Line Breaks in America Poetry
Call for papers
Line Breaks in American Poetry
In “The Making of the Modernist Canon” (Mazes, North Point Press, 1989), Hugh Kenner mentioned “the philistine complaint that modernist verse misrepresents mere prose by ‘lines’”: the common notion that modern verse is nothing but regular sentences cut into random segments. This is but one of many elements feeding the popular suspicion towards poetry. In the absence of metrical guidelines, how is one to decide when to break a line? And to what effect – beyond the effect of creating an effect?
The “philistine complaint” can and should be taken seriously: it presses questions that are worth answering. Ends of lines are indeed odd places, strange moments within a poem. When lines no longer fit in a strict rhythmic pattern, the location of the break becomes, more than ever, a creative choice. Against the idea that free verse meant the inconsiderate freedom of the writer to break lines at random, T. S. Eliot stated, in the essay “The Music of Poetry”: “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job”. Eliot will never stand for the philistine. Or, to put it with James Scully: “the free verse line break is the unformulated space we have to maneuver in, to risk production in.”
It is the enjambement, according to Giorgio Agamben, that defines verse (if not poetry) against prose; and more deeply, “Enjambement reveals a mismatch, a disconnection between the metrical and syntactic elements, between sounding rhythm and meaning, so that … poetry lives, instead, only in their inner disagreement.” (Agamben, Idea of prose, SUNY UP, 1995, p. 39) There is something dissonant in the line break; it bothers one, because it means to. An enjambment is a tricky moment, physically speaking. You have to step over to the next line without stumbling or, if you stumble, to do it with sense. And because it has to do with the physicality of poetry, it also calls further questions: how should line breaks be read? How should they sound? And how do they look like on the page?
America may not be the original birthplace of the crise de vers. However, the droning reminiscence of the Biblical verse pervades its poetry, and this may be a starting point for the emergence of non-metrical line breaks; in Whitman’s words the line preaches and narrates and goes on. Then there is Dickinson; inner breaks within plain iambic affairs, dashes, shorter or longer, that play with silence. And then the long debate between free verse, prose poetry and meter; the precise diagrams of Marianne Moore, Williams’s or HD’s alternations between prose and verse within the same poem; Ginsberg’s oral howls and their rendering on the page, or the other way around; up to the “new sentence” of language poetry, shadows of lines within blocks of prose.
Free verse has become old and conventional enough to have already been the subject of countless studies. More recently, research has developed around new topics, especially performance and orality, visual poetry and the materiality of the text, and the elaboration of new prosodic systems that go beyond meter and stress. The originality of the approach here lies not in its opposition to these various new fields of research, but to the minuteness of its focus. The break, which is a blank, is both obvious and invisible; by looking specifically at this odd moment, by listening to its weird silence, we would like to consider poetry in its (mock) dissonance, between sound and meaning as Agamben suggested, but also between unconventionality and hackneyed effect, between oral rendering and the page, between randomness and precision. And perhaps, to come back to “the philistine complaint” pointed by Hugh Kenner, taking line breaks seriously can in itself be a defence of poetry; it is an attempt at addressing the suspicion towards the genre without simply dismissing it as “philistine”. The urgency of such a defence is in no way specific to our time; but it endures.
We welcome papers addressing line breaks in American poetry from the 19th century to contemporary writing, by putting them to the test of textual analysis, of physical and vocal performance and of material studies.
Papers should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org by November 20th, 2018.
Authors are invited to follow Transatlantica’s style sheet: https://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/4991
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