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Tiny Etude on the Poetic Line

Written by

Heather McHugh
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Year

2014

John Donne's "The Triple Fool" characterizes the lines of a poem (especially their breaking and turning) as a contrivance for taking away pain, of which love supplies such an abundance. I’ll second that, and generalize it a bit: the poetic line is an advertency constructed to contend with a world of inadvertencies— inadvertencies that, otherwise, could swamp us.

To my mind, Creeley is the masterful modern inquirer into the varying valences and vertencies of the poetic line—both its leanings and its turnings (for which verse is named). One might study long and lovingly the delicacy with which (in poems like "The Window" and "The Language") he uses the reader's inclination to "think along certain lines"—uses that inclination in order, precisely, to avert or advert it, sidestep the predictable, and undermine inclining. Lineated poetry, given its contexts of prescription and subscription, works to re-scribe and to de-scribe. Its course is far more significantly a matter of underminings than of underlinings.

The line is where the wish to go forth in words (along one axis of a journey) encounters the need to break off—or fall out—with words (along the other axis, a vertical).

A poem can be construed as a drama of a sort, set not merely against a vacuum or vacancy or space of emptiness (the white page's wings), but also against a great babble of presumption, anticipation, commonplace, chatter, twitter, and byte—a deafening background noise brought to the poem by the audience, by the very nature of its conventions, its automatons of memory and mind.

The world of common expectations (the fabric of our sense of the "usual"—a prefabrication, really, of habits of mind, laid down in neural loops and imprinted with clichés) supplies the circumstantial volume: it is brought by every reader to every act of language. Poetic acts contend with that circumstance, that source material, its overdose of underwriting.

The poet is a reader, too, of course—both of the world and of the work. So the poet's own mind has to be chastened in the act. (The act of revision changes the vision. One starts over and winds up under. That's why Thomas Mann says a writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for other people.)

Each writer/reader, pausing on the page before the poem begins, is a roar of mundanities. But then the words themselves, figured into syntax and line, bring quiet to the world.

Reprinted from A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee, by permission of the University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 2011 by Heather McHugh.

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