poems, mostly metrical, and rants and raves on poets, poetry, and the po-biz (with 8-string stuff)
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Breaking Lines

The January 30th issue of The New Yorker prints a poem (not available online to non-subscribers) called “Booty,” by Matthew Sweeney, which I rather liked on first reading. But when I listened to the recording of the author’s reading of the poem included in The New Yorker‘s iPad app’s presentation, things began to fall apart.

It’s a short poem, 20 lines averaging a little more than 4 words/line, and 10 of the lines are end-punctuated with either a comma or a period; the other 10 have only internal punctuation. When Sweeney reads, he pauses at each of the 10 line breaks with final punctuation. Of those line breaks without final punctuation, there are 6 which he doesn’t mark vocally at all, and 4 which he does mark with pauses every bit as long as those accompanying punctuated line breaks.

As it happens, those 4 all precede a prepositional phrase at the beginning of the next line. But so does one of the 6 unpunctuated line breaks without a pause, and there is one prepositional phrase internal to a line which does not receive a pause, so that’s not what’s happening.

On the page of The New Yorker, only 2 lines extend as much as 6 characters past any adjacent line, and those long lines have lots of the letter ‘i’. The right edge of the poem is genteelly ragged, with only line 2 having a whole word (“T-shirt”) beyond the lengths of its neighbors. Late in the poem, Sweeney breaks a line after “the”

so I slunk on, to the
market, where I half-lived,

and avoids a visually very short line, either “so I slunk on,” or “where I half-lived,” but he doesn’t read his line-breaks anyway, and, by the way, what’s with that comma after “on”? He’s also not concerned with syllables per line, which range from 4 to 7; he’s not counting words, which range from 2 to 6 per line; he certainly isn’t counting stresses, which range from 1 to 3 per line in his reading — just what is he doing?

It seems to me Sweeney wants his poem to sound a particular way, and so it does when he reads it; he wants it to look a particular way, and so it does when printed in an appropriate font. But either he doesn’t care how readers who haven’t heard him read the poem will read it to themselves, or he believes that his own sensibility is sufficiently representative of some more-or-less universal poetic sensibility that worthy readers will get it right by … well, somehow.

I guess I’m NOT a worthy reader.

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1 comment

1 mittens { 02.01.12 at 1:26 pm }

for the non-rhymers among us, the end of a line is often
a breath stop, where you would normally pause, however
slightly, before turning the corner to the next line.
I heard a very good reader who ignored this convention
one night, and whether the line was punctuated or not at the end of EVERY line he came to a full, flat out stop. It turned what was a lovely poem into hash. It was the equivalent of reaching the end of a printed line of prose and stopping totally before proceeding to the next line. It sounds as if that poem was read pretty much the same way.
And frankly from what you’ve shown me in these snippets, it doesnt seem like a very good poem anyway. And who the HELL uses “the’ as an end word? *g*

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