Monday Jun 24

hoppenthaler Toeing the Line, Kicking the Sentence.

The line, the line, the line. I keep coming back to it as I continue to shape those poems that I expect will comprise my third volume.
In this month’s interview, I ask Oliver De la Paz about he matches subject matter with form in his new prose poems.  Part of his answer has to do with the poetic line:

I tend to write prose poems when I reach an impasse with my lineated poems. I write them when I need to get a handle on my sentences. My default mode during composition is the couplet. I write couplets all the time when I'm composing new poems because I can't hide in a couplet. I can see all the wrinkles and can immediately test the integrity of a line and a line break because there's less clutter for my eye as I read the poems during revision. But I can sometimes lose track of my sentences. So when I need to get a handle on the musicality of syntax, I write prose poems as an exercise for my ear. Because of the density of the form, I can't rely on the space a line break affords for effect.

It strikes me that this may well be the same reason why I, too, have felt recently more and more drawn to the couplet.  I have recently taken to insisting of myself, and my students, that we revise our poems at the level of both the line AND the sentence (not to mention by the word, the stanza, and the poem as a whole!).  I sometimes have urged students to write out each individual sentence of a poem and rework each in three different ways.  One then might begin to understand the increased number of improvement possibilities that such reformulation might suggest.  One’s orchestration of the line must work in tandem (or usefully work against) one’s orchestration of the sentence.  I’ll most likely do this more, I think, as I continue to see that my students come to our university unable to write three coherent sentences in a row.  But a poetry workshop IS a writing course and so each semester it’s my job to deal with the sentence, the sentence, the sentence.

It’s much easier to teach a student how to write a sentence than it is how to decide what might constitute an effective poetic line, because the range of options changes from poem to poem.  Line length, the matter of enjambment versus the end-stopped line, a line’s individual integrity as a phrase or clause (or whether such integrity is desired in a particular poem), the words on which each line begins—these are the things poets worth much of a damn thinks about while they revise their poems; however, for the typical student at a state university who wants to become a poet (or any sort of writer), attaining at least a working knowledge of writing at the level of the sentence is the first hurdle that must be cleared.

I’m embarrassed by some of the poems in my first book.  I’m also embarrassed by the fact that my students spend so little time massaging, whispering to, screaming at, and exercising détente with their lines and sentences.  The good ones, though, see it.  They recognize that the making of a poem is almost always a hard birth, and they’re willing to lead the sort of life, insist of themselves the sort of discipline, that becoming even good at anything requires.

Should I earn the opportunity to publish a New & Selected Poems one day, I’d feel compelled to revise a number of poems at the level of the line, and that’s true of several in my second collection as well.  The shoddiness of certain lines undermines those poems.  Some might think it a luxury for a writer to spend so much time with a sentence or a line of poetry.  And it is.  But, as luxuries go, it’s modest, and the investment almost always yields a better poem.