The Line Is the Leaf
Two books above all others have taught me to articulate (almost) exactly what I mean by a line of poetry. Rightly, happily, each is a travelogue, a journal. Line moves. And line happens to move in time. The first is Goethe's Italian Journey, and the other is Thoreau's Journal: 1851. (Sometimes, distances are very near—"I have traveled widely in Concord.") In each, the transfer of authority from language to the worldly lapse of time leads on to Transport—by which I mean that line is visionary always when the poet means to see and only then to say. Here is Goethe:
While walking in the Public Gardens of Palermo, it came to me in a flash that in the organ of the plant which we are accustomed to call the leaf lies the true Proteus who can hide or reveal himself in all vegetal forms. From first to last, the plant is nothing but leaf, which is so inseparable from the future germ that one cannot think of one without the other. (366)
In the leaf, for Goethe, light becomes alive. In the line, vision fi nds its motive, motile shape and, from fi rst to last, the poem is nothing but line. I often tell my students that all I do in editing their poems is to remove those words that lie, like wind-fallen debris, as obstacles between a given line and its immediate successor. And I use the word "immediate" in its entirety because both poet and poem are themselves debris unless their transfer of authority to the worldly lapse of lines is unmediated by intention, unobstructed by mere point of view. Vision goes. It is a godly Proteus whose shifts of shape are instantly prophetic.
In Thoreau's Journal: 1851, we read:
...the oracular tree acquiring accumulating the prophetic fury. (231)
Oracles end where the oracular begins, where utterance enters time in the elapsing line. And it is wonderful here that acquisition yields to accumulation. Poems do not acquire meaning; they simply evidence meanings accumulated over time as and through the moving lines. Thoreau's "prophetic fury" is neither thesis nor conclusion; it is the acceleration of sheer presence approaching the speed of vision which is the velocity of light and time. The line is the leaf of poetry, a site and substance given over to action. When wholly given over, it is also true.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Italian Journey. Trans. W. H.
Auden and Elizabeth Mayer. London: Penguin Books,
Thoreau, Henry David. A Year in Thoreau's Journal: 1851. Ed. H.
Daniel Peck. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.
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 Donald Revell.