Overspeeding (Levertov’s Line)

Despite the acknowledged importance of the line as a poetic device and my own fixation with it, reading essays about it by Denise Levertov is proving nearly as embarrassing as it is enlightening. For so long now, I’ve been reading linebreaks endings incorrectly, at least following from Levertov’s assertions in, say, “Technique and Tune-up”:

[O]bserving the linebreak as roughly one-half a comma, of course–it is there to use, and if you simply run on, ignoring it, you may as well acknowledge that you want to write prose, and do so.

For the record, I don’t ignore the linebreak (to minimize confusion, I’ll keep using her term rather than Longenbach’s) and its effects. I even agree with her when she calls it, in an arguably more celebrated essay, “a form of punctuation additional to the punctuation that forms part of the logic of completed thoughts.”

But instead of slowing down at these instances of “nonsyntactic punctuation,” I speed up to the next line. I recognize the linebreaks as pauses and respond by accelerating. If the linebreak is a yellow light, I try to beat it, instead of slowing down to wait for the go-signal. I don’t ignore the linebreak, but I certainly don’t observe it.

There’s room for speeding from one line to the next in Levertov’s poetic, but not so much a function of linebreaks as it is of line indentations, which can provoke a desire for “that little extra speed for the eye,” given how “looking from the end of a line to the beginning of an indented line…is experienced as infinitesimally swifter.” Linebreaks, however, create pauses or rests that “subtly interrupt” the syntactical units that reflect the thinking process.

An even stronger blow against my own work is Levertov’s views on enjambment. The best-known discussion is her warning to poets who are “confusedly tied to the idea of ‘enjambment'”:

Enjambment is useful in preventing the monotony of too many end-stopped lines in a metrical poem, but the desired variety can be attained by various other means in contemporary open forms; and to take away from the contemporary line its fractional pause (which, as I’ve said, represents, or rather manifests, a comparable minuscule but affective hesitation in the thinking/feeling process) is to rob a precision tool of its principal use.

What looks like enjambment in some of Levertov’s work is something else, as she claims in this interview (where she says that this approach is “definitely” different from enjambment and then proceeds to restate the idea from “On the Function of the Line”):

I believe strongly that the line itself is expressive of patterns of seeing. I have never really understood the breath theory that Olson talks about; but I think that line-breaks are determined not just by physiological breathing demands, but by the sequences of your perceptions.

Strangely, I’ve just realized that my first encounter with Levertov’s poems was “The Secret,” a poem which I discovered in a manner akin to that of the two girls mentioned in the poem. I remember the delight about how I not only understood it but, more importantly, experienced it. I also remember being surprised, however, as the lines broke in places I didn’t expect. I’ve always thought THAT was enjambment. Now it seems like I need to read that poem again with all this background in mind.

I want to acknowledge two more ideas from Levertov I now take to heart, though they’re not about the poetic line.

First is the phrase she attributes to Robert Duncan: “poetry of linguistic impulse.” While she places it within an aesthetic that privileges organic form–rather than, say, disjunctive ones–I like using it to label the kind of poetry that interests me, which includes but isn’t limited to Language poetry.

Second is her distinction between the personal and the private, in a parenthetical remark in “On the Function of the Line”:

(By private I mean those which have associations for the writer that are inaccessible to readers without a special explanation from the writer which does not form part of the poem; whereas the personal, though it may incorporate the private, has an energy derived from associations that are shareable with the reader and are so shared within the poem itself.)

I should add that I learned the distinction the hard way, erring by failing to distinguish between the two. I’m beginning to notice a trend here.


ADDENDUM (09 VIII 2011):

Robert Pinsky is someone who hasn’t really resonated with me in an especially strong way (apart from a few works like “Essay On Psychiatrists” and “Death And The Powers: A Robot Pageant”), but reading his discussion of line and syntax in a Ben Jonson poem here makes me want to read the rest of his book The Sounds Of Poetry. While he doesn’t call for overspeeding at the end of the line, he doesn’t say slow down either:

I invite the reader to say the words of Jonson’s poem aloud, taking care not to pause in a stilted way at the ends of the lines, when the grammar runs over. Try to pause only as the grammar might pause, if necessary exaggerating the effect a little to hear what the author has done. The rhymes (for instance, “For else it could not be/ That she/ Whom I adore so much should so slight me”) are not lost when the voice carries pretty rapidly through them: on the contrary, they sound better than when the voice stops mechanically at each one. I think that if one tries reading the poem with an even pause after each line, the movement goes dead.

One way I think of the related movement at such moments in a poem is that the syntax is trying to speed up the line, and the line is trying to slow down the syntax. The relation between the two elements, the resulting pull or dance, is pleasing and expressive.

I’m confused.

