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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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Monday, March 18, 2013

"Two Poems" by Charles Simic -- Poetry Daily, 3/18/13; and "Ealuscerwen" by Edward Mayes -- Verse Daily, 3/18/13

Simic's two poems ("Fear" and "Note Slipped Under a Door") are from Selected Early Poems
and is found here

"Ealuscerwen" is from Crazyhorse (Fall, 2012)
and is found here


line breaks

— reformatted with editing, April 8, 2014

OK, I admit it, I am perhaps over attentive to line breaks. Except that, it seems to me most poets today are severely if not chronically under-attentive to line breaks — if attentive at all. In that vein, the poems offered today on the two sites (Poetry Daily and Verse Daily) make for an interesting contrast. So let me look at both.

Yes, the poems are different in style. I want to focus only on line breaks and poetic flow. Yes, Simic's poems are, perhaps hyper attentive to flow: but it is to an end, which we will see.

I should also say in effort to maintain transparency that I am not a terribly big fan of Charles Simic, though that is more a statement about taste than anything else. He is, simply, not a poet that floats my boat in the manner such that I would pull him off the shelf solely for pleasure's sake. (Though, I will sooner or later purchase and read his collected/selected. And, actually, I rather like "Fear," for the short little thing it is.)


Let's start with Simic's two poems.

"Fear" is a short, imagist poem. It uses one image, moving of leaves on a tree, to generate an idea: that of the self-energizing contagiousness of fear. What I love about the ideation of the poem is that the core idea generated by the image: that of fear being self-energizing (when caught as a contagion), is never directly expressed in the poem — ergo the imagist aspect. (Something people who study H.D., particularly Trilogy, very frequently forget.)

The structure of the poem also emphasizes that imagist flavor: the first stanza setting up the image, the second opening the image to reveal the idea being generated thereby. But let's look specifically at the lines.

First stanza: four lines of four stress, two stress, four stress, two. Stanza two: two five stress lines. No, it is not necessary that you as a reader notice that on the first reading. What is necessary is that you look for it, as you should be looking to every poem for structure in meter and rhyme. Why? Because once you see it, it should then modify how the poem sounds. This is the musicality of the poem, and it should not be missed, otherwise, you are missing a great part of the poem. Poetry is an aural art. To not look for aural structure is tantamount to playing sheet music with no attention whatsoever to the length of the notes.

Let me see if I can describe it. Even though the lines can be called accentual meter (though, to me it reads as though the lines were designed by sound, not by meter), it is sort-of-kind-of iambic, and four-beat lines have that certain sing-song quality that is utilized by ballad measure. (Popular music, after all, is primarily 4/4 measure, no?) Of course, the shortened, two-beat lines create a kind of staccato-esque emphasis: this made all the greater because of the structure of the lines and the line breaks. Each four-beat line (and the two-beat lines) stands naturally as a poetic phrase (the second slightly less so, but within the norm). The two-beat lines are modifiers of the idea in the 4-beat phrase. The end result is that the stanza's structure is not merely visual, nor is it merely aural, but it works with the reading of the poem to emphasize the ideation of the phrases in the poem.

Then you have a stanza break, and the more conversational sound of an iambic pentameter couplet (even with a soft rhyme). It creates an aural difference from the first stanza. It also gives nod to sonnet form, and the two line couplet that closes such in Shakespearean sonnets. In such, it also gives nod to the idea of the volta, which the two line couplet is meant to emphasize. Finally, in that the stanza is a well crafted unit, soft rhyme and all, it gives emphasis that it is there that the central ideation will be worked; in turn, giving aural echo to the ideational structure of the poem.

In sum, line structure, rhythm, rhyme, stanza forms, stanza breaks, the linear flow, and image and ideation, all work together to generate an organically whole poem, a poem with experiential depth and aesthetic pleasure. Even though the idea presented is relatively simple (it is, after all, only a twenty-syllable poem), I enjoy reading it, I get pleasure from reading it, again and again, to experience how it all comes together . . . . . which is not quite the right phrase, but it is difficult not to fall into phrases that beg the question of what it is that is being experienced. If I may risk it: it is the pleasure of experiencing a whole and vital poetic microcosmos.

"Note Slipped under a Door" is a list poem, and as such will from the start probably be not as tight as "Fear"; but, then, I don't think it tries to be. The experience here is more linear, the following of a list; there is not very much ideational development up and down the list, not very much development into unifying the list elements into a whole (outside of the flow of a non-random list). But, that's ok; that is not what it is trying to do. It is being its list-self, and should be accepted as such. (In fact, it works for me quite well.)

But let's look at stanzas and lines. Simply enough, notice how, again, every line is sufficient in itself, and in itself defines itself as a line. Also, every idea has its own stanza. There is no attempt or want to force the poem into a regularized stanza length. To say it again, there is no need in the poet to force regularized stanzas upon a poem that does not require or want it. There is no attempt to break the lines into lines of generally equal length. The decisions on lines and stanzas was generated from within the creating of the poem, not applied to the words as a kind of forced structure.

Which leads us to "Ealuscerwen."

(But, first, I can not help myself to point out "from a great purple distance." It's a simple idea, but wonderful. Do you get it, in that at a distance mountains, hills, whatevers, tend to move into purplish hues? It's a natural event. But, here, completely unexplained. And dammitall if poets and writers would strive figure out that you do not have to explain everything. Actually, you rarely have to — or should — explain anything. Poems are so much more fascinating when you do not. This event in its larger, prosaic forms it is called an "information dump" in creative writing circles. (Its origin lies, I believe, in science fiction/fantasy, where the need and want to explain are often greatly felt by the writer.) Information dumps are a no-no in prose. Likewise, and even more so, in poetry, where it occurs just as often, but on a smaller scale. But I've digressed. My point is, merely, what a great line, that.)

