The Spoils: December 2012

  1. A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line (excerpts here and here, introductions here)
  2. Novel Pictorial Noise by Noah Eli Gordon (reviews here and here and here and here)
  3. Elegy by Mary Jo Bang (reviews here and here and here and  here and here)
  4. Skirmish by Dobby Gibson (review and Book Notes track list)
  5. Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, trans. John Felstiner (excerpt here and here, review here and here and here and here and here, essay here and here and here)

Poetic Discursiveness and Lineated Prose: Some Questions

Though his discussions of J.V. Cunningham’s “Epigram #1” from Doctor Drink and Frank Bidart’s “Golden State” in the essay aren’t bad, I find Robert Pinsky’s “Two Examples of Poetic Discursiveness” rather unconvincing on a conceptual level. I’m not sure I can do better and perhaps the problem’s with me when I fail to understand how he proceeds

  • from identifying the contradictory senses of “discursive” in how it “describes speech of writing which is wandering and disorganized” but “can also mean ‘explanatory’–pointed, organized around a setting-forth of material (133)”
  • to reconciling those opposites by referring to the figure of “motion over terrain…going through or going over one’s subject” (to which he adds, “Such a method tends to be inclusive; it tends to be the opposite of intuitive,” which confuses me partly because I’m not too clear about the relationship he makes between “inclusive” and “intuitive”)

And I can’t quite articulate why I’m so bugged when the preceding discussion finally leads him to describe “poetic discursiveness” as:

It is speech, organized by its meaning, avoiding the distances and complications of irony on one side and the ecstatic fusion of speaker, meaning and subject on the other. The idea is to have all the virtues of prose, in addition to those qualities and degrees of precision which can be called poetic (ibid).

When I think about it, perhaps this is rooted in differences between Pinsky’s poetic and mine. The promise I see when he asserts, “Much of the work of the so-called ‘New York poets’ could be described as mock-discursive (134)” is defused when he follows that with: “Moreover, much of the memorable writing by these poets seems to emerge when there is the least amount of ‘mock’ statement, the largest element of open discourse (ibid.).”

And I guess I also had some problems of expectation. I thought Pinsky would look at something that would illuminate, say, Zukofsky having been “moved by the fact” of how Stevens’s “music thruout has not been impaired by having philosophized (97).” I also thought Pinsky might address the common problem of poems that seem more like “lineated prose,” but that doesn’t happen either.

Now if I could do it, that is, if I could go through the subject matter of poetic discursivity, to, as it were, discourse on discursivity, I’d like to look into:

  1. John Ashbery’s “Definition of Blue”
  2. portions of Frank Bidart’s “Advice to the Players” and the whole of “Young Marx” (both found near the bottom of this page)
  3. Matthea Harvey’s “I Would Have Stayed,” which lineates the sentence from Giorgio Vasari that begins with “The vinedresser of the Belvedere having found a very strange lizard…”
  4. Butterflies, Lineated,” where Jeffrey Robinson lineates a phrase from one of Keats’s letters, with other examples of such “found poems” here

I’m one of those willing to quote “without irony” from the Ashbery poem, so I think I’m missing something when I read it, as I do, with a straight face. The same goes for the prose portions of Bidart’s “Advice to the Players. “Young Marx,” however, apart from “attribution of source” at the end, does gain something from the lineation, as does Harvey’s poem and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Robinson’s lineation of Keats.

So, once again, lineation, and what it does to syntax, especially the syntax of prose. It’s also a matter of diction as well, I suppose. The result is some kind of “discursive transformation,” I guess, but what kind? And more importantly for people who write poems, how?

Lineation: the Knife Skills of Poetry

Ah, lineation. I handle you constantly, careful one time, clumsy the next. I imagine hope I’m getting better, but sometimes, the slice is too thick or too thin. My fingertips are always bleeding from cuts that I sometimes don’t notice until later. Stigmata of those who write poems?

