Friday, January 05, 2007

En/jamb/ment(al) & Line / Breaks

The question is asked:

What determines line endings, or linebreaks? sound qualities primarily, including rhythm and rhyme? or primarily visual qualities?

Has poetry become less auditory and more visual in recent times, and if it has, why allow sonic qualities to rule breaks in lines? Is poetry on the page merely a necessary evil to serve auditory poetry? In other words is published poetry in books solely for the purpose of transmitting the words to a reader so that he or she can read the work aloud to themselves and others?


Probably the truth involves both visual and auditory factors. If not in equal measures, than at least in some sort of dynamic balance.

Specifically in terms of the question Is poetry on the page merely a necessary evil to serve auditory poetry? it is difficult not to perceive the Slam poetry sub-culture as implicitly answering an emphatic "Yes!" to the question. That's based on observation, in several anthologies, when award-winning spoken-word poems simply lack lustre and life when read silently to oneself, on the page.

But there is a joy in typographic experimentation, too. Witness the typewriter playfulness of e.e. cummings, and the typewriter-spacing enjambment in much of James Laughlin's poetry, both of which are very visual poetries, in the original. Laughlin's poetry is best read in monospace typefaces, where his typewriter enjambment becomes obvious in a way that is largely lost in proportional typefaces.

So, tt's sort of a chicken-&-egg question, isn't it? I'm tempted to just say: All of the above.

But here's a relevant point of factual history: poetry has always been written down and spoken aloud. Even Homer's epics were written down, at some point, or they would have been lost to us. One criteria for whether or not a poem is a successful poem is to ask: does this poem work on the page and read out loud?

Slam hip-hop poetry works well out loud, and usually fails on the page. (As I've said before.) Much of the overly-intellectual postmodern poetry that plays with typography and spacing doesn't work well when out loud. e.e. cummings is actually the exception, in that his poems read well out loud, even with the weird typography. By contrast, d.a. levy's books and posters of concrete poetry are an almost purely visual experience—images with text, rather than illuminated poems—as are Apollinaire's calligrammes (probably the earliest European experiment in intentional concrete poetry).

John Cage's texts were often intended to be performed by a voice—usually Cage himself—and he came up with various ways to "notate" the performance of the text, using spacing, markings, etc. This is quite highly developed in his written work, actually; and they often look stunning on the page, too. The most interesting aspect of Cage's solution(s) is that he came up with an essentially musical notation method of presenting text on the page.

The only really new things about spoken poetry in the 20th and 21st centuries are the technologies of reproduction and distribution, many of which, if you think about it, boil down to being extensions of the spoken voice (radio, music CDs, etc.), or extensions of printed material (TV, movie, kinetic art, the Internet). Personally, I don't think the poetic impulse has much changed, since people haven't changed all that much, collectively if not individually, for a very long time; certainly the techonology changes far more rapidly than do the cultures in which the technology gets used.

Here's a test for the strength of enjambment in any given poem: Take the work of your favourite poet, and type it out in paragraph form. What's missing, if anything? Of course it's a somewhat glib test, but it also points out that poetic text is not merely based on enjambed presentation.

I disagree with any implicit value-judgment, that prose is somehow less than poetry. Poetic-written prose is quite as exalted as line-broken poetry—as any experienced prose-poem writer will affirm. The prose-poem, and its venerable cousin, the haibun, may look more like prose on the page, but when read out loud will still sound like poetry.

There is a mirror-image to this question, with lots of enjambed poems reading out loud as bland prose. The blade of discernment cuts both ways. In fact, a major problem with much contemporary poetry is that it is dominated by prosaic writing. I refer to all those poems that are broken into enjambed lines, but contain no poetic writing, no music, no rhythm, no heightened speech: they're essentially prose re-arranged into arbitrary lines on the page. (Lots of the Iowa Workshop type poets fall into this category, to be frank.) In fact, many of these poems read merely as statements that are arbitrarily lineated.

What makes a poem a poem is not just line-breaks or enjambment, in exactly the same way that "what makes a poem a poem" isn't just rhyme, meter, or other formal elements, on their own. Prose-poems are just one form of poetry. A prose-poem is just like a sonnet or a haiku, in that it is a form in which poetic language is presented. The prosaicness, the lack of musicality, or lack of lyricism, is a general problem in contemporary poetry, regardless of form, and not just in prose-poems.

I am not a fan, as I have said before, of much Language Poetry. But I will say this for it: it really doesn't read like prose broken into arbitrary lines! So, I am willing to call it poetry, even if it doesn't often speak to me aesthetically.

