A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line Pt II
Here's a second glimpse of what's inside A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line. In her introduction, Emily Rosko has the large task of having to mention all of the nearly 200 mini-essays in the book. It's a good synopsis:
Mapping the Line
We have such lines here—to name a few: lines of sight and lines of thought; the line as musical and textual scoring, as voicing and orality; the line as genealogy and elegy; materialities of the line, both in the world and in cyberspace. As Lisa Steinman generously noted in an early response to the essays assembled here, “to consider the tropes used to describe lines of poetry—and to notice that they are tropes—is precisely the kind of insight this diverse collection allows.” Needless to say, it is difficult adequately to survey the essays included here, which represent a diversity of practice and a historical arc that take us, quite literally, from Hammurabi’s Code to hypertext and Twitter. The attempt that follows remains a knowingly partial gloss, what Robert Creeley might call a quick graph. We encourage each reader to make her or his own map.
Near the start of the collection, Marianne Boruch articulates a common theme throughout these essays. “The line against the larger wealth of the sentence,” she writes, “is a rebel thing which undercuts order. With it comes all that can’t be fully controlled: the irrational, the near-deranged, the deeply personal and individual utterance.” Sarah Kennedy supplies us with a more visceral image that we might keep in mind when considering the line’s critical, even violent, energy. Her figure for lineation was conceived in a grocery store parking lot in the face of a howling, growling dog unleashed in the bed of a 4!4: “The poetic line: a big dog in a truck.” Conceding that “lines of poetry are musical in their rhythmic cadences, yes, and they make meaning(s), yes, and they are often beautiful, yes,” she continues to argue that “what makes a line of words a poetic line rather than just part of a sentence broken halfway across the page is that tensive moment at the last word, when the entire animal rushes to the boundary in full gorgeous fury.” For many others, however, it is not this more pointed danger, but how the line holds us close in its cadence, how the line shades into music. “Whether we attend to the fact or not,” Tim Seibles begins, “poetry has deep roots in song. Beyond their meanings, words are sounds, notes if you will.” Whether we view the line as a marker of subversive, even dangerous, power or as the pure pulse of poetic song, as a matter of technical mastery or as an invitation to philosophical and social reflection, these essays as a whole remain interested in the grounding question of how and why poets do or do not break lines. The varied and inventive answers to this grounding question contained herein offer so many crucial windows into how poetry means, and why it continues to matter.
Sturdy conversations underscoring the centrality of the poetic line find new life here. Timothy Liu combines a lively anecdote with his take on a classic pedagogical lesson involving the transposition of poems into prose and vice versa. Robert Wrigley makes no fuss about it and declares that the poetic line, whether free or metered, is the only tool: “All the other attributes poetry is said to possess,” he proffers, “are bullshit.” Other poets—including Bruce Bond, Scott Cairns, and Thomas Lux—reinvigorate these fundamental genre distinctions with powerful statements about how the line remains fundamental to poetry, how it holds a provocative agency that involves the reader in the poem’s unfolding: its momentary plays against concision, to borrow Cairns’s apt phrase with its Frostian echoes. Indeed, many of the essays here touch on that central tension between sense and syntax, but they often give this traditional binary a new twist, a new language. Cole Swensen, for example, thinks of “the crux of poetry as twofold—as excess and as incommensurability: the shape of sense and the shape of language simply aren’t the same, and poetry is the form that, above all others, refuses to make light of that difference. And so it must, instead, address it. Poetry has historically addressed it through the line-break.”
Confessing that she has become wary “of thinking about the poetic line solely . . . as single-voiced encounters playing with expectation and the ephemeral” where emphasis falls always at the line’s end, Catherine Imbriglio describes how she has come to think of “the entire line, not just beginning and end words, as setting up tensions between the temporal and the spatial, with each line having a hard-core relation with every other line and every space in the poem, not just the ones before and after it.” Concurring that we often tend to overvalue line-breaks over the line itself, V. Penelope Pelizzon turns our attention to the beginnings of lines, and, through a reading of Frank Bidart, she examines how the rhythm of a line can be established or productively disrupted by what she terms “soft” or “strong” entrances. Molly Peacock puts pressure on the middle of lines as a place to delicately fold in rhyme. Annie Finch, who has previously pursued T. S. Eliot’s notion that one might discover the metrical code, the ghost of meter, in free verse, foregoes the dug-in defensiveness of New Formalist polemics as she argues for the presence of something like a line-break after each poetic foot. Tellingly, even though she sardonically reflects on how the line has too often become the lone tool for free-verse poets, she defines her sense of metrics not against, but in positive relation to, that dominant facet of the free-verse line. Kevin Prufer looks not only to the ghost of meter in free verse, but to the uses of freedom within fixed forms. Expanding the kinds of things that fall within the purview of the line, Terese Svoboda describes how the line lurks even in prose as well.
