Enter the Line
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Enter the Line V. Penelope Pelizzon Conversation about the free-verse line often focuses on the break. How do breaks create tension syntactically? What auditory possibilities do enjambed or endstopped lines offer a particular poem? This is not surprising, of course, given how free verse depends on the break for rhythmic drama and variation. All well and good. But in our attention to its terminus, are we neglecting the rest of the line? The modernists complained that the Victorians padded their verses with syllables just to get to the end-rhyme’s chime. Is our break fixation a version of the same narrow attention to the right margin? What if we focus equally on the rhythms of the line’s entrance? Frank Bidart has talked about the prosodic methods—including breaks, double punctuation, and typography—he uses to “fasten” a speaking voice to the page (Western 223). He’s also a master of what we might call strong and soft entrances, modulating the rhythms of his line openings to create drama. Here’s the first stanza of his “Song” from Star Dust, scanned to indicate heavier and lighter stresses: Yŏu knów thăt it́ is ˘ thére, la´ ir whĕre th̆e bé ar céasĕs fŏr ă tiḿe évĕn tŏ ex̆iśt. (34) The stanza’s quiet intimacy stems not only from the second person address, internal rhymes, and images of animal hibernation. Bidart also establishes the lulling rhythm by opening each line with syllables of lighter stress before introducing a heavier accent. The third line’s entrance is buffered even further by the feminine ending of the preceding line; our ear registers three gentler syllables before the downbeat of “time.” Pelizzon | 179 But this soothing quality changes in the second stanza, which enters with a spondaic imperative: 1 Cra´ wl iń. Yŏu ha ˘ve ăt la´ st ki´ lled ĕnoúgh an̆d eátĕn ĕnoúgh t˘ o b ˘ e fát ĕnoúgh t˘ o ceáse fŏr ă tiḿe t˘ o e ˘ xiśt. That first line is an auditory powerhouse, framing the syntactical demand and the notion of killing with paired rhythmic slaps at either end. The stanza then loosens with the next two lines’ lighter syllable entrances, their mirrored doubleiamb /double-anapest rhythms, and the repetition—like a voice calming itself—of “enough.” The next stanza, the third, amplifies rhythmic tension by increasing the number of lines with strong entrances; two of the three step off with heavily stressed syllables. And finally, by stanza four, all the lines enter on downbeats: Cra´ wl iń. Wh ˘ at ´ eve ˘r fŏr góod o ˘r iĺl gro´ws w˘ ithi´ n yŏu neéds yo´u fŏr ă tiḿe t˘ o ceáse t˘ o e ˘ xiśt. Now we understand that the poem’s “you” is a human maker. Only from the hibernation of “crawling in” can this maker bring forth a new work. Such dormancy is necessary but fearsome: the creation is as likely to turn out “ill” as “good”; it requires self-annihilation. By shortening the lines and opening them all on stresses that torque against the heavily accented end syllables, Bidart rhythmically enacts the trauma of this willed passivity. (This torquing strategy isn’t reserved for free verse, of course; the most common variation in iambic pentameter is the first foot trochaic inversion, giving the line a snap at both ends.) Obviously, line entrances aren’t divorced from line-breaks. Rather, each entrance is a point where the poet can amplify, counterpoint, or redirect the energy of the preceding break. The last stanza of “Song” exemplifies such redirection . The stanza contains only two lines, both entering on light syllables. “It is not raining inside / tonight”; the lines whisper in the ear. And yet, this is an invitation one cannot refuse, as the poem’s final line concludes with the now inevitable demand to “crawl in.” Part of the pleasure in attending to line entrances is discerning the varied strategies available. I want to turn quickly to Louise Glück, another master of the 180 | Pelizzon entrance. One of Glück’s characteristic rhythmic tactics is to build a sequence of lines with soft openings, create a dramatic syntactical break, and then conclude the passage on a line with a heavily accented opening. Here, for example, is the start of...


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