A Fool in the Forest

A fool, a fool! I met a fool i' the forest,
A motley fool; a miserable world!
As I do live by food, I met a fool
Who laid him down and bask'd him in the sun,
And rail'd on Lady Fortune in good terms,
In good set terms and yet a motley fool.

As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7

L'homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.

Les Fleurs du Mal, “Correspondances”

Saturday, October 11, 2003
"I Come From a Long Line of Effort-Benders" -- W.C. Fields

Readers of my earlier posts on poetry will have gleaned that I am, to give myself as generous a characterization as I can, an enthusiastic well-meaning amateur. I cannot pretend to the marrow-deep understanding displayed by actual poets who blog (such as Messrs. Silliman and Snider, linked in the left-hand column), nor would I claim the skills of a seriously serious reader such as Aaron Haspel (also linked there). I know what I like, and I try to figure out why I like it (or why you should like it), using this site as a tool for thinking aloud.

And lately, I have been thinking about line breaks. I have not come to any fully satisfying conclusions on the subject, but I have decided nevertheless to post some of my thrashing about with it.

One of the stimuli for starting to think about this was a passage in a piece by Justin Quinn in Contemporary Poetry Review in which he considers several recently re-published collections by the late A. R. Ammons. I do not know Ammons’ work remotely well enough to venture opinions about it myself, and I’m not so much interested in Ammons particularly as I am in the broader issue to which Quinn addresses himself here [the emphasis in all of the exceprts below is mine]:
More generally, his [Ammons’] lines and stanzas, whether the protracted lines in tercets in Sphere, or in the short takes of Worldly Hopes (1982) have little integrity. By which I mean that many of the poems could be re-lineated in several ways without affecting their quality; the corollary of this is that 'only a person with an eidetic memory could learn one of Ammons’s poems by heart' (Helen Vendler). The point is a serious one. How serious is demonstrated by an exchange in Thumbscrew in 1999. Carol Rumens reviewing a book by Anne Carson suggested that the poetry was very close to prose and by way of demonstration she set one passage as prose (albeit with the line-breaks marked). Carson responded thus in the next issue: 'To print verse as prose is act of contempt that verges on falsification'.

I am not suggesting that Ammons’s poetry should be re-set as diaristic prose, but rather that there is a large difference between re-lineating a poem by, say, George Herbert, and one by Ammons. One of the main pleasures provided by Herbert’s poems comes from the skill with which he fits expression to his intricate verse forms, with their regularly varying line-lengths and rhyme schemes. Herbert’s negotiation of these difficulties is not just bravura performance, but connects with the themes of the poems themselves. So, to lose the lineation would be to lose a lot of what the poems are about and how they express it.

More generally, we invest a great deal in the idea of the line in poetry, especially as it has long been acceptable that poetry does not have to rhyme or scan properly. Carson’s over-reaction suggests an anxiety on this score. For some readers even now, free verse is not poetry. This is wrong-headed, but the free-versifiers also have to inquire about the border between their work and prose.
In his essay “Snapped Prose in Slim Volumes,” reprinted in The Castle of Indolence, Tom Disch commits the crime of printing verse as prose with relish, taking four passages from then-recent collections, eliminating the line breaks altogether and challenging the reader to identify any of it as poetry, or to tell the passages apart from one another. He suggests that the four poets
are in essential agreement both as to the craft of poetry and the service a poet may render his or her audience. Their craft is easily summed up, and its simplicity has made of poetry what Whitman dreamed of, the most democratic of arts:
Take any piece of prose you like
and snap it into lines of verse
like this, using the end of the line

as a kind of comma. You can create
a further sense of shapeliness
by grouping the snapped prose in stanzas, so.
When a poet is writing in a form with a line length that is fixed by the number of syllables, accented syllables or poetic feet -- iambic pentameter, to cite a particularly ubiquitous example -- there is virtually no discretion as to when the line must break. The challenge to the poet is to take that inevitable, mandatory break point and have it signify something, commonly through the conjunction of the break with a particular point on an ongoing phrase or sentence. Once one abandons a pre-set form or pre-set line length, how does/should a poet select the point at which a break will occur?

