As a Means, Shaped by Its Container
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As a Means, Shaped by Its Container Alice Fulton A poem’s unity is never simple. The line frames a linguistic gesture in uninscribed space, encouraging us to contemplate it as a discrete entity and a contributor to the whole. There’s a structural reciprocity, a nesting of each in each. For readers, the line encourages a lingering that is also a reveling in words. For poets, it’s an invitation to play rather than tell. Prose seldom highlights language: the words tend to dissolve into meaning as soon as they’re read. Poetry combats this transparency, asking us to experience rather than ignore the materiality of language, as if the poem were a linguistic wall that gradually and lusciously dawns into window. By surrounding words with a blazing frame of blank, the line underscores the stuff the poem’s made of. The surface becomes part of the subject: we read on two levels. Fiction depends on narrative conflict, but a poem’s tension arises from its connotative richness. It never says one thing only, and its wiliness is abetted by the line. As fiction has its unreliable narrators, poetry has its unreliable denotators . The end word in a line can change its part of speech when it’s enjambed, an effect Cristanne Miller has called “syntactic doubling” (37). This helpful term describes a word’s slippage at the line-break, the instant when a poem can swerve and become manifold, as in these subtle lines from Emily Rosko’s “Aquatic”: If I think of any beginning I think water down to the taproot, cell base, underground aquifers that stretch Nebraska’s ends: the stillness (3) When the second line is decontexualized and read alone, the end word “underground ” seems a noun. But when the line’s enjambed, “underground” morphs Fulton | 95 to an adjective modifying “aquifers.” The lineation both severs and retains syntactic continuity. Narrative is about what happens next; poetry is about what happens now. The line contributes to this immediacy. Warped by enjambments, it complicates the forward momentum of the poem. It’s a gesture of resistance, counterpointing and countervailing the current, thwarting an unimpeded passage through language, turning language to plunge pool rather than racing lane. There’s a meditative pause, a beat—sometimes even a recursive push backwards—at the end of a line. We find ourselves gazing farther into the page instead of moving onward. Its depth detains us. Shifty, volatile, full of subterfuge and intelligence, lineation gives rise to sudden reconceptions of content: . . . Clouds releasing the first skeptical drops, next sheets to overfill land: torrents, then torrents not for years. The sea’s upwelling cold gone warm . . . (Rosko 3) “Torrents, then torrents.” What a downpour. But the phrase implodes upon enjambment, becoming “torrents / not for years.” In another reversal, “The sea’s upwelling cold gone” at first describes a vanishing and is followed by a stanza space mimetic of absence. Yet when carried over, the phrase evolves into a description of temperature: “The sea’s upwelling cold gone // warm.” The line is a way of denaturalizing language. It stages words as spectacle and footlights meter. Lines governed by “natural” syntactical patterns often end with nouns or verbs and begin with function words—conjunctions, articles, prepositions, the sizing of language. If you scrutinize the left margin of poems, you’ll usually see several lines beginning with “of,” “in,” or other prepositions. Poets often break lines on the noun preceding a prepositional phrase because there’s a small surprise when the phrase is completed. A countersyntactical lineation might break on function words to emphasize the semantic seams. Ending on these small parts of speech tends to frontload lines with nouns and verbs, weight and muscle—while the right margin, composed of linguistic nonentities , feathers into flimsiness, deckle-edged and ragged. If this effect is repeated throughout, the entire poem can seem seductively hesitant, off-kilter, rather 96 | Fulton than classically poised. Function words placed at the end of a line, a position of power, draw attention to the invisible glue of language. What is the effect of of? And and? Or or? Where is to going to? In the following excerpt, the first line hangs suspended, enacting the transformation it describes: Adaptation among organisms: salt to fresh to in between. Uptake in the xylem, circulation in the vein: miracle, madness, exit: water as a means, shaped by its container . . . (Rosko 3) Prose is all figure: it regards the ground as immaterial. Only lineated poetry turns...