Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium :
poems, mostly metrical, and rants and raves on poets, poetry, and the po-biz
Updated: 6/26/08; 9:16:57 PM.

 

ME & MINE











AIM: poemando


RESOURCES














NON-POETRY BLOGS













POET'S SITES: MOSTLY BLOGS





























































































































Click to see the XML version of this web page.

Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

 
 

Sunday, December 5, 2004

Here is Samuel Johnson, defending rhyme in his essay on Milton from Lives of the English Poets (italics Johnson's, but they seem only to mark the quoted statement):

The music of the English heroic line [iambic pentameter] strikes the ear so faintly, that it is easily lost, unless all the syllables of every line co-operate together; this co-operation can only be obtained by the preservation of every verse unmingled with another as a distinct system of sounds; and this distinctness is obtained and preserved by the artifice of rhyme. The variety of pauses, so much boasted by the lovers of blank verse, changes the measures of an English poet to the periods of the declaimer; and there are only a few happy readers of Milton who enable their audience to perceive where the lines begin or end. Blank verse, said an ingenious critic, seems to be verse only to the eye.

Of course, Johnson went on to say he didn't wish Milton had been a rhymer, since he wouldn't have wished Paradise Lost to have been a different poem. Nor am I much concerned with rhyme for now, but rather with the fact that there are only a few happy readers of Milton who enable their audience to perceive where the lines begin or end because of [t]he variety of pauses, so much boasted by the lovers of blank verse. Friends, we're talking enjambment and its obverse, the caesura, how they work in different ways in metrical and non-metrical verse, and how the dominance of non-metrical practice has obscured their function in metrical practice, even for some very sophisticated readers. I certainly won't finish tonight.

Oddly enough, my current obsession (it's not the first) with line breaks began with a review by Mark Ford in the December 2 New York Review of Books of James Tate's return to the city of white donkeys. Ford notes that the book's poems

all consist of a single, sometimes pages-long, paragraph, and the line endings are again so arbitrary as to make them almost prose poems— indeed on their first appearance in magazines and other publications some were actually printed as blocks of prose. It seems to me they work much better with the ragged right-hand margin, for it gives them that little extra bounce, and makes them feel more hybrid, impure, and unselfconscious than when presented as exhibits in the long tradition of the prose poem, with its illustrious pedigree and origins in the hallowed work of nineteenth-century French poets such as Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud.

That seemed so strange to me, and the passages Ford chose to quote were so delightful, that I went out and bought the book, which turns out to be, in fact, a delightful book. But reading it didn't help me understand how the ragged right margin separated the poems from the "hallowed work" of the French 19th century. It seems to me that they are prose poems. In another NYRB review (Feb 28, 2002), by Charles Simic, of Tate's Memoir of the Hawk, Simic quotes Tate:

The prose poem has its own means of seduction. For one thing, the deceptively simple packaging: the paragraph. People generally do not run for cover when they are confronted with a paragraph or two. The paragraph says to them: I won't take much of your time, and, if you don't mind my saying so, I am not known to be arcane, obtuse, precious, or high-fallutin'. Come on in.

Memoir of the Hawk has ragged right margins, too. Both books, in fact, look a lot like collections of blank verse — which they emphatically are not — and those ragged margins look a lot like line breaks. But line breaks, as Tate notes, are a signal to readers that what's coming is a Poem, by God, and lots of folks do run for cover when one of them's on the horizon. So what's going on? Perhaps the ragged margin is just the result of so many of us seeing so much unjustified prose on our computer screens in email, drafts, and discussion forums. After all, the justification algorithms in Microsoft Word produce really ugly text: maybe I'd leave it ragged, too.

While I was pondering all this, I came across Henry Gould's excellent reply to Laura Carter on lineation, and Henry and I went round in the comments, which brought me to Samuel Johnson tonight and to this perverse-seeming statement: the fact that Tate's ragged margins are not line breaks makes them, in one important respect, exactly the same as Milton's actual line breaks — neither should affect performance of the poem in which they appear.

More tomorrow.


8:18:42 PM    comment: use html tags for formatting []  trackback []

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

2008 Michael Snider.



Click here to visit the