The Only Tool
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The Only Tool Robert Wrigley All the other attributes poetry is said to possess—rhapsodic language, say, or fiercecompression,fragmentariness,juxtaposition,everythingelse—arebullshit. The only tool the poet possesses that is not also possessed by the writer of prose is the line. Give away the right margin and you give away the farm. You might be writing what you’d like to call a prose poem, but that moniker’s all about the adjective, not the noun. I love prose (and even prose poems) because the same absolute attentiveness to syntax and rhythm and sound is required if one aims to approach the condition of literary art. But if you’re not writing lines, you’re not writing poetry. A line, regardless of whether the poet’s counting syllables or stresses or both, and regardless of whether she’s ringing rhyme’s implicating gong at the end of it, must have integrity. It asserts inside of syntax and sometimes even counter to syntax. It is the poem inside the poem and why the poem is a poem. Frost wasn’t wrong about many things, but his idea that writing poems without meter or rhyme is like playing tennis with the net down is pure, cranky, stone-blind, wooden-eared, and most un-Frostian nitwittery. It’s not simply that the opening line (and sentence) of Richard Hugo’s “Trout” is iambic tetrameter with the initial unstressed syllable (that implied “he’s”) lopped off: “Quick and yet he moves like silt” (3). It’s that the subject of the sentence is dead center, preceded by an understood verb and coordinating conjunction that each, by virtue of its consonants, ticks by as quickly as the trout is capable of moving. And it’s that the second verb, in the second tiny clause, along with the comparative “like” and the noun “silt,” by virtue of their entirely other sorts of consonants, move as languorously as the trout is also capable of moving. When later in the same stanza, in the fourth sentence—two lines long—of a six-line unit, Hugo writes, “When evening pulls the ceiling tight / across his back he leaps for bugs,” he plants an almost-rhyme with that earlier Wrigley | 253 “silt,” and by so doing mimics the there-and-not-there visibility of a trout in clear water (3). And has evening pulled the ceiling tight across his back? Or is it that he leaps across his back for bugs? Exactly. It’s both, and it is the fact that these are lines that makes that both-ways understanding immediate. Hugo’s poem is an exemplary demonstration of how a poet extracts from his peculiar sculptural artifice more meaning and implication than the same words in the same order would ever be capable of doing in prose. Mind you, syntax is holy. If you cannot write magnificent, musical, and fullyloaded sentences, find an art other than writing. But if you are a poet, your syntax must be arrayed across a grid of lines, thus enabling it to be much more than might otherwise seem possible. The line—all other abilities with the language being equal—is the poet’s unique, most demanding, and most essential tool. Without it, you’re a writer, but not a poet. work cited Hugo, Richard. “Trout.” Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984. ...


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