Departing from the concerns of technique, other contributors more philosophically defend the value of the poetic line as the singular unit of meaning in poetry. For Heather McHugh, the line models a finely honed and necessary attention, even shelter, in terms that echo Frost’s famous definition of poetry as a momentary stay against confusion. “The poetic line,” she writes, “is an advertency constructed to contend with a world of inadvertencies—inadvertencies that, otherwise, could swamp us.” Graham Foust sees the poetic line as an integer of consciousness, where it figures as both the enactment of a “thinking subject” and, at the line-break’s pause, the poet’s consciousness thrown back on the “thought-about object.” Placing equal weight on the importance of every line in a poem—of each line’s purposeful integrity—Alberto Ríos reminds us: “A line is a moment that has value right then, and which deserves some of our time.” Noting a very similar meditative potential in the line, Kazim Ali offers the following figure: The poem is “not mere rhetoric or reportage or description, but pure mystery, an aspirant to the divine. A book of poems is an abbey of aspirants, each reciting a line to herself in meditation.” Suggesting how mysterious and private poems can appear, even to their writers, and questioning any poetics that would seek to tell us what a poem ought or ought not do, John Gallaher concludes that the poem itself must teach us how to read it: “The poem becomes a one-time use definition of line-break, line, stanza, and so forth.”
The philosophical graces the physical in Susan Stewart’s fluid essay in which she embraces the breath, the voice, the hand, and the body’s dance, all of which underlie a line’s making. Drawing attention to the gendered language of poetic discourse and its limited binary logic, she jests: “All my endings would be feminine unless they were masculine.” Catherine Barnett weaves in a subtle feminist critique to the work of lineation when she admits that “there is an energy in breaking that is perhaps too often sworn or wooed or won out of women. I spend an awful lot of time trying to fix things, trying to make things. I am glad to be able to break.” This visceral physicality that accompanies the making and breaking of lines is key for Carl Phillips as well: “There’s the strange, undeniable pleasure both in controlling and in being controlled,” he writes.
Arielle Greenberg blends the physicality of the line with its potential for an expansive rhetoric as she considers what she calls the “hyperextension of the line,” which involves “pushing the line past the point of sentence unit into something that feels at once fragmented and stretched.” Cynthia Hogue, moving more explicitly from formal to social reflection, explores how the calculated spatial suspension that enables many of Williams’s punning lines becomes devastating in Leslie Scalapino’s revisions of them in the context of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The line,” Hogue reminds us, “is telling, not only in what it says but what it doesn’t say.” Paisley Rekdal further argues how lineation supports meanings that are not explicitly voiced, enabling broader explorations of identity and cultural critique, something she finds exemplified in the increasingly fragmented lines of Myung Mi Kim’s “Food, Shelter, Clothing.”
In the same way that Rekdal turns to Kim, or Hogue to Scalapino, many of the contributors here root their reflections in a fine attention to the work of other poets. This crucial dialogue comes to life in Dana Levin’s comparative look at Allen Ginsberg’s hurtling, uncontainable line and the contrastive appreciation it inspires for the radical enjambments of a poet like Michael Dickman. “I could meditate for quite some time on ‘I’m not dead but I am,’” she tells us, reflecting on a line from Dickman. Joanie Mackowski distinguishes the “productively destabilizing free-verse lines” in Forrest Gander’s work against the more gimmicky line-break one encounters all too often. Shara McCallum turns to poems by Gwendolyn Brooks and Yusef Komunyakaa to show “how the line in free verse, chaffing against or in concert with the sentence, creates a rhythm that corresponds to the inflections of an actual, human voice.” Touching on poets as different as Longfellow and May Swenson, William Carlos Williams and Carl Sandburg, Ravi Shankar unpacks notions of pace, tradition, risk, and sport that chart the possibilities of lineation. Wayne Miller revisits Emily Dickinson’s use of the line, offering striking close readings that show how her dash often does the work of a line-break. Looking to the work of Lily Brown and G. C. Waldrep to demonstrate the fundamentally re-orienting quality of our best poetry—a quality that becomes a kind of ethical charge—Joshua Marie Wilkinson argues that in such poems we “discover new techniques of the poetic line” that have the ability to “undo what we have unwittingly come to expect from poetry, from language, from one another.”
