Clarity and Mystery: Some Thoughts on the Line
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Clarity and Mystery: Some Thoughts on the Line Mary Ann Samyn I’ve often thought that if I could live my life the way I write my poems I would be very calm and contented indeed. Because of whatever stroke of good luck, I am more patient, more confident, more trusting in my poems than in any other area of my life. Line has a lot to do with this. Line feels intuitive, but I also know that every line I write is informed by every other line I’ve written and read. I’m aware of syllables and stresses, of not loading all the “good words” at the ends of lines while having a list of prepositions (though I happen to like them: so useful and willing to get along!) at the beginnings, of the possibilities (and occasional unfortunate results) of enjambment, of what is musical and what is not and how even the latter can be pleasing. I am also happily unaware; I’m simply paying attention to the world and not Writing a Poem. If I say that I’ve “lost my line,” I mean I’m not alert enough to take note of whatever is presenting itself. When I am paying attention, I tend to write lines that I know immediately are “accurate”—in terms of image, music, rhythm, visual presentation, rhetoric—or not. Revision—literally, re-seeing, more attention—is possible. The good lines cannot be translated or broken or otherwise parsed. Careful attention = accurate lines. This sureness is one of two things I like most about writing poetry. The other, interestingly, is uncertainty. Paying attention, writing a line at a time, means that I really don’t know what will come next. In this sense, the line is exploratory, like boot prints in snow; I can look back and see where I’ve been but up ahead is uncharted. I write out of necessity, and thus my poems are useful (at least to me and, I hope, to others), sometimes even predictive. I might come to realize, for example, that I do know the source of my confusion or that I am already happy. I begin with a first line and, often, a title. That’s it. Then, I write a line at a time, and, lately, end-stop most of my lines with a period or, my favorite form of punctuation, the shy semicolon. From there, I record slight shifts of “huh—“ as closely as possible. If I have a “poetic” thought, I put it in. 214 | Samyn If I’m hungry, I mention that. If the sky darkens, I record my noticing. All the while, the line coaxes me on: What next? What else? How do you feel? I read aloud, a lot. I walk away from my desk. I do the dishes. I pat the dog’s head or take some advice from the cat. Curling up is nice, she seems to say, or Look at my claw—. I try to write the line that curls, the line that slumbers, the soft but fierce line. Mostly I try to sound like me, a person who thinks a cat might say Look at my claw—. I can and do write anywhere. No special pens. No special mood. The poems that hold my interest after their arrival still have some mystery and can be read as they appear on the page. Again, uncertainty + accuracy. I have favorite poems in each of my books, poems in which what is said cannot be separated from how it’s said. Paraphrases fall short. It’s nice to think poems always achieve this level of coherence, but we know that isn’t true. Nonetheless, sometimes it does happen. I’ll end with one such poem, which I wrote a line at a time and with all its current idiosyncrasies: the repeated line, the indented and italicized line, the lines that seem like questions but aren’t, the much longer final line. This is a poem of, I hope, clarity and mystery: the sureness of the line and of discovery—line to line. Make Them Howl or Breathe Fire I was strung up. I was my own angel. Repeat: I was my own angel. Something beeped to signal the end of mercy. Oh well— Weather swirled just beyond my shoulder. Had I not been on my knees already. Had I not grasped the concept. God likes firm resolve. I detest all my sins. Above all, ingratitude, the color...