Sunday, April 20, 2008

Center on the Line

Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts

The new issue of Center is just out, with a symposium:

Symposium on the Line:Theory and Practice in Contemporary Poetry

Kazim Ali, On the Line: A Short Vociferation
Marianne Boruch, Secret Life read (pdf)
Brent Cunningham, Remarks / On the Foundation / Of the Line: A Personal History
J. P. Dancing Bear, A Line Apart
Christina Davis, Some Lines about the Poetic Line
Annie Finch, Grails and Legacies: Thoughts on the Line
Graham Foust, Only the Broken Breathe
Noah Eli Gordon, Explosive Exactitude: On the Single Line Stanza
Arielle Greenberg, The Hyperextension of the Line
Sarah Gridley, Slash
H. L. Hix, Outta Line
Cynthia Hogue, Out of Joint: An Ir/reverent Meditation on the Line
Catherine Imbriglio, Lines and Spaces
Karla Kelsey, Lineation in the Land of the New Sentence
Ben Lerner, “What I cannot say is / Is at the vertex”: some working notes on failure and the line
Dana Levin, Some Notes on the Line
Joanie Mackowski, “And then a Plank in Reason, Broke”
Jenny Mueller, Minding the Gaps: The Line Approaching Retirement
Laura Mullen, Line / Break
Patrick Phillips, Harold and the Purple Crayon: The Line as a Generative Force
Donald Platt, On the Origin and Practice of a “Signature” Line
Paisley Rekdal, Two Takes on Poetic Meaning and the Line
Mary Ann Samyn, Clarity and Mystery: Some Thoughts on the Line
Ravi Shankar, Breadthless Length
Evie Shockley, A Few Lines on the Line
Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Some Notes on the Poetic Line in G.C. Waldrep and Lily Brown
Sam Witt, Thermal Signatures; The Radical of the Line


I’ve gotten about half way through it, browsing around. One of the things I noticed right off, is how interesting it is how often I come across poets mentioning Michael Palmer’s “Notes for Echo Lake 4,” as Kazim Ali does here. I’ve decided if there were nominations for Poem of the Age, I’d nominate it. If you haven’t read it, go see what I was thinking about on Thursday, September 7, at 4:33 AM

The symposium is well worth your time. There’s guaranteed to be something for you to agree with, and something for you to disagree with. I promise.

Here are some of my reactions, in fragment form, because working it up more than that would take time away from spring.

The essay I’m most identifying with so far is the one by Brent Cunningham, who finally ends up stressing the same thing I’ve come to realize for myself: “uh. lines. um.”

It’s obvious to me that we’re still squarely in the postmodern period, as much as we’d have it otherwise I hear, because the crisis of representation that infuses the movements into postmodernism are still hugely at play.

A line is a hesitation, not a world.

Is there anything we can safely assume about the production of a line of poetry? No. But I assume this: one’s conceptions of what one is doing don’t matter much in the face of what one has done. It’s the law of the rendered object over time. I’m product oriented in this way, and not very mystical.

So a line is this thing you read momentarily isolated, but barely, as it’s not isolated so much as hesitated into and out of. When I read a poem, I don’t feel the lines as discrete. There are some instances (Kazim Ali seems to be nodding toward them as well) in poets such as Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, where the lines, as they are accentuated as also being “prose” sentences, achieve something close to isolation, but still not isolation as much as the sort of union collage allows its elements. I’m not saying this well. Let’s just say that I mean to nod again to Ron Silliman’s The New Sentence (as Karla Kelsey is also nodding, in her trajectory toward one of my favorite poets, Martha Ronk), where it’s more the surrounding texture of the union that is at stake than the taking off into discrete elements. So I like to think of poems more toward their methods of unity within disruption than in their moments of line “breakages.”

Reading is always somewhere on the gamut of misreading, the way I, in reading Brent Cunningham’s essay, found myself wanting to argue his points, having already passed through them in my own thinking, not realizing his essay was a tracing of his journey through them as well.