The passage in the Ammons essay quoted above drove me back to Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter & Poetic Form. Fussell’s chapter on free verse is illustrated with examples of poets (Whitman, Roethke and others) who, freed of any set line length, have nonetheless been particularly careful to justify the length of each line and the point at which a break will occur. He sums up:
[F]ree verse without subtle dynamics has become the received, standard contemporary style, as John Hollander notices: ‘At the present time in the United States, there is a widespread, received free-verse style marked by a narrow (25-30 em) format, strong use of line-ending as a syntactical marker, etc., which plays out the same role in the ascent to paradise as the received Longfellow style did a century ago.’ Or, we can add, as the received mechanical heroic-couplet style two centuries ago. But the principle of excellence in each of these styles is the same, and it can be perceived and enjoyed by anyone who will take a little time. The principle is that every technical gesture in a poem must justify itself in meaning. Which is to say that the free-verse writer can proclaim, with Ammons, that he is ‘released from forms,’ but he’d better not be. In free verse the abandonment of capital letters and punctuation must say something consonant with what the predications in the poem are saying. The sudden shortening of a line must say something. The degree of line-integrity or enjambment must refract the rhetorical status of the poem’s address. And any momentary deviation into meter must validate itself, must appear not a lapse but a significant bold stroke. For the reader to attend to things like these may be harder than for him to respond to, say, a skillfully reversed foot in a metered line. But he must learn to attend to them if he is to take a pleasure less doctrinal than artistic in the poetry of his own time.
[Apropos of Fussell’s reference to heroic couplets, you might take a look at Aaron Haspel's recent thoughtful critique of Alexander Pope, rich with examples of how a strict devotion to formal line-breaks can deaden the work of even a terribly clever fellow. A rigid worldview and an addiction to end stops will wear away at even a generous reader's patience.]

While this post was gestating, what should occur but that Ron Silliman himself addressed the question of lines and breaks at some length. In the midst of that discussion, he offers up an anecdote involving an earnest debate on the topic between himself, and fellow poets Denise Levertov and David Bromige in the ‘70s, from which he draws this lesson, which is not all that different from the one urged by Paul Fussell:
The mistake that David, Denise & I were all making wasn’t calibrating line breaks with “traditional” or “prose” punctuation elements, ½ comma vs. 2 commas, but rather the idea that, in the abstract, there could be such a thing as a correct answer at all. It is not that linebreaks are not meaningful, but rather that their meaning is not fixed. Like the use of rhyme, sound, metaphor, persona – any element you choose to pick – it depends entirely upon the context, the individual poem. Now, there may be obvious advantages for an individual poet to settle on a particular strategy so as to set expectations appropriately for her or his readers, but it’s not a requirement.
In other words, if I understand him aright, Ron Silliman agrees that there are any number of things that a line break choice can signify, but it really should signify something.

Line-snipping that serves no apparent purpose can take several forms. One is the breaking of what is essentially prose (as criticized by Disch) into lines of more or less random length. Another is the breaking of lines into a reasonably consistent physical length, so that the poem on the page has the sort of foursquare visual quality that is associated with more syllabically formal poetry. If the break is meant only to contribute to the visual presentation of the poem,

A third questionable use of the break is to cut the line after a very small number of words or syllables, no more than, say, four being allowed to a line. There is nothing wrong with the Very Short Line as such. Poets such as William Carlos Williams have made good use of it, as in his famous:
so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
A poem that, by constantly breaking its lines before they gather any steam, illustrates its own point by focusing the reader’s inner eye with particular intensity on each detail of the scene on which “so much depends.” But the technique is not always so effective. I for one cannot see a particular point to the extremely short lines in this extract, to be found a few weeks back on Silliman's Blog, from a ten-section poem by Stacy Szymaszek (of which we are told this is the entirety of the sixth section):
game of





in a note
Ron Silliman sees the point of this passage as being “the continuing refocus of attention”, but to what end is our attention being refocused? To be fair, I found these very short lines to be more effective in some of the other segments of the poem that are quoted, but the overall impression is that they are more of an affectation or habit than they are a thought-through means of conveying a thought or producing an effect on the reader. And how is such a poem read/recited aloud? If all those breaks also indicate a pause or stop-- and it is hard to conceive any other purpose the might serve in an oral presentation of the poem -- the listener is likely to have forgotten how the section started by the time it reaches its end, a mere sixteen words later.

