Breadthless Length
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Breadthless Length Ravi Shankar Rather than go from the inside out, from the breath to utterance, from enjambment to end stop, from Dickinson’s hymn meter to Whitman’s multitudinous abode, let’s go from the outside in: from the line as something to walk, to bet the house on, to bunt down, to snort off a mirror, to make vanish with cream, or to dangle from a prow. Because for the line—the basic syntactical unit of a poem the way the sentence is for prose—to have continued relevance in a world of text messages and hyperlinks, it’s useful to begin peripherally and work backward toward its multiple and moving centers. 1. Pace: the stride of the line is a lap in a lake, else jagged, frenetic, brokentoothed . Lilting and out-of-breath, forceful or stuttering, but when listened to and crafted well, inflected with distinctive aesthetic personality. Denise Levertov , in her essay “On the Function of the Line,” makes the point that the most obvious function of the line-break is the hesitation between word and word, a function of rhythm and a standard of prosodic interpretation, but that the effect of the line-break on melody, which in turn is the place meaning is produced, remains too little understood. Take William Carlos Williams’s “XVII” from Spring and All: Our orchestra is the cat’s nuts— Banjo jazz with a nickelplated amplifier to soothe the savage beast— Get the rhythm 220 | Shankar That sheet stuff ’s a lot a cheese. (216) Compared to Carl Sandburg’s “Jazz Fantasia”: Sling your knuckles on the bottoms of the happy tin pans, let your trombones ooze, and go hushahusha -hush with the slippery sand-paper. (170) While Williams breaks against the grain on the preposition “to” and shifts the possessive article “’s” to the couplet’s underside in order to get the colloquialism of the phrase that follows, Sandburg extends his like a drowsy solo full of onomatopoeia and alliteration. It’s bee-bop to big band because of their respective lines. 2. Gambling. Risk. Not just that of exposure, but that of choice. When the line scaffolds the stanza, the conscious or subconscious decision on how to use it informs the music of meaning. Take Robert Bagg writing on James Scully: Scully’s most brilliant insight into poetic technique is that the “line break,”— aka enjambment, a French term suggestive of a surefooted balletic “jump” from the end of one line to the start of the next—is most truly a keen weapon for unearthing and jacklighting buried truths, buried lies, buried bodies. Scully sees line breaks as muscular fulcra on which all poetic discourse hinges. Used bravely, line breaks can decode, implode, explode everything a manipulated language wants to hide. The deadening body of language, its arteries clogged with bombast and rhetoric, can be operated on by the poet, a surgery which continues, in the end, to be un coup de dés, a hazard; there’s no telling what will be disclosed when the words and their syntax are laid bare and segmented. Bust the house by just betting the line. 3. Sport and Intoxification: just as a tennis player hopes a smashed forehand catches the line, the poet demonstrates skill by ingenious confabulations, by weaving nets that take it all in, else by chipping away shards that somehow, in spite of brevity, cohere. Take the many, largely failed, nineteenth-century attempts by poets such as Longfellow and Arthur Hugh Clough to recreate a dactylic-hexameter line in English. Here’s Longfellow in Evangeline: Shankar | 221 This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks Bearded with moss and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight. (13) In a sense, this is Barry Bonds eyeing Babe Ruth; poets looking back at Homer and Virgil, saying I can do what you do! and pushing the line in English further and further toward the right margin until, save for the leg-irons of meter, the line only precipitously resembles what we might consider the shape of poetry to be. Or take the opposite impulse. Here’s an excerpt from May Swenson’s “Riding the A,” which very rightly was chosen as a Poetry in Motion poem in the New York City subway system: Wheels and rails in their prime collide, make love in a glide of slickness and friction. (169) Here the poem’s form literalizes the train’s journey underground, the staccato motion of...


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