As the 52 Haiku project was ending, I started cleaning out my garage and found a box of poetry essays from college. I had been hanging on to them in case I became a teacher (I didn’t). I thought it would be a good weekly project to review them here as I decide to find electronic copies or trash them. I’m sure they won’t all be available online but I’ll try to find a book or some way to track them down if you want to read them for yourself.
“On the Function of the Line" by Denise Levertov (1979). You can find a copy from Yale.
This is a very famous and influential essay often used in defense of free verse. It’s short but is full of great quotable things.
Levertov famously positions the line break as a tool in a poet's toolbox (as opposed to a style). My only complaint with the essay is that Levertov doesn’t really go into all that much detail about the line break. When she does she talk about its "fractional pauses," she mentions rhythmical, pitch and melodic score of a poem, noting it’s rhythm and hesitations (or pauses). Indentation she mentions as another similar method of scoring.
She talks about how these pauses work most naturally before nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs, words that don’t require punctuation near them to denote slight pausings. She also finds examples to show why the same pauses are ineffective around articles and blames a line break found around those words as a misunderstanding of the idea of enjambment. She says, “enjambment is useful in preventing the monotony of too many end-stopped lines in a metrical poem, but the desired variety can be attained by various other means in contemporary open forms.”
How can you tell if your particular score works? Levertov suggests you play around with line break variations and then have someone else read to you the variations. If they don’t “read the poem right," then you haven’t positioned your line breaks correctly.
Levertov doesn’t deny that formal verse can use line break pauses effectively as well and she uses Gerald Manley Hopkins as an example; but his example also shows how this goes against the natural grain of the formal ethos, to be “forcing an intractable medium into inappropriate use.” In other words, closed forms are great because they’re, well, closed forms. Why rob them of that when you can just default to open forms?
A discussion of line breaks inevitably brings up the issue of the prose poem, that poem without a single line break of which Levertov says, “some of our best and most influential poets have increasingly turned to the prose paragraph for what I feel are the wrong reasons – less from a sense of the peculiar virtues of the prose poem [I wish she had elaborated there!] than from a despair of making sense of the line.”
I have to admit many of my prose poems came to exist after I couldn’t make sense of their line breaks.
Levertov digresses in a few places. (What essay doesn’t?) She talks about open versus closed (metrical, rhyming) forms. She says, “open forms do not necessarily terminate inconclusively, but their degree of conclusion is – structurally, and thereby expressively – less pronounced, and partakes of the open quality of the whole.” Closed forms lack the sound of “dogmatic certitude.” There’s something about end-stopped lines that smells of certainty in an uncertain world. She calls open forms more “exploratory” revealing the the process of a writer's thinking. You can see this in some poems, how they seem to be written as if the poet is thinking while writing it. Closed forms often seem more results-and-conclusions oriented. She also mentions that open forms “build unique contexts" that “can’t be judged by preconceived method[s] of scansion” and that have a “grace or strength implicit in a system peculiar to that poem” and a “fidelity to experience.” All true but terribly, terribly vague.
Ultimately, there is no clear and precise depiction of what different open-form line breaks do other than provide a vague score of how to read the poem. Considering the well of documented tricks and tips for formal poems, you’d like the same kind of organized catalog of uses. This essay was just like an open form poem, exploratory and in no way conclusive or certain. But then this was the 1970s, a decade of scoping out territory more than big displays of poetical science.
Levertov also digresses for quite a while to discuss deleting private moments from an open form [but wouldn't you do this for a closed form, as well?] and then further digresses on the difference between the private and the personal in a poem, which is extremely useful for new poets but really off the point of this short essay. But it’s very helpful nonetheless so I'll quote her:
- Private: “associations for the writer that are inaccessible to readers without a special explanation from the writer which does not form part of the poem”
- Personal: “though it may incorporate the private, has an energy derived from associations that are sharable with the read are so shared within the poem itself"
Levertov gets cryptic toward the end. She talks about “Olson’s ‘breath’ theory” and newbs will be left to wonder what the heck this is without googling it, a verb that didn’t even exist when this essay came out. She's actually referring to another famous essay, "Projective Verse by Charles Olson." Here's a long essay explaining the other essay.
But finally, she has a lovely definition of poetry in this essay: “the voice of each one’s solitude made audible and singing to the multitude of other solitudes.” Quite lovely.
All this lead me to wonder about the success of the open form and how it still both appeals to mass audiences and writers and has simultaneously driven away many readers at the edges of its experimentations. The more generous and accessibly of poets have done well: Stephen Dobyns, Billy Collins (storytelling still goes over), Gary Snyder and Mary Oliver. And if that’s all too easy for some, there’s always Albert Goldbarth and Anne Carson. Open forms still serve. Line breaks do real work in open forms when used properly. This essay can help you practice on that a bit.