Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A line just distinguishes it.*

I've been thinking lately about the poetic line. Lines are widely thought to be the fundamental unit of (written) poetry, so much as to make the "line" sometimes synonymous with poetry itself -- hence Stephen Crane's The Black Riders and Other Lines, or (of course) Wordsworth's "Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey." Even if prose poetry disrupts that identification, we can still recognize "the line" as a thing with which all poets must contend.

So what makes a line?

First of all, the contraints of reading in English. We read words in sequence from left to right.

It turns out that sequence matters a lot in present-day English, if we care about meaning. Unlike Old English, which had case endings and other delightful grammatical clues built into words, present-day English relies largely on word order for meaning (for instance, for distinguishing between a subject and an object).

So in English we're used to our one-damn-thing-after another not being arbitrary, but rather determinant of meaning. That might not mean anything for how a line is composed, but it does mean something about how we expect a sequence of words to act -- we expect the sequence to matter.

We expect sequence to matter, that is, but it need not: mere proximity makes the line. The line is fundamental in part because it takes the form of that primordial organization, the list. It's the order imposed by any enforced linearity, like the linearity of reading in time. Any sequence of words can be a line, and in this sense, as I've been arguing here and there, the line is the form of no form.**

To me, that's consequential. The line is a degree-zero form, fundamental and yet terribly close to not being a form at all. The line as such therefore calls on, without itself being, the possibility of totally formless language. As Gertrude Stein writes, "[a] line just distinguishes it."

There are, of course, ways to impose further structure on the line: meter, for one. But even this is revealing: at this point, we are measuring, enumerating. The question of how many doesn't quite get us form.

And yet there it is: the line, fundamental unit of poetic form.

* "Where is the serene length, it is there and a dark place is not a dark place, only a white and red are black, only a yellow and green are blue, a pink is scarlet, a bow is every color. A line distinguishes it. A line just distinguishes it." (Gertrude Stein, "A Long Dress," in Tender Buttons.

** The "form of no form" obviously echoes the anthropologist Sharon Traweek's phrase "the culture of no culture," coined to refer to scientific communities (162).

Crane, Stephen. The Black Riders and Other Lines. 3rd ed. Boston: Copeland and Day, 1896. Print.

Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons. 1914. Kobenhaven and Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2002. Print.

Traweek, Sharon. Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physics. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988. Print.

Wordsworth, William. Selected Poetry. Ed. Stephen Gill and Duncan Wu. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994. Print.

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