Two Takes on Poetic Meaning and the Line
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Two Takes on Poetic Meaning and the Line Paisley Rekdal Novice poets tend to regard the line solely as a literal measure of breath, thus they unconsciously break lines according either to “normal” stops in syntax, or to an internal sense of rhythm, itself often based on the four-beat strong-stress rhythm of Anglo-Saxon meter. Rarely do they indent or break lines internally, nor do they break on words with multiple meanings, thus creating smaller moments of playfulness inside a larger work. And yet breaking according to breath/ syntax or consistent rhythm creates monotony, and may even obscure a poem’s meaning. The reimagined free-verse line can help the reader gain information about a poem that isn’t—and maybe can’t be—expressed in words itself. I am particularly struck by this fact in Nick Flynn’s poem “Ago.” Here, the narrator, anxious about “the speed with which everything is replaced” eschews punctuation-induced lineation and blocky stanzas; instead, the poem splits into tercets and couplets and even single lines, and darts nervously away from the left-hand margin in fragmentary phrases that highlight the speaker’s terror of the space that perpetually surrounds him, space that is often represented technologically but felt as existential confusion, as in the following lines: I don’t even know how a telephone works, how your voice reached all the way from Iron River, fed across wires or satellites, transformed & returned. I don’t understand the patience this takes, or anything about the light-years between stars. (15) 200 | Rekdal Flynn’s lines break on phrases of disorientation that reinforce the speaker’s psychic distress rather than the more mundane troubles that syntactically conclude his sentences. Thus, we “know” through the line-breaks that it is the speaker’s subjective confusion which troubles him, not his inability to explain to us how a telephone works. And yet the line-breaks also reveal the ultimate reason for this confusion by the end of the poem, when the speaker writes: it’s what I’m afraid of, the speed with which everything is replaced, these trees, your smile, my mother turning her back to me before work (16) We understand by the break after “mother” that the mother has herself been “replaced,” or, more aptly, that she has disappeared from the speaker’s life. It is in the line-break that the speaker is able to pronounce his mother dead, while the breaks throughout the rest of the poem—hurried, frightened, surprisingly coherent non-utterances—register his nervousness at the temporal conditions of this world. Indeed, the final lines of the poem speed through people and images , making them weirdly equivalent in the quickness of their disappearance but not in their emotional impact on us. The poem is an elegy in which linebreaks —even more than words themselves—must do the emotional work. Similarly crucial lineal disruptions occur in Myung Mi Kim’s poem, “Food, Shelter, Clothing,” a poem that explores the linguistic legacy of foreign imperialism in South Korea and its later effects on Korean immigration to America. Any country that occupies another, imposing on it its own politics and language , disrupts the identity and language of the occupied. Thus, Kim’s fractured syntax—intensified by its increasingly fractured lineation—reminds us how the attempt to “own” one’s own (or imposed) language can create great psychological disturbance in the (non-)native speaker. We see the poem begin with syntactically truncated but consistently rhythmic lines: In a gangplank thud and amplification take Spot of ground. Fended it might remain Republic and anthem, spot and same spot . . . Smear fear tyranny of attack Already the villages already the cities receding (23) Rekdal | 201 The poem then moves to lines in which the lineation ultimately mimics syntactic collapse: allaying surge neighboring Geographical trodden shelter Locate deciphering by force as contour Hurls ga ga ga (27) The poem itself linguistically and formally breaks down here, revealing a poetic identity (once grammatically “whole”) as now childlike, fragmented, ultimately fragile. Lineation enforces this effect; the oppressive white space around the words “Hurls” and the nonsensical “ga ga ga” calls the reader’s attention to what, ultimately, cannot be said, translated, or enforced in any language. To insist here upon a normative sense of lineation—one dependent on the effects of breath or rhythm and which itself would be dependent upon a regularized syntax— would argue against the poem’s essence by trying to establish an undivided “I...