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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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Sunday, November 12, 2017

"Narrow Flame" by Linda Gregerson

"Narrow Flame" is found on poets.org [link]
 

First lines:
Sun at the zenith. Greening
            earth.

 

shape: what works and what doesn't

 

Keeping in line with the last post I went looking online for something else to talk about and found Linda Gregerson's "Narrow Flame" on the poets.org site. I found it interesting verse both in what works with it and what doesn't.

I want to pick up on three points. The first concerns ideation, the third the material aspects of the verse, and the second sits somewhere in between.

 

(1)

There's a interesting event in stanza 6, but I want to work my way there. Beginning at the beginning:

Sun at the zenith. Greening
            earth.

Introductory statements setting the scene. Not a lot of energy put into it, but not a lot of energy needs to be put into it. Indeed, I would argue no energy should be put into it: this verse works through directness and sparsity.

The action begins with the next line, with the horse.

  Slight buckling of the left

hind leg.

There is opposition between the two opening statements of a bright green day and the first moment of action, the first noticeable evidence of the coming death of the horse. But the opposition is momentary, and it works not so much to create a contrast – the opening statements are too brief for them to push forward – but to give a sense of quotidianness to the action. Even continuing, with the introduction of the girl and her speaking to the horse

                And all this while
            the girl
  at his ear good boy and now

the reader has not been given any strong emotional cues. We do not know what the girl is feeling. Is this a difficult moment for her, or is it too something quotidian? That she is saying "good boy" to the horse, as opposed to, say, apologizing for what is happening to it, implies that she is quite in control of the moment.

In the next stanzas we begin to get some description beyond basic statement of the event.

the hip giving way and mildly as
              was ever
  his wont the lovely

heft of him lists toward the field
            that minutes
  ago was still so sweet for

grazing and good boy and on the
            ground

But notice the modifiers – and there are very few of them in this verse – all apply to the horse. Even at the second "good boy" we are still given nothing as concerns the girl. Which is actually the something we are given about the girl: she is not remarkable in any way except for that she is unremarkable.

Now we come to the sixth stanza, where the sense of quotidianness breaks.

  now where the frightening

last shudder of lungs that we've been
            warned about
   does thank you darling does

not come

There's a major shift: the narrative 'I' has entered the verse. Up to this point the subject of the verse was the girl and the horse – and the verse wants the girl to be the subject, thus the repetition of the phrase "and all this while the girl" at the end of the verse. But now the action of the girl and the horse is put into a frame, that of the observing speaker. And that frame has the only direct presentation of emotion: the speaker – it's "we" so it's the speaker and at least one other person – has been warned about the moment of death, that it can be "frightening." The lines thus present a combination of fear of what might happen and relief – "thank you darling" – that it does not.

For the observers this is not quotidian. They have never seen this before, and it is for them a charged event. But in opposition to that there is the girl, who, thanks to the absence of emotional cues, is cast, as said, as being quite in control of the moment. This is the central opposition to the verse, the ideational dynamo of the verse. It is safe to assume from the proffered "good boy"s and the last lines

   good boy unbuckling the

halter lifting the beautiful head
            to her
  lap and all this while the girl

that there is a connection between the girl and the horse. But there is no reason to impute the emotions being felt by the speaker to the girl. The contrast between the speaker and the girl is what energizes the phrase "and all this while the girl": the speaker is in a state of heightened emotion, and yet in front of them is this girl who handles the event not dispassionately but as calmly as if the event were as unexceptional as the setting of a high sun over a greening earth. It matters not if you read the fear of the speaker as being extended toward the girl: that is, that this is as new an event to the girl as it is to the speaker, and the speaker fears for how the girl will respond to the death shudder as much as they fear the event themselves. The verse, even in its light economy of words, plainly sets the behavior of the girl and the emotions of the speaker in opposition to each other.

After stanza six the verse goes back into its sparsely presented description of the event. Which is something worth noticing in that it fully establishes that it is the emotions of the speaker that is the exceptional part of the event. And, those emotions are given their due by being an irruption in the event, not by dominating the narration. What is said of the emotions is all that needs to be said, and the verse can move on to complete the action in the same manner as it began the action.

It's an elegantly structured verse, ideationally and semantically. And its worth giving attention to how it is pulled off: with very few adjectives, with very brief and direct statements of action, with a running style of delivery (once the horse starts to die the verse runs through continuously to the end), and with the ideational dynamo of the verse being a sudden and momentary irruption of emotion in the middle of that narration, set in a frame that distinguishes it from that narration..

I have one gripe, though. I think the word "darling" is a mistake. Compare the way it is written to a variation:

last shudder of lungs that we've been
            warned about
   does thank you darling does

not come

last shudder of lungs that we've been
            warned about
   does oh but thank you does

not come

The darling presents the necessary other person in the "we" of the speaker. It is unstated whether the girl is to be included in that "we" and as such I myself do not include her. It makes no sense to say the girl is "darling" – why would the speaker be thanking the girl for what does not happen with the horse?

