It’s all about the line

More syntax. And more and more. “I see dead people using syntax.”

from chapter 2 of The Art of Syntax, “The Sentence and the Line”

…poetry likewise makes use of two often competing rhythmic systems: the rhythm of syntax I have been discussing, which poetry shares with well-made prose, and the rhythm of the line. Like musical measure, the poetic line is inherently artificial, imposed by the poet onto the language. […] In free verse, too, the poet continually negotiates the extent to which the two rhythmic systems will be “at peace with one another.” That is, whether a line will be primarily consonant with the syntax, parsing it, or dissonant, in counterpoint ….

… the effects of the [balance between syntax and line] seem more significantly different between short- and long-lined poems than between metered and unmetered verse.

Say what? Had to read that one several times to really let it sink in. The difference, she says, is that long lines “more easily participate in large-scale musical phrasing, providing the poet opportunities to combine ‘bite-size chunks’ for new emphasis or nuance. With short lines, however, “large-scale phrasing must be left to the whole sentence, paced and punctuated by the lines (which may explain the ubiquitous reference to line ‘breaks’ in free verse poems, rather than to the integral unit the line creates). The shorter line achieves new emphasis or nuance by increasing the frequency of temporarily suspended comprehension, separating the constituent parts of the sentence and delaying its completion, for which the brain is avid.”

Got that clearly now? After only one read? I’m thinking of it this way, after several reads of her examples (including Stanley Kunitz’s “King of the River” which is genius): the long line lets us enter into relationship, a back and forth, that is, essentially, consummated at the end of each luxurious line. The short line is a kind of flirting with the brain, holding back, extending, spacing out the pleasure of completion until the poet is good and ready. And since the brain inherently desires to complete the pattern, to get enough information to make meaning, the reader is drawn through the short lines seeking that pleasure.


Side note: oh, how I loved to hate Barthes’ “The Pleasure of the Text.” But now how I love finding, learning how to make, the pleasure of the text. One important difference, though—his only model for that pleasure was the penis and its single, intense orgasm. I have a MUCH more interesting variety of pleasure models on hand, so to speak, from which to draw.


Whether line and syntax are consonant with one another […] or set in muscular opposition […] it is the dynamic interplay between them that comprises the prosody of almost all memorable poetry in English, in forms both fixed and “free.”

For the past one hundred years, poets have meanwhile been fretting about the poetic line, what it might be, what it can do, when released from a priori metric patterns. It is useful to remember that we write in sentences, too, and that the infinite variations of generative syntax take another quantum leap when they can be reinforced, or reconfigured—rechunked—by the poetic line.


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