Thursday, June 28, 2007

Breaking into Poetry

Dixie, our Jack Russell terrier, normally functions as the most effective alarm clock I've ever owned. Inevitably, between 7 and 7:30, she sits on the bed whining for me to wake so that I can escort her outside into the cool morning air. Today, perhaps because I was up so late, she let me sleep in.

To me this was an inexplicable surprise. Now, of course, I'm ever-so-slightly behind on my plans for the day (write, write, shower, eat, revise, clean), but I can't help feeling that she's given me the smallest of gifts—one for which I ought to be thankful.

Last night's rain has thundered its way further east along the Ohio, but the air remains heavy with moisture. The sky is as gray as an idea of loneliness, and the dogs are exploring our slick and muddied yard.

Perhaps it was on a day not unlike this when I first typed out a line of maudlin verse. I think, after all, it was summer, and such weather, to the very young, might seem a fine excuse for melancholy, and of course, poetry.

If I recall correctly, the line breaks in those first poems were easy to come by. I just broke on the end-stopped rhyme. Anywhere a couplet rang to a close (regardless of how many metric feet had passed), I'd break the line and move on. The only other technical detail I can remember from those poems is that one of them, amid all of its awfulness managed to rhyme "monkey" with "latchkey." I still like that rhyme, perhaps because I'm a big fan of simians.

A couple of months ago, my wife commented on her own difficulty with line breaks, which strikes me as a technical difficulty that all of us, since the modernists, have struggled with in one way or another. A few weeks later, I offered a few suggestions to her about how the line breaks in a handful of poems might be improved. She was uninterested.

But then again, why should she have been interested? On what criteria did I base my suggestions?

Honestly, I can't remember. My suggestions were likely the result of my own personal aesthetic, my own "sixth sense" of where a line should end. Sure, I've been writing poetry for years, and I can be successful with that strategy given the climate of literature these days. After all, how often do you stumble across a sonnet in a literary journal? An alexandrine? Free verse is the primary mode of our era, and in such a context, there's no fixed prescription for whether a line should break
or there.

For me, this has often enough led to avoidance of the question. More, I think such anxiety (along with my respect of tradition and desire to prove to myself that I can do it) may explain why I have a deep affinity for formal poems and alliterative verse. There your line breaks are predefined. A good poet, of course, can still manipulate language so that the line break remains a point of emphasis, but, by and large, once the meter has run its course, you can move on.

Yet, despite its central position in the craft of poetry, I can't recall much emphasis on the use of line breaks in college or graduate school. Sure, we learned the difference between and enjambment and end-stopped, but much of what we learned came through practice. Gentle suggestions from professors or peers were often dotted / about my manuscripts. / / More, by reading widely, / one can glean / in certain poems / why a poet chose to break a particular / line where it was broken.

Let's backtrack for a moment. Why am I "breaking" the above lines as I am? Notice, in this instance, that the line breaks precisely follow the syntax of the sentence. W.C. Williams would, no doubt, approve. So essentially, those line breaks emphasize the syntax of what's been written, highlight natural pauses, and breaths.

But what about the break after "particular"?

To me, this serves two purposes. First, it's a kind of shift in the overall rhythm of the poem. End-stop after end-stop can become tedious. See, for example, a few hundred pages of Alexander Pope. Second, the break emphasizes for the eye the word "particular" and to a lesser degree "line".

Now why would I want to emphasize those two words?

If you're working in free verse (so to speak), every line break you choose should be intentional. It should be there for a reason. In practice, of course, very few of us have the mental acuity to consider all possible variations and meanings implied by a line break. Consequently, I don't want you to approach your next poem with a long laundry list of things you need to accomplish with each line break. Don't let these considerations stand in the way of your writing, use them to augment it. And remember in
revision, one can always adjust the
elements of a poem that aren't quite right.

Let's continue.

Notice all the space I've left on the right-hand side of the page by offering a couple of line breaks, as examples? What does all that emptiness signify? What does the lack of the constant syllables mean? Does it signal anything more than Look, this is a poem?

So, clearly, the line breaks of a particular poem suggest meaning visually. If you've not done so already, have a look at the work of e.e. cummings and Stephane Mallarme. The work of both poets actually uses the page as a sort of canvas (leading us to concrete poetry and reminding us of a few incidental poems by George Herbert, such as "Easter Wings"). Mallarme in particular thrives on white space, letting his lines dance around the entirety of a page, so that the gaps themselves accrue their own kind of meaning.

But both of those, ahem, gentlemen are extreme cases. Generally speaking (and exceptions do remain in contemporary poetry) our use of white space is not as ambitious. Rather, we need to consider, what's the difference between a short-lined poem and a long-lined one? How do such choices affect the movement of a reader's eyes and how he or she perceives the meaning of a poem? What's the difference, to a reader, between lines of a regular length and lines of varying length?

Order? Chaos?

When I was in graduate school, I handed in a poem about drinking alone in a bar. Quite a subject, right? Luckily, I think, the poem is buoyed by a sense of macabre humor that runs throughout the poem, and believe it or not, the professor suggested using line breaks as a way to emphasize that humor.

And why not? Think of your favorite knock-knock joke. Now why is it funny?

Humor, like line breaks and rhythm in poetry, functions by setting up expectations and then eschewing them. For example, take a look at the line breaks in my second "poetry" section above. Who breaks a line on "the"? Or "in"? Did I really want to emphasize those words?

Well, yes, actually, I did. Such peculiar enjambments, I'd wager, gave you pause as you read them, particularly given the context in which they are placed.

I've only just scratched the surface of how line breaks can contribute to the meaning of a poem, but for now I leave you with these few thoughts:

The dogs are sleeping on the sofa
behind me. Thunder shakes
the westward wall of my office.
My wife, I hope, will be home
in minutes. Drenched cardinals call.

May the spaces in your poems
fill with the rhythm of your breath,
familiar as the scent of summer rain.

Now then, how else could you arrange the lines of that little "poem"? Which do you like better? Why?

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