So, "Ealuscerwen." A quick look reveals no rhyme. Also, no meter or measured stress count. Also, no apparent relationship between semantics and lines. It is a sentence/paragraph organized text broken into relatively even lines and four-line stanzas. (Should I have pointed out how sentence/phrasing and line structure informed each other's creation in Simic's poems? Too late now.)

Here are the questions to be asked:

  • Is there anything in the poem's text, semantics, flow, or ideation, that gives purpose to the presented structure?
  • To say it a different way, as a reader, what attention can be seen, here, to have been given to the line breaks and stanzas outside of the application of some arbitrarily chosen visual structure?
  • Is it not a natural assumption that, if a poem is broken into lines, then there should be some purpose behind those lines?
  • What effects on the reading of the poem is created by the line and stanza breaks?
  • Do the line and stanza breaks contribute to the reading and reception of the poem? Or do they hinder it?
  • Can there be said to be any poetic (or organic, or aesthetic) unity generated with the structure, the text, the sound, the ideation, etc.?

Consider this idea: if you are not using line and stanza breaks to an end that will generate an even more pleasurable reading of the poem, are you "using" them at all?

The follow-up to that: if you are not using them, why the hell not?

Inattentiveness is the accusation. An arbitrary structure applied to sentences/paragraphs is not "writing" lines, it is applying lines. (In fact, to me it looks like the visually clumsy hyphenated breaking of "hellkind" was generated out of the want to control visual line length.) Such structuring is, in its purest labeling, nothing less than striking lines and stanzas out of the writing process completely. As I have said in previous posts, this is little more than writing prose and shrinking the width of the page.

And the thing is, there is a proven negative effect to such writing. When a person reads, they are not moving from letter to letter, word to word. The mind naturally looks forward and back in order to generate a sense of the semantic and grammatical structure of the text, which permits the mind to more accurately and fully read the text. If it were not so, people would not be able to read a text without first reading the whole of the paragraph and getting the long list of words and their structure half memorized. (In fact, in a book, when you are reading a line, you mind is also giving faint attention to the lines above and below.)

The more you contract the length of the line in prose, the more and more difficult it becomes to read out of the structure and phrasing of the sentences. So, by breaking this poem into short lines like this without giving any thought to the lines themselves (or to the syntactic and grammatical structures of the text), the only thing being accomplished is making the text difficult to read.

For example, if you restructure the poem into normal prose, you will find that there is a very natural paragraph break right before "What we missed" (the first line of the fourth stanza). That very natural pause – that reading affected and reading effecting pause (I think I got those vowels right) – is lost, entirely, in the application of this arbitrary line/stanza structure. The line breaks also create problems with the flow of the sentences in the second half of the poem: especially with the last, beginning with "And we," in the third to last stanza.

Also, the fact that there are line breaks present creates in the reader an expectation of pause at the end of the line: the mind naturally looks for structure and organization; presenting organization through line breaks tells the mind there is a reading-structure to be found there. When that structure is not found, in fact when that structure is working against the natural reading of the words (as it is, so much so, with that last sentence), only bad things can happen.

Really, to read this poem successfully, you have to do what I said above: read it a couple, three, four times until you have a loosely memorized idea of how the sentences work, and ignore everything visual.

Another question: what value, what purpose can be said to exist in a chosen line structure when alternative choices have no real effect on the poem? Is there any difference to the reading of the poem if I make the lines slightly shorter:

We weren't there that fall in Rome,
476. Our terminus a quo for our
Middle age was much later, and
Ended with our terminus a quem,

Later too. Time to take the hem
Down again, we'll tell someone
With the sharpest pair of scissors,
Or take up the hem again we'll

Ask someone with the quickest
Stitch. Although we ourselves have
Starched our crinoline collars, we've
Never wanted to do anything more

or so that there are three lines per stanza, and the lines in each stanza decrease in length:

We weren't there that fall in Rome, 476.
Our terminus a quo for our middle age
Was much later, and ended with our

Terminus a quem, later too. Time to take
The hem down again, we'll tell someone
With the sharpest pair of scissors, or

Take up the hem gain we'll ask someone
With the quickest stitch. Although we
Ourselves have starched our crin-

or if we do this little visual shape:

We weren't there that fall in Rome, 476. Our
Terminus a quo for our
Middle age was much later,
And ended with our terminus a quem, later too.

Time to take the hem down again, we'll tell
Someone with the sharpest
Pair of scissors, or take up the
Hem again we'll ask someone with the quickest

Stitch. Although we ourselves have starched our
Crinoline collars, we've never
Wanted to do anything more
Exuberant than, let's say, the cancan. What we've

So the final question: if there is no apparent purpose to the chosen line and stanza structure, how are you not saying to your reader, "You know, poetically speaking, there isn't that much here; so, don't expect too much; you might even just want to move on to the next poem."?


(Final little note: the final little definitional paragraph is fun. Except for one point: at the very end, after the word canard, there is a colon. Seeing that, I immediately went back over it. "Did I miss other colons?" Not finding any, I ask, "Do I see places that would be a typo, where the Verse Daily people left out a colon?" And not finding any of that, either, I am then perplexed. "Why is that colon at the end of the line? Why wasn't that structure used throughout the list?" Well, perhaps that colon is the typo, and it should be a semi-colon (which is possible since they obviously typoed the italicizing of "our" in line 4). If so, what an unfortunate typo, because it throws the whole of the list into chaos.)

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