from A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, edited by Emily Rosko and
Anton Vander Zee
In the arena of poetry and poetics over the past century, no idea has been more alive and contentious than the idea of form, and no aspect of form has more emphatically sponsored this marked formal concern than the line. But what, exactly, is the line? Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee’s anthology gives seventy original answers that lead us deeper into the world of poetry, but also far out into the world at large: its people, its politics, its ecology. The authors included here, emerging and established alike, write from a range of perspectives, in terms of both aesthetics and identity. Together, they offer a dynamic hybrid collection that captures a broad spectrum of poetic practice in the twenty-first century. (From the University of Iowa Press)
The Line as Fetish and Fascist Reliquary
The line is not a feature of poetry.
The line is basically a disciplinary fiction, a fantasy of technique, an imaginary feature upon which to render pronouncements and leverage arbitrary distinctions for the purposes of acquiring or wielding social and disciplinary power.
The history of the line, as something ostensibly worth making distinctions about, is the history of poetry both as a fetishized cultural commodity and, since the modernist moment, as part of a broader system of belief that has helped lead to the disenchantment of everyday cultural life in an advanced, industrial world. This history of the line, then, is, in its latest iteration, in great part a holdover from the history of the right-wing modernist fetish of form, which marked the removal of poetry fully from the office of humility.
So the line is, in one sense, a gendered and fascist reliquary containing the careers of Pound, Eliot, Olson, William Logan, LangPo, and the dismal tantrums of the neoformalists—groups and personalities defined by the genre of conviction and pronouncement. In another sense, the line is a verbal machine, or a machinic talisman, that marks a fetish of music and voice and wax over content, context, flesh, ethical inspiration and political struggle—often, on the one hand, in the name of archetypal, transcendental, universal, colonial, ostensibly transcultural values, and, on the other, in the name of provisional resistance and socio-aesthetic struggle against late-capitalist hegemonies, authoritarianism, and consumerism.
The line is a vomito-aesthetic concrescence of a larger, mystifying ideology known both as "official art" and its false rival "avant-garde art" whose purposes are both to entrench administrative culture and delimit the range of experiences we call "human" as a broader push continually to establish, disenchant, and rationalize advanced, industrial society. It's a trumped up vomitnothing about which and around which belief and conviction and argument are purposefully constructed in spasms of pseudo-activity—the purpose of which is to mobilize collective narcissistic excitement in a genre characterized by ethical inaction.
So, yeah. Our world is in peril. We don't have time for the line, except against a backdrop of those cosmologies positing (a) an eternal realm, (b) an impending apocalypse followed by redemption for true believers, (c) a viable suburbia. Basically, we live in a time in which poetry has to resist itself and its own unsustainable habits in favor of facing reality. The line is one such conceptual habit; an iterative fraud. Renounce it quickly.
This necessary renunciation will inevitably extend to poetry's other most favored myths: that song destroys illusion; that dysraphic poetry also destroys illusion and, unlike song, also destroys capitalist hegemony; that messing with syntax is somehow in itself politically radical; that formalism is really exhaustively open to content; that close reading isn't textual fetishism; that craft isn't technical fetishism; that imagination is somehow by itself salutary; that poetry is precious speech uttered by special beings or by necessarily radical people.
In short, the line is an ideological device masquerading as an aesthetic element. Which would in itself not be a bad thing, except for the fact that the current effect of what gets called "art" in our world, or what gets called "poetry" in our life, is in fact to limit the number and categories of experience in which, by which, and through which one can become what one is and work toward justice and develop a truly loving heart. If we are to stop the professional suppression of joy that we call literature, and if we are to cease manufacturing false needs through poetry, if in short we are to stop treating poetry as both a kind of country music and a hipster cagefight, we'll need at some point to wake up and stop ritualizing literature, stop valorizing its sacred heresies, and stop attributing inherent value to technique (both belletristic technique and dysraphic technique—as they are two sides of the same coin). Breaking the habit of obeisance to the religion of literature would especially mean renouncing poetry's fetishes, sublanguages, arguments, battles—especially its purportedly liberational ones—in favor of poetry's fundamental ethical argument, pragmatic kosmophilia, and not confusing that renunciation as further invitation to bicker. Why climb pebbles?
And let's maybe instead spend that time and energy in sacralizing our relationships to one another, to our Selves, to other animals, to plants, to sunlight, to rivers, to lakes, to soil, to compost, to seas, to air.
Lines and Spaces
The notion of "line" entered my awareness early, through acquaintance with the musical staff, on which lines and spaces were inseparable-lines created spaces, with both being used for material notation of the temporal. I've never quite gotten over my childhood attachment to the multiplicity of tonalities that could be represented on the musical staff, or the visual beauty of musical notations themselves, away from any instrument. Though grounded in music, I subsequently became more absorbed by the line/space entanglements of poetry: the line played with space so it could pull itself out of silence or suspend itself momentarily before falling into the abyss. I always knew there would be a rescue by the first word in the next line—wherever it managed to appear. Mid-poem, end-stopped lines could be particularly treacherous, requiring a deliberate leap into the unknown when you could have turned back instead of continuing. And the last line, a real pressure point: did it resonate back up through the poem or did it resist its own closure? The best rescues were from lines that ran off with you in a direction you least expected. An especially well-executed line—from Donne, Stevens, Dickinson—could induce an exquisite moment of linguistic suspense akin to cognitive or emotional panic: What next? Would you be losing your breath or catching it?
