Friday, June 29, 2012


I've been bothered by the thought that I wasn't fair to the young poet Traci Brimhall in a post about 6 months ago, in which I attempted to "correct" the line-lengths in a poem by her—

—and I've been hoping to revisit the questions I considered then . . .

A while ago I tweeted that any line longer than the hendecasyllabic is in danger of being contaminated by prose—

I should have said, Any un-metered line longer than the hendecasyllabic is in danger of being contaminated by prose, 

because of course there are many great poems with longer lines which have no taint of prose, but they are usually metered (Yeats' "Innisfree" to name just one example)—

I say contaminated and tainted, but one person's poison is another person's metier.

To wit Montale: "A verse that is "also" prose is the dream of all modern poets from Browning on. . . ."


Humdrum testaments were scattered around.  His head
Locked into mine.  We were a seesaw.  Something
Ought to be written about how this affects
You when you write poetry:
The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
Something between breaths, if only for the sake
Of others and their desire to understand you and desert you
For other centers of communication, so that understanding
May begin, and in doing so be undone.

(the last 10 lines of John Ashbery's "And Ut Pictura Poesis is Her Name")

Compare that (which is certainly an example of Montale's "dream" come true, if anything is) to the first 12 lines of Brimhall's poem "Via Dolorosa":

We have been telling the story wrong all along,
how a king took Philomela's tongue after he had taken
her body, and how the gods turned her into a nightingale

so she could tell the night of her grief. Even now the streets
wait for her lamentation—strays minister to bones abandoned
on a stoop, a man sleeps on the ghosts of yesterday's heat,

pigeons rest on top of the church and will not stir until
they hear music below them. Inside, a woman warms up
the organ and sings Via Dolorosa about a Messiah

who wanted to save everyone from the wages of pleasure.
But how can I keep a man's fingers from my mouth?
How can I resist bare trees dervishing on the sidewalk?

Now the content of Brimhall's poem seems to me, as I praised it in that earlier post, first-rate.  Intelligent, evocative, poignant, vivid— but the line-lengths, I thought and still think, were just too long—

The first dodecasyllabic line is perfectly fine:

We have been telling the story wrong all along

but the second line (to me at least) seems "wrong" in its 15-syllable length:

how a king took Philomena's tongue after he had taken

... Why didn't she stay with the line (or close variants of) she established so strongly with that opening, I wondered—

Especially since she is relying so heavily and prevalently and overtly and I might go so far as to say exclusively on traditionally 'poetic' techniques like rhyme and alliteration and sound-links—

tellING/kING  . . . wrong/along/tongue . . . tell/all/Phil . . . the sound-pattern of N's: been/wrong/along/king/mena/tongue/taken . . . 

I guess the question I'm raising, and which I have no prescriptive answer for, is whether a line of poetry in English can be lengthened effectively much further beyond the normative blankverse limit 

unless the poet is willing to "also" render her poem as "prose"— to somehow include prose qualities into its measures or proportions,

as Ashbery does with such genius.  It's not that he doesn't utilize standard verse-craft methods, but perhaps better than any other living poet he has successfully personified the modern ideal Montale contemplates:

"A verse that is "also" prose is the dream of all modern poets from Browning on. . . ."

I could go through the Ashbery poem line by line and show (to the extent I'm capable) how he does wield traditional poetic technique in subtle crucial and perhaps underplayed (sub-versive, as it were) ways, but my point is—

well, I'm not sure what my point is.  Something about the line in English verse, and how it can't be lengthened effectively beyond the default margin unless the poet writing it is willing to allow prose elements into it—

So that in the annals of this year be nothing but what is sobering:
A porch built on pilings, far out over the sand.  Then it doesn't
Matter that the deaths come in the wrong order.  All has been so easily
Written about.  And you find the right order after: play, the streets, shopping, time flying.

(last stanza of "The Ivory Tower" from Shadow Train)

But I don't want to impugn Brimhall for what I see as a problem in her choice of line-length for "Via Dolorosa"— She is obviously very talented, very gifted, and the poem in its entirety is quite admirable—I urge anybody reading this to access it via PoetryDaily and marvel at the ingeniousness of her argument and the skill with which she evolves and enriches her metaphors/imagery—

My questioning of her line-lengths is meant to apply generally, as to whether verse which relies as heavily as this poem of hers does on the intensification effects of rhyme/alliteration/sound-repetition/etcet—

(Look at her lines 3/4: BODy/GOD . . . nightin/gale/tell/nights.  And her second stanza: streets/heat  . . . strays/yesterdays . . . . stoop/sleep . . . the linking pattern of N's: evEN/laMENtatION/MINister/BONes/aBANdONed/ON/MAN . . . etc )

—whether a poem which insists on employing such a preponderance of verbally dense devices can or should—unless it is underpinned by formal meters—lengthen its lines to match those 

of a poet like Ashbery whose 'verse is "also" prose'—

which according to Montale, is "the dream of all modern poets from Browning on. . . ."

Back to my quibbling question:  

Can any un-metered line longer than the hendecasyllabic (or dodecasyllabic perhaps) 

be verse which is verse per se and not "also" prose?  

Or must such longer lines always be 'verse [which] is "also" prose'?

And, given that unmetered lines of such lengthiness can "also" incorporate standard features like rhyme/alliteration/assonance/etc, another question is: to what degree?—

how many tactile thickening tricks like internal-rhyme etc can those longer lines bear—

How many sound-links can you stick into them—

How craft-crammed can they be?

What unmetered line-length can sustain verse which aspires to be verbally dense intense intricate—


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