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On the Origin and Practice of a “Signature” Line Donald Platt For better or worse in my writing life, I have spent the last twenty years working almost exclusively in one form, with one approach to the poetic line. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Therefore, partly as a cautionary tale, I will describe here that “signature” line and its origin, as well as the seductions, riches, and impoverishments of composing poems in this form. Though I have been experimenting with other lines in the last five years, most of my poems look something like the opening of this new poem called “Der Streichholzhändler” (a German phrase meaning “the matchbox seller”): Where the guillotine precisely severed the cervical vertebrae of thirteen hundred people including Louis the Sixteenth, Marie-Antoinette, Danton, and Robespierre, where now small cars and motorcycles careen and carom around the gold-tipped Egyptian obelisk at the Place de la Concorde, we stroll past a beggar who has no arms and only stumps for legs. I cannot look him in the face and see only out of the corner of my eye how someone has propped him upon a black wool blanket against a stone pillar. . . . This free-verse form or shape employs tercets that alternate long and short lines so that each stanza is the reverse of the preceding one. The long-short- 194 | Platt long pattern of one stanza is turned inside out by the short-long-short lines of the next tercet. These long and short lines have always seemed to me to enable both narrative expansion and lyric contraction within one stanza. I can both tell an anecdote and isolate an image easily. Partly, of course, I like the look of the stanza on the page, so there’s an aspect that appeals to a visual, even painterly, aesthetic. The stanza has “shapeliness,” if you will. But, even though it’s a freeverse structure, I’m counting beats, six to eight stresses usually in the longer lines, one to three in the shorter lines. I should say that some readers find the line-breaks completely arbitrary and private. The first poem that I wrote in that shape was called “Untitled.” It appears in my first book, Fresh Peaches, Fireworks, & Guns, and describes, among other things, the motion of surf against a shoreline. The ocean’s repetitive in-andout rhythms seemed to suggest this form. However, more importantly, I was reading closely C. K. Williams’s poems in Tar at the time and liked the way that his long lines had to be printed with short, indented runovers because they wouldn’t fit the usual trim size of poetry books. Those short “lines,” which weren’t technically lines, had for me great energy juxtaposed with the longer lines. I thought I’d try writing lines with runovers on purpose. I looked at the result, one large paragraph with zigzagging margins, liked it, but also found it too heavy and blocky. Then I thought I should try dividing the block into shorter stanzas, to aerate it. Couplets seemed dull. I still remember the thrill when I marked off tercets with a ruler and saw how that reversing form took over: long, short, long; then short, long, short. In The Anxiety of Influence (a much maligned book at present, I think), Bloom speaks of “creative misprision,” a generative misreading of an older poet by a younger one (14). I hadn’t yet read Bloom, but it seems in retrospect that my form came directly out of such a “creative misprision.” Soon afterwards, I discovered that James Schuyler uses an alternation of long and short lines within his forty-page poems “The Morning of the Poem” and “A Few Days.” Though he does not divide his lines into tercets and keeps the poem in one long block stanza, I’d like to think that his rhythms are similar to my own. I was infatuated with him for many years; still am to some degree. Richard Howard, master of so many forms, uses reversing tercets in his book Misgivings, but there the shorter lines are longer than mine and the longer lines are shorter. Thus a form that at first seemed “my own” is anything but unique to me. Why have I kept writing in this form, playing with it and (I hope) varying it for twenty years? First, I’ve grown to love spreading out a long sentence over the varying lengths of these lines, feeling the...


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