Introduction
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Introduction new minds, new lines Anton Vander Zee 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). Such thoughts made it into his half-remembered dreams, for he continues: “I woke in the night with a half-sentence on my metaphorical lips: ‘the limitations of form.’ It seemed to mean something of importance.” Burke, in his response dated a few days later, suggests that the substance of Williams’s formal concern reminds him of their discussions from the 1920s, which, he writes, “were always about ‘form,’ though God only knows what we meant by it” (90). The limitations of form must have been particularly pressing for Williams near the end of 1945, just three months after Hiroshima and one month into the Nuremberg trials. Narratives of twentieth-century American poetry often describe a highly aestheticized and experimental 1920s giving way to a more socially engaged posture in the 30s and 40s as artists responded to economic depression and world war. An oversimplification to be sure, but a useful one when we consider how this apparent divide between the art of the 20s and 30s establishes the contours of the durable struggle that we see reflected in the Williams-Burke exchange, and that the most significant works of art since then engage: how to move from word to world, from poetics to politics, and from the limitations of form to life itself. Then, as now, a strong commitment to form persisted despite, against, and alongside multiple crises that remind us constantly—even in the 6 | Introduction middle of the night in half-remembered dreams—of form’s limitations in light of what Wallace Stevens called “things as they are” (165). In the arena of poetry and poetics over the last century, no idea has been more generative, variable, and contentious than the idea of form. And no technical aspect of form has more emphatically sponsored and substantiated this marked formal expansiveness than the line in poetry. But what, exactly, is the line? Should it be defined in strictly prosodic terms? Is there value in identifying certain linegenres as Chris Beyers does in A History of Free Verse (2001), or as Allen Grossman attempts more economically in his Summa Lyrica (1980)? Or should we instead attend to what Stephen Cushman names the numerous fictions of form—those ways in which American poets since Whitman have tended to “overvalue the formal aspects of their art, investing those aspects with tremendous significance ,” resulting in a poetry that “distinguishes itself not only by the unique ways in which it foregrounds signifiers but also by the unique ways in which it promotes the significance of its own formation” (4–5)? Perhaps all of the above, for these questions suggest a certain lack of conceptual literacy and critical consensus regarding the line that A Broken Thing does not seek to correct. Instead, this general disagreement marks out a uniquely charged area of poetic as well as critical concern that reflects what the poetry of the last century is, in some elemental way, about. The line, in its many ulterior projections, might be an engine for certain ideals of progress—political, ethical, or otherwise. For some, it touches upon the most fundamental epistemological and ontological questions. One finds it caught up in theories of language, and in the very beginnings and endings of things. Remarkably, the line has become an aesthetic, sociopolitical, and, at times, metaphysical variable even as it remains deeply invested in the formal minutiae of rhythm and metrics, rhyme and sound. More than ever, the line is poetry, the radical against which even alternate and emerging poetic forms that foreground the visual or the auditory, the page or the screen, can be distinguished and understood. Extending Burke’s statement to the present context, the line does indeed seem to mean something of importance , but God only knows what—and how—we mean by it. So yes, the line is overtaxed; it presumes to do too much, and it knows it. What might seem an overextension, however, suggests a core strength of the line that the essays in A Broken Thing collectively embody: its ability to be both critical and self-critical, holding its...