Harold and the Purple Crayon: The Line as a Generative Force
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Harold and the Purple Crayon: The Line as a Generative Force Patrick Phillips Crockett Johnson’s classic picture book Harold and the Purple Crayon begins: “One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight.” Above these words, we see a pajama-clad boy clutching a crayon, at the end of a long and formless purple scribble. “There wasn’t any moon, and Harold needed a moon for a walk in the moonlight,” Johnson writes, as Harold reaches high up into the white space of the page, and draws a purple crescent. Then Harold stoops to draw the first lines of a purple sidewalk, because, of course, “he needed something to walk on.” Most theories of the line in poetry are concerned with the effect lines have on readers once a poem is finished, but I want to talk instead about the way unwritten lines—the empty containers of a poem in the making—help me to write. That is, I am interested in the pragmatic theory of “the line” in Harold and the Purple Crayon, where Harold, confronted with a blank page, draws a moon not because he thinks a moon will look good when he is finished, but because he needs one to go for a walk in the moonlight; where he draws a sidewalk not because readers of children’s books like sidewalks, but so he’ll have something to walk on; and where he makes a boat not because he has a thing for boats, but because he is drowning. In Harold’s world, the line is not ornamentation—not a way of gussying up his scribbles—but, rather, the ground beneath him: the conveyance that keeps him going where he has to go. On Harold’s journey, as on the poet’s, it is this inchoate, shape-shifting nature of the line that matters. Harold is not concerned with the overarching sense that his lines, taken together, will make once he is finished, for Harold doesn’t know where he is going. Instead, each line he draws solves the immediate problem before him: the line that was an ocean becomes a boat he clings to, then a hill he climbs to look around, then Phillips | 191 a hot air balloon that stops his free fall, and, finally, a bed in which he can, exhausted, fall asleep. Were Harold to make his lines with no consideration for the situation in which he finds himself—that is, were he to fail as a reader of what he’s written—he would surely drown, or be eaten by a dragon, or fall through thin air forever. What does all this mean in practice? That when confronted with the blank page, I try to look only as far ahead as the empty, unwritten line racing out ahead of the one I just wrote. And I try to be an extremely attentive reader of the lines I have managed to write. While the line-breaks of a finished poem create a particular effect on the reader, it is worth stressing the simple notion that the best poems are composed with no preset destination, with no foreknowledge of what they will discover. Instead, for a poet in the moment of creating, the most important aspect of the line is that it cuts the white space down to size. The line divides the page’s unbearable silence into smaller vessels that we have just enough strength to fill, and hopefully to carry. Of course, each line in a new poem also establishes requirements for the unwritten ones that follow. On first setting pen to page, the poet can say anything. But the very act of writing a first line limits the range of what can be successfully added in the second, just as the third further narrows what utterance will “work” in the fourth. What I mean to underscore is that while this narrowing of possibilities as lines accrue is constraining, it is also, thank goodness, generative. It is a narrowing that shields us from the Medusa-head of infinite possibilities, and so helps us make our way. In the middle of writing a poem, surely most of us feel much like Harold when he sees that his offhand squiggle has suddenly become a storm-tossed sea. What saves us from despair? What keeps our heads above the water? The small assignments of the empty line, which I sometimes chant to myself when...


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