Lines can be measured, but I continually fail to get the point of doing so. Does Charles Wright really compose that way? Line by line? Counting syllables? Well, again, if the outcome holds (and in the work of Charles Wright I find it does hold), then whatever gets you through the (compositional) night’s all right with me, but I don’t see why that is the net one should be placing up for one's poem's tennis game. And then there’s James Tate’s rather annoying take on the line, which really doesn’t seem to do anyone any help. But then again, if the outcome . . .

OK. I see where this is heading. And I can already see there’s no center to hold onto, except the one here on my desk as I type this. It’s an interesting read. I'm enjoying it.

In my thinking, I’ve always imagined people broke lines (or wrote lines outward) according to their phrasing. Trying to match the poem to the voice. Not so much a score for performance as a willed internality of the poem’s pace of unfoldingness. But a lot of people don’t do that.

Therefore, what?

The line helps one down the page so that the poem doesn’t sit in a frenetic blob—it helps keep things from too much too fast. If line breaks are meaningless, try taking the line breaks out of a Rae Armantrout poem and see what you get.

But then again, the “music” of the line also eludes me. I dislike hearing the “music” of the line just about as much as I dislike hearing the “poetry” of things that aren’t poems. I think this idea of “music” is what’s behind so many people reading with such strongly affected “poet” voices.

I’m much more comfortable thinking about sentences unfolding in bits. But then I’m up against the obvious non-poetry moments of chopping prose sentences into lengths. So poetry is neither and all. Or something like that.

If new form equals new content, one’s use of the line has to be of some primary importance to the poem. So what is the nature of that importance?

For me, beyond a gestural definition of the line as somehow indicating the hesitations of the voice down the page, any concept of the line—any prescriptive concept—seems a before-the-fact definition of the poem, so I become anxious. Except that one’s poems tend to resemble each other over time (ah, the glories of “finding your voice” [blech])—and they resemble each other in some enacting of the line . . . the kind of words chosen, the sorts of sentences . . . as well as the pacing of the line . . . and though I can think of examples where the kinds of words chosen and the types of sentences structured are more dominant than the way the lines enact, some theory of the line as a compositional unit is at play, no matter how subterranean.

A word is a collecting.
A line is a collecting.
As are sentence, stanza, and poem.
The parts part and return.
It’s how the attention make a focusing.

And we all agree that lines interrupt sentence “logic.”
Obvious enough.
But so does dancing like ice cream.

But if a line enacts a propelling force toward a hesitation, what about ending a line with a period or comma? And what happens when one breaks from one stanza to the next?

These things have meaning, but I’m beginning to think the meaning is not languageable outside of the act of the poem. So that the poem becomes a use definition of line break, line, stanza, and so forth.

And so I fade in and out of caring until I come across a poem where the use of line breaks (etc.) grate on my nerves. There has to be some elegance to it, as there is elegance in the body, the breath of the body expelling the poem.

So that’s it? Am I to have thought about this for 20 years just to end up in some corner of Olson’s field?



At 4/23/2008 1:16 PM, Blogger Jeannine said...

Some of my first lessons in poetry were taught by formalists. We wrote a lot of iambic pentameter, which I hated.
Personally, my most fulfilling experiments with line have come using syllabic forms - first, I discovered the Sapphic verse - sort of an 11-11-11-5 kind of thing - then different Japanese forms that roughly translate into syllabics for us, since we try to match our number of syllables to their number of kanji characters. I don't know whether it produces better poetry, but it does provide some solid lines to play around with.
Thanks for your responses to this symposium. Interesting thoughts.

At 4/23/2008 2:25 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Yeah, I've never understood that about syllables, but I've heard others say the sort of thing you're saying here.

Someone told me once I had a "sentence" ear, not a "line" ear. That might be true. If so, I'm fine with that. And I can still like the work of poets who count syllables (as long as I don't have to count along with them - I run out of digits way too fast).


Post a Comment

<< Home