restricted access In Praise of Line-Breaks
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In Praise of Line-Breaks Kathy Fagan 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, spheres, or hemispheres, on flooded plains or hills of orchard: all of it, from that distance, orderly and exquisitely shaped. Even from the ground, controlling patterns can be perceived. As citizens of the planet, we reshape the earth to our own purposes; poets manipulate and mold the language. It is commonplace to say that poetry differs from prose in that it is written in lines, and that its tensions, pleasures, and challenges derive from the fact that poetry alone is written in sentences and lines. Poetry adds up to more than this, of course. If it didn’t, prose poetry and lyrical prose would have nothing in common with poetry cast in lines. But the possibilities for line-making within the context of a verse poem have always been abundant enough to hold my interest as a writer, and as a reader I wonder, above all else, what a poet’s up to with a line. I adore how charged the choices are. How vital to the body of the poem and its meaning, and how ferociously poets, experienced or not, cling to lineation. It’s comparable to nothing else I can think of in the art world, though I have tried to make such comparisons. Ballet, for example, was forever altered when the primacy of the step gave way to line. And to visual artists, line and perspective have long been the building blocks of composition. But line in poetry, certainly in unmetered, unrhymed poetry, is a more fluid, less singular strategy, relying solely on context for meaningful deployment. James Longenbach, in his fine book The Art of the Poetic Line, suggests that we swap out the term “line ending” for “line break.” I admire his discussion of line endings and the helpful new names he creates for them: the end-stopped 86 | Fagan line (self-explanatory), the parsing line ending (unit of syntax), and the annotating line ending (enjambed line). But the term “line ending,” not unlike the term “free verse,” suggests there is a natural and organic resolution to a line, a completion, and while that may indeed occur in some kinds of poems, it seems to me that in others it most certainly does not. Line-break, on the other hand, suggests a violent wrenching, a kind of deliberate reshaping, far closer to the agrarian metaphor we started with. I like to remember that what we do as poets, as the makers of lines and reshapers of language, is artificial. Language is mediated cerebrally. Music is mediated bodily. Most poetry is encountered visually. If we agree that a line of poetry is a rhythmic construct of written language, whether we be traditional or non-traditional versifiers, we might agree that the only control poets have over their words, once set, is how they are arranged within the line, how the sentences that contain them are broken across these lines, and what effect the whole has on a reader, cognitively and physically. Consider this small, masterful poem, “Pink,” by Terese Svoboda: In China I remembered you only once: the restaurant’s speciality, chosen from a braid of live varieties, spiraled to the floor while the waiter flayed it with a knife flicked from his wrist. The snake made your initial over and over the black tile. What pain! Love’s all touch was the ideogram it made as it crossed the hot stones to the table. (84) An unrhymed, unmetered lyric poem with a clear narrative core and strong central image is literally flayed before our eyes by the stanza break, which slices the poem in half and offers to us the figure of the flailing snake. The lines can be said to break as violently as the poem itself: “chosen” at the end of line 2 highlighting both the misfortune and the individual nature of the doomed creature; “waiter” at the end of line 4 quite literally pausing before the swift and irrevocable flaying that opens line 5. The second stanza then begins with two half sentences that echo...