restricted access A Personal Response to the Line
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A Personal Response to the Line Kimiko Hahn When I cannot find my way—feel my way—to the line, I open William Carlos Williams ’s“Asphodel,ThatGreenyFlower”andreadaloud.Herearetheopeninglines: Of asphodel, that greeny flower, like a buttercup upon its branching stem— save that it’s green and wooden— I come, my sweet, to sing to you. (310) I turn to Williams not so much because I believe in the variable foot but because, put simply, his lines feel good. They cradle an American cadence. And this is the cadence I experienced when I was stepping into it all. It was the mid-seventies. I was nineteen. In childhood, poetry was Poe or Longfellow with their era’s songlike qualities. In high school, poetry was a hip list containing e. e. cummings and Gertrude Stein. Here were radically different lines, if there were lines or even words. Plus, I read some Eliot on the side, although I had no idea what was going on but meaning didn’t seem to matter outside final exams. In college, I was moving into two worlds: classical Japanese literature and, in workshop, poems by Theodore Roethke and Denise Levertov. I recall Levertov’s work making a particular impression: I could lift out just about any line and it became a startling fragment that had its own integrity. A few isolated lines from “A Common Ground”: grown in grit or fine [ . . . ] Hahn | 115 new green, of coppery [ . . . ] crumpled wax-paper, cartons [ . . . ] curved, green-centered, falling (16–18) These fragments spot-lit language the way cummings or Stein did. Adding poems by Charles Wright and Adrienne Rich to the mix, I experienced in their lines a language under pressure; this dynamic became an essential combination. Diction was paramount for me—more so than cadence. Then came Williams’s Paterson and Pictures from Brueghel—the first with its radical disorganization as organization, the latter with its variable foot. I was in love! Even so, in spite of adoring “Asphodel,” my own writing still exhibited little regard for cadence. Not absent, I hope, but haphazard. Over the course of early work, I began to feel that my own play with diction and imagery was sometimes at the expense of the ear. So I returned to “Asphodel.” I began a more conscious attention to the feel of the line. Fast forward to Toxic Flora. In this new collection, I combine cadence a little better with my earlier preoccupations. I make use of an informal structure that utilizes one- and two-line stanzas to highlight diction and that allows each stanza an integrity of its own. As always, I test the poems aloud, but with more attention to cadence. Here are a few lines where I steal language from Science Times articles: in the Oort Cloud, a hypothetical region of icy objects that become comets [ . . . ] a resistance to the larval infection, [ . . . ] (everts its pharynx) A simultaneous interest is tangent to these Western concerns: I have become fascinated with the monostich—especially as exemplified by recent translations of the tanka which are conventionally translated into five lines. Although my academic studies were heavily weighted in Japanese literature, until ten years ago I did not know that even today “the established view [is that] the tanka is a one-line poem” (27). This quote is from a collection that has made a major impression on me: Hiroaki Sato’s set of translations, String of Beads: Complete Poems of Princess Shikishi. Examples: 116 | Hahn Night cold, I awake and listen: a wood duck cries, unable to brush off the frost formed on it. [ . . . ] The sky as a flock rises grows snowy, lucid, dark; in my icy bedroom a wood duck cries. Sato reaffirms this provocative decision in his volume Japanese Women Poets, quoting the contemporary poet Ishii Tatsuhiko: “Tanka wa ichigyoo no shi de aru (tanka is a one-line poem)” (xxxix). To my own thinking, the customary syllabic break into 5–7-5–7-7 may be impressed in the Japanese body. The pivot between the first three and the last two “lines” are physically anticipated so that the progression is intuited without obvious lineation. Western readers might know this intuited movement from the sonnet. The end of the line is anticipated because we expect pentameter. Also, depending on whether a sonnet is Petrarchan or Shakespearean, the material itself progresses to the volta differently—and the closure varies accordingly. All this movement is very physical. This interest in a single line poem...