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.