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A Broken Thing

Poets on the Line

edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee

Publication Year: 2011

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. 

Published by: University of Iowa Press

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-x

Acknowledgments and Permissions

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pp. 1-4

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pp. 5-34

In a short letter to Kenneth Burke from November 1945, William Carlos Williams thanks his friend for his hospitality on a recent visit and proceeds to reflect on one particularly meaningful exchange: “I liked your manner of explanation when you lowered your voice and spoke of the elementals that interest us both, the humane particulars of realization and communication” (East 88)...

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On the Line

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pp. 35-39

When we talk about the line we should talk about the line separate from came before it or after it, otherwise it is merely a sentence in prose with a break for visual effect. As in Michael Palmer’s “Notes for Echo Lake 4”: “whose is the voice that empties.” Or Jorie Graham’s “Underneath (13)”: “explain to me remains to be seen.” Or does the line require separate life, separate from the poem, text without context...

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Reading Lines Linear How to Mean

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pp. 40-43

Reading struggles to make meaning, meaning anew & embodied, or to make matter “matter.” But, ideally: without letting too much “in the way of ” presuppositions getting in the way of a reading experience & judgment, without their being kept too much “in line.”1 1. First: the line can be an obstacle, a straightening barrier to experience’s full efflorescence. Lines linear outline, a faux transparency of truth in packaging...

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Who Is Flying This Plane? The Prose Poem and the Life of the Line

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pp. 44-47

The prose poem is undeniably a contested form, one that led Karen Volkman, in her essay “Mutable Boundaries: On Prose Poetry,” to refer to prose poetry’s status as “shady and suspect to the mainstream poetry world.” One need only look to the curious omission of prose poetry from such books on form as Mark Strand and Eavan Boland’s...

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Three Takes on the Line

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pp. 48-50

On my bookshelf I keep two broken glasses. Where they are broken they catch the light. That they are broken calls up the “what was,” a past wholeness. Perhaps because I came to poetry after writing and editing prose I am especially drawn to the break, the ways poetry is a “ruin” of prose, the way what is missing—even in the momentary missing that is the end of a line...


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pp. 51

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Two Lines

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pp. 52

A line of poetry on a page exists in space, but I think of it as a kind of timing, a measured flow of poetic energy, a dynamic. My sense of a line is given, as my way of walking or my voice is given and bodily. I walk a path from here to the edge of the woods, I read or speak a line, taking time. My line that required the page to go into landscape orientation was written in the wide landscape of New Mexico (subtle colorations of open, parallel ridges...

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The Summons of the Line

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pp. 53-54

Take any novel. Now break it into the closest approximation of iambic pentameter that you can manage. Why is it bound to fail now? The answer brings us closer to what it is that makes a poem a poem, to the distinctive power of poetry implicit in the artful approach to the parts that make up the poem—most conspicuously, of course, the line. A novel broken into lines may be a poem...

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Secret Life

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pp. 55

Line. Of course—the major element in the great divide between poetry and prose, one of those first-glance definitions: a set of lines might well equal a poem, no matter what those lines contain. But this notion misleads. After all, it has been said endlessly that prose “chopped up into lines” isn’t necessarily a poem...

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A Momentary Play against Concision

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pp. 56-57

A sufficiently textured line (that is, a troubled and troubling line) is the poet’s best defense against the narrow tyranny of syntax. Such a richly laden line (better yet, a poem whose every line performs in this way) also serves to guard against the poem’s being replaced by its paraphrase or paraphrases, and frustrates the widespread disposition that a poem is to be approached as a difficult allegory...

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Notes on the Point de Capital

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pp. 58-61

a. The mutations of the English verse line in the twentieth century are many and various but can be coordinated by a crude fact: the abandonment of the line as a quantitative instrument measuring similar and repeating units of sound. That mode of lineation persists as a residual, but loses its capacity to define poetry and increasingly appears as antiquarian...

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Forever Amber

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pp. 62-63

I heard a real poet1 reading his work yesterday. Shattering. When I looked at it in the book, I saw that there were no line-breaks. Not broken, shattered. The sea captain tried to escape last night, but he was quickly captured by the pirates 1) off the coast of Somalia 2) in the Gulf of Aden Perfume overcomes the trigger, the trauma, the shattering...

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Remarks / on the Foundation / of the Line:A Personal History

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pp. 64-68

Around the end of 1999, I stopped breaking lines of poetry. More precisely, I lost my conviction that there was any basis for why or, especially, where lines broke. Naturally this crisis did not happen overnight. It took place as a slow flowering of doubts and confusions. I saw that various accounts of the line...