So I remain perplexed. Perhaps Ron Silliman is right in the conclusion to Friday’s post on this subject: “Now I do cringe when I see poets who haven’t thought through the line -- including (but not limited to) the line break -- it’s far too common, though how shocking is it really that not all poetry is the best?” True enough, but given the extent to which the typical hypothetical reader is invested in the significance of "the line" in poetry -- and the function of the line and break as prime delineators of what writing is poetry and what isn't -- one could hope that even poetry that is not "the best" would show signs of more attention having been paid to so fundamental a feature.

Friday, October 10, 2003
As If Terry Teachout Needs More Links . . . .

Just about everyone on the culture-blog front has already linked to Terry Teachout's piece on the virtues of America's extinct middlebrow culture, but I am compelled to do it, too, for the benefit of the very few of you who may not yet have read it.

Terry does a terrific job of summing up the cultural atmosphere that I grew up in, in various suburbs of suburbs of Detroit, and particularly the central roles played by Time (especially the "back of the book" features) and Life magazines in keeping one's eyes open to the broader currents and possibilities. (This is closely related to the phenomenon I noted when I wrote about Bullwinkle's Corner, which is of much the same era.)

But dang it! did Terry have to disclose that he's a few months younger than I am?
For Your Pleasure

So . . . Between legal skirmishes, I thought I would take a run at finishing the rather lengthy piece on line breaks in poetry that has been sitting on my hard drive in a state of uncompletion for these past two or three weeks. What should I find, though, in my morning rounds, but that Ron Silliman has posted today, at length, on that very subject? (I'll be incorporating a reference to that post in to my own -- which means it is still further from completion than when I began, right?)

The FCC's Equal Time Rules required me next to make a stop at Mike Snider's Formal Blog and Sonnetarium, where a link led me to Jonathan Mayhew's Bemsha Swing which in turn led me (for the first time) to Aaron Tieger's fishblog, at which are posted (which had not been my objective but which I was happy to find there) the complete lyrics to "Mother of Pearl," always one of my nominees for Best - Roxy - Music - Song - Ever.

I just thought you should know.

[Update: More Roxy Music appreciation to be had here. At least two categories missing from Rick's list, though:
Most Underrated Roxy Music album: Country Life
Best Overrated Roxy Music Song to Play Loudly While Driving a Fast Convertible: "Love is the Drug"]

Thursday, October 09, 2003
Giving a Dam for Philosophy

In the Boston Globe, of all places, philosopher Richard Rorty discusses the "undeservedly influential 17th-century philosopher" Rene Descartes, the presumably more deserving Ludwig Wittgenstein, the late (and seemingly also deserving) Donald Davidson and the nature of reality.

I can't vouch for the coherence of Rorty's argument -- Brian Weatherson of Crooked Timber is disdainful, while still calling the piece "a much better philosophical article than you’ll normally see in an American newspaper" -- but you should take a look at it in any case, just to discover more than you ever expected about the epistemological uses of beavers.
Stop! You're Killing Me!

There is a major two-fer going on at David Giacalone's ethicalEsq?, featuring the knockout combination of lawyers, liars and the Bard of Avon®.

First, David dissects and elucidates the widespread view that lawyers have a somewhat . . . flexible relationship with the truth. He is particularly scornful of those Public Faces of the profession who insist that we are merely Misunderstood, and that the right public relations strategy would set things right. He is not buying what these worthies are selling:

"The profession acts as if it only has an image problem and not a fundamental crisis. . . ."
My message to the legal profession: You do need more PR, but it must be Professional Responsibility, not Public Relations. Image crafting only sounds like more deception to the average (and above-average) American. Like more lies. Lost trust has to be earned the hard way -- client by client, case by case, with the focus on competence, diligence, and loyalty toward the client; on responsibility toward society rather than toward guild and gelt; on vigorous overseeing rather than overlooking of ethical rules; and on service rather than self-importance.
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE! David goes on, in this same post, to rip the lid off a particularly scandalous deception: No matter what your lawyer may claim to the contrary, Shakespeare quite possibly did want to "kill all the lawyers."

