Extravagances, Hesitancies, & Urgencies: On the Line in Poetry
What should the line do? Capture the real, voice the liminal, articulate ghostly perceptions, convey the passage of time. As the essence of verse it should captivate the reader, and through rhythm, syntax, texture, suppleness, elasticity, enjambment, and end stop it can measure feeling and invite our attention. We call this immediacy, and when immediacy combines with passion of the highest order, we call it the inevitable, as in the opening of Keats" “Ode on a Grecian Urn": “Thou still unravished bride of quietness..."
Beyond the more obvious strengths of rhythm and meter, the movement of a line, its hesitancies and urgencies, its drag and pull creates texture. Here are the first three lines from Charles Wright's “Snow":
If we, as we are, are dust, and dust, as it will, rises,
Then we will rise, and recongregate
In the wind, the cloud, and be their issue
Wright's use of pause and repetition mimics the formation of cloud and creates a biblical rhythm that reinforces the creation myth. Line one's end stop settles then accelerates toward line two. Such movement begins to layer the music and meaning the way a painter like Cezanne or Van Gogh might layer shades of color. In the poem's last stanza the transition from unstressed to stressed syllables, especially in the last line, engenders a revelatory tone that reinforces the creation. The juxtaposition of power, through stressed and alliterative syllables (spiked branches and snapped joints), with tenderness (and the little ribs) endows the poem with both awe and an otherworldly aura.
At best, Wright's symphonic ear and painterly lines create melodies both “heard and unheard" as Keats would have it. His music comes from very high and far away. Here are three vivid lines from “The Southern Cross" that could have been painted by Cezanne or scored by Mahler.
The lime, electric green of the April sea
Is just a thumb-rub on the window glass between here and there:
His mimesis, with its assonance and staggered lines, creates an unsettled watercolor effect that heightens, quickens an Eastern presentness in his poems.
“Opulence," a poem of emphatic, emotive lines by Jorie Graham, finds a diction, movement, music, and tension that mimics the opening of an amaryllis, and likens, though mysteriously, the final process to a mythic revelation. Here are eight memorable lines:
this utterly sound-free-though-tongued opening
where some immortal scale is screeched—-
bits of clench, jolt, fray and assuage—-
bits of gnaw and pulse and, even, ruse
--impregnable dribble-—wingbeat at a speed
too slow to see—-stepping out of the casing outstretched,
Her highly stressed lines (“sound-free-though-tongued opening") mimic the urgency of blossom; her dashes accent the boundaries, stages; her palette of colors is remarkably drawn from the resonance of words (“bits of clench, jolt, fray, and assuage—“), while her personification is patiently withheld for this beauty pagent ("stepping out of the casing, outstretched, high heeled—-").
Finally, Graham subtly and mysteriously likens the amaryllis's blossoming to resurrection, an affirmation that could easily turn to bathos or cliché in the hands of a lesser poet.
yes yes yes yes says the mechanism of the underneath tick tock—
and no footprints to or from this place—
no footprints to or from
The final hexasyllabic line, with only one unstressed syllable, mimics a strong motion toward then retreats, thus generating paradox. Ending on the preposition “from" not only provides mystery, but adds a haunting assonance which symphonically saturates the other “o" opening sounds through out the poem.
In addition to their more gestural qualities, memorable lines often convey the passage of time and thus our own mortality. Glyn Maxwell's The Breakage contains a number of moving portraits of World War I (in which his grandfather fought), portraits that gain their memorability through lines that hauntingly capture the passage of time. Here is the final stanza of “Valentines at the Front."
...Now they can only think
It's rained so long the past has burst its sides
And spilled into the future in the ink
Of untold villages of untold brides.
The line “It rained so long the past has burst its sides" allows the spatial present, one of mud clinging to soldiers as the memory of war does, to become that temporal past but also to bleed into future possibilities “Of untold villages of untold brides."
An even more startling spatial and temporal shift occurs in two passages of “June 31st, The Somme." The first passage deals with the errant title, a joke among the troops concerning the darkness of mornings after artillery attacks.