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A Line Apart

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pp. 69-71

Over the several years that I have been hosting a radio show dedicated to poetry, I’ve had numerous poets sit down before the microphone and read their poems. In interviewing the hundreds of poets that I have been honored to have as guests, one of the things that has struck me most is the process by which some of the poets attempt to make audible the line-breaks...

Furthermore: Some Lines about the Poetic Line

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pp. 72-76

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The Graphic Line

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pp. 77-78

The graphic line displays a modern aspect when the metrical units of poetic form are matched by their lineation on the page (Schmidt). Graphical conventions of lineation are not modern devices, and when thought of as a basic material support for poetic expression, they track to the origin of writing. The notion of a phrase as a lexical unit extends into Babylonian times...

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Shore Lines

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pp. 79-81

From where I sit, two miles up a mountain on the California coast just south of Big Sur, I have a magnificent view of the ocean, but I can’t see the shore. I can observe the undulations and rhythms of the water, its inexorable drive toward a point (in this case, the maps tell me, Ragged Point). I mark subtle and dramatic shifts in its shade and come, by careful attention...

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Scotch Tape Receptacle Scissors and a Poem

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pp. 82-84

When most young poets write their first poems, they turn out lines that are either long and wormy or stubby as toes. Of course, it’s not that writing either length is against any rules, but short lines for the beginning poet tend to be more like shards with splinters for line-breaks, and longer lines tend to be chatty and wordy. As a beginning poet I wrote both these lengths...

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In Praise of Line-Breaks

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pp. 85-87

In a poetry class I’m currently teaching for MFA prose writers, I was reminded yesterday that the word “poet” comes from the Greek for maker, and “verse” from the Greek for plow lines. The analogy is obvious: just as those who work the land reshape it, we poets might rightfully think of ourselves as re-creators of the language. From the air, one sees crops cultivated in traditional rows...

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Grails and Legacies: Thoughts on the Line

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pp. 88-91

Now that I write the majority of my poetry in meter, I have a slightly different relation to the line than I did during my first couple of decades when a large part of writing meant fiddling obsessively with line-breaks. Now, I tend to put more energy into what comes in the middle of lines. In essence, every foot in a line of metrical poetry has its own little line-break at the end...

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Only the Broken Breathe

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pp. 92-93

“To be conscious,” writes Roberto Unger, “is to have the experience of being cut off from that about which one reflects: it is to be a subject that stands over against its objects” (200). According to Unger, this odd division between the thinking subject and thought-about object is made possible by the subject’s ability to “defin[e] its relationship to its object as a question...

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As a Means, Shaped by Its Container

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pp. 94-96

A poem’s unity is never simple. The line frames a linguistic gesture in uninscribed space, encouraging us to contemplate it as a discrete entity and a contributor to the whole. There’s a structural reciprocity, a nesting of each in each. For readers, the line encourages a lingering that is also a reveling in words. For poets, it’s an invitation to play rather than tell...

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A Line Is a Hesitation, Not a World

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pp. 97-99

Poems invent time down a page, and the line paces the poem. If line-breaks are meaningless, as some assert, try taking the line-breaks out of a Rae Armantrout poem and see what you get. So line-breaks aren’t meaningless. But then again, when people take this point into talking about the “music” of the line, I’ve no idea what they’re talking about. I dislike hearing someone mention the “music”...

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Four Allegories of the Line

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pp. 100-102

In the first allegory I am a small child. I mark my height on the wall in green pen, challenging my smallness. Slowly, the marks rise. A spider deposits itself underneath a thick leaf in the backyard. I tell no one my discovery, as I told no one about the tooth I’d lost before placing it beneath a pillow, where it remained well into the following afternoon. My discovery is not the spider...

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The Hyperextension of the Line

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pp. 103-106

One important thing I’ve noticed happening to the line in poetry lately I first spotted in the work of my contemporary Rachel Zucker. Her work is out of the postmodern tradition of the fragmented line, and clearly pays homage to innovative women poets like Jorie Graham and Brenda Hillman, and, before them, Barbara Guest, as seen in this, from the poem “Garment” in Guest’s...


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pp. 107-111

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The Line as Fetish and Fascist Reliquary

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pp. 112-113

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...

