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Minding the Gaps Jenny Mueller The experimental line comes in witless. Like any baldness, it lacks memory. Its purpose is free, not mnemonic. It springs up along the road to the contagious hospital and falls, a wild child, into the custody of Dr. Williams, for he could best tend to its ferocities. The free line will flourish or fail alongside the modern mind’s leaky memory. Of course poetry hadn’t required meter as a means of memorization for a while, but it wanted loosening, not only from the habits of poetic tradition but from the habit of memory itself. As James Scully has emphasized (the italics are his), “free verse needs and assumes a memory that may be consigned to memory banks such as books and notebooks, not to mention their electronic extensions” (126–127). Or, as Stevens wrote in “On Modern Poetry,” it need not repeat “what was in the script” and this released its new quality of thinking (218). Consigning memory to memory banks allowed the poet to pay a new kind of attention to attention itself. But what does one make of this wild child so many years on, now that it is bald not in birth but in dotage? Writing with this line today, we rarely associate it with the shock of the new—if by “new” we also mean youthful. In fact, the modern line feels quite old, bearing, as it does, the freight of modernism’s appalled hopes. (And those “electronic extensions” of Scully’s keep proliferating , so much that we can feel as if they’re now replacing attention, rather than enabling it.) The feeling that one’s shackled to the same old modern line can be frustrating, since no writer wants to work with stale techniques, and because to the extent that American poetry still takes an interest in its history of antagonistic movements and schools, it continues to honor a rhetoric by which making a poem good also entails “making it new.” Mueller | 171 Yet the face one turns toward experiment need not be dewy. The line still lends itself to encounter with mysteries, including some urgent questions of age: Is the self who can no longer speak “reasonably” still a self ? What’s left to “suffice” when memory and words, and the power to shape a meaning, are lost? With its built-in poor memory and lengthening life span, the modern free-verse line may be consciously turned to these questions—because, in being released of a need to bear memorizable features, the modern line has been bound to engage more freely with silence, to develop new capacities for silence as it finds its new definition. And this also allows it to remain innovative, because in silence it traffics with unassigned potential, with undesignated freedoms and limits. The silence of the page: where the reader meets it as her own time. The silence of white space, breaking in with a wildness: in the line-break; in the “open field” (as the poem, like Williams’s field in “Queen-Anne’s-Lace,” goes over to whiteness, contagiously) that overwhelms the grid in which the line lays its horizontal track; in the gaps and spans of various sizes occurring between words within single lines (as practiced by Williams in “The Sound of Waves”); in the standard caesura and in standard punctuation (because there are so many nonstandard options). Within such silences, poems may make revolutionary turns, searches, and strange propulsions. The line “breaks” not simply because it ends, but because its sense may be smashed, amazed, or thrown in all directions. Scriptless, experimental, wild: for all their heroic force, I think we have grown too familiar with these ways of speaking of “modern” poetry and have tired of their association with the new, not to mention with the American. A natural reaction is to feel jaded, tempted to ironize, beyond bothering with such concerns—in other words, to feel old. But this, I would argue, is a most vital aspect of the modern line: it speaks faithfully of age, and with no loss of innovative relevance. In giving sensuous form to the ongoing now of apperception , the line may encounter such wildnesses as aphasia, folly, the strangest of dreams. Riddled by silence, stowing memory poorly, “the poem of the mind in the act” searches among gaps and fathoms, finds itself to be composed of gaps and fathoms. This is surely terrifying, if also thrilling. But in poetry terrors serve to transform...


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