restricted access “And then a Plank in Reason, Broke”
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“And then a Plank in Reason, Broke” Joanie Mackowski The line is contemporary poetry’s definitive feature, even for prose poems, as what defines a prose poem is its lack of lineation. However, the contemporary poetic line has no concrete definition: as poetry has drifted away from its metric anchor, and the conventional poem is now a free-verse poem, the line’s no longer necessarily a rhythmic measure—i.e., it’s no longer a pentameter line, a hexameter line, etc. Rather, the length, function, or shape of today’s line is a variable: x(y) = a line of poetry, and x is the shape of the line, and y is all available linguistic resources: denotation, connotation, syntax, figure, trope, rhythm, rhyme. So, the poetic line, having no inherent definition, achieves definition and energy in individual poems via its interaction with all definable aspects of language. In How to Read a Poem, Terry Eagleton suggests that a poem is distinct from other forms of writing in part because “it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end” (25). While I feel that Eagleton’s assertion is usefully open-ended, I’d like to pause on his choice of the word “decides” and consider the complexities of the decision process. For when writing metrical verse, the nature of this decision changes. Let’s say, for example, one has decided to write a poem in a pentameter line, and then (if one is Theodore Roethke), one writes: The elm tree is our highest mountain peak; A five-foot drop a valley, so to speak . . . (12) Decision isn’t the right word to describe how line-breaks such as Roethke’s came to be (and those are the opening two lines of “In Praise of Prairie”). Rather, the line-break in metrical poems is more an observance, a compliance: the writer’s not imposing a decision on individual lines but responding to a 158 | Mackowski dynamic structure. And while the compromised, tangential nature of the writer’s active deciding may be most obvious when considering metrical poems, I feel that these notions of observance (watching carefully, and taking cues from the writing-in-progress regarding where to break the line) and compliance (I’m no Latinist, but my etymology for this is bending together) can productively inform the practice of free verse. When teaching introductory poetry courses, I’ve often come across fledgling writers who conceive of the poetic line as a tool for destabilization. I wonder if this conception has been egged on by popularizations of Stanley Fish’s ideas seeping into high school English classes—with each line-break plunging the reader into an abyss of free-fall uncertainty. But a young student who wields line-breaks merely to unsettle, to make the reader have to “work” to get at the “deep meaning” of the poem, might come up with something like this: a very small bull snake coiled over mother’s face of her wristwatch. (“Bull”) Lines such as these aren’t productive of meaning; they’re merely obstacles to whatever image or sense is at hand, or not at hand, and they help the writer to fake-out and escape the reader (or make her seasick). The incomplete conception leading to this approach is that a poem, by definition, is hard to grasp. Many of us first experience poems as dazzlingly elusive, so it’s understandable that one might try to write one as an exercise in evasion. But the decision in these fledgling cases rests squarely with a writer who regards the line-break as something to inflict or impose on the poem, as a means to divert the reader from an indomitable progress of sense. More productive line-breaks, however, develop in conversation with the poem taking shape on the page: as one observes the developing images and structures and bends with them to yield multiple resonances. I’d like to show some productively destabilizing free-verse lines: they’re from the opening to Forrest Gander’s “Burning Towers, Standing Wall.” The poem’s nine-line opening description generates extreme instability: reading this passage is like falling through a series of awnings (as in “Project A,” when Jackie Chan hangs from the big hand on a clock tower, lets go, and then falls through three awnings to land safely on the ground [and, by the way, Chan’s feat is an homage to Harold Lloyd’s]). So...


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