My main objection to a lot of prosaically-written poetry is that it speaks to the head, not the heart. But speaking to the head alone is one of the overall, general problems in contemporary poetry. The vast majority of the prosaic poets do this, but so also do many of the experimental or post-avantgarde poets, including the Language Poets. Ideally, poetry ought to speak to head and heart, and be poetrically and musically resonant, no matter what other formal aspects are involved.

I like prose-poems that are musical and resonant. When many of the post-Iowa Workshop poets do prose-poems, though, it's quickly obvious that they're writing prose—and that they were writing prose all along, even when they broke it into lines! I also object when this group of poets insist on "grammatical correctness" in poetry: because again, they're writing prose, not poems. True poetry doesn't have to be constrained to using prose grammar and prose syntax: the whole point of poetry is to transcend and transform ordinary speech into something other. Transcending normal syntax is one way that poetry steps outside of time, and makes the reader have an experience of Otherness, of exalted states, of timelessness. Even great narrative poetry can do that, beacuse of the music. Longfellow's Hiawatha is very musical, very connected to song.

To return to the original question about how I myself might do line-breaks, I have to say: I don't really think about it, I just do it. A lot of the time, it arises organically, from the way the poem wants to move; its internal music.

I started out as a composer of classical and avant-garde music; so, in poetry, visual representation of the text on the page often feels exactly like notating a musical score. That's why I mentioned Cage; many of his texts are directly notated for performance. Cage also co-edited a volume of reproduced avant-garde scores in 1968, Notations, in which many composers were asked to contribute one page of written or printed score; reading through this collection is almost like taking a seminar on notational options.

To develop the idea of notation in poetry furtjer, I would cite the essay by Denise Levertov, The Function of the Line, in which she talks about punctuation as a principal indicator of how to read a poem aloud. From this idea, we might construct a notational system with regard to poetry's performance, in which different kinds of punctuation reflect different kinds and durations of pauses in reading.

One of Cage's lecture-reading notation solutions was to space out the text on the page exactly as it was to be read: each inch of horizontal space meant an exact moment of time. Thus, long pauses in the reading are represented as long gaps on the page.

So, in poetry, one might develop a hierarchy of notational pauses, for reading; for example: from short to long, line-break, extra space, comma, semicolon, colon, dash, period, stanza break. Obviously, other hierarchical orders of punctuational notation are just as feasible.

The advantage many formalist poets may have with enjambment is that they know when to break the line because of the typical way the form works, whether it's iambic pentameter or whatever. This advantage can also turn into a mannerism or a crutch, of course. I also like what brilliant poets do who break the form; for example, Edwin Denby and Rilke both wrote sonnets, and they're obviously sonnets, but they're not at all Shakespearean or Petrarchian sonnets; they're something entirely new.

I break the line when it feels right. But I never know what's going to happen until it does. Most of the forms that I use in my poems tend to be forms that emerge organically as the poem is being written. I might not even know what the form is until I've written through a couple stanzas; until that point, the line-breaks and stanza-breaks tend to be intuitive, never planned. Form emerges from the poem. I've "invented" a few forms in this way, that I have then used to write other poems in later.

When I use terms like musicality in this discussion, I'm referring to much more than the way the term is traditionally used in poetry criticism, where it is usually relegated to lyrical prosody. Granted that I am a musician/composer first, so my view of musicality is probably atypical among poets. However, what I am referring to is that inherent sense of music that great poems contain, whether they are lyrical, prosaic, prose-poems, haibun, sonnets, whatever, no matter what style or language is used.

In other words, I'm talking about an aesthetic affect, not a specific rhetorical tool. Frankly, I find the poetic-criticism definition of musicality as applied to lyric to be, well, too small, too limiting. After all, music itself is not limited to dance forms such as the waltz, which are the historical analogue to the poetic lyric. (Many lyric forms in poetry were originally song forms, and are historically tied to dance forms; even the sonnet has ties to music history.) Music is a very broad palette.

For example, when I read Cid Corman's minimal post-haiku short-form poems, I often think of Webern. Corman writes very simply and plainly, and one would hardly call them lyrics, yet they are often very musical.

One modern definition of music is that it is composed of the elements (in Western music, although not in all of the musics from all over the world) of rhythm, melody, and harmony, and counterpoint. In a more general sense, music is "organized sounds in time." If we read a poem out loud, is it not a musical performance, of organized sounds in time? So, a poem too can have melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint.

I think that's true of poems regardless of whether or not they are lyric poems. Musicality, then, is about those musical elements of the poem. The rhythms could be lyrical, or they could be jazz syncopations. The melody could be pastoral, or it could be industrial.

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