restricted access A Few Attempts at Threading a Needle
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A Few Attempts at Threading a Needle Susan Stewart A line is distinguished by a greater length than breadth: a cord or string: the span of a mortal existence, snipped to size: a breath exhaled in frozen air: a furrow in the face or hands (those instruments of making that cast lines into other forms). As longer intervals unify passages made up of smaller intervals in oral poetry, the longer pauses point to the work’s coming closure. The patterned movements of dancers might indicate the unmarked, non-sacred space through which they gesture, and, beyond, the periphery of all their motion. (The patterned movements of bees, however, have no such negative space— pure significance.) Arts of motion: singing, dancing, reciting. The dancers draw a geometry with their bodies; the shapes they make unfold and vanish. In oral poetry there is no spatial appearance; the voice’s time-bound shapes must emerge in a mind hearing, predicting, remembering a sequence. In stichic verse all breadth comes from the theme; in stanzaic verse, the secondorder pattern involves a spatial projection—the adonic lines of a sapphic, for example, are the pillars of the work’s integrity. We can “see” through hearing alone. A line of poetry is not weakened by being longer, or thickened, hence strengthened , by being shorter. Stewart | 235 All the lines in a poem, including the opening and closing lines, are attached at each end to other lines. They also can snag other lines from anywhere within. If a line cannot stand on its own, as a unit of—what? not sound alone, not sense alone, but some link between them—it cannot stand; yet however it stands on its own, the poetic line stands in relation. Merleau-Ponty: “We have indeed always the power to interrupt, but it implies in any case a power to begin.” Why emphasize line “end” and line “break” when, say, anaphora can just as easily be described as a practice of continually starting? Someone will suggest: “The line of the plough, turning.” All right, but the ploughman doesn’t make shapes along the way, or create smaller turns within the turn. Stroking in or banging out a tattoo on a drum, or beating your head against the wall—is the end of the line in these cases the drum, the wall? Stories of the origin of visual art recount the outline of a hand or figure shadowed on a wall or, inscribed in a pot’s clay, the afterimage of an animal’s patterned leaping. If the poetic line, too, begins in inscription, then its first determination is the skill of the hand up against the finite surface of the vessel or stone, the width and thickness of the papyrus scroll, or the shape of the codex page. Line has an etymology with linen. Etymology is often a misleading line of reasoning. In Della pittura, his 1435–1436 treatise on the new perspective theory, Leon Battista Alberti describes the technique for laying out the right-angled grid within a quadrangle that will make up the painting’s field and then writes, “Within the quadrangle, wherever I like, I make a point that occupies that place where the central ray strikes.” That point, a mark made freely, will found the relation between the beholder and all “painted things” in the work. A literal point of initiation, determined by desire, it enables the netted space within the painting to extend out into the “real” space of the work’s beholder—and beyond into the imaginary continuation of the work’s internal spaces. 236 | Stewart Let’s say I wanted to work as Alberti does, but in a poem. My quadrangle would be anoctetandasestet;Iwouldusehendecasyllablesformymeasure;myend-rhymes would mark the rhythm and my internal rhymes confound it. My enjambments would undermine the line; my breaks on the clause would underline the line. [Or is it that the line resists the syntax—unsuccessfully in enjambment or successfully in breaking on the clause?] All my endings would be feminine unless they were masculine. I would place a figure in the stanzas that would catch the attention of a person reading; the represented world would resemble the reader’s world. Yet, following my symbols and puns, the reader would need another kind of line to save herself from drowning. Every line has a hidden lining, and each hidden lining has a hidden lining; the motto of the Baroque. The marks of orality in the written line are haunted...