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

So what happens when you do write a long narrative in verse and someone else tries to read it?

The key question, it seems to me, is what happens at the line breaks. If you looked a little at the miscellany at the bottom of yesterday’s post, you’ll know I think line breaks in free verse must be acknowledged by a pause when reading, while line breaks in metrical verse shouldn’t be.

In free verse, the line break is either a purely visual artifact to organize a silent reading (viewing?), or else it’s a rhythmic marker to organize a performance. In either case, it forces the reader to experience language differently than in prose: the rhythm of the sentence is broken; the forward thrust of argument and narrative are diminished. That’s not a bad thing, at least in lyric verse. It may and I think does allow and encourage sideways epiphany and even glimpses of mystery, and it can be very beautiful.

It’s very hard to take in 200 page doses.

But meter makes the line part of the forward thrust of the poem, and, as A E Stallings noted in her “Presto Manifesto,” rhyme allows even verse without fixed line lengths (whether het-met or free verse) to be heard as lines. In this mode, however, it’s the line which is backgrounded, a pulse at the edge of awareness instead of a directive the reader must choose either to ignore or to obey.

You won’t be surprised to read that I’ve chosen to tell my ghost story murder mystery in rhymed metrical verse. But in what form? I’ve previously podcast terza rima versions of the “Invocation” and an opening fragment of “Canto I,” and I did rewrite a fragment of that fragment into ottava rima. Today, I’ve podcast the latter, as well — why not give a listen and tell me what you think?

It’s OK to think I’m crazy and tell me that, too.

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1 Patrick Gillespie { 03.01.09 at 4:56 pm }

//I think line breaks in free verse must be acknowledged by a pause when reading//

A lot of free verse poets read their poetry this way and it always makes me cringe. The pauses frequently make no syntactic sense and come off as nothing more than an affectation.

I listened to your podcast. You’re a good reader and the narrative is unforced an interesting. Why don’t you offer a hard copy of the two versions? That will give *me*, at least, a better idea of what you’re up against.

2 Mike { 03.01.09 at 6:57 pm }

Thanks for the kindness, Patrick, and I’ll send you the scraps I have tonight.

About the pauses at the end of lines — if there is no pause, why is there a line break? Just so it will look like a poem? I do think too many free versers pause too long, but without some acknowledgment of the line break, free verse audiences have no clue they’re hearing poetry, not prose.

Of course someone , or at least the flier, has said “this is poetry,” and it’s likely to be less intelligible than good prose. But we don’t have to believe everything we’re told, and obscurity is usually a sign of incompetence.

3 Patrick Gillespie { 03.01.09 at 7:58 pm }

//About the pauses at the end of lines — if there is no pause, why is there a line break? Just so it will look like a poem?//

Wow. Let’s see… dear god… quick! – An analogy!

It’s as if you parked a red balloon the size of a barn, gave me a bazooka and asked me which way I’d like to shoot?

(With trembling hands he turns down the bazooka.)

Here’s what I think… gasp… I know, from experience, that some free verse poets really *sweat* over their line breaks. They will staunchly insist that there is nothing arbitrary in their choices but, at the end of the day, if (during a terrible accident) their poem were to collapse into a prose paragraph, *no one* would be able to reconstruct their line breaks.

By way of comparison, we could reconstruct Milton’s entire epic exactly as how he meant it no matter *how* we mucked up the lineation – so long as we didn’t change the word order.

So, the polite answer is: No, free verse poets think carefully about their line breaks.

The impolite answer is: Yes, so it will look like a poem. Even and especially within the free-verse community, there have been poets (prose poets) who consider free verse to be nothing more than an affectation – a needless mimicry of meter.

I take both sides.

That said, I still cringe when free verse poets pause at the end of every line. The truth is, when I listened to you read your narrative verse, I couldn’t tell where the lines began or ended – I was too busy listening to the narrative. You could have been reading free verse for all I knew – that’s why I always like to see a hard copy.

So why emphasize lineation in free verse?

I question whether *anyone* would be capable of recognizing lineation while listening to poetry – free verse or otherwise. So why differentiate?

Just wrote a post on (G)reatness & the Language of Poetry. You might enjoy it…

4 Mike { 03.01.09 at 9:33 pm }

Patrick, I truly sympathize, and I agree with you about most free verse — the line breaks are barely real. But there are poets who effectively use the line breaks to emphasize a word or phrase, or almost as a sleight of hand to manage expectation. Denise Levertov and Robert Graves, and occasionally Robert Creeley, seem to me especially adept with their breaks. Still, I’m afraid you’re right that even in their cases most of their breaks, even in their best poems, could not be recovered (except by “Undo”), even by their authors, from a search and replace with “newline” and “space.” Still, I’m reluctant to deprive them of the sole rhythmic tool that distinguishes their writing from short prose pieces.

But rhyme does audibly mark the line unless you’re particularly promiscuous with internal rhymes, and I (usually) have no trouble recognizing lines in rhymed poetry. I can usually hear the line even in unrhymed metrical poetry, though pentameter is tougher. Samuel Johnson complained of Milton’s blank verse that it was impossible to hear the line, so I guess I’m in good company there.

Off to read Greatness & the Language of Poetry!

5 graywyvern { 05.13.10 at 4:57 pm }

the line-break on the page is a notation. it stands for something.
more of a slight prolongation, than a staccato pause. yeats’ actual reading style is available to listen to, & i have followed this since long before i actually heard it.
but we are forgetting so much else, what does this iota mean in comparison… a pet peeve.


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