Remarks / on the Foundation / of the Line:A Personal History
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Remarks / on the Foundation / of the Line: A Personal History Brent Cunningham “For if I cut, I can of course choose where I want to cut.” —wittgenstein 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 were already in my head, apparently having arrived there some time ago, propping up a habit I had never much interrogated. The more I examined these accounts the less I trusted them. (“Thinking,” then, as a kind of rethinking, always in media res, with previous thoughts and assumptions as its object. But how do the initial thoughts and assumptions get in there if not through some process of consideration? Do they enter directly?) The first assumption I rejected (on the basis of its pure tautology) was that lines of poetry broke because that was what lines of poetry did. Tradition might have certain limited uses, but for me tradition-for-tradition’s-sake was the very thing to be fought against in art. More appealing was the argument set out by Charles Olson and Robert Creeley that the line was related in some way to the unit of breath (this argument appealed to them, I think, because they were each in different ways concerned to find a way out of Cartesian mind/body duality, so that the line-as-breath proposed an agreeable physiological “presence” for poetry’s seemingly cerebral activities). But the trouble with the breath-line was that it led inexorably to the notion that writing had to mimic oral structures, since Cunningham | 65 the breath is so fused to speaking and to voice. I wasn’t interested in a poetry that decided to see itself as the lesser score to a more actual oral performance. When I heard, from certain people, that poetry was at root an oral art form and must always be, I felt this was a ridiculous restriction. It’s not that I wanted to say that mind and body were separate, or that I wanted to deny that heartbeats and breathing likely formed the basis of the human sense of rhythm, but I didn’t want to enter writing with line=breath as a given. Why not use poetry as a locale to explore what else might contribute to rhythmic pulsation, or to explore aspects of bodily existence unrelated to rhythm? To use a rough analogy, I had once understood the act of pointing as a purely visual phenomenon. Then, as I started teaching my daughter to look at what I was pointing to, I found myself tapping on various things to draw her attention with the sound, and I realized there was an important aural element hidden inside of “pointing.” To restrict poetry to the oral seemed like restricting pointing to sight. Why not keep the field open for other possibilities? I considered other theories of the line, from the variable foot of William Carlos Williams to Oulipian formal constraints. But no account had the force of appeal to me. Why break now? What initiates it? What justifies it? Every answer felt arbitrary and contrived. (Then again: isn’t everything in poetry arbitrary and contrived? Why should breaking a line feel more arbitrary than not breaking it? I want to say: because breaking is an action, a decision, while not breaking is not. If you’re typing what you consider a poem and fail to depress the “return” key, i.e., if you do nothing, gradually your poem will become prose. At the very least it will become prose poetry. So prose is “natural,” while poetry has to be put in, formed, and thus justified. Just as we don’t blame lions for eating zebras, we don’t blame prose writers for not breaking their lines. Only poets are held accountable. Only their lines must have reasons.) So I found myself writing prose poetry. Again, not by choice, but because of confusion about how and when to act; in short, from inertia. In ethics, such inertia can take the form of a positive command: if you don’t know, it is proper not to act. (“First, do no harm.”) But more often inertia is an unhappy state the subject is trying, agonizingly, to escape. (Think of Hamlet.) (Something to notice...