Wednesday, 12 January 2011

More on line-breaks

Years ago I was asked to tutor some students so I went to a few lectures. During one of the lectures there was a burst of applause and someone held up a piece of paper with "1000" on it. I was told afterwards that the lecturer Ummed so much that the students had decided to count them. It didn't seem to do the lecturer any harm - he's a prof now.

When I read some poetry the line-breaks are rather like that lecturer's ums. Sure, I can ignore them but why should I?

  • Over Xmas I read Stress Fractures (Tom Chivers (ed), Penned in the Margins) a collection of essays I'd recommend. "The Line" by Katy Evans-Bush will have the widest appeal and is amongst the longest pieces. I don't think it needed to be so long: the tight-rope sub-plot doesn't earn its keep and there are longeurs - a half-page quote by AS Byatt on pleasure belongs elsewhere. When there's a list of "pet peeves ... combined with examples of excellence" that "runs down a spectrum of enjambment" the essay's at its most useful, but by then there's too little space left to discuss why "Many poetry tutors don't like to discuss [line endings] at all; there is such a taboo on discussing this most personal aspect of poetry" (p.194). This quote raises important, unanswered questions - why is it considered personal? Is there a taboo on all other personal aspects?
    I think I need more convincing before I can believe the discipline of WS Merwin, or the effectiveness of Bunting's breaks. I'm also not sure why in a book of this type we need to be told that "Used well, [end-rhyme] has an amazing galvanising effect on a poem" (p.200).
    What I found most useful was how others might respond to line-break usages. E.g. Putting the important words at the start rather than end of the line in some readers "creates a sense of urgency as well as hesitancy, and disorients the reader, who then grabs for the emotional content as for a lifeline". Maybe so - it's a personal thing - but one that, I feel, isn't beyond the scope of experimental psychology. Maybe it's an acquired habit that only poetry-readers suffer from. How does putting heavy words at the start of lines produce more breathless urgency than unbroken prose?

    And I'd still like to know how we've reached a situation where gratuitously tidy line-breaks producing regular, boxed stanzas is considered preferable to irregular shapes or even a prose layout.

  • Iota 88 arrived. George Ttoouli's review of an Elisabeth Bletsoe book discusses some line breaks.
    buoyant ashstems &
    quick silver-
    dark hollythorn
    equivocal, the
    fields of plover;

    Here the line is chopped in order to double sense in multiple ways. The breaking over "quick silver- / dark" gives both the quicksilver and the silver-dark of the hollythorn sitting in the same charged couplet. Similarly, are we to take "equivocal" as referring to the hollythorn, or the fields of plover? It is both, simultaneously, and also neither: the accumulation of lines that demand alternate readings also gives the phrase "equivocal, the", the indefinite definite article of an implied dusk, where shapes are both known yet imprecise, solids liquids, objects both shaded and shining. There is something overwhelmingly wonderful at work here

    I'm unsure about some of this. "double sense" is ok, but the extra meanings need to be worth having. What is "hollythorn"? I couldn't find info online. If it's not sometimes silver then that's one imprecision solved. I suppose the 2 lines form a couplet, but is it "charged"? What's wrong with the single-line "quick-silver-dark hollythorn"? Perhaps the poet wanted to make the vowel repetitions clearer - "ant ash" and "quick sil". Do the lines demand multiple readings or is the poet hoping that if she throws in enough possibilities the reader will bother selecting those that made some sense and politely ignore those that don't? Why the line-breaks after "hedgerows" and "the"? Is it really "overwhelmingly wonderful"?

  • "I found the variety of shapes that the poems make on the page refreshing; a factor in keeping my interest and attention" (Angela France, Iota 88). I don't find that variety interesting, per se.
  • I've just heard about "The Art of the Poetic Line", (James Longenbach, Graywolf) In the light of the above points I think I should read it.
  • In Stephen Burt's "Close Call with Nonsense" there's simple example on p.331 - "To a Poor Old Woman" shows how Williams's line breaks work
    They taste good to her
    They taste good
    to her. They taste
    good to her.
    They taste good to her (you might not like them); They taste good (not merely adequate); she tastes them, taking them into her body, rather than merely contemplating them

    The stated effect of the first line depends on the final word being emphasised (if WCW had a better typewriter he could have used italics). To me, the second instance (with 'to her' on a new line, after a pause) emphasises 'to her' more.

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