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A novel in verse … and the writing thereof

the Landscape of Language Poetry

Sunday, March 20th, 2011 by

Picking up where I left off—sort of—in my musings about poetics, which started with Language Poetry and the Unbroken Baroque: what has language poetry to do with what I’m up to in Landscapes? Not much, it seems; nothing, I thought, when the question first occurred to me. After all, I don’t mess around with syntax or spelling, and I’m not pushing a political agenda. In fact, my language is so straightforward, so prose-like, that it isn’t poetry at all, according to some. Not only do I eschew the sorts of language pointers used by language poets, but I don’t even employ the kinds of imagery and compression used by conventional ones. And, again, I’m not supporting a political position.

But.

Why is the novel in verse form at all, especially the parts that are so nearly prose-like? Why not just put it back into prose form, as one friend suggested? What would be lost?

Something, I hope. A certain tension, a certain stress and strain in the language. I want the line breaks to work against the grain of the language. They should draw attention to the shape and rhythms of ordinary language, things too easily lost in prose, which tends to disappear against the backdrop of what it presents.

In other words, I introduce line breaks for the same reasons that language poets use a host of techniques such as phonetic spelling: to make the language itself less transparent, more dense, more material, more obvious to the reader

Hmm.

I first used line breaks in a poem published years ago in the Great River Review, “Precisely Reasons,” the poem I’ve long considered that in which I first found my voice. It began like this:

 

When I was a child there

seemed to be at least

excuses if not precisely

reasons: my sister

loathed me (the note

pinned to the door said

I hate Jean Keep

Out which made it

awkward as we shared

the room)

 

I remember telling a professor of mine in graduate school that I placed the line breaks in positions of maximum awkwardness, and I remember how blank he looked. I wanted the emotional tension in the poem to be rendered in the very rhythm and texture of the language.

This is tricky, of course; it’s an old, old problem, variously described, but here’s one version: if you create ugliness while writing about it, what have you given the world? And nobody in their right minds will want to read it. So somehow, in the case of my poem, the repeated awkwardness has to make (for the poem to work) a new kind of pattern, a sense that is not random; there has to be pleasure in the reading. Not only in the reader’s synthesis of the poem’s “meaning” (life isn’t fair, it rips you apart and happiness is a matter of chance) with its jagged rhythm (the timeworn form/function duo, doing their little dance)—that’s important, certainly, but it’s not enough. The visceral experience of each line break within the larger unfolding structure of meaning and language must give pleasure—a little “ah.”

The same is true in Landscapes, of course. The other day Steve suggested moving a line break, and the new position was a clear improvement, much more in tune with other breaks.  As I told him later, it’s encouraging to me that he can do that; it shows me not only that he “gets” what I’m doing (no small gift, for ones’ spouse to understand ones’ work) but, at an even more basic level, it says that there is a logic to my line breaks, an emerging aesthetic.

All of this stuff about line breaks applies to the poems in free verse only, of course. Much of Landscapes is written in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), which has its own issues, but generally jagged rhythm isn’t one of them. Why I’m using it probably is one, and so is the question of why I’m mixing it with free verse… Oy. It’s probably much, much smarter to go the Thomas Pynchon route, and say nothing, nothing at all, about one’s work. I shall live to rue the day I started this blog. And I didn’t even get to the bit about politics.