GERALD BURNS SOCIETY
|GERALD BURNS SOCIETY|
HOW LINE BREAKS
Robert Frost said don't rhyme words, rhyme whole lines. It makes the whole line a kind of word, which at least gets over the uneasiness or dither of a word chosen too much or merely for the sake of its pairing, a bump in the sense. If sense. With sense in question now, it's possible to question the management of the line in terms of nostalgia for those congestions at the right margin (and tapping gently tapping in the middles of lines), areas of increased anxiety as meaning has to come to decide to do something. I'm writing a poem 4000 lines long in honor of Keats's Endymion, inserting short titled narratives as I go, and some of these rhyme, as a reaction to my reaction to Keats's long-vowel monosyllables slotted in and in. How could he do that, as Ralph Maud said yesterday how could Stephen Spender keep up thinking continually of those who had been truly great. Didn't it hurt? How long before he had to take a break. We know how to rhyme better than Keats and are as bored as he with the wonders heaped up in that poem,
This is the ash-heap, the dump, and science-fiction, so conservatively keeping to what's known, current or nearly current speculation, and the automatism of wonder, I saw this/I felt that, in one who came to say "Wonders are no wonders to me," rejecting in that sentence this poem's sequence of marvels as its manner of proceeding, the rhymes part of the same sequence of marvels. He wrote the thing to prove he could be a poet, write a long thing in 4000 lines about how falling in love is always falling in love with the moon. Later on in it, when he installs the word "blisses" in the middle of a line, you know it's screaming out for "kisses" and that's why he put it there, orphaned it, exiled from its rhyme. His section-breaks come in the middle of a rhyme-pair, as if he felt the need for glue but wants the uneasiness too, a gap in the gap. So as he goes you feel very purely that odd game of "revealing and concealing" rhyme, as Frost used to say. Robin Kirkpatrick says that Dante seldom runs his sense beyond the tercet, is perfectly happy with his sense staying inside his shapes, but the rhyme runs on, escapes, till he nails it down in the last line of his Canto. You can count these things, as Robert Bridges counts sense-runovers in Milton, another odd and interesting game. Whether you rhyme or as in Wordsworth's blank verse end whole stretches with rhymy words, producing the effect of rhyme and its refusal, perhaps underlining the refusal, the last third of a line in English poetry for a long time was infected with choice, an arena within the arena like a circus ring, or the close-up magician's cloth spread on the restaurant table. Wonders could occur there, and not only Choice but Will could find its fit proportion, which is why Shakespeare's Sonnets are so much about will. Keats wills the clutter Endymion finds under the ocean, wills the rhymes, plonk plonk, went/firmament, and on we go because rhyme goes on, to the last lines,
Kisses make you faint, and the rhyme faints. Behold the story Keats has told. Endymion's sister wends her solitary way in wonderment she doesn't feel. Nor does Keats, I think, wonders no wonders to him, events by now as cheap as rhyme. If "went" is "wend," which is what he's been up to, it really rhymes with End. Her/She/They, everybody goes "Home." Hand in hand went Keats/Endymion and the moon when he was a child, and here they are doing it again. Nothing's happened except puberty, not even a six-beat line to end the poem as Spenser would a stanza, no crushed-together accents to slow down the line and make it wonderful. The pair whiz off on honeymoon and Peona goes home. Keats ends the poem this way because it's in keeping.
I was asked yesterday how you break the line in a long-line poem, so much like prose. I said well, first you've got maybe three words leeway, and I'm not above using the page margin as an indicator. Then sometimes you want to complete the sense, and sometimes break in the middle of a phrase because those words make a strange sense isolated that the next line revises. And you notice some of the lines are much longer than they should be for neatness, and some much shorter. It's a standard list, handful of principles inferrable by a reader, and came from that to think that what matters is how or that the reader comes to trust the writer. I could tuck in pages of examples, and say why the breaks make it prettier. My sense in those pieces is usually a very prosy sense, because I think poetry should do anything. That night I told Jim Haining I. A. Richards did it wrong in that experiment that founded his reputation, handing students short poems of all periods (their spellings modernized) without the authors' names, what do you make of this. His students couldn't read for sense at all, and habitually misdated poems by four hundred years. Didn't the words, Jim said, help them out? No, I said, because if you've been through the school system you have this odd notion that (all poems one poem) the diction's part of what's-appropriate-for-poetry and no more, not part of or going against how people spoke. It would have been more interesting (I said) if he'd asked them how you come to trust the writer, as the poem's going on. Jim's magazine Salt Lick produces in people a sense of unwilling wonder. They trust him but don't like it that they do. You open one and right away loose insertions fall out. "Aren't you leaving too much white space?" Uneasiness. It can be brutal -- if you get the knack of enforcing intent, assent to your competence, nothing prohibits torture. Sade lives when the reader's helpless, but helplessness and indifference are perilously close. You can be dull at the seaside. I can't. One could. Two could. If what you say's automatist, driven, your friend's assent to that doesn't mean assent to meaning, can be (and it's just ashes) "Okay, you're like that." Too bad. Indifference, closing the book, falling back to brute perception when conversation isn't conversation. Good line-breaks can produce no more than the assent that you're like that. Just behavior, rhymed words "Rudders that for a hundred years had lost The sway of human hand;" thing you do. Why rhyme is the same question as why break lines, even if that includes a presumption that knowing how people have broken lines is part of reading. Do you want untutored readers, for whom Williams's "The Term" or "This Is Just to Say," or Creeley's "The Warning" or "Anger" or "A Reason," or Ginsberg's Howl, or Kenneth Irby's "A Set" are empty sets? Can readers who don't know Karen MacCormack, or Sharon Thesen, or Plath's wonderful moves read you with attention? Is there point in little "experiments" with syntax after Tender Buttons and How to Write? What if reading me really well means having singing in your head Virginia Woolf's rhythms in her essays? How new is Gertrude Stein's rhyme in Stanzas in Meditation, in Creeley? In what sense do you come to trust Keats, beyond trusting that he'll rhyme, the chin wherein the large targe though lost's embossed? If man rhymes with leviathan and kiss with bliss, we're home free and find the fire out. Diana, huntress-goddess, chases and is chaste. Endymion's her catch, both virgin-predators. What's that to do with rhyme? Both care about their ends, love is a rhyme, their kiss a consonance of bodies. I like it that they faint, don't find it quaint. If love is first love, there may be a pretense that rhyme is first rhyme. Elizabeth Press used to issue little books by people who broke lines like Creeley. It was homage, a thing they'd learned to do. Did it feel fresh to them? How could it? What possessed Keats to rhyme?
