restricted access A Line Is a Hesitation, Not a World
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A Line Is a Hesitation, Not a World John Gallaher Poems invent time down a page, and the line paces the poem. If line-breaks are meaningless, as some assert, try taking the line-breaks out of a Rae Armantrout poem and see what you get. So line-breaks aren’t meaningless. But then again, when people take this point into talking about the “music” of the line, I’ve no idea what they’re talking about. I dislike hearing someone mention the “music” of the line just about as much as I dislike hearing someone speak of the “poetry” of things that aren’t poems. I think this idea of “music” is what’s behind so many people reading with such strongly affected “poet” voices, a kind of forced lilt. I’m much more comfortable thinking about sentences in poetry unfolding as sentences. But then I’m up against the obvious non-poetry moments of chopping prose sentences into lengths, and I don’t think poetry is that, either. So poetry is neither, in my reading of it, music nor prose. And then I come back to a square close to square one, but a nuanced square one, where poetry doesn’t have the same intentions as regular prose, and lines and their breakages assist in enacting that difference. If new form equals new content, as has been asserted many times over the last century, one’s use of the line has to be of some primary importance to that new content. So what is the nature of that importance? For me, beyond a gestural definition of the line as somehow indicating the hesitations of the voice down the page, any concept of the line seems a beforethe -fact definition of the poem, so I become anxious. Except for the fact that one’s poems tend to resemble each other over time (ah, the glories of “finding your voice” [a conversation I like to avoid])—and they resemble each other in some enacting of the line, the kind of words one chooses, the sorts of sentences, punctuation, as well as the pacing of the line; though I can think of examples where the kinds of words chosen, and the types of sentences structured, are 98 | Gallaher more dominant than the way the lines unfold, some theory of the line as a compositional unit is at play, no matter how subterranean. A word is a collecting. A line is a collecting. As are sentence, stanza, and poem. The parts part and return. It’s how the attention makes a focusing. And we all can agree that line-breaks interrupt sentence “logic.” But if a line enacts a propelling force toward a hesitation, what about ending a line with a period or comma, where the hesitations of grammar and line-break coincide? And what happens in that empty space between stanzas? These things have meaning, but I’m beginning to think the meaning is not languageable outside of the act of the poem itself, so that the poem becomes a one-time use definition of line-break, line, stanza, and so forth. And so I fade out of attention until I come across a poem where the use of line-breaks grates on my nerves. There has to be some elegance to it, as there is elegance in the body, the breath of the body expelling the poem. My difficulty in talking about the line in American poetry is that a theory of the line is a poetics, and therefore it is like a theory of ethics; at some point it posits one “ought” to do something. Being an absolute, it can have no experiential basis, and is destroyed by examples. It becomes a lens that sits between the reader and the poem. It, in the end, only describes the lens itself. As well, a poetics is a form of therapy. It purports that through its enacting, thoughts are put in order in the poem, are at peace, are a stable economy. For me, “cause and effect” is less useful a proposition in describing what is the case with the line than is “chance,” because life as I’ve lived it feels highly ambiguous and chancy, so art that does not exhibit a knowledge of this does not exist contemporaneously with life. The way the arbitrary is a kind of thinking . The way chance is a form of knowledge. If a poem yields itself to a rational reading, it isn’t...


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