But I found myself growing tired of thinking about the poetic line solely in this way—that is, as single-voiced encounters playing with expectation and the ephemeral. Though lineation conveniently provides instant recognition, it seemed too restrictive for what a poem could do and be. I started 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. Poems could play with the prose sentence too, interrogating the "poetic" and taking risks with their own identity as poems, rather than limiting themselves yet again to well-rehearsed correspondences between phrasal units and silence, or phrasal units and emphasis. What words could go in such prose-lined poems? All words, any words, even if they rubbed conventional musicality the wrong way. Collage was a way of bringing in other voices and discourses, including the scientific, the philosophical, and the informational, with condensation giving a poem a density that complicated linearity. Collaged lines could radiate multi-dimensionality; outwardly and inwardly, they could entertain and submit to multivocal pressures, implicitly or explicitly. Useful too was Jack Spicer's proposal that we should think about poems in relation to one another. For Spicer, single poems were "one-night stands"; poems should operate serially for them to really make sense as poems. What if we started thinking about lines this way too, paying attention to them across poems, rather than just within the poem? A poem could then function as a chord, a series of poems chord progressions, and across poems, lines—repeated or parallel—would sustain a poetic sequence via a resonance that would continually reconstitute poetic meaning and emphasis. A line or a portion of a line introduced in an early poem and repeated in a later one could be helpful in developing or resolving subsequent poems or it could subversively disrupt them. And lines not seemingly related initially could suddenly make a poetic sequence seem cumulative.
But even that seems not to be enough—not enough to recharge poetry for our times. What if you saw the words on your line first as syntactical rather than semantic notations? What if you saw larger semiotic units first instead of words, as if you were looking at a poem on the page from across a room? What if you overran or otherwise violated the containment inherent in the line, but still called it "line"? Would any of these moves make you better prepared to comprehend the pent-up music in the poem, the formal and acoustic elements without which there might be semantic meaning but probably not much poetry? And what if you started thinking about an utter inseparability between poetic lines and spaces, but put space first in the line/space binary? What if you made some of your lines "larger than lines," filled them up with word-notes across so much territory that they no longer looked like lines but resembled prose? And then balanced these overrun spaces against normal-sized lines? What if you thought of poetic space as having its notation and being it too? In these ways you could read space as key in coordinating and distributing poetic distance, order, regularity, irregularity, and weight, with space playing single lines against one another, playing one line against different-sized groupings of lines, playing breaks against no breaks, groups against no groups, space filling itself up with semiotic meaning and emptying itself of it too. Space is necessary for the sound-shape of the line, fleshed-out or slim, and there may be myriad ways of exploiting this. But it may also be that giving more attention to the visual space-shapes of the entire poem will make comprehensible how intricately dependent the musicality of a poem is upon the reciprocity of its lines and spaces. Spatial arrangement seems to me essential to the tuning of a poem, a poem which can really only be well-tempered in relation to spatial-temporal arrangement within its lines and among its lines, as well as to the arrangements it makes with those of its neighboring poems. If the overall effect of a poem depends on its pace, the way it builds its highs and lows, then this comes from the way the poem distributes its musical energy through its formal configuration of lines and spaces. It's space pressuring the poetic line into a mutually seductive relationship that helps ensure the contemporary poem won't be tamed to a tired, overly familiar music that bestows on the poem a larger-than-poem visual-acoustic beauty too.
The Thin Line
My father takes oxygen before he gets out of bed in the morning. We joke that standing on his line is the only way to wake him up.
The poet stands on the line.
Lineation sounds like something official, step right up and join the others, file lockstep into the room, people lining up to be shot. A line is made to be broken—sometimes shattered. It's nearly a plane, for god's sake, practically glass. The eye follows it anywhere—it hugs the line no matter what happens to it.
The extremes: Mona Van Duyn's skinny sonnets destroy the line by punching up sound, C. K. Williams thickens the line with dramatic breadth and breath. Not to mention Paul Celan's lines, emptiness falling into emptiness. Line in prose poems doesn't disappear—it's a long string with a heavy kite that at last must lift. With some lines you can feel the toes tapping, or the cliff nearing, or the throat clearing, but line is best when all its effects—other than breath—disappear.
Lines curve in space—that's the most important thing about line. What you see is the infinite, delicate bending of meaning and sound coming together on the horizon where the line stops, where there's a gasp, and then the line falls in space.
Line lurks even in prose. Gordon Lish, prose ringmaster and editor extraordinaire, would insist that a sentence be changed because a line ended on a widow, that is to say, a word on a line all by itself. For him, prose was poetry. Is.
Dad likes his lines; he recites them: Boomlay, boomlay, BOOM! from Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo." Lindsay's largely forgotten except as the man who introduced Langston Hughes to the world, but he enlarged the definition of "the foot" by walking thousands of miles across country while composing; he walked his lines.
BOOM! repeats Dad. The end of the line. That's how I'd like to go out.
The poet tries.
About the Authors
Gabriel Gudding is the author of Rhode Island Notebook (2007) and A Defense of Poetry (2002). He teaches ethics, critical poetics, literature, and creative writing at Illinois State University. His essays and poems appear in such venues as Harper's, the Nation, Journal of the History of Ideas, New American Writing, Fence, and Mandorla, and in such anthologies as Great American Prose Poems, Best American Poetry, and Now: Best Innovative Writing.
Catherine Imbriglio is the author of the book-length poetry sequence Parts of the Mass, which received the 2008 Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her work has appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, and elsewhere. She teaches in the nonfiction writing program at Brown University.
Terese Svoboda has published fourteen books of prose and poetry including Weapons Grade, Black Glass Like Clark Kent (winner of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize), Pirate Talk or Mermalade (2010), and Bohemian Girl, forthcoming. Winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, Svoboda has taught at Columbia, Bennington, New School, Sarah Lawrence, Williams, and elsewhere.A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line
Edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee
University of Iowa Press