tension between temperament & the line

I love the line—the long line, the short line, the drawn line, the stretch that Martha Rhodes longs for. The lineation from the capitalization of the first letter to the punctuating period. The formality and rigidity of the line, hints at the structures of institutionalized learning, as well as its flexibility, uncertainty, and possibility.

So I tended toward prose, for my added love of punctuation, until I came across the broken line. “I didn’t know how much I loved to break until a teacher encouraged me to try writing a poem,” Barnett writes. I love the idea that “poetry is a ‘ruin’ of prose.” What does it mean to ruin something? When you ruin, when you break, you also create. I think it was Dr. Lytton who said that “to break” often has a negative connotation, as in to ‘break a bone,’ but it’s also good to ‘take a break.’ ‘Break up’ can connote both. Barnett thinks “it’s a matter of temperament whether you want to break or make.” I tend toward breaking because I like things that have an edge.

Before this workshop, I broke lines primarily by breath, suspense, and enjambment. I still do. But I realized that there are many other reasons for a line to break, and a poem can have the long or short lines that I love (and punctuation) and offer specificity in a compressed way. Compression is necessary for me, even just visually, because many of my poems are drawn from personal experiences (perhaps this shows my newness as a poem-writer). I don’t know how I feel about other people reading them, but I won’t stop writing them—and what am I doing right now, writing all of this on a public, archival forum?

I also realized a poem can be whatever it wants to be. In class, Dr. Lytton asked whether a poem achieved what it wanted to achieve, as if it had a life/impulse of its own. Not every poem will want to shrivel into itself. Upon its creation, it has become its own thing: it is free to grow. What poetry offers (for me), then, is the guise of compression; it is, after all, generally shorter than prose, though it wasn’t always. Can something similar be offered through prose?

I was struck by the way Rhodes calls herself a “compressionist,” the way one might call oneself an impressionist. I began to wonder if I am, “at heart,” a compressionist as well. I struggle with compression because it is often my goal—because of my “temperament”—but not always my instinct. My whirlwind workshop poem might have wanted to take up more space, in which case there was an inherent tension between the content and its form. Anything greater than a size 10.5 font freaks me out. The poem might not have wanted to be contained in one page or offer a translation at its end. As Rhodes mentioned, it may have wanted to veer more toward the right; it may have wanted to be something else completely. And poetry can offer that. It can allow you to “grow and dance in your own work.”

I still love the long line, the line that runs on purposefully and unapologetically and keeps on giving. Some of my favorite long lines come from poetry, and I want to push back on the necessity of word economy. Yet I still strive for compression because, for now, I have not found a better way to accept having my writing read by others or to accept my own writing. But maybe a long line can be compressed.

For now, I, too, am glad to be able to break.

One Reply to “tension between temperament & the line”

  1. Hi Joohee!
    I just want to say, this was incredibly well-worded. I felt similarly upon reading Rhodes in A Broken Thing and I feel like she was able to articulate the feelings and inspirations of many poets; we all want to reach a shorter line. We have this idea stuck in our heads that we need to get to the point of our message in as few words as possible. That, in effect, is what makes for “good” poetry. Some of the most striking poems I’ve read have been short, both by published authors and student poets with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working in the past.
    I kind of hate this idea though. The right side of the page doesn’t mean that you’re rambling, as Rhodes said in her essay. It feels like that in comparison to short lines, yes, but there’s more tonality, more expression, more substance in a longer line (the last point being both literal and metaphorical.
    I guess I’m trying to push back against Rhodes a little here, but still kind of agree since she called herself out. It’s a weird back and forth. I guess the idea is that we should admonish the idea that our lines have to be short at all. Explore, experiment. Write some long stuff. Turn your short stuff into long stuff. I’m all about being “long-winded. “

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