I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the line–you know, the unit of measure that, these days, essentially distinguishes poetry from prose. Specifically I’ve been thinking about the merits of blank verse (a.k.a. unrhymed iambic pentameter). I have a lengthy project going in blank verse and it’s (d)evolving from my usual poetic mode (compressed, elliptical, diffuse) to pretty much straight-up descriptive, with perhaps an occasional insight, prose.  In this instance, I’m no longer thinking about the line as a unit of measure but rather how to further the story and so I have to ask myself: why am I adhering to the Miltonic epic format and just write a novel with iambic-rich sentences?

Milton rejected rhymed verse, reasoning that it was decadent and, I’m paraphasing in an absurd way, forced the poet into directions beyond the poets control (which is something that I find attractive about writing rhymed verse). So he eschewed rhyme for his epics but kept to the pentameter that, somebody, or several somebodies, agreed was the natural length of line to say while expelling one breath. Of course Milton relied on enjambed lines in Paradise Lost to give the reader a moral choice, or so he says. And I’m certainly not doing that.

So Milton eschewed rhyme and then the early Moderns reacted to Swineburne and his treacly clan and followed the French in ditching the measured line and now most poets write in free verse though there are an increasing number of holdouts (or rather, new formalist recruits) but the majority of verse produced today could be a paragraph in a novel and a paragraph in, say, Tolstoy or Stendhal or Henry James could be split into lines of poetry and there wouldn’t be a remarkable difference between the two.

C.K. Williams found his stride in the late ’70s with the looooong, comma-spliced line. (His unit of measure is longer than your unit of measure.) His poetry has a strong, iambic thrust (I know what I just said) and can be scanned as pretty regular what? iambic decameter? His NBCC-winning book, Flesh and Blood, is a collection of eight-line poems with each line being somewhere in the neighborhood of twelve feet (or beats). Most of his lines are end-stopped with the occasional enjambent, which usually precedes a conjunction.

C.K. Williams was one of my first influences. I especially loved Tar and still admire the title poem. The long line is interesting; partly because you can get away with a metrical rythym without it becoming too regular, but also because of how the line is displayed on the page. Williams’ long lines, on most pages, have to be continued on what appears to be a second, indented short line. So his eight long-line poems from Flesh and Blood appear as sixteen line poems alternating long and short.  And I’m beginning to think this alternating long-short visual display of the long line, though not really controlled by him but by the width of the page, enhances his poems.

What I’m saying is this: if you were to present Williams’ long-lined poems on long, landscaped pages, they wouldn’t have the same effect. There is a relationship between meaning and aesthetics and how our eye tracks across a page (and if you don’t believe me, look at the money Web usability teams have sunk into eye-tracking software and hardware to see how users read webpages).

Williams has, for some reason, forgone the long line to the pentameter-based line and, really, it hasn’t been as interesting. Perhaps it’s because the long line allows Williams to break free of the line, which liberated the series of parenthetical phrases that litter his poems into their own units of measure without treading into the waters of the so-called, oxymoronic, prose poem.

The Coffin Store,” the poem that appears in the November 17, 2008, issue of the New Yorker, touches on themes that are appearing with more frequency in their pages: death and the decomposition of the mind and body. I suppose this is a symptom to the disease of publishing estimed poets, many of which are beyond the age of 70.

Williams is a shade older than 70. Born in 1936 in Newark, New Jersey, and began his career as an anti-war writer and now spends part of each year in Paris, which I imagine slows down the aging process.

“The Coffin Store” is an interesting poem; it has the feel of a villanelle (see Donald Hall’s poem for a recent example) with the repetition of Kampala and Krakow and Catherine and sky and bird and coffin throughout its three-line stanzas. It also contains the favored subject matter: death. Death, here, is a character, but more nebulous than, say, the scythe-wielding Death found in Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death.” Williams’ Death is more like a breath or an infection, something that can slip under your door like a court summons in the middle of  the night. This impatient petulant child screaming “DIE ALREADY!”

Further Reading

A review of Williams’ Collected Poems.

How not to be a poet.

The CRW Bookworm interview.