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Some of What’s in a Line Carl Phillips At best, when the line is in meaningful tension with the sentence, meaning itself gets endowed with a physicality that I feel at once in the head and in the gut. • A sentence has any number of possibilities for grace, tension, seduction, force—the line is the poet’s opportunity to send an extra ripple through all of these. • And there’s the strange, undeniable pleasure both in controlling and in being controlled, yes, there was that . . . • Here is some prose: When I hit her on the head, it was good, and then I did it to her a couple of times. But it was funny: afterwards, it was as if somebody else did it— everything flat, without sharpness, richness or line. And here’s the same material, cast as poetry, from Frank Bidart’s “Herbert White”: When I hit her on the head, it was good, 188 | Phillips and then I did it to her a couple of times,— but it was funny,—afterwards, it was as if somebody else did it . . . Everything flat, without sharpness, richness or line. (3) Bidart allows each of the first four lines to contain information that gets continually revised: hitting her “was good, // and then . . . / but . . . / it was as if somebody else did it.” In effect, the line enacts the particular way in which the committing of murder can estrange the murderer, psychologically, from himself. The lineation controls the speed with which we receive the information, and at the same time it isolates each piece of information, throwing it into greater relief (visually, but also aurally, assuming—and I do—that there should always be a pause at the end of a line). A prose sentence has only punctuation as a means of doing this. Lines 1–4 make a complete sentence, though there’s a grappling feeling to it, as if we’re watching the speaker stumble towards clarity. Clarity may not emerge in line 5, but that line feels both complete and like arrival, even though it’s a fragment. This is the result of a tension between types of lines, I believe. Lines 1–4 lineate a prose sentence; with line 5, Bidart employs a carefully modulated line of pentameter, in which two dactyls are followed by two trochees, themselves followed by an iamb: Everything FLAT, without SHARPness, RICHness, or LINE. The effect, sonically, is of a gallop slowing to a canter—the final iamb becomes the only foot that ends on a stressed syllable, and this moment of stress, coinciding with the line’s end (itself endstopped), brings the horse (to continue the metaphor) to a halt. The tension between the free-verse lines 1–4 and the metered line 5 offers a release that feels like pleasure, albeit (given the context ) a decidedly sinister one. It feels like the slipping of mere speech, briefly, into song. • Or like the slipping from mere speech, briefly, into song? Phillips | 189 It is precisely because poetry is not mere speech, even in the work of poets who ground their poems in demotic speech (Langston Hughes and William Carlos Williams for example), that the line is so important. • “I caught this morning morning’s minion . . . ” (Hopkins 69) Yes, and the line seemed suddenly, to poetry, what waves are to the shore. works cited Bidart, Frank. “Herbert White.” Golden State. New York: George Braziller, 1973. 3. Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “The Windhover.” The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Fourth edition. Ed. W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970. 69. ...


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