Wednesday, January 20, 2010

poetic line

I think of this class as a bit like looking up a poem's skirt, or if it were possible, that cliched x-ray that might lead us to a bit more knowing. I like the idea of examining a poem, part by part, and this week, we spend some time with the poetic line.

What surprised me, though, was that we spoke minimally about the line itself, a bit when we took a look at the short lines of WCW, but even then, the larger focus was on general explication.

Before class even began today, I had a few hours between teaching and studenting, so I did some google'ing (what else?) and learned a bit about what immediate search results have to say about "the poetic line," which I thought I would keep here:

This blog gives a nice introduction to the poetic line, particularly handy if you are teaching an introduction to poetry course or just need to warm your brain up a bit before delving further.

Denise Levertov's On the Function of the Line. This can also be found in her New and Selected Essays. I love her exploration of the musicality and tones of line breaks; it reminds me of an activity where one gives students a poem as a block of prose, then has students break it. So many variations and so many reasons--here is a place to springboard discussion. Also particularly compelling is the idea of how form becomes antiquated, almost" anachronistic," to use one of her terms.

Some excerpts from Claims to Poetry, edited by Donald Hall.

The first hour and a half, two hours of class was spent examining Wallace Stevens' "Of Modern Poetry." We opened with the metaphor and how we came upon knowing, how language can introduce a metaphor before the full reveal. We spoke of what we notice before we even read the poem, the shape of it, the blank verse (some slant rhyme, but mostly unrhymed iambic pentameter), the mid-break of lines and how that resembles the dialog in a Shakespearean play. Where does the temperature of the poem change? How do we know? We spoke of specific vocabulary--what is Anglo-Saxon versus "borrowed" language, such as the "souvenir," which brings to mind: snow globes, for one student, trinkets, for me, and an element of cheapness and trashiness to our professor.

In this poem, Watkins emphasized that "meaning cannot be disembodied from form," that opening a class with "What is Stevens saying about modern poetry?" would be a large misstep. He told us he believes, "poetry is performative."

We spoke of the other voices Stevens could be evoking--the recognition of Shakespeare, of course, and later what Watkins called the "syntax slip, evoking the opening lines of Paradise Lost and its fruit," we spoke at length about interpretations of Whitman and how Stevens' solipsism was perhaps oppositional to Whitman's--the containing multitudes versus the alienation and spotlit stage. He mentioned Wordsworth's "Prelude," and then returned us to Milton, in the end of this and the ending of "Lycidas," the elegy with a kind of cheery end, the echo of: "Isn't that nice? See what I can do! A taste of poems to come." And Eliot--how there may be an engagement with Prufrockian failure.

Time was spent discussing what he said was "a lot of pretended satisfaction in this poem." We get that repetition in the large middle, the Hamlet soliloquy, the risk of cliche and no chance for dialog.

If you want to read more about "Of Modern Poetry," there is a collection of analysis here.

The first class was wonderful, that puzzle work, the game of explication, though I felt humbled, so very out of practice, the need to revisit the grammar I learned so long ago, to open my eyes, to read and re-read and re-read.


Jessie Carty said...

that class sounds so good! i took a seminar on the line and we also did the block of "prose" that you then break into a poem. i also thought it would be a fun trick to take a very poetic piece of actual prose and/or a prose poem and see what the students do with it :)

Lyle Daggett said...

Enjoyed reading this. Also the links to various writing around the web about poem lines. I particularly like the Levertov essay -- she also has three or four others about lines, line breaks, stanza breaks, etc., that are also in the New and Selected Essays, which I read cover to cover, and with deliberation, when it first came out some years back.

Levertov's essays about lines and line breaks were highly important to me, years and years ago, in articulating much of what I'd approached instinctively in my poems.

One of the actual models for how I tend to hear lines, and for how my poems look on the page (I usually write with irregular margins on both the left and right sides) is Allen Ginsberg's poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra," which can be found (complete) in his book Planet News.