Line and Phrase

For those interested in what Ann Lauterbach has to say about her own poetics, other online resources may be more comprehensive or intensive, but two reviews of  her 2009 collection Or to Begin Again address two of my current poetic preoccupations. (Oddly–at least from a Gray Wolf Press point of view–I’m talking about line and syntax.)

There’s more to be found in the reviews themselves; I’ve simply picked three statements that I thought were pithy enough to paste below. If I had hard copies of these, I would have already marked these passages with a highlighter:

Michael D. Snediker’s piece for Rain Taxi is centered on the geometry he sees at work in Lauterbach’s collection, but the following statements are more about the poetic line per se than its geometric or figural counterpart:

  1. “Linear vivacity is suggested in this poetry’s predilection for the parade—a line made raucous, celebratory, symbolic, navigatory (more simply, moving)…”
  2. “The line, as both collective and formal denominator, is uncontainable…”
  3. “The line is a path, a sequitur…”

Vincent Katz’s piece for Jacket contain what seems to me useful strategies for reading Lauterbach’s work. While he does talk about “want[ing] to graduate to reading her line by line,” he opts for a more productive starting approach that deals with “single words [that] stand out and can be read as a thread, apart from the safety of their lines,” as well as what I’d like to call the syntax of the phrase:

  1. “by paying close attention to its phrases, one finds them echoing and interlocking—or rather repeatedly locking and unlocking, in new iterations, with different possible readings”
  2. “Lauterbach’s method — composition not by field, though, as we have seen, she makes great use of the arena (or area) of the page, but rather composition by phrase”
  3. “Because no narrative is begun or concluded, each phrase begins from immediacy, that is, from some bodily, perceptual, calling or inkling.”

Katz also talks about Lauterbach’s use of parentheses, and I was struck by a remark he himself encloses in parentheses: “(parentheses, unlike ellipses, including instead of excluding).” It’s a simple, even obvious, statement, but one especially useful for emphasizing the “whole” in what Lauterbach has often called “the whole fragment.”

Some Books I Want to Read

I plan to eventually read all of David Mitchell‘s books, but I sort of want to start with Black Swan Green, just because I want to push this envelope and write a piece entitled “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Swan.” (And speaking of Mitchell, the first pair of exchanges that begin this interview crack me up, in a good way.)

I plan to eventually read all of Jennifer Egan‘s books, but I sort of want to start with A Visit from the Goon Squad, just because it’s about punk rock. (And speaking of Egan, here’s a short essay she wrote about the literary Gothic for a home improvement magazine.)

I plan to eventually read all of Gary Shteyngart’s books, but I sort of want to start with Super Sad True Love Story, just because this excerpt had me laughing as much as the book’s title. (And speaking of Shteyngart, here’s the best book trailer I’ve ever seen.)

I plan to eventually read Rob Sheffield’s other book, but I sort of want to start with Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut, because Duran Duran was the first band I ever loved. (And speaking of Sheffield, here’s his playlist of 80’s summer cruising songs.)

Dobyns, Gluck, Levertov

Some of the required texts for a poetry workshop I'm currently taking.

One of the reasons I love grad school so much is the chance to not only read books but to discuss them with other students. While my inclinations and interests lead me more to poetics that are closer to this, I have been interested in one reason or another, I’ve been interested in those three titles above:

  1. Dobyns has a long essay in that book entitled “Notes on Free Verse” that I’ve long wanted to read.
  2. Gluck tickles my fancy with essays entitled “Against Sincerity” and “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence.”
  3. Levertov’s “On the Function of the Line” seems to me deservedly pivotal in discussions of lineation.

That said, these authors aren’t really poets who inspire me to the point of worship. This makes for good discussion, even without classmates: it almost seems as if I have to constantly debate in my head about some of their ideas. To whit:

  1. Dobyns strikes me as definitely humanist, possibly Romantic, in his poetic. While I haven’t completely rejected these paradigms, I am certainly inclined towards the kind of poetry that appeals to someone like, say, Marjorie Perloff. (I mention Perloff, because Dobyns’s comments on her here struck me as odd, especially because I never realized someone like Donald Revell would “take their ideas from” her.)
  2. Gluck is a wonderful poet, one I can admit to highly admiring. Still, I can’t seem to love her the way many people I know do. In addition, she champions the understated, and while I love, say, the Imagist Pound, George Oppen, and Robert Creeley, my own writing tends to the verbose. Gluck would hate my work .
  3. Levertov also bumps into my inclinations; her essay on the line comes down very strongly against practices like enjambment, which is something I tend to do in much of my work. Also, her view on the barely-audible (but certainly present) pause between lines is something I’m not sure I agree with. I think I do, but I can’t be as sure as she is.

It could be that I simply lack the conviction of these poets, though I suspect it may be a matter of temperament, if I dare say so myself.