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A Momentary Play against Concision Scott Cairns 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, an encrypted message, a code to be cracked. This is a disposition often accompanied by another: believing that the poem, thus decrypted, thus cracked, can thereafter be dismissed. This is why poems must be framed so as to say more than one thing—to say many things, and to keep on saying—if only as a matter of survival. Assuming that in much verse (as in most prose) a poem’s primary sense (occasioned by its more transparently referential activity) is provided by the sense of syntax, the verse poem’s continuing riches—its sequential, provisional meanings—can be occasioned by the sense of the line, as each line, in turn, avails a momentary opacity that can suggestively extend, or complicate, or otherwise enrich the syntactical overlay of meaning constructed in the course of a given visit to the poem on the page. Duly appreciated, this dynamic obtains for the poet, as well as for the reader, an understanding that the poem offers a place where meaning might be made, and made again. Committed to such a process, one learns to apprehend one’s own sentences opening, one’s own initial sense of things being challenged and altered. Moreover, in a sufficiently well-made poem, this dynamic serves the poet even beyond the period of composition, as visits to previously completed poems are rewarded with subsequent discovery. It is self-evident that the “line of poetry” that simply moves the syntax along—as in a commonplace “line-phrasing” prosody—does no work, allows no play, and is therefore hardly a poetic line at all. Cairns | 57 Finally, a series of well-worked lines (lines crafted so as to continue to do work) is the poet’s greatest assurance of his saying more than what he intends. It is her protection against her poems becoming simple expressions of previously received matter, and his guarantee that he will not simply repeat what he thinks he already knows. More than anything else, then, the actual, real-time labor of attending to the line—mid-composition—is the labor that makes poetry a worthwhile vocation for the poet. Duly engaged, our working the lines avails for us in the midst of composition a glimpse of more than we meant to say; it is in working the lines this way that a poet realizes how poetry is chiefly a way of knowing, and not a way of saying what is already known. ...


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