Saturday, September 06, 2008

Thought for the Day

To cast syntax into lines is to provide choices, to place precision in the service of equivocation by making us consider the implications of reading the syntax in one way rather than another. So if line determines the way a sentence becomes meaningful to us in a poem, it also makes us aware of how artfully a sentence may resist itself, courting the opposite of what it says––or more typically, something just slightly different from what it says. Writing free verse is not, as Frost once quipped, like playing tennis with the net down; it is like playing tennis on a court in which the net is in motion at the same time that the ball is in motion. But to have said so is to have discovered the limitation of the metaphor: whenever we come to the end of the line, no matter how we've gotten there, the net is never standing still.

-James Longenbach, "The End of the Line," from The Resistance to Poetry (University of Chicago Press, (2004), pp. 24-25.


Blogger Leslie said...

Wow. That looks like a terrific read. One of the things I'm most interested in about lines is the way they make sentences exist in time—not tennis without a net but a clock that keeps perfect time even though the numbers are scrambled and the hands jump all over the place to do their job.

7:53 AM  
Blogger greg rappleye said...

I struggled with "the line" through my first two books. In "Holding Down the Earth" I had no idea what I was doing--I was educating myself in public.* With "A Path Between Houses," I wish (in retrospect, not at the time!) that I'd had a year or-so to rework the poems (particularly the lineation) before publication to get it right. I still don't have what I would call a sophisticated theory of the line. I only have a better sense of what it should look like, what it should sound like, how it should end, and what it should do.

Nothing I have been able to articulate, though.


*Except that no one read it; so it wasn't that public.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Leslie said...

I also have no theories, but the line is one of the central obsessions for me—the thing most likely to stop me reading or get me really excited about a poem.

But a lot of my own work relies on something approaching instinct or at least indirect decision—I'm never sure why I break lines where I do, and I worry if I examine the way I run lines, I'll figure it out and be horrified or maybe just bored.

10:38 AM  

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