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A Personal Response to the Line

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pp. 114-117

I turn to Williams not so much because I believe in the variable foot but because, put simply, his lines feel good. They cradle an American cadence. And this is the cadence I experienced when I was stepping into it all. It was the mid-seventies. I was nineteen. In childhood, poetry was Poe or Longfellow with their era’s songlike qualities...

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The Uncompressing of the Line

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pp. 118-120

George T. Wright declares in Shakespeare’s Metrical Art that “Chaucer could handle the marriage of meter and phrasing with a masterly touch” (26). Even if we— master and novice—possessed the “masterly touch,” most of us living in the poetry world in the aftermath of the acrimonious divorce of meter and phrasing...

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Line of Inquiry

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pp. 121

It’s amusing to add “in bed” to the end of one’s fortune-cookie fortune because changing the referent of a revelation makes it a different revelation. I wonder if something analogous happens when one takes colloquial and technical uses of “line” as if they referred to the poetic line. Do they tell us anything about the (poetic) line we didn’t know already?...

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Out of Joint: An Ir/reverent Meditation on the Line

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pp. 122-126

The line as used in contemporary American poetry is a joint as well as building block, tensile and flexible, active and affective, distilling great feeling into a form of endless variance—sometimes a sentence, sometimes part of a sentence, or a series of words or fragments—all strung across a page (not always the whole page, and not always horizontally)...

The Virtues of Verse

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pp. 127-128

Case on the Line

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pp. 129-134

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Lines and Spaces

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pp. 135-137

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...

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Lineation in the Land of the New Sentence

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pp. 138-141

Rereading Ron Silliman’s essay on the new sentence—first published in 1980 and a poetics staple ever since—remains a breathtaking event. There is the thrill of reading a theoretical articulation of what I feel in my bones and blood: poetic language has the capacity to absorb us in images, ideas, and narrative while drawing attention to the fact that such elements are created in language...

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The Invisible Tether: Some Thoughts on the Line

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pp. 142-144

Leaving the grocery store one recent afternoon, I was making my way through the lot when I saw, several lanes over, a large glossy hound standing in the back of a pickup. The truck was empty and the dog was untied, but the day was sunny and cool and all seemed tranquil. That is, it did until another customer strolled by with his cart, closer than I was to the animal’s territory. The dog...

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“What I cannot say is / Is at the vertex”:Some Working Notes on Failure and the Line

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pp. 145-147

I’m increasingly interested in how poetry can track failures of representation— hesitation, doubling back, fragmentation—in a manner that more accurately measures the experience of speaking and thinking in time than any sort of polished resolution. I think here of Robert Creeley’s “For Love,” how the speaker’s failure to figure his emotional state becomes a compelling figure for his emotional...

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Where It Breaks: Drama, Silence, Speed,and Accrual

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pp. 148-151

I am not interested in the line as much as where it breaks. I am interested in drama. Eliot’s Prufrock’s “Do I dare”: the pregnant hesitation. Of course, to link breakage and drama is to lend enjambment the weight of content: white space as communicative pause. Rises and falls in tension, the pauses that accompany...

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This Is Just to Say That So Much Depends Upon

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pp. 152-154

Some years ago, I was invited to a pre-reading dinner at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the guest of honor being Sam Hamill. At some point between the main course and dessert, the poets around the table, one by one, each began reciting William Carlos Williams’s poem, “This Is Just to Say,” perhaps in anticipation...

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The Line

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pp. 155-156

The only inarguable difference between prose and poetry: poets write sentences broken up into lines, the basic unit of poetry. Everything that occurs in poetry— metaphor, simile, imagery, rhythms, oxymoron, synesthesia, even meter (usually accidentally)—occurs in prose. So, the line, and therefore the line-break, is a quintessential poetic tool. Roethke says somewhere that one of the tests...

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“And then a Plank in Reason, Broke”

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pp. 157-160

The line is contemporary poetry’s definitive feature, even for prose poems, as what defines a prose poem is its lack of lineation. However, the contemporary poetic line has no concrete definition: as poetry has drifted away from its metric anchor, and the conventional poem is now a free-verse poem, the line’s no longer necessarily a rhythmic measure—i.e., it’s no longer a pentameter line...

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The Free-Verse Line: Rhythm and Voice

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pp. 161-163

The free-verse line holds sway over me through its orality. Rhetorical and visual imperatives for the line-break have some appeal; but, in excess—or relied upon as the guiding principle—they feel gimmicky, distracting from, and often overpowering, other aspects of the poem. I come back to the idea that the line in free verse is first and foremost...