Many poets here reevaluate poetic traditions or trace deep histories of the line, theoretical, formal, or otherwise. Jenny Mueller and Karla Kelsey offer the kind of incisive reappraisals of modernist and language-poetry practices that too often escape critical attention. As the sole contributor to endorse the syllabic line, Robyn Schiff argues that the formal constraint presented by syllable-counting demands “the most physical encounter with words both orally and textually.” Joshua Clover’s more theoretical piece pursues Theodor Adorno’s influential claim that “the unresolved antagonisms of reality appear in art in the guise of immanent problems of artistic form” (8). Turning to the emergence of the free-verse line and the burgeoning problematic of form that resulted in the early twentieth century, Clover suggests one answer to the question of “why this particular mutation of the line appears as an immanent problem of poetic form around the turn of the century.” Taking us back to the speculative origins of the line, Johanna Drucker turns to ancient Babylonian inscription, highlighting the way the graphic line was used at times in cuneiform writing to divide signs into semantic units. This stunning piece of poetic archeology beautifully supplements her essay from The Line in Postmodern Poetry on “The Visual Line.”
While many contributors here look to the practice of their peers, others reflect upon the sense of the line that motivates their own work. There are lively accounts of personal encounters with the line and its difficult potentialities by Brent Cunningham, John O. Espinoza, Kimiko Hahn, Raza Ali Hasan, Martha Rhodes, and Dana Roeser. Meanwhile, poets such as J. P. Dancing Bear, Patrick Phillips, and Mary Ann Samyn track the idiosyncratic ways that the line becomes a measure and a means for composition in their own work. For their part, Ben Lerner and Donald Platt offer candid insights into what motivates and sustains a broken line in their work. Harnessing speech acts, such as the stutter, false start, and interruption, and also using a technique that he calls “braiding lines,” Lerner writes that his goal with each line is to “focus attention on the activity of thinking over the finished thought.” As a practitioner of a highly particular use of the line across a career, Platt explains that his line use (of alternating long and short lines arranged in tercets) offers a generative constraint with which to shape poetic thought. Platt is an interesting exception among poets insofar as the line—his line, across a body of work—is not a variable but a constant, a kind of signature.
Other contributions, more difficult to typify, range from the cutting-edge to the colloquial, from the experimental to the everyday. Evie Shockley, with John Cage’s mesostic form in mind, proposes exchanging strict linearity for more “circuitous routes” as she details this operation in one of her own poems. At the forefront of new-media poetics, Stephanie Strickland argues that in digital poetry the line does not break but embodies “an entire interactional system,” thriving dynamically and simultaneously across multiple digital dimensions. Playing with the ways the line is woven into everyday language and cliché, H. L. Hix raids the colloquial for insights into the poetic. Noah Eli Gordon offers four cryptically Blakean allegories, each concluding with riddle- or koan-like keys that often obscure as much as they clarify, as when he concludes the first allegory with the chiastic observation that “the line fears its love of tradition and loves its fear of innovation.” Charles Bernstein supplies the most micro of contributions here, with a poem consisting of three sections of three, four, and five lines, all knocking the language of cliché o+ center just enough to force insight: “you / break it / you / thought it,” the middle poem scolds. Good advice indeed, for, as he concludes: “a / line is / a / terrible thing / to waste.”
The line lives in these essays most often as a spur to thought, a barometer of historical change, and an index of current creativity. “I wonder, above all else,” Kathy Fagan writes in her essay here, “what a poet’s up to with a line. I adore how charged the choices are. How vital to the body of the poem and its meaning, and how ferociously poets, experienced or not, cling to lineation.” The obverse, of course, is true as well, and a number of essays here demonstrate that a poet’s questioning or even rejection of lineation remains just as vital to the body and meaning of the poem. This broken thing does not require our critical care, some suggest; it requires fundamental realignment, if not utter obliteration. Bruce Andrews revisits and refines his 1988 piece that appeared in The Line in Postmodern Poetry, filling out his previous essay via generous inter- and intrasentence glosses that highlight the reception, rather than production, of lines. Against normative lines—lines of control, property, policing, decorum—he pitches the line as a “countering, an unorthodoxy on [& of ] lines of space & time.” Yet he maintains a sobering sense of how poetic lines and the theorizing that surrounds them so often fail to gauge and reconfigure the social: “but don’t we want to get off the surface,” he writes, interrupting his own heady theoretical riff more than two decades later. Gabriel Gudding tosses aside even this strained and tested idealism that one glimpses in Andrews, stocking his representative poetry workshop full of straw people and offering a list of poetic offenses. His essay is a rollicking catalogue of lyric hyperbole where the line exists as a “fascist reliquary,” a “vomito-aesthetic concrescence of a larger, mystifying ideology.” Such vitriol makes one wonder whether his gracious pastoral coda voices his earnest hope or his own cynically deferred dream. A striking rhetorical counterpoint to Gudding’s piece, Emmy Pérez’s essay weighs the relevance of the poetic line against social realities that exist much closer to home: “How to teach about the poetic line, about desire and syntax, about a poem’s formal considerations as equally significant to the exploration of content, as a search for social justice and possibility,” she asks, “when students and I are standing in Hidalgo, Texas, touching the new concrete border wall?” Voicing a strained hope that the poetic and the political might be integrally related, her essay demands much of us as line-makers and line-readers, but even more as human beings straddling a fraught border.