I really want to get a copy of A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, and I will, but for now, I’m making do with the editors’ introductions I found on John (“The poem becomes a one-time use definition of line-break, line, stanza, and so forth.”) Gallaher’s blog entry, as well as the following pieces from the book that have been made available online:

Poetry Daily has three:

  1. “The Line as Fetish and Fascist Reliquary” by Gabriel Gudding: He’s no stranger, but Gudding’s certainly gotten stranger: “The line is a vomito-aesthetic concrescence of a larger, mystifying ideology known both as “official art” and its false rival ‘avant-garde art’…”
  2. “Lines and Spaces” by Catherine Imbriglio“If the overall effect of a poem depends on its pace, the way it builds its highs and lows, then this comes from the way the poem distributes its musical energy through its formal configuration of lines and spaces.”
  3. “The Thin Line” by Terese Svoboda: “A line is made to be broken—sometimes shattered. It’s nearly a plane, for god’s sake, practically glass.” Also: “Lines curve in space—that’s the most important thing about line. What you see is the infinite, delicate bending of meaning and sound coming together on the horizon where the line stops, where there’s a gasp, and then the line falls in space.”
The Academy of American Poets has eight:
  1. “Two Lines” by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge: She begins with “A line of poetry on a page exists in space, but I think of it as a kind of timing, a measured flow of poetic energy, a dynamic,” and ends with a form of lineation where line and sentence correspond. Not my thing, but Berssenbrugge is always fascinating.
  2. “Shore Lines” by Camille Dungy: “…I think ideas can rhyme too. I like to end lines this way, following conceptual rhymes, carrying the basic elements of an idea from one line to the next in the same way one might carry a certain element of sound throughout a poem.”
  3. “Tiny Étude on the Poetic Line” by Heather McHugh: “The line is where the wish to go forth in words (along one axis of a journey) encounters the need to break off—or fall out—with words (along the other axis, a vertical).”
  4. “Where It Breaks: Drama, Silence, Speed, and Accrual” by Dana Levin: “I am not interested in the line as much as where it breaks. I am interested in drama. … Of course, to link breakage and drama is to lend enjambment the weight of content: white space as communicative pause.”
  5. “This Is Just To Say That So Much Depends Upon” by Timothy Liu: I love Timothy Liu, so I’m slightly annoyed I couldn’t find a “soundbite” from his piece, but it’s great reading: anecdotal but also technical in its way.
  6. “The Line Is the Leaf” by Donald Revell: “Poems do not acquire meaning; they simply evidence meanings accumulated over time as and through the moving lines.”
  7. “Some Thoughts on the Integrity of the Single Line in Poetry” by Alberto Ríos: Not about the monostich, and I like how this essay seems to respond to Revell’s focus on the mobility of lines in, for instance, ideas like “A line is a moment, and a moment is intrinsically non-narrative,” and “A line suggests, for the moment, lateral, rather than linear, movement.” It gets technical, too, in a good way.
  8. “Croon: A Brief on the Line” by Tim Seibles: You had me at “Beyond their meanings, words are sounds, notes if you will. A line—full of assonance or simply conversational—is, therefore, necessarily a kind of musical construct.”

There are SIXTY other pieces in the book. I must have it.

Finally: Jorie Graham

After years of reading whatever I can find online by and about Jorie Graham and making do with what few poems by her I have in this or that anthology, I finally bought a copy of her now-15-year-old collection The Errancy yesterday. I’m surprised it’s taken me this far, given how I echo her twin interests in philosophy and film studies.

Although I’m not sure how The Errancy ranks with her other books, I was won over by reviews that mention Lacan and Deleuze, that listen to Graham’s “heady, improvisational music” and “accretionary syntax,” and that cite bits from her “mutated love poems.” It also helped that I’m preoccupied with errors, secrets, and lies–all those different ways one swerves away from capital-T Truth–and the very title of The Errancy certainly points to that.

(I should also mention that Emily Galvin, Graham’s daughter with James Galvin, has published her own collection with a strong basis in mathematics, also an interest of mine, poetically speaking. I think I should read James Galvin’s work sometime, just to complete this little family circle.)