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pp. 164-165

John Donne’s “The Triple Fool” characterizes the lines of a poem (especially their breaking and turning) as a contrivance for taking away pain, of which love supplies such an abundance. I’ll second that, and generalize it a bit: the poetic line is an advertency constructed to contend with a world of inadvertencies—...

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Dickinson’s Dashes and the Free-Verse Line

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pp. 166-169

Whitman’s contribution to free verse is clear. His capacious, often Biblically cadenced lines suspend the poems in Leaves of Grass somewhere between the essay and the kind of regularly metered work a nineteenth-century reader might have more immediately identified as verse. (Notice that Emerson, in his famous letter...

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Minding the Gaps

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pp. 170-172

The experimental line comes in witless. Like any baldness, it lacks memory. Its purpose is free, not mnemonic. It springs up along the road to the contagious hospital and falls, a wild child, into the custody of Dr. Williams, for he could best tend to its ferocities. The free line will flourish or fail alongside the modern mind’s...

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Line / Break

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pp. 173-175

“If you read a poet’s line-breaks correctly,” I recall Robert Hass saying, “you’ll be breathing as the poet breathed.” Lyric poetry’s magical promise: to be in the other’s inspiration (reinvented there, aloft and steadied). Charles Olson’s announcement, my epigraph, enacts an intensity of thought and feeling in breath over time—its marked internal line-break...

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Rhyme and the Line

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pp. 176-177

To the workshop dogmatists I ran around with, the line was only good for one thing—to be broken. All the emphasis was on the end. What about the middle? I began to paw over some of my favorite lines, looking for the secrets of their remarkably still sense of wholeness, yet their simultaneous ability to catapult...

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Enter the Line

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pp. 178-181

Conversation about the free-verse line often focuses on the break. How do breaks create tension syntactically? What auditory possibilities do enjambed or endstopped lines offer a particular poem? This is not surprising, of course, given how free verse depends on the break for rhythmic drama and variation. All well and good. But in our attention to its terminus, are we neglecting the rest of the line?...

Healing and the Poetic Line

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pp. 182-186

Some of What’s in a Line

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pp. 187-189

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Harold and the Purple Crayon: The Line as a Generative Force

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pp. 190-192

Crockett Johnson’s classic picture book Harold and the Purple Crayon begins: “One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight.” Above these words, we see a pajama-clad boy clutching a crayon, at the end of a long and formless purple scribble. “There wasn’t any moon...

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On the Origin and Practice of a “Signature” Line

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pp. 193-195

For better or worse in my writing life, I have spent the last twenty years working almost exclusively in one form, with one approach to the poetic line. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Therefore, partly as a cautionary tale, I will describe here that “signature” line and its origin, as well as the seductions, riches, and impoverishments...

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Lines as Counterpoints

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pp. 196-198

The state of mind of the speaker in rhymed and metered verse is rarely tentative; the inevitability of the next line, the next weak or accented syllable, generally suggests to readers a voice that has figured out what it’s going to say, that leads us always (though, ideally, with other complexities) to its concluding words, to its envoi, to that one-hundred-and-fortieth syllable of the sonnet...

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Two Takes on Poetic Meaning and the Line

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pp. 199-201

Novice poets tend to regard the line solely as a literal measure of breath, thus they unconsciously break lines according either to “normal” stops in syntax, or to an internal sense of rhythm, itself often based on the four-beat strong-stress rhythm of Anglo-Saxon meter. Rarely do they indent or break lines internally...

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The Line Is the Leaf

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pp. 202-203

Two books above all others have taught me to articulate (almost) exactly what I mean by a line of poetry. Rightly, happily, each is a travelogue, a journal. Line moves. And line happens to move in time. The first is Goethe’s Italian Journey, and the other is Thoreau’s Journal: 1851. (Sometimes, distances are very near...

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Writing Against Temperament: The Line

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pp. 204-206

I have a tense relationship with the right side of the page. As a poet, I tend to shy away from it. I am a short-lined poet who uses the left side of the page as launch pad, and the right side of the page as something to reach for, or something beyond reach. I work hard to inch away from the left. It is not impossible for me to venture out into the wilderness of the right side...

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Some Thoughts on the Integrity of the Single Line in Poetry

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pp. 207-210

The best line in a poem better be the line I’m reading. This is an almost impossible standard, of course, but there is nothing wrong with that fierce ambition. I am an advocate—or rather, an appreciator—of the long line in poems, though by that I do not at all mean lines with simply more words. I mean instead lines that are long in their moment, that make me linger...

