Statement of Philosophy

A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.



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Thursday, February 21, 2013

"The Ruin" by Jacob Polley -- Poetry Daily, 2/21/13

from The Havocs (Picador)
poem found here
 

first lines:
What walls and gables, wonders still of workmanship.
Whoever's stronghold this was, havoc's jumbled it

 

lines and line breaks

-- reformatted, a lot of editing, and a footnote added 1/10/2014
 

In a guesture toward transparency: As I have said, every moment in a writer's work is burdened with the task of leaving the reader wanting the next moment. Mr. Polley succeeded in that task with me: The Havocs is now on ye old wishlist. But that does not mean I don't have comment.

I hate . . . . I cannot understate this, I hate "muscle women." It is far too slangy a phrase for the tone of the poem. Why not "muscled women"? Same idea, but in vein.[FN]

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[FN] Now, interesting question, does "muscle women" sound the same on the other side of the ocean? But I should add, within the context of this blog, where texts are explored through engagement, that question is irrelevant.
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But let's move to something a little more fruitful: the opening lines of the second stanza.

What happened? Ruin already had root. Plague came, within
and without. No one, however high, whatever wit,

I have been writing a lot about line breaks. It is not merely incidence of the poems presented. I find the issue of lines and line breaks to be a fundamental issue of the medium of poetry -- and one that is grossly unstudied and unquestioned by most poets of the level you normally see in journals sites such as Poetry Daily. In most poetry, it seems a given that the line breaks were acts of convenience, or are typographical considerations rather than aesthetic considerations. Yes, line lenght is a consideration: poems are visual as well. But you do not simply pull out pruning shears and hack off the lines two inches above the 'V.' If line length is important, you craft lines that fit the length (as, for example, did William Carlos Williams).

In blunt: the visual aspect can never be allowed to override the more elemental notion of crafting a line.

It is one of those peculiarities of the English language that even with formal meter line lengths can vary greatly. After all, "end" and "strength" are both one syllable, no? (Same goes with the aural aspect, which is one of the reasons why it is impossible to write true haiku in English. But, that's beside the point.)[FN] And I find it a peculiarly humorous when, with a sonnet, for example, one line sticks out an inch beyond the others. But that is just how it goes. English is a very strange language when it comes down to it, and for it there is created a great many peculiarities in literature.

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[FN] Unless, that is, they actually paid attention to writing syllables that, in English, had nearly the same aural length. Something I have never seen, and yet something that, to me, seems obvious.
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So I wonder, then, if it there was influence from the visual side of things that led Mr. Polley to split the phrase "within or without" at the line break. Unfortunately, for me it created an odd reading. Yes, you can say that the line break creates a pause -- which one often hears when such a phrase is spoken in conversation. But that pause sounds for me rather against the rhythms of the rest of the poem. (Indeed, more than rather: wholly against it.)

Also, the pause as written is against how the poem is written. Usually, you make such a pause in speech in order to accentuate the second word: a pregnant pause, as it were. But, here, it is the first word that is the more unexpected.

Because of the break, the reading is put off a touch. And in an otherwise smooth read that little bit off comes off as a big bit off. A well crafted poem establishes and holds to (even with variation) its rhythms. A sophisticated reader looks for those rhythms, and reads the poem within them. A break from that sound can only sound like a mistake -- if it is not crafted to sound intention (which, in the end, is still of the rhythms of the poem). Yet, if Polley had not made the break, that first line would have been a long one, visually. (There is not a set measure for each line, so that is not in consideration.) So, again, I wonder if the visual pushed him into a slight clumsiness. Which is odd, because it seems to me there is an elegant solution: cut "came" to get "Plague, within and without," and keep it on one line.

But, then, would line two have looked, felt, seemed too short?

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