Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Monday, 17 January 2011

"The Art of the Poetic Line" by James Longenbach, Graywolf, 2008

It begins with Shakespeare, pointing out that one of the two earliest printings of King Lear was in prose. The effect of lineating this prose is considered - the first of many "worked examples" in the book. Some poets are investigated too, to see how their styles changed.

He writes that "The drama of lineation lies in the simultaneous making and breaking of our expectation for pattern" (p.70). Whereas sentences are expected to be gramatically complete and correct, lines have license to be verbless, a fragment, etc.

Throughout there's an emphasis on what free-verse, formal verse and prose can learn from each other - "We wouldn't be attracted to the notion of prose poetry if it didn't feel exciting to abandon the decorum of lines" (p.xi). Once we appreciate how the line-break is used in free verse our appreciation of formal verse's line-breaks is enriched. He writes that "When [Williams] followed the prose poems of 'Kora in Hell' with the lineated poems of 'Spring and All' [,] writing prose revitalised the syntax of the poems, and the new syntax demanded that Williams explore a wider variety of line endings, moving away from his more predictable dependence on the parsing line." (p.99). He presents extracts from Joyce's Ulysses showing how line-breaks are used and how punctuation can be eliminated from prose without replacing it by line-breaks.

In section 2 he considers 3 functions (amongst others) of line-breaks in free verse

  • "annotate" - "annotating the syntax with emphasis that the syntax itself would now otherwise" -
  • "parse"
  • "end-stopped"

pointing out that "The excessive use of the annotating line can come to seem mannered or fussy, a way of jazzing up uninteresting syntax just as the excessive use of the parsing line can come to feel dull, a way of merely repeating what the syntax is already doing on its own." (p.57). Lines that are short can appear "tricky" (too many syllables emphasised). Long lines have a tendency to be broken in two by the reader.

He writes that in William Carlos William's "Spring and All"

The sunlight in a
yellow plaque upon the 
varnished ...

"Williams uses enjambment to determine the placement of rhythmic stress, playing the irregularity of his line endings against the chaste decorum of his three line stanzas" (p.51), the 2 weak endings emphasising the words that follow.

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