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Comma Splice and Jump-Cut: On the Line

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pp. 211-212

Recently, I had a dream in which I swallowed a pair of scissors. They lodged in my esophagus in the “wrong” position, that is, face (points) up. They were supposed to be inserted carefully face down, folded in the cylindrical compartment like a baby. Points up, the scissors would probably kill me. It happened...

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Clarity and Mystery: Some Thoughts on the Line

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pp. 213-214

I’ve often thought that if I could live my life the way I write my poems I would be very calm and contented indeed. Because of whatever stroke of good luck, I am more patient, more confident, more trusting in my poems than in any other area of my life. Line has a lot to do with this. Line feels intuitive, but I also know that every line I write is informed by every other line I’ve written and read...

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Captivated by Syllabics

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pp. 215-217

My favorite line of poetry is the twentieth line of Marianne Moore’s poem “The Jerboa.” It goes like this: “hippopotami.” It may not seem like much when it’s quarantined—but the line in poetry is funny, simultaneously demanding solitary confinement and full integration. All lines flicker between two lives; now an isolated unit...

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Croon: A Brief on the Line

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pp. 218

Whether we attend to the fact or not, poetry has deep roots in song. Beyond their meanings, words are sounds, notes if you will. A line—full of assonance or simply conversational—is, therefore, necessarily a kind of musical construct. For me, this means we poets have a good bit in common with singers. When vocalists phrase the sentences of song lyrics, it’s clear that they are using lines—...

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Breadthless Length

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pp. 219-222

Rather than go from the inside out, from the breath to utterance, from enjambment to end stop, from Dickinson’s hymn meter to Whitman’s multitudinous abode, let’s go from the outside in: from the line as something to walk, to bet the house on, to bunt down, to snort off a mirror, to make vanish with cream, or to dangle from a prow...

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A Few Lines on the Line

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pp. 223-227

I thought it would be useful to begin thinking about the aesthetics of the line by revisiting some of my favorite prose poems. I pulled C. S. Giscombe’s Inland and Harryette Mullen’s S*PeRM**K*T off the shelf and considered. Despite differences in these poets’ rhythms and the logics by which they proceed, both of their books suggest links...

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Life / Line: (Freaked)

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pp. 228-233

A car is driving down a dark road; suddenly, it must turn the corner, and the driver/writer/reader doesn’t quite know what’s after the curve. . . . That is the clinamen, the swerve that animates the poem. Lucretius held that this veering at both the atomic level and in the curves of human thinking is what makes possible new life forms and new ideas...

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A Few Attempts at Threading a Needle

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pp. 234-236

A line is distinguished by a greater length than breadth: a cord or string: the span of a mortal existence, snipped to size: a breath exhaled in frozen air: a furrow in the face or hands (those instruments of making that cast lines into other forms)...

A Broken Thing?

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pp. 237-239

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The Thin Line

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pp. 240

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...

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The Broken Line: Excess and Incommensurability

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pp. 241-242

Thinking 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. The line-break makes the line...

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Line: So We Go Away

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pp. 243-247

Of the seven directions, a line could move us all seven. Of all the directions, there is a single line down the memory that could return us. Return us to the line of Tibetan prayer flags, strung from our kitchen window to the giant cedar that was struck with lightning. This half-burnt hollow black skeleton holds our son’s sandbox inside of it...

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Some Notes on the Poetic Line in G. C. Waldrep and Lily Brown

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pp. 248-251

Perhaps at least part of what the poetic line can do is debug normative syntax of its apparent seamlessness (like a paroxysm). Ten lines into the poem “Battery Alexander” by G. C. Waldrep, we encounter the following:...

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The Only Tool

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pp. 252-253

All the other attributes poetry is said to possess—rhapsodic language, say, or fierce compression, fragmentariness, juxtaposition, everything else—are bullshit. The only tool the poet possesses that is not also possessed by the writer of prose is the line. Give away the right margin and you give away the farm. You might be writing what you’d like to call a prose poem...

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The Economy of the Line

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pp. 254-256

My third book, The Bad Wife Handbook, is made up of five sections. Three of these sections are long poems. Part of what the book is about is how saying the same thing in a different way (for example, in a different form or with a different tone or from a different distance) is really saying something else. The five sections...

Contributor Notes

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pp. 257-270


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pp. 271-279

E-ISBN-13: 9781609380748
E-ISBN-10: 1609380746
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609380540
Print-ISBN-10: 1609380541

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: N/A
Publication Year: 2011

Edition: first

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