But that is the mistake: why would the speaker be thanking anybody – and with "darling" that anybody is a specific somebody – for what does not happen with the horse? It makes more sense that the "thank you" be presented as a non-directed, generalized "thank you." Though the "darling" does serve to give body to the "we," it does not serve well as an object for that "thank you."

 

(2)

It is worth talking a bit about syntax. (I'm mostly exploring writing here, rather than critiquing.)

The verse begins with three sentences ended with a period. From then on out it is a single, unpunctuated run. But not without coordinating syntax. The conjunction "and" is used four times to move the reader to the next thought. What is more interesting though is how the spoken phrase "good boy" is also used as a conjunction.

its toxic everlastingness has done
             its job
   good boy unbuckling the

halter lifting the beautiful head

It works very well both as a means to close and open up a thought, as a means to not let the run of words end nor to let statements blur one into each other. It works so well it leads me to question whether the two previous appearances of "good boy," which are used with "and"s, are weaker constructions. Would the earlier constructions be better without the "and"s? For example, instead of

            that minutes
   ago was still so sweet for

grazing and good boy and on the
            ground
now

what if it were written without the "and"s?

            that minutes
   ago was still so sweet for

grazing good boy on the
             ground
now

Does that weaken the use of "good boy"? It's worth the time to explore with variations.

I am by the syntax of the long run also brought to question the use of periods in the beginning. The verse is shifting gears through those first lines, trying to get up to speed. The question to be asked, the point to explore, is: is the use of periods a cheap means to get the reader into the verse? Could the text have been written entirely as a running string or does writing it as a single string reveal that the periods actually do work well, in a way like the pause in sound during the change of gears in a car?

Sun at the zenith
            greening earth
   and a slight buckling of the left

hind leg and all this while
            the girl

But I am there using line breaks as a means toward syntax. Which is something Gregerson completely eschews. Which leads me to my third issue.

 

(3)

Click on the audio button above the verse on the page and listen to Gregerson read her work.

It is brutally apparent, right from the start, that how she reads the verse (except for but a couple of places) has nothing to do with how the verse is written out. There is zero evidence in the verse as written that the lines were written to be heard, and as such overwhelming evidence that there was not much attention paid to the lines outside of that they come out to be about the same size from stanza to stanza.

By happenstance – and looking at the verse as a whole it can only be attributed to happenstance – there is a passage where the lines do work in an interesting way as written.

And all this while
the girl
at his ear good boy and now
the hip giving way and mildly as
was ever
his wont the lovely
heft of him lists toward the field

There is something interesting at play there. That play does not hold up with the rest of the verse, but it does show that an aural structure might be able to be made out of shorter, more abrupt lines.

But that's beside the point. Gregerson does not read the verse that way. And since it is her verse, I believe it is fair to assume that we as readers are not meant to read the verse that way either. (A very fair assumption when, as I said, such reading is only sustainable in the short term.)

The question to be asked, then, is why not write the verse as it sounds in Gregerson's own ear. If that is the way the verse sounds best to Gregerson, why not write the verse in a way that guides the reader to that reading? After all, writing verse is an aural art. (Or, at least, is in part an aural art.) And if it sounds a certain way in the writer's ear, it should be safe to a assume that for the writer that way is the best way for it to sound. So why not write the lines that way?

What if we restructure the verse according to how Gregerson reads it? There only needs be added a few line breaks where the lines as spoken run long. (Which, actually, do not need to be broken but for the sake of typesetting I will – plus I think the results are interesting.) I keep the periods in the opening because I think they do their job well, though I add a period at the end to balance things out: the action of the verse has ended, so let the verse end too. I'll even throw in keeping the three-line-stanza structure. Following that, this is what we get:

 
Sun at the zenith.
Greening earth.
Slight buckling of the left hind leg.

And all this while the girl at his ear
good boy
and now the hip

giving way
and mildly as was ever his wont
the lovely heft of him lists toward the field

that minutes ago was still so sweet for grazing
and good boy
and on the ground now

where the frightening last shudder of lungs
that we've been warned about
does thank you darling does not come

and feeling for a pulse
no pulse
and warning us

touching the liquid eye which does not close
which means the slender needle
with its toxic everlastingness has done its job

good boy
unbuckling the halter
lifting the beautiful head to her lap

and all this while the girl.
 

I'm not completely happy with the "does thank you darling does not come" line (maybe dashes marking off "thank you darling"?), but other than that I really like how it turns out. (I'm not 100% on whether I prefer stanzas to a single stanza.) The lines have identity, strength, and even play up and play upon the aural structure of the verse. The line breaks also reveal the general ideational structure of the verse. I might also argue that the thoughts in each line are brought into greater play with each other by their being isolated into visual and – just as Gregerson does in her reading – aural units.

Push come to shove, I think it's a superior verse when written the way the Gregerson reads it.

Which, again, prompts the question: why write it otherwise? Especially, why write it in a way that works counter to how it is read? to how the author herself reads it? What reason is there . . . . except perhaps that that is the convention. That is how "verse is written" nowadays.

Only, convention is the last and weakest reason to do something, in verse or elsewhere. And anything done in verse simply because of convention should be struck as poor writing. Which it is.

 

(4)

Bonus comment: I've no idea on the title. But that's cool.