restricted access The Broken Line: Excess and Incommensurability
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The Broken Line: Excess and Incommensurability Cole Swensen Thinking of the crux of poetry as twofold—as excess and as incommensurability : the shape of sense and the shape of language simply aren’t the same, and poetry is the form that, above all others, refuses to make light of that difference. And so it must, instead, address it. Poetry has historically addressed it through the line-break. The line-break makes the line; there were no lines before line-breaks—there were sentences, there were phrases, there were all kinds of verbal structures, but there were no lines. And so its broken-ness is at the heart of the line. Though a line may be a complete thought or a complete conventional metrical unit (iambic pentameter, say), it is nonetheless fractured. Which does not make it a fragment—that’s another issue—instead, it’s organized around a fracture, which marks a fissure, which is really a chasm, which is an abyss. And all the while remaining almost invisible. It goes by so quickly, and then there we are again on solid ground, but having glimpsed. The line-break is born of severe necessity; it’s born of pressure, the pressure of sense pushing against the limitations of language, causing language to enact the limitations of its own representation—that it is not presentation, that it cannot be present. And it’s not just presence that goes missing, but much else. That else overflows, is excess, and the poetic line, while it can’t contain it, can by that very inability mark it and honor it. For centuries, from the symbolists and modernists on, poets have chosen to mark that overflow through enjambment , which, precisely by not giving way to prose, precisely because free verse has released the line from its metrical obligations, uses the line to show that the unit of sense can never precisely fit the linguistic unit, and that though sense may be entirely composed by language, there’s a violence done to sense when it is forced into a linguistic structure. 242 | Swensen But even before the flexibility afforded by free verse, the line was used to restrain sense, to bottle it under such an extreme pressure that its overflow was palpable—we feel it viscerally in the vertiginous suspension of pure end, with its thrill of weightlessness, that split second before the eye returns to the left margin, and thought flows again. The line-break enacts the rift between sense and language that language always tries to conceal, tries to heal. Why? Perhaps because, of the pair, language is the human construct, while sense is not, and thus will not or cannot, despite all its claims to clarity, ever reveal its own source, which leaves language in the compensatory position. The line-break has not been left alone to negotiate this difficult incommensurability ; it has historically been aided by rhyme. Rhyme always posits an affinity, and yet in so doing, it often makes doubly apparent a disparity. Classical French prosody capitalizes on this, often rhyming opposites, or choosing pairs with a particularly striking, and uneasy, relationship to each other. While the line-break is giving site to the incommensurability of sense and language, it’s also using its capacity as a fissure to serve as an interstice through which the unsayable can enter. It cracks open the sealed façade of a finished expression and allows it to exceed itself, to emanate without the need to articulate. Ironically, this fissure is also what allows the reader to enter. It’s the gesture that says, “This is not finished,” with its implicit invitation to the reader to do, if not the finishing, at least some additional work. Thus the line-break is a gate; it both lets things out and allows things in. It’s the point of permeability, the point of exchange between two worlds, not an inner one and an outer, not a constructed one and a real one, but simply two worlds that slip in and out of each other, and in the act of deep reading, become indistinguishable. ...


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