Lineation in the Land of the New Sentence
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Lineation in the Land of the New Sentence Karla Kelsey Rereading Ron Silliman’s essay on the new sentence—first published in 1980 and a poetics staple ever since—remains a breathtaking event. There is the thrill of reading a theoretical articulation of what I feel in my bones and blood: poetic language has the capacity to absorb us in images, ideas, and narrative while drawing attention to the fact that such elements are created in language. This attentive absorption brings us to question and investigate the very system that we are, while we are reading, engaged in creating. Not only does Silliman articulate this concept, but he also delineates the way in which the structure of new-sentence work causes this conflux of absorption and reflection. The new sentence achieves this feat by playing with the expectations of syllogistic logic. The connections between sentences are loosened so that, while pathways between sentences can still be created, movements through sentences are not restricted to a particular path. In this way the reader comes to reflect upon the connections he or she makes between sentences, considering the structures and expectations embedded in language. All of this happens simultaneously with an engagement of the images, ideas, and narratives created in the mind’s eye. After the thrilling sensation of recognition, the conclusion at which I arrive after each reading always shocks me: everything for which I depend upon the line-as-formal-instrument, the new sentence has already done. This, I whisper to myself, perhaps renders the line irrelevant for all poets writing work structured by the new sentence. At this point, the volume of my thought rises as I think about the possibility of having used the line when it is not necessary, as if it were a decoration. Perhaps the line is now decadent—a formal signifier that has been extended beyond its time. Allow me to detail the thought process leading to this sensation of inevitability by citing four of the eight specific qualities of the new sentence as listed by Silliman: Kelsey | 139 1. Sentence length is a unit of measure; 2. Sentence structure is altered for torque, or increased polysemy/ambiguity; 3. Syllogistic movement is: (a) limited; (b) controlled; 4. The limiting of syllogistic movement keeps the reader’s attention at or very close to the level of language, that is, most often at the sentence level or below. (91) In application of the above, the new sentence does the work that I want to require of the line in the following ways. First, I want the line to be a unit of measure. Second, I want the line to launch possibility into blank space, rendering a singular meaning impossible. Third, I want line-breaks to both join and break free of connections. Fourth, I want the line to draw the reader’s attention to language, lest the poem be read as a transparent window. And finally, I want the silence and pause of space that the line breaks into. The new sentence even provides for the latter, for Silliman introduces us to the pause of space created between sentences via a “limited” and “controlled” syllogistic movement. He tells us that the new sentence’s effect occurs “as much between, as within, sentences. Thus it reveals that the blank space, between words or sentences, is much more than the 27th letter of the alphabet” (92). Thus we find that the space of the page beyond the line denses down into space between sentences, black holes that fold into alternate universes. At times I become so entranced with this line of thought that I make plans to de-lineate all new sentence-based verse that I meet. At this point, a more discriminating sensibility usually chimes in with the assertion that the line, nevertheless, canstillperformauniqueandspecificfunction.Evenifapoetiscomposingpoems made of new sentences, strategic line-breaks can do two marvelous things that extend the capacity of new-sentence work. First, if one lineates a poem composed of new sentences, the structure and relations of the line can be crafted so as to be homologous to the structure and relations of the new sentence that makes up the very fabric of the line. This creates, at the torque of each line-break, another opportunity for space, for polysemy, and for the reader to think through the acts of connection performed as one reads. Line-breaks require the reader to consider therelationofparttowhole,theconnectionbetweenlineandsentenceandstanza. The second marvelous thing that a lineated new sentence can...