Confronting a very different sort of material reality, a few notable entries here interrogate how the page imposes limits to the poetic line. Hadara Bar-Nadav raises the question of whether a prose poem has line-breaks—breaks that are determined by page size and formatting, such that a prose poem in one venue offers radically different meanings than it might in another where more generous margins alter the arbitrarily encoded endings. Rachel Zucker forces a different understanding of what we mean by the economy of the line when she discusses how she decided to pay a press so that her poems could appear in a wide-trim book size that could accommodate her long lines. Christina Davis echoes this concern for the page and how a poet’s lines operate within set dimensions when she asks of Dickinson’s work: “Who are we to say that her lines are not as long as Whitman’s in proportion to their original, originating space?” In her essay, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge discusses this idea of space and how she felt the accommodating wideness of a line pulled across a horizontal page: “To register many small colorations or distinctions, I needed a long, pliant thread. I was also transforming some philosophical ideas into the lyric, and I needed room.” In appreciation of Berssenbrugge’s line, Christine Hume begins her tribute to this crucial figure with a rhetorical question: “Remember rotating a journal sideways for the first time to read the Mei-mei Berssenbrugge line?” Such a question kindles a kind of wonder that the poetic line can alter not only how we use the page, but how we conceive of it and hold it.
In what remains a distinguishing aspect of this collection, a number of poets have exchanged theoretical or lyrical prose reflections for enactments of the line itself in works driven by image, collage, association, accumulation, and, of course, line-breaks. Responding to a reading by poet Raúl Zurita, Norma Cole reflects on lines not broken but shattered, where “everything opens up”—a phrase that suggests both certain possibilities of form and also a violent entry into a shattered world-historical reality. For Sarah Gridley and Sarah Vap, explorations of the line blend autobiography and literary pastiche, as when Vap hears in the line a directive to “Go back” as she traces a personal (and a universal) genealogy through parents and children, landscape and nature. Fanny Howe’s unique poetic creation embodies an argument for plain poetry as a tool for writing instruction in the classroom: “If the children could see / the points where breath / and length come together / they might decipher / the necessity of syntax,” she argues. “They might feel the stirrings / of love for harmony / and complexity / that exists in grammar.”
Given the enormous wealth and range of poetic thought in this collection, it is important to note what appear as recurring intensities. First, a preponderance of pastoral imagery courses through these essays. Urban landscapes—so fundamental to poetic modernism from Charles Baudelaire to Langston Hughes, and crucial as well to the lines of postwar poets such as Frank O’Hara and George Oppen—are almost entirely absent. These contributions do much more than equate poetry to nature, of course, and it is stunning to note the richness of the eco-minded figures that flower here, as when Laura Mullen describes the line as “a scored portion of shared sky.” For Camille Dungy, the variable motion of ocean waves correlates with the poetic line, and for Donald Revell, the poetic line embodies a “motile” movement, which he senses palpably in nature. Although urban architecture constitutes part of Eleni Sikelianos’s explorations, she moves beyond the city in favor of nature’s line models such as “the jointed segments in arthropods.”
A second distinct node of concern has to do with the somber tone that recurs throughout. Where Olsonian discussions of the line’s energy course through Epoch’s symposium, an unmistakable elegiac quality resides in many essays here. Though never an absolute focus, it lingers in the background just as it lingers in life, as when Jenny Mueller imagines the free-verse line in age: “What does one make of this wild child so many years on, now that it is bald not in birth but in dotage? Writing with this line today, we rarely associate it with the shock of the new—if by ‘new’ we also mean youthful. In fact, the modern line feels quite old, bearing as it does the freight of modernism’s appalled hopes.” It seems that after periods of prosodic bickering, there is a return to a more authentic and grounded reflection on matters of form. Furthermore, though one cannot definitively announce a shifting ground, one wonders to what extent these concentrations on elegy and death suggest some anxieties about the role of poetry in culture itself, just as the emphases on organic imagery occur alongside an increasingly imperiled Earth. Or perhaps this elegiac temper highlights a certain aging of the very terms we use to discuss poetic concepts. As Ed Dorn reminds us, this talk of the line is an aged and aging discourse.
For all the discovery and energy engendered in the line, then, it might finally seem a vehicle of loss. The line is something—to borrow a line from Robert Creeley’s “The Innocence”—always “partial, partially kept,” a presence verging on an absence (118). But the line also summons the desire to begin again, somewhere. And so we begin, A Broken Thing.