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Where It Breaks: Drama, Silence, Speed, and Accrual

Written by

Dana Levin
Contributor Page

Year

2014

I am not interested in the line as much as where it breaks. I am interested in drama.

Eliot’s Prufrock’s "Do I dare": the pregnant
hesitation.

Of course, to link breakage and drama is to lend enjambment the weight of content: white space as communicative pause.

Rises and falls in tension, the pauses that accompany a draw of breath during a cry or rant, a loss for words due to a struggle to articulate, express or understand, the sensation of being overwhelmed by feeling or epiphany. A physical blacking out.

I want the line-break to tell me something about how a poem feels: where a speaker butts up against silence.

We are made silent by awe, shock, doubt, bliss, rage, fear, grief, shame, tristesse.

We are made silent by confusion.

When William Carlos Williams says of Elsie:

voluptuous water
expressing with broken

brain the truth about us— (218)

He’s not, for a minute, sure how he feels. How he feels percolates in white
space.

Enjambment enacts the drama, and pace, of feeling or thinking through.

Because I am interested in drama, I am interested in how fast a line moves.
 

When Ginsberg says:

   who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality

we hurtle towards a wall. Stop short, rear back, and hurl ourselves again:

   who sang out of their windows in despair, fell out of the subway window, jumped in the filthy Passaic, leaped on negroes, cried all over the street, danced on broken wineglasses barefoot smashed phonograph records of nostalgic European 1930s German jazz finished the whiskey and threw up groaning into the bloody toilet, moans in their ears and the blast of colossal steamwhistles (14)

like an animal trapped—slam!
with its howl.

Ginsberg’s barely containable line (for that’s what each who-beginning stanza looking thing is, one long line meeting the iron edge of a page too small for it) was unique to the poetry of the 1950s; the 2000s have offered us a bounty of square books and prose blocks: lines streaming from margin to margin, often morphing mind/feeling/locale/subject/self as they flow, channel-surfing, flipping the dial, dazzled and weary, dazzling and wearying, driven on by engines of hope and worry: lines that well-capture that feeling of brakes-off acceleration, inundation (desperate, terrifying, exhilarating), that characterizes so much of our age.
 

Under such conditions, heavy enjambment arrests me.

I’m not dead but I am
standing very still
in the backyard
staring up at the maple
thirty years ago
a tiny kid waiting on the ground
alone in heaven
in the world
in white sneakers (51–52)

I could meditate for quite some time on "I’m not dead but I am."

Admittedly, the narrative relayed above in Michael Dickman’s "We Did Not Make Ourselves" is fairly pedestrian, and the word-choice lacks the lexical exuberance that is another marker of the contemporary moment—which offers an interesting kind of relief and novelty to this reader. But ultimately, it's the pace at which I am asked to move through this narrative that so entices: Dickman (like Williams and Creeley and Guest and a host of other white-spacers before and with him) invites me to participate in the construction of memory, of perception, in something that feels like real time; as the lines descend down the page, I literally drop down into experience: from thought ("I’m not dead but I am") to sneakered feet.

Accrual is what is at work here, not today's familiar roll of successive, loosely connected impressions. Dickman tends to build a scene or thought slowly (short lines) and then extend in a rush, as in this funny and rather gorgeous escalation:

We did not make ourselves is one thing
I keep singing into my hands
while falling
asleep

for just a second

before I have to get up and turn on all the lights in
the house, one
        after the other, like opening
        an Advent calendar (51) 

The processional pace of meditative thought, the nod off into the stanza break (for just a second) before the leap out of bed and the sort-of-spooked/sortof-slapstick socks-slipping-along-the-wood-floor-of-that-very-long-line that brings in the Light: I’m not just thinking with the speaker of this poem, I am moving like him; the enjambments and the sudden line extension across the page teach me how.

Drama, from the Greek meaning "action," derived from "to do."

When my students read poems aloud, I insist they "read" the line-breaks (this is not very popular).

Feeling speaks where the line is silenced.

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse. (Eliot 4–5)

The line is a unit of experience.


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 Dana Levin.

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