Grails and Legacies: Thoughts on the Line
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Grails and Legacies: Thoughts on the Line Annie Finch The line, the line, the line—oh holy grail of the free verse workshop ! NowthatIwritethemajorityofmypoetryinmeter,Ihaveaslightlydifferentrelation to the line than I did during my first couple of decades when a large part of writingmeantfiddlingobsessivelywithline-breaks.Now,Itendtoputmoreenergy intowhatcomesinthemiddleoflines.Inessence,everyfootinalineofmetrical poetryhasitsownlittleline-breakattheend—nottomentionthelongerpause, thecaesura,whichfallsonceortwicewithinmostlinesofmetricalpoetry. The lines that haunt me most, those that sound in my head literally for years as I try to encompass and fathom their waves, are lines in meter, such as the solemnly counted-out beats of Robert Hayden’s famous opening line, ringing with their hollow echo, as if they know ahead of time how their initial trochees will continue to sound with a stubbornly unforgettable shudder through the rest of that iambic poem: “Sundays too my father got up early . . .” The break at the end of the line is the least of it; the center of gravity of a metrical line can be anywhere, and usually is. Williams and the other high modernists were passionately interested in expanding the metrical vocabulary of verse beyond the iambic pentameter (Pound’s dactyls are among his most beautiful free-verse effects) but, as Timothy Steele shows in his book Missing Measures, their goal was not to jettison meter altogether. Deeply schooled in meter, these poets handled the line beautifully: Finch | 89 so much depends upon (Williams 224) The p’s here are a wonderful sight, and the visual pun (with the second line seeming to “depend”—literally, to “hang”—from its predecessor) memorable. But without the symmetry between two iambs and one iamb, this line-break would lack its signature bounce; it’s the rhythmic conversation that lends this iconic bit of free verse such ineffable and iconic energy. Poets like to muse about the free-verse line—how and whether a particular line has “weight,” a “justification,” an “identity,” or any one of the numerous quasi-mystical terms we use for that indescribable quality of “thisness” that a good line of free verse exudes. But the next time you hear someone in a workshop remarking on how good a particular free-verse line or passage sounds, scan it. The odds are that it will fall into a regular metrical pattern. If free-verse poets were educated about meter again (as the great free-verse poets of the early twentieth century always were) and meter became a more conscious part of such discussions, the mysticism would sound less subjective and futile and the quest for the true essence of “the line” would likely become, if not more fun, at least quite a bit less stressful. No matter what other factors go into a successful free-verse line—imagery, syntax, a center of meaning or wit—rhythmic energy is the sine qua non. Most good free-verse passages have a metrical (by which I mean a regularly and predictably rhythmical) subtext. The best free verse is alert and conscious of this energy, able to keep its head above the rhythmical water—a feat which takes a certain amount of ear-training in meter (not only iambic meter). For example, this rhythmically fluent passage by Audre Lorde segues a dactylic rhythm at the opening of the first line into a trochaic rhythm, which continues through the second line and into the third line, which then emerges as a headless iambic pentameter: Some words are open like a diamond on glass windows singing out within the crash of sun (163) This kind of tension against other meters is crucial when using iambic pentameter in a free-verse poem; iambic pentameter is so hackneyed and familiar-sounding that, inserted into prosey free verse without strong counterbalancing rhythms, its presence (especially in the final line of a poem, where it is most likely to 90 | Finch appear) can add a smug, flaccid, or pedestrian quality to otherwise good free verse. So the skillful and conscious wielding of meter is a key aspect of strong freeverse lines. Yet still, yet still, there is something else to say. There is stillness as well as bounce in Williams’s line-breaks. Just when I feel that the nub of the whole question is the need to apprehend a fluent diversity of meters, I suddenly feel my eyes. Raised as I was on the visual feast of the line-break, it is not only my ears I need to feed. I distinguish five basic kinds of free verse, the first three essentially oral-based and the other...