics, Donald Wesling, a careful thinker on the line of both traditional prosodies and non-metrical forms, writes that “there seems to be something like a critical consensus that we appear to have arrived at a historical point of demarcation, a point at which polemics end and a renewed understanding and appreciation of poems and their diverse prosodies begin”. Mirroring this shift of critical opinion, we are tempted to borrow the language of hybridity that Cole Swensen eloquently deploys in her introduction to the recent anthology American Hybrid (2009). In A Broken Thing, too, there is what she calls a “thriving center of alterity,” a healthy disregard for aesthetic divisions. Such hybridity, Swensen implies, is not a concession, not a collapsing toward the middle, nor is it a neatly dialectical movement to the next new thing. Similarly, the essays in A Broken Thing lack the cohesion of any concerted movement in any particular direction, and this is one of the collection’s primary strengths. The essays here—the result of nearly 200 personalized solicitations—offer a diffuse hybridity, a dynamic hodgepodge that we hope captures the breadth of poetic practice rather than isolates or idealizes any narrow tendency. Our unique moment of hybridity—sponsored by the professionalization of writing and the growth of small, independent presses, and also, more profoundly, by the trenchant conceptualizations of hybrid identities and poetics that have emerged over the past three decades—shows a slackening of partisan posturing about, but no less commitment to, poetic form.
In its tendency toward a rigor of range, A Broken Thing shares much with Donald Hall’s classic anthology Claims for Poetry (1982). Though Hall’s anthology does not share the concentrated focus of A Broken Thing, it deserves special mention for its prescient defense of the kind of hybridity and ecumenism discussed above. Emerging on the heels of the Field and Epoch symposia, Claims for Poetry harbors none of the early conservatism that had tended to mark his career ever since he unfurled his landmark anthology New Poets of England and America (1957), which fell decidedly on the reactionary side of the unfolding anthology wars of the 60s and 70s. Instead, Claims for Poetry forswears allegiance to any single tendency, offering an arbitrary alphabetical list of over thirty essays by poets as different as A. R. Ammons, Wendell Berry, Robert Duncan, Sandra Gilbert, John Hollander, X. J. Kennedy, Audre Lorde, Jackson Mac Low, Ron Silliman, Mark Strand, and Alice Walker. Donald Hall’s eloquent defense of his anthology speaks to our purpose just as well. He writes of the dynamic “accidents of juxtaposition” that the arbitrary ordering affords. With such a motley crew, one cannot possibly neatly navigate what he calls the “collage of contentions”; one can only catalog their divergent claims for poetry: “conflicting, overlapping, contentious; avant garde, reactionary; immemorial, neoteric; light, heavy, angry, funny, political, aesthetic, academic, psychological, innovative, practical, high-minded, abstract, frivolous, pedagogic”. With no overlap in authors, and with nearly twice as many essays, we hope that A Broken Thing will become as indispensible as Claims for Poetry, both for new generations of poets and for scholars eager to track developments in twenty-first-century poetry and poetics.