I’ve posted a link to this interview before, pointing out Graham’s remarks about Michael Palmer, but this time, I think I’d like to paste the relevant excerpt here, as a reminder to myself about the work I’m (supposed to be) doing (all emphases mine):

keeping the song alive is keeping alive a world in which song is possible. You have to keep hope alive. Any kind of truth you might arrive at that hasn’t contended with hope is going to be very partial. [pause] Michael Palmer is very interesting in that regard. He has extraordinary music. I think he’s learned better than anyone the Stevens trick of making the poem disintegrate on the surface but stay totally alive musically. To me he’s very important in that regard. The way he uses repetition. The particular way he will bring certain images back without that turning into structure. Pure desire kept alive in the act of writing by the way fragments recur.

I also like how Graham talking about silence (“Making the silence come awake in the poem is important to my process. The silence – or anything else that resists the impulse to imagine, own, transform.”) leads her to a really brilliant disquisition on her use of the poetic line, one where I’m hard-put to emphasize any idea as more important than another:

…lines of breath-length, say, lines that contain up to five stresses, sometimes feel to me like measures that make that silence feel safe. A silence that will stay at bay for as long as it takes to get the thing said. Writing in lines that are longer than that, because they are really unsayable or ungraspable in one breath unit for the most part (and since our desire is to grasp them in one breath unit) causes us to read the line very quickly. And the minute you have that kind of a rush in the line (emphasized perhaps by the absence of commas and other interpretive elements) what you have is a very different relationship with the silence: one that makes it aggressive – or at least oceanic – something that won’t stay at bay. You have fear in the rush that can perhaps cause you to hear the fearful in what is rushed against.

What you feel – this is Romantic of course – is the pressure of a silence that might not wait until the end of the line to override you. And so you have to rush those words into it. In this new book, I’m writing mostly in traditional lines again, with less counterpoint from such prose-length units. But the calm assurance of the standard English line has always interested and troubled me. In Erosion, the line-length tended to be much smaller than the norm. The voice in that book was, in fact, so aware of the overriding presence of the white space that it just tried to mash words into that space. With great pressure. To create the sensation of that gravitational weight. Sternness. Solemnity. As if to build cell by cell a fabric that could take the weight of eternity into it – like human tissue.

And here’s a bit from a poem that isn’t in The Errancy but in a later collection called Never. It moved me this morning when I read it, out of the context of the entire poem:

from the 2002 collection Never

from "The Taken-Down God" by Jorie Graham

Jorie Graham On The Region Of Unlikeliness

In this excerpt from a 2003 interview with Jorie Graham that appeared in The Paris Review, she talks about several of my preoccupations–autobiography, parenthood, lineation, philosophy in poetry, addressing the reader, confession, etc–and how they played out in her collection Region Of Unlikeliness:


In Region—after using works of art, then myth, in the previous books—you turn to autobiography. The poems were all your own stories, at that point. Why was that?


Perhaps because once you’re a parent, you enter into a completely different relationship to time. History becomes dominant, and then, perhaps, personal history becomes dominant. You are suddenly at that point where facts—both the facts that your child is learning, and the facts of your life your child wants to know, needs to know—become important. You become a bit of story that needs to be told.


The lines in these poems are shorter. Why?


Many things made the line shorter. Once you begin talking from the position of being a social creature, you go back to the line in which social discourse takes place, the pentameter. It’s a more exterior line, which, since Shakespeare, we associate with people speaking to one another. On either side of it stand more unspeakable lines—longer lines for the visionary; shorter and more symmetrical ones for song, spell, hymn; and shorter yet for the barely utterable, the shriek, the epitaph.


And the second line?


The indented line became a very useful place to negotiate and control the music of the poem. I was still very interested in the sentence, in the kinds of energies the sentence awakens—desire for closure, desire for suspension of closure, desire for simultaneity in a stream of temporal action that defies simultaneity. I guess I still am. For example, what happens along the way of the sentence that you’re in the process of undertaking, the thing you can’t put alongside but that has to actually happen in the sentence as a “dependent” phrase? If you’re telling the story of your life, in a way, or if you’ve gone back to autobiography or history, you’re in a place where sentence-making is connected to time, as opposed to those epiphanic escapes from time which would employ a different kind of syntax—in Erosion for example.


So, the indented line . . .?