I counsel you to read the whole thing.

And I, for one, will be watching my back next time I'm at The Globe.
Wednesday, October 08, 2003
There She Is, Miss Direction

Superconductivity or a gap in the hoop? Did Occam live in vain?
Penn Gilette mixes his disciplines.

[Link via Hit & Run]
Post-Electum Triste

Now that the California recall has been completed, I think I will be making a steering correction on this site to direct myself back into comparatively calm cultural waters, and away from the shoals of politics.

Politics, more than ever, has become a nasty, brutish business, no matter which "side" emerges the victor in any given contest. Republicans and conservatives [not necessarily the same thing] can be crass and chortling in victory, bloodthirsty and vengeful in defeat. Democrats and other self-described progressives [not necessarily the same thing] should not congratulate themselves on possessing one whit of moral superiority on that score, though, judging from some of the morning-after rhetoric that's floating about today. As a randomly selected Exhibit "A" we might consider the vitriolic, bile-laced acid bath that makes up much of the readers' comments to this post at CalPundit, itself essentially rational. There is rending of garments, there is gnashing of teeth -- and those teeth want blood, folks. *Shudder* And that material is mild compared to, say, this expletive-ridden post by John Scalzi, which comes complete with wishes for the violent death of those who don't see things as he does. (After suggesting that anyone who voted yesterday but does not vote in the next gubernatorial election should be "taken out and beaten to death with a pipe," he concludes that any who thought they were voting to recall Gray Davis rather than voting to hand the state of California over to "small inherently undemocratic groups" for all time would be of more help "by hurling yourself off the Golden Gate Bridge and smacking into the bay below with a nice, bone-powdering swack."

Great honk! as they say in River City.

Even relatively respectable liberal sorts like state Senator Sheila Kuehl are announcing, without so much as a single meeting with the man, that the new Governor will have to be actively ignored and thwarted in order to "save the state . . . from ignorance". (I wish I could recall who it was that posted the other day on the new prevalence of the idea that the only reason a person might have to disagree with one's own political views is that the person is a halfwit.)

Have done, good people, have done.

This election was a practical display -- the latest in a very long line -- of the dead end that partisan politics has become, regardless of which of the parties one personally favors. I am more and more persuaded by those such as Michael J.Totten or Roger L. Simon who see the American party system as a problem in itself, a bad dream from which the electorate of California just might have been struggling to wake itself in yesterday's balloting.

As for this Fool, for the time being I resolve for the sake of my own peace of mind to observe more (I can't look away!) and say less when it comes to matters political. We'll see how long that resolve will last, what with a Presidential election a-brewing, etc. For now, it's back to exploring matters of taste, That With Which There is No Arguing and For Which There Is No Accounting.

Nurse! He's fading! A dactylic hexameter, stat!

More anon.
Tuesday, October 07, 2003
Hey, Man! Vote's Happenin'?

Still colossally busy, with barely time to run by the precinct to cast the vote in the California recall, let alone post about it. Fortunately, that life-long liberal/Democrat Roger L. Simon has done a good job of summing it up.

He credits the Internet for his decision, doesn't he?
Well, yes, I’m glad you asked that question—it’s the Internet and blogging especially. I think in the era of the weblog, we are all able to think for ourselves in a very particular way. Blogs are liberating us democratically (small d) and enabling us to throw off the yoke of political parties. In the future, they may help us form new alliances based on greater knowledge, not these old time beliefs left over from the days of Boss Tweed.

Monday, October 06, 2003
An Addition to the Blogroll [sic]

Although I have linked and referred to him several times in recent weeks, I have been remiss in not adding David Giacalone's ethicalEsq? to the list of frequently-visited sites on your left. That omission is now corrected.

David keeps his attention on perhaps the most important aspect of the law -- the point at which attorneys interact with Actual Human Beings and should be expected to Do Right By Them -- does so with a wry and articulate personal voice. Even if you are fortunate enough never to need a lawyer, you will likely find something of interest in David's pages.

[P.S., It being October, I can't help but wonder: When Halloween rolls around, does David carve a "Giacalone-tern"?]