The Uncompressing of the Line
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The Uncompressing of the Line Raza Ali Hasan George T. Wright declares in Shakespeare’s Metrical Art that “Chaucer could handle the marriage of meter and phrasing with a masterly touch” (26). Even if we— master and novice—possessed the “masterly touch,” most of us living in the poetry world in the aftermath of the acrimonious divorce of meter and phrasing do not have the choice to employ it anymore. In this fallen poetry world, what the novice as well as the master have to deal with is the immeasurable line, the free-verse line—the broken thing. It was this broken line that I first encountered and still continue to struggle with. The free-verse line’s inner workings can seem as opaque and mysterious as its outer parameters. Writing a poem by putting together a bunch of broken things leaves me feeling like a master mason who, having built an arch with uncut stones of arbitrary sizes and varying shapes, is told to stand under this new arch with its scaffolding removed. The regulated environment in which the traditional line and its phrases used to perform their tasks has disappeared along with the meter. The phrasing has been decoupled from its metrical grid, and the individual line’s relationship with the preceding line and following line has become much more indeterminate. Thus, the difficulties inherent in writing a line of verse have been compounded immeasurably. With metered poetry, one did not know why a line “To be, or not to be—that is the question,” or a group of lines: I hear him coming. Let’s withdraw, my lord. To be, or not to be—that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (3.1.54–57) Hasan | 119 were so successful, but one could confidently say certain things about the probable causes for their success. For instance, the success of the line “To be, or not to be—that is the question” could be explained by the pent up energy exhibited by the phrases “to be” or “not to be” when paradoxically they are shackled down by the iambic metrical grid. Furthermore, in the regulated environment, this line is preceded by the extremely humdrum, perfectly iambic line (no variations whatsoever) containing absolutely humdrum phrases (given to Polonius to deliver): “I hear him coming. Let’s withdraw, my lord.” Therefore, the reader when he comes to the famous opening line of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy can only be startled. The famous line’s effectiveness and power are then carefully heightened by making the following line begin with an inverted first foot, which puts the stress on the opening syllable as if the following, second line of the soliloquy is answering the rhetorical question put forth by the first line. The second line itself is not end-stopped but propels the reader to the third line via the urgency of an enjambment, and the third line also reverts back to normal iambic pattern (with no variations except for the feminine ending it shares with the other two lines). These were the kinds of observation a poet could depend on when evaluating his work. Now let us suppose a free-verse poet who has never seen these lines before is given these four lines (without line-breaks, in a paragraph) and told to rearrange them, to make them into a short poem in whatsoever way she wants. She can only go by intuition and dim memory of all the poems and their lines which she has cumulatively read, for she has neither the metrical grid nor the understanding of the relationship between the grid and the phrases to guide her. Our free-verse poet could end up with the following chopped-up arrangement of lines: I hear him coming. Let’s withdraw, my lord. To be, or not to be— that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune The success of these new lines depends completely on the intuitive dexterity of the free-verse poet. Without the metrical grid to compare this new arrange- 120 | Hasan ment of lines, one is at a loss to say why this particular arrangement of lines is better than another. Decoupled from their iambic pentameter, extra white space seems to be randomly placed between the phrases creating extra pauses. One could say that previously taut lines and phrases seem to have gone...