The indented line allows you to modulate the sentence and keep it capable of carrying so much without collapsing. It’s all a matter of freight carried to speed of carriage, to mangle Frost’s quote. It gave me a kind of lift—and three musical units: the full line; a shorter fragmentary line that condenses stresses on very few words (often words that would never carry a stress—prepositions, articles, conjunctions) words that if stressed truly alter the nature of what the actual inquiry of the poem is; and the “landing,” the oftentimes single word on the left margin, which takes the strongest stress of all. Those “landing words” gave me a kind of propulsion that made a rather long poem continue to feel like a containable lyric utterance. I wanted to pack a lot into the lyric, but not go beyond its bounds. Some have written that I wanted to expand what the lyric could do. I just want the hugeness of experience—which includes philosophical discursiveness—to move at a rate of speed that kept it (because all within one unity of experience) emotional. Also, often, questions became the way the poems propelled themselves forward.


And that does what to the reader?


It brings the reader in as a listener to a confession? A poem is a private story, after all, no matter how apparently public. The reader is always overhearing a confession.

Nathaniel Mackey

From “Sight-Specific, Sound-Specific…,” Mackey says, related to these :

Language’s ability to perform is variable and site-specific, mind, ear, eye, air, page, and other sites conducing to particular powers and effects. Ezra Pound’s “phanopoeia, melopoeia and logopoeia,” echoed by Louis Zukofsky’s “sight, sound and intellection,” touches on this multisitedness to an extent, but by congeries of apprehension something more multiple and involved than a trinarism is gotten at. Taking not only eye, ear, and mind into consideration but acknowledging mind’s eye, mind’s ear, and, further, mind’s nose, mind’s tongue, and mind’s touch as well, to say nothing of synesthetic amalgams and exchanges, considerably complicates the mix.


I try to write poems whose words perform on multiple fronts. I’m as attentive, to speak only of two such fronts, to the placement of words on the page (the use of variable margins, intralinear spacing, page breaks, and such to advance a now swept, now swung, sculpted look, a visual dance down the page and from page to page) as I am to the rhythms and inflections with which they’re to be read when read aloud. It’s not that the former serves as a score for the latter, as Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, and others have insisted. Such placement, to the silent reader, can suggest the unfolding of thought or composition (its hesitancies, tenuities, accelerations, leaps, and so forth) while speaking, by way of the eye, to a mind’s ear that hears every line break as a caesura, every break between sections or pages as an amendment or an addendum or even a new beginning, additional space between words as a pause. This is the poem performing on the stage the page amounts to (and on the stage the reader’s mind amounts to by way of the page). I don’t, however, feel obligated to read the poem aloud in the manner such placement might suggest—obligated or even able. What, after all, do varied margins sound like? (What, for that matter, does an unvaried margin sound like?) To avail oneself to graphic amenities peculiar to the page is not to disallow the poem behaving differently when read aloud but to recognize that it does. The ultimate untransmissibility of vocal dynamics (timbre, accent, pace, volume, inflection, and so forth) by print—and vice versa—makes variance inevitable. The poem’s articulation is as various as its locations.

Hank Lazer

On line breaks (SOURCE):

Initially, the form of Portions, due to the very short lines, made me think more fully about the multiple possibilities of line breaks – the way the line break offers both a discontinuity and a space through which one reads to connect. In some ways, the condensed form allowed me to try some of the quick compression, turns, and fusion that I found in my readings of Celan. While some of the lyrical pleasures of Days can also be found in Portions, the latter has less of an insistence upon melopoeia or traditional modes of lyricism.

On “Musicality In Poetry“:

My first suggestion is that “meaning” and “musicality” are inseparable, coincidental, and simultaneous. It’s not that a poet “has something in mind” and “tries to express it.” The poem is the thinking, is an embodiment, a highly specific incarnation and manifestation of an interval of consciousness. While I don’t mean to suggest that poems do not have meaning, I do think that viewing a poem as an object to be re-stated in terms of a theme or an underlying idea amounts to a kind of linguistic strip-mining – a process that extracts an element at the expense of the overall verbal terrain.

Poems don’t have to be about something; the poem itself is a primary thing in the world. I think of poems – as in the best of Creeley – as intervals of consciousness. And the musicality of the poem – including shifts in direction, shifts in tempo, playing off of similar sounds – is intrinsic to the embodiment of a particular interval of consciousness.