The Summons of the Line
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The Summons of the Line Bruce Bond 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, but not a good one, for many reasons. Principal among them is the squandering of time. The line encourages us, as do all poems of shimmer and evocation, to slow down. It is thus a summons, a call to our attention, a wager, a waver, a risk of the author’s credibility, suggesting as it does that the language is under enough pressure to deserve more time, to yield more upon careful and repeated reading. If not serving the traditional function of the mnemonic via traditional form, the line nevertheless facilitates and inspires memory. Perhaps more important to a poem than our absolute recall of it is our desire to recall it, to inhabit each line as one more room in the House of Memory. To know it by heart. And part of the heartbreak that is a poem’s beauty; part of what weds a language to its form, thus making it a poem; part of what wins over the reader’s faith in the search, the scrutiny, the there there, is deployment of richly resonant patterns of emphasis. Meaningful pairings, a harvest of enjambments, word play, tonal complication, reversals of expectation—all are made possible by both the continuity that is the line itself and the discontinuity that is the line-break. As a continuity, each line has a beginning, middle, and end—a sense of measured attention to whatever elements of language we choose to measure: weight, tone, music, image, syntax, the body of the poem and where that body takes us. As a discontinuity, the line-break is a form of the space that unites, like the air that touches the objects in a room. Of course, the play between continuity and discontinuity governs all the arts, even novels, and, most obviously perhaps, forms of music. All art is the art of 54 | Bond surprise. Any jazz player will tell you: too much change is boring. It takes the raising of an expectation to break an expectation. Imagine Mozart, the light breaking of an expectation that keeps the music fresh while strengthening the unity of expression, the sense of one thing growing from another, the logic that dreams. However illusory, it is a high art that wears its art lightly, a high art that takes our breath away with some resolution that only in afterthought feels like the absolute necessity, inevitable even—in the case of poetry, the best possible words in the best possible order. It is the larger pursuit of meaning in general that seeks freedom from both too much structure and too little, freedom from stricture, freedom from the arbitrary. Anything less would be stingy with pleasure and all it has to teach us. To teach by pleasing, that is what art is capable of, to engage us freely in a kind of dialogue of poem and the reader’s co-creation. As I mentioned, the line is particularly attractive since it gives our freedom a space to inhabit. Thus, the break as breath, if not literal then the figurative space, the little death that replenishes speech, the absence out of which presence is born. We, of course, could reverse the metaphor with the notion of speech as exhalation and thus as a spending of the breath. That too. With the line comes the foregrounding of the author’s breath, the correlative to the musical phrase that longs to make an impression upon the silence that follows, to echo across the silence in a kind of counterpoint of the spoken and unspoken, the unspeakable no less. If this makes me post-postmodern or just plain modern, to foreground speech and thus a speaker, so be it. Why squander the immediacy of the music in our mouths? To dissociate language from a speaker or writer may be intriguing, but rarely very moving. It is a kind of nervous system torn from the body, spread out against a graph. A poem lives in a body. Ideas made sensuous, that’s what Stevens called a poem...