restricted access Writing Against Temperament: The Line
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Writing Against Temperament: The Line Martha Rhodes I have a tense relationship with the right side of the page. As a poet, I tend to shy away from it. I am a short-lined poet who uses the left side of the page as launch pad, and the right side of the page as something to reach for, or something beyond reach. I work hard to inch away from the left. It is not impossible for me to venture out into the wilderness of the right side, but I must say that when I find myself out past right field, I don’t much like it—the poem, that is. It may be that I have such a bad sense of direction, never knowing where I am on this planet, that I tend to count steps as I walk away from home, or walk up stairs, the poet in me coming out as I venture into the world. I like to be somewhere easy to navigate. Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts, for instance. It goes on for some miles. Ocean on one side, land on the other. Coffee, newspaper, post office, ATM, pizza, Kunitz’s garden, then back again. I am firmly situated. But out on the whale boat, looking at the town, I have no idea where I am on the planet. Which way is which way? When I push rightward, away from left margin, when I resist ending the particular line I am writing, when I force myself to continue, force more material out of myself before I end line and move left again, I feel, as I am resisting closure of the line, like I’m breaking through some kind of barrier. It can be exhilarating even if, ultimately, I bring the line in, executing often radical compression. So, for a while I am excited to be out in right field. I feel like I am stretching my muscles, growing as a poet, trying something new. (I am.) Generally, I become adjectivally dependent, and chatty. Or I’ve entered the rant zone. I long for the stretch and focus of C. K. Williams, the associative power of Whitman. What I tend to bring to the long line is clutter, though it may take me a while to discover that. A parking lot, a prostitute, a halogen lamp, a sex act, a box of donuts, a drive around Doylestown Pennsylvania, punctuated by a lot of commas, em dashes, and colons. And then I find myself paring down, down, Rhodes | 205 down, if only to add the donuts back in, or the halogen light. If only to take them away again. The long line gives me the liberty to feel expansive, to get it all out, to feel somewhat narrative even. Even if only during the drafting stage. A large figure myself, I am, you see, at heart, a compressionist. I strive for much in a small amount of space. I love the short to short-ish line, but I have probably learned the most from the poems of mine that never see the light of day. Those are the poems that start out as fifteen-pagers, stretching boldly across the page. How the lines sustain themselves (or not) is through the syntax—for better or worse. Unlike the poets I admire who can pull the long line off, I lose focus, run out of steam, meander aimlessly. And yet. I encourage myself, my students, and my poet friends to work against temperament, to challenge every poem by producing interim drafts that grate against the poem’s structural impulse. Why? Well, why not? We grow by building our muscles. By making choices. What stays in? What comes out? If we don’t give ourselves the material with which to make these decisions, then how do we grow and dance around in our own work? Why not challenge the very structure of the poem—from the line to the stanza? Why not see what happens if we tuck our lines way in? What decisions are we forced to make by deciding what stays in, what gets put aside? And what changes are triggered by compression? What happens if we add? Are we adding narrative only? How is the poem impacted by these radical temperamental shifts and how does it ultimately help us, as writers, to go against our own grain? We learn, more and more, what it is that is essential to each poem. We learn, more and more, to...


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