And dawn was like a dusk or at least all seven
Men had made of those two times an in-joke,
Making them both the same, so a day could never
On the First and another trick I believe yours had
Was to go ‘June thirty-one!' . . .
The range of emotion, horror to laughter, exacerbates the resonant quality of that first line. All dawns are dusks during war, and the lightheartedness of troops often illumines the tragedy.
The second passage generates power through a stanza break and the juxtaposition of thanatos with eros.
...The hour went misty,
Thin as milk. Then day boiled up and the heat
Began. My granddad remembers feeling as ready
As he was for my grandma once in a patterned room
The play on the word “heat" heightens the reader's surprise. The surprise of eros is always one of chaos never threatened by our attempts to stall it spatially by arranging a room. Trees uprooted by artillery are furniture, too, and will never be “tidied." Maxwell's resonance is masterful.
In James Tate's “Leaving Mother Waiting for Father," the child-speaker and his mother await the inevitable news of their pilot who won't return from World War II.
The evening went on;
I got very old.
She kept telling me it didn't matter.
The real man would come back
soon. We waited. We had alarms
fixed, vases of white and purple
flowers ready to thrust
on him should he.
The clinging to hope gradually collapses to the despair of reality and is captured both spatially (sky) and temporally (the cloth that is not pulled out, but could be) in two memorable lines from the second stanza: “She had a yard of blue material in her pocket: / I remember that so well!"
Rilke, in his poem “Autumn Day," allows growing vegetal space (“Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;") to summon an ontological crisis that in turn summons the theological: “Whoever has no house now, will never have one." The absolute and ideal truth of this line seems to reside in a natural world that has been ripening all summer in order to house the fruit and seeds, even the wine in casks.
Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.
Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.
Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters into the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.
The vegetal world like the religious one is built day by day. The closing of the temporal world and opening of the eternal one, evidenced in the first stanza, becomes synonymous with the freeing of body from spirit: “Now overlap the sundials with your shadows, / and on the meadows let the wind go free." In the human world, however, when one has no house, wind becomes the path of seclusion and diaspora.
The poem's accruing structure (stanzas of three, four, then five lines, as in a 3, 4, 5 triangle) betrays the reader whose expectation is the bountiful. What is birthed, however, is paradoxically monstrous. Chaos is suddenly revealed and seemingly unequal to the form, one of mathematical and earthly perfection, if this were a triangle whose sides were vegetal, animal, spirit.
Rilke provides the source for much movement in the contemporary lyric. These inimitable lines from the “Ninth Duino Elegy" remain the seminal text on mortality and the ephemeral nature of life. Punctuating the incomplete sentences --whose words in the German are highly assonant and breathy-—mimics our own transience. Here are the original German along with my translation.
jedes, nur ein Mal. Ein Mal und nicht mehr. Und wir auch
ein Mal. Nie wieder. Aber dieses
ein Mal gewesen zu sein...
Once, everything only once. Once and no more. And we, too,
once. Never again. But to have been
The repetition of the word "once", which in German translates literally as "One time" (Ein Mal) provides a teasing fullness to our fleeting mortality. In German, "Mal" is also used in the English sense of “mark", as in “On your mark," a term used in both languages to begin races, etc.
Memorable lines, however, need not display such pyrotechnic skills. Often a slight change in syntax, as in the second line of “Western Wind" can illumine an entire poem.
Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!
(Gioia, Mason 17)
This quatrain written by an anonymous 16th century poet expresses a sailor's longing in spring to be with his lover. Wind, rain, and Christ are all forces in the poem; the first two are personified, while the latter is used as an expletive. All three nuance their respective lines. The poem opens with two strongly accented lines (almost entirely monosyllabic), which slow their movement and express the sailor's anguish. The last two lines, however, begin to swell with unaccented syllables and introduce a feeling of hope and eagerness. The poem, which begins with a ponderous tone, ends in levity and aspiration. Christ, to have written that poem! And anonymously to boot!