Wednesday, October 08, 2003

An email came in (no, don't worry, a very nice one) over the weekend from Jeffrey Jullich, asking, in the wake of the discussion of Linda Pastan over at lime tree, what "lines" and "meter" even mean these days--can it be measured by conventional scansion, is it some kind of intuitive going on your nerve, is it an anarchic free-verse-for-all, or--worse yet--a residue that we all just use like robots?

Good question, Jeffrey. This is probably going to get me violently flung out of grad school, but I must say I've never seen any point in conventional scansion--you know, the funny little accentual marks that some English teacher along the way probably put over a line of poetry, or that you might find in the first few enthusiastically marked-up pages of your used copy of the Norton Anthology of Poetry. Not that it doesn't have its uses, or that I haven't used such means to make a literary argument. But when I see any critic, no matter how brilliant, from Jakobson to Vendler, try to make an argument for the meaning of such rhythms, I admire the ingenuity, but am skeptical about how defensible such a conclusion really is. Usually what's happening is that said critic is simply explaining how the rhythm enhances the paraphrasable content of the text, thus demonstrating the poem's perfect unity; yet that critic might find him- or herself arguing that the same figure means precisely the opposite thing in another poem, given context. Nothing wrong with that; but it makes me wonder what scanning a poem really gets you.

As for my own writing--well, I've noticed that while I rarely write in conventional meter, the rhythms of my lines are extremely regular, sometimes (to me, at least) sickeningly so. I essentially seem to have two modes--a more discursive/expansive one, with long lines, and in this case my lines always seem to have precisely four stresses per line, though the number of syllables is totally elastic. In my more minimalist mode, it's generally two stresses per line, which usually translates for me to two or three strongly stressed words per line.

What gives? Well, these stress patterns seem to me (at least) to give the language a certain charge that I need to recognize soomething as poetic language. Hopelessly retrograde, I know, but there it is.

As for line breaks, they seem to be more radical for me in my shorter poems, where I often like to break phrases in the middle--a lot of heavy enjambment. For me, I guess, the king of the linebreak is still Creeley--the first time I saw "a" or "the" dangling at the end of one of his lines it blew my mind. The use of the linebreak against syntax is its major function for me, at least in these poems; it generates the tension that forces attention.

A couple years ago I was in a workshop where we were supposed to write a letter (fan mail, basically) to a writer (living or dead) we admired. I picked Creeley, and looking back at the thing it was mostly focused on Creeley's lines, so I'm going to paste it in here. I've toyed with the idea of actually sending the letter but have never really got up the guts.


Dear Robert Creeley,

Hearing you read for the first time—the sense of your voice, a new sense of how the movement of your lines mapped that voice precisely, the line breaks your actual hesitations, stutters, doubts. Your speech-rhythms naturalized what on the page seemed so fragmented, language exposing its own seams. The look of your poems was, then, deeply personal, grounded in your body and breath, form merely the extension of content.

And yet I think also of what you said of Williams—how you were surprised when you heard him read, reading right through his line breaks, when you had thought of them as full stops, the line pulled up sharply at its end. Your Williams was the Williams you saw, not heard, and you took his radical breaking of the line, the sentence, and the phrase as a model for your own even more severe practice.

When I look at your work what I see is speech, but speech struggling to birth itself out of the uncompromisingly objective materials of language. Your poems are full of "I," but so often I appears at the end of a line, the phrase that would give it content broken:

John, I

Locate I
love you

Splitting these atomic phrases releases a kind of syntactic energy; the incomplete I leans forward over the line’s edge. It’s this kind of energy I have tried to harness in my own writing—an energy that can be produced by the simplest phrase left incomplete or dangling. And these are more than games. Language itself is your drama. Your poems make profoundly moving, and human, the exploration and relation of nouns, prepositions, even numbers.

An individual line can seem reduced to the point of nonsense. Yet somehow its compression and movement is lyric, in part because you find the burden of the lyric past in every particle of language. It risks banality, for not every reader will agree to grant each word this weight. Perhaps the best work is circular, turning obsessively back on the same words again and again until their histories are revealed—basic, embodied, utterly new.

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