He wanted the signs of being a writer, knowing how to rhyme, having a book of poems that rhyme. Look at these poems, with their line-breaks. Creeley. Wakoski. Levertov's in To Stay Alive, my copy ex-library. Ashbery's Houseboat Days. I'm afloat on line-breaks, even Albert Cook's The Classic Line ex-library, bound in red buckram. Diana's a virgin because spectrally wonderful to look at and unobtainable. Keats attains her by assertion, look, this is what she did. Endymion's uneasy, wants something he doesn't know what, and she comes to him. Line-breaks are the story of wanting line-breaks, symptom of a wish acted on by will, like putting laurel on an altar. Then you make up stories about laurel and Apollo, maybe get caught up in the dither. It's a tailor's art, to measure speech in lengths, attending to how meaning is cut. Had Keats not elected rhyme romantical would he have made more of Endymion? Without rhyme you've nothing to come down on trebly hard, unless you're Milton or Hopkins who does rhyme but makes it part of effort.
Keats cares about hacking through his line-count. Breaking sections at the rhyme means he'll have to skip once to come out even, a round four-thousand. 4000. Door rhymes with 4. No number rhymes with home. There's dome, of many-splendour'd glass, or Khubla Khan's (Khublai or Cublai in its first scribble, I've forgotten.) Dome's gone out of use, and home. Perhaps diction is discarded in pairs. We always had the sense, whether we rhymed or not, of a stretch of lines in air, floating on the page's imaginary ground, like tree branches that could be comely. Is saying a word twice a rhyme? Has rhyme got to do somehow with verse's necessary repetition? Tum ti-tum. We were the first that ever burst into that silent sea. Time Cop, unexploredness as a membrane we penetrate. Just beyond the end of the line, as Derrida knows, is the margin, an area not even defined by its laterality, always a choice (making marginalia) to stack the words in a thin column or write sideways. My Endymion has a wide margin on which I do not write. I feel, from so many of them being monosyllables, that Keats's rhymes are not part of his poem but its margin, a selvedge, poem's righthand edge done up with thread so it won't unravel. I just skimmed it carelessly to see if he rhymes "end" and found these instances:
His "ends" refer to narrative denouements, are not conscious of themselves as line-ends. Near the end "end" drops away as a rhyme, though at the beginning (of course) of Book IV you get this:
Keats's stories have ends but not his rhymes. The sense and sound gulp at the ends of lines as if for breath, but it's hard to say why. He does what he can to keep it moving, breaking his sense at the first of a rhyme-pair, but always you have that frame around both sides of a rhyme-word, the sense coming to it and then a gulp. Technically speaking it's odd that he allowed it, and he doesn't get over the line-end hitch and halt till "Lines Written in the Highlands," in Chapman's Odyssey seven-beat lines, the Highland-trip sonnets, and Hyperion. In the middle of 1818 he starts slowing down the lines, packing them not with ore but with silences. It's not that he gets rid of that hitch, but that it vanishes in the stillness and felt duration of the line itself:
Suddenly inside the line he has all the time in the world. It's like the Faerie Queene, a time-annihilating measure. The sense feels free to stop, absolutely stop, inside the line. You can see how jittery in comparison everything in Endymion is. His touch is lighter; there's less push through the line to the end. I wrote once that in the good sonnets the pressure of thought and feeling is so distributed through the line it's hydraulic. The line-end isn't a dam any more, embroidered stoppage. Hopkins experimented with distributed stress, a "beat" you collect out of the air over two or three middling-stress syllables. It works. But what Keats comes to is distributed silence. You see it in Lamia:
The sections in this poem don't split rhyme-pairs; he no longer has to. In Endymion the little commas inside the line don't hear themselves. In Lamia and Hyperion there's no rush to get past them. Every syllable means as much as every other syllable. Wallace Stevens's meditative poems retain more of that end-line gulp than Keats has here.
So the end of a line is not a thing, and you can alter its feel by tinkering with time inside the line -- as Keats does it by treating the space between words as equivalent to the right margin. Charles Olson's essay on quantitative verse in Shakespeare makes much the same point. When the whole line becomes a word it suffers altered gravity. Has this anything to do with non-traditional lines measuring themselves by feel? Some writers write with no sense of felt duration. But if duration enters in, if the space a line takes up is more than a space, the spaces between words can be something too, in ways that say more than what the line says. That you can end a line in more ways than by running around it or stomping on it restores to the whole line what seems its cutoff. Imagine that my essay is a sentence.
Copyright Gerald Burns 1995