The Line: Excerpts from Claims to Poetry,

Edited by Donald Hall
Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon

Even when not read aloud a verse has an unheard music. The line is a sort of scale, saying
weigh these words; this verse is just as heavy as this verse; I'm coming down equally hard
with my pencil here, here and here.

Pound observed that the poet who wishes to write free verse should beware of writing bad
prose hacked into arbitrary line lengths. Makes possible a language Pound called the musical
phrase.

Excerpts from The Poetic Line: A Symposium

(Poets are responding to a review of Charles Simic's Stone Soup.
The review appeared in The Hudson Review.)

James Wright--Caught by the fever and fret of fame, as our beloved vice president might
say, every God damned fool in America quivers with the puce longing to win life by
printing at us that he is sensitive. He and Viva know that rhyme and rhythm are out. Twitch
is in. Poetry is the enemy of twitch. Every poetry has a theory, whether the bad poets know
it or not. The theory of our current free verse involves a complete rejection of the past. A
rejection of the past is a rejection of intelligence. We have, for the moment, a confused
embrace of the present for the sake of a hallucinatory future. The endless bad poems of our
time distribute themselves automatically between masturbation and the exquisite phoniness
of middle-class revolution. What makes the new poetry so bad is its failure to realize that
there is no sound poetry without intelligence. There is no poetry without its own criticism.
You can take your minor elegance and throb around in it.

Louis Simpson--Taking a specimen of free verse and printing it as prose, without the
line-breaks, then arguing that, as the divisions into lines cannot be deduced from the
language itself, they were never really necessary...You don't have to be a lawyer to know
that there is something wrong with this method of arguing. The poet is charged with doing
something that he never intended. For writing to be read as lines of verse, all that is
necessary is for the poet to indicate that they should be read so. If you aren't willing to
submit to the poet's judgment, you needn't look or listen. There is no need to explain your
unwillingness by trying to show a relationship between divisions of writing into verse-lines
and the kind of language that the poet is using. Movement of language, which is sentence
structure, does not determine the nature of lines of verse.

The line is a unit of rhythm, and the poet is moved by impulses of rhythm which he expresses
in lines of verse. Impulse, not necessity, determines where each line breaks, and the impulse
of the poem as a whole determines the look of the poem on the page or its sound in the air.

John Haines--It is the voice of the poet that determines the line, the rhythm, structure,
everything. The voice refined becomes the poet's style.

Much contemporary verse in English lacks memory value, musicality, it isn't repeatable. It
relies on image and on statement, and not much else. Not just a matter of memorable sound,
nor of rhythm, but of sustained impulse, of emotion and intensity, and of substance. It has
something to do with the connection or the lack of it of the poet with his time and his people.

Donald Hall--It is no insult to William Carlos Williams to say that the prose sentence, "So
much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain water, beside the white chickens,"
is boring. The Line brings forth the etymological wit (depends/upon; wheel/barrow). The
Line brings forth the assonance only halfheard in the prose: 'Crazed/rain"; "beside/white").
And in fact the Line (in this poem and not in every poem) is an intellectual force, insisting
on particularity by the value it gives to isolated words of sense.

When a critic takes a lined poem and prints it as prose, in order to show that the poem is
inferior, he tells us nothing about the poem.... Such a critic reveals that he is ignorant or
disingenuous .... Back in the silly wars about free verse, toward the end of the First World
War, American critics who wished to prove that free verse was only prose took poems by
Pound (or Amy Lowell) and printed them as prose. 'See,' they said triumphantly, like the
man in the HUDSON REVIEW, 'It's only prose.' They only proved they had no sense of
the line."

A sense of the Line disappeared from common knowledge some time ago. In 1765, an
Englishman named John Rice proposed breaking Milton's lines according to sense, and not
according to pentameter, presumably changing:

Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit

Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste

Brought forth death into the world, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater man

Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,

Sing heavenly muse . . .


to:


Of man's first

disobedience,

And the fruit

Of that forbidden tree,

Whose mortal taste

Brought death into the

world,

And all our woe,

With loss of Eden,

Till one greater man

Restore us,

And regain the blissful

seat,

Sing heavenly muse


This rewriting of Milton resembles bad free verse, which is usually bad rhythmically because
the poet has no sense of the line as a melodic unit. The lines are short and coincidentally
semantic and phonic. But Milton is not damaged by this arrangement. Only the critic (Rice)
who thinks that line structure does not matter, or the reviewer who thinks that a poem must
prove itself apart from its lineation, which is to think that the line structure does not matter.

A hundred years earlier, John Rice's ear would have been more reliable. With the increase of
literacy, and the vast increase in printed books of prose, people began to read poetry without
pausing at the ends of lines. The line I suppose was originally mnemonic. As far as I can
tell, actors indicated line-structure by pause and pitch at least through Shakespeare's time,
probably until the closing of the theaters. Complaints from old-fashioned playgoers--that
upstart actors like David Garrick no longer paused where the poet indicated that they should
pause--occur in the 18th century. It is possible to connect literacy, capitalism, and
puritanism with this insult to the Line (Goatfoot).

Of course the line has continued to exist--You cannot read Keats or Hardy or Pound as if they
were prose without losing a connection to the unconscious mind, a connection made by
sound.

William Matthews-- So the line in prose is like a fishing line, cast out as far as it will go,
straightforward. And the line in verse goes out from the margin, turns back, goes out again,
etc. The serpentine line of verse goes more down the page than across it. I think of the long
lines tending toward prose in Blake's prophetic books, Whitman, visionary passages from
Ginsburg and Roethke. Such poems are questing, tentative, discursive--from Latin
discursus (past part. of discurrere to run about)--rather than direct. But in them the line
takes on some of the characteristics we stereotypically associate with prose. . . Short lined,
rhyming, metrically regular poems would presumably accommodate a different kind of
psychic energy.

Charles Simic--For me the sense of the line is the most instinctive aspect of the entire
process of writing . . . I want the line to stop in such away that its break and the
accompanying pause may bring out the image and the resonance of the words to the fullest
. . . It's difficult to speak of it with precision, since one is describing an intricate psychic
activity which has to do with the nature of time, both as its timeless instant and as its
temporal extension.

 

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