$100,000 Lineation

I saw recently that Tom Sleigh's new book of poems, Space Walk had won the Kingsley Tufts Award in poetry -- the richest prize this side of a MacArthur -- so I ordered the book immediately from Amazon, thinking that I too might be able to Make Big Money In Poetry. Actually, it's an intelligent book -- & I like intelligence in poetry more than most -- but I am consistently puzzled by the lineation of the of the poems. Perhaps I am more sensitive to this than I might be otherwise because I had just read James Longenbach's elegant little book on the poetic line when I picked up Space Walk. Longenbach makes note of three basic kinds of free verse poetic lines: end-stopped, parsing, & annotating. (The first sort is self-explanatory; Longenbach takes the second two terms from J.V. Cunningham & John Hollander respectively (Longenbach 48-50). Parsing lines follow the grammatical shape of the sentence, breaking the line at phrasal junctures, ends of clauses & so on; annotating lines, on the other hand, break across the expected junctures, creating tensions through double meaning, rhythmic expectations, & grammatical dislocation. Longenbach's thesis is that most effective modern free verse poetry combines the three kinds of lines, each poet developing characteristic & recognizable habits of lineation. Longenbach gives us Williams' "Spring and All" as an example of annotating lineatuion:
The sunlight in a yellow plaque upon the varnished floor is full of a song inflated to fifty pounds pressure at the faucet of June that rights the triangle of the air pulling at the anemones in Persephone's cow pasture--- [. . . ]
contrasting this later WCW poem with "one of the many poems called 'Pastoral' that Williams wrote in the earlier years of his career:
The old man who goes about Gathering dog lime Walks in the gutter Without looking up And his tread Is more majestic than That of the Episcopal minister [. . . ]
Williams capitalizes the initial letters of the lines in this second example, in an attempt, I'd say, to make the line matter as a unit; eventually, he figures out how to do this & no longer needs the caps. Tom Sleigh doesn't use initial caps, but his lines in "Blueprint" otherwise follow the pattern of Williams' "Pastoral" above:
I had a blueprint of history in my head -- it was a history of the martyrs of love, the fools of tyrants, the tyrants themselves weeping at the fate of their own soldiers -- a sentimental blueprint, lacing depth -- a ruled axis X and Y whose illusions were bearable . . . then unbearable . . . [. . . ]
And not just in this poem, but in poem after poem, even when the line is extended & contains syntactical breaks within it. "The Hole" opens with these four stanzas:
Out in the garden, the wind was like a dog digging in the snow, digging with its nails to make a bed to lie down in against the freezing air: and in my exhaustion, my stupefied numb thought dug and dug its way down to where I knew you were--though how could I believe it? Once, your irony and honesty refused to let you say, "Oh yes, my son the genius!" when I showed you a poem--saying with Groucho deadpan, as you handed me back the paper, the typed words already a little smudged: "Hopkins is a good poet." [. . . ]
The poem, a complaint to the speaker's mother, pits the parent's ironic humor against the son's desperation to be admired; the poem is an efficient emotional machine, as are many of Sleigh's poems. The parsing line is most obvious in a poem , "Betrayal," arangend on the page in imitation of WCW's late triadic stanza, but visual appearance is the only similarity, each bit of syntax parsed & sitting by itself on the page. Sleigh's poems lie flat on my ear, without a pulse behind them, which is to say they read like prose. Very good prose, often -- accurate & affecting. My normal bias would be to see this as a fault, but it is clearly intentional & needs to be taken seriously as a poetic strategy. When listening to certain kinds of music, I find myself wondering whether there is any irony or playfulness in the fact that the musicians are playing exactly on the beat. Playing exactly on the beat can code for irony, after all; on the other hand, sometimes it is evidence of a dreadful lack of skill. The music of Sleigh's poems is played exactly on the beat. I think the intention is probably to convey a kind of plain-spoken honesty -- many of the poems work through the accretion of carefully observed specific details that collectively pack an emotional wallop -- and the playfulness of an annotating line might be seen as diminishing such detailed sincerity. That's my guess. But playfulness with syntax, within the framework of Sleigh's poems, might be heartbreaking. The poems, through their locked-down lineation, forfeit heartbreak.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

3 thoughts on “$100,000 Lineation”

  1. very interesting post. “forfeit heartbreak.” i also find poetry that reads as prose “flat”–that something is missing.

  2. there are some poems i like that are empanada pasteries all flaky toasted plump envelope and chunky-full of usually savory treats–bell pepper, onions, maybe a pear, chives, lentils, cinnamon
    or (and)
    stews wet and married in flavors and textures
    or (and)
    those mattresses of stacks–maybe omelet–collated, stacked around different adhesive sauces
    or others
    that sing suppers
    & stirfry poems
    yet when i get all hardnippled
    abt form i feel like a highrise
    one you can’t eat
    but maybe enter into a contest.
    it depends on when we want to
    eat and when we want to look
    or to fondle and assign to categories
    : then i am so glad there are
    brilliant teachers and thinkers
    who can help.
    and i should add that you never
    can be sure that your best receipe
    won’t maybe sometimes backlash.
    proud, poot, power, predicament, prescription.
    world religions and the international
    monetary fund are varieties of
    indigest (is it ible or able) ingesters
    the way theory and menu may go to the market
    or may be simply ADD & OCD
    AND expressive depression and anxiety.
    sometimes poems can be therapy and good
    for maybe only the poet involved. edward mycye

  3. i guess i better tell you that after 20 years of work (i was only 33 or 34 in 1970) what i learned about my idea of the poetic line was from george oppen who, probably following his early 1930’s practice of the discrete series (i think now), is that one line is a statement and the following line is a statement and that lines one and two are together a statement and so one, so on. it is elegant in its way. it’s not the only way. but in “the poem of new york” of george’s you see singing, but especially you see it in the poem abt maryanne: “it was waiting for you/ there when you were born/ maryanne”. he was my heart and soul and i loved him. then he got that dementia, later called alzhimers (sp?). but we loved each other. he sent me over to lawrence fixel and all his buds. a very heady group for a lyric poet of barok musical composition as i was then. i had studied in london musical composition (in regents park) and i felt very happy. then i met george, and mary, oppen where i learned as george told me and wrote me that “what could be better./it couldn’t be better.” and let me know when to stop. when it’s true, it’s complete. learn when to stop. that’s the beauty of it. then i began to think about the word “it” and wrote for years and years the way ponge, francis ponge, did about “it” as if “it” were thing or stone or waterwashedpebble. eventually i found: SO it WAS./LIFE BECAME IR REGULATED. it DE VELOPED DU RING/ CEN TURIES/ THERE FORE it GOT/ SO DIFFI CULT. Today at 71 it doesn’t really matter much except in a family way.
    we, i am, are, the children, of myself/ourselves.
    whoever we have become we love who the becoming has been and who we observe–like miles coverdale, if he had become understanding the way hawthorne understood us,him/me–the way we accept who we become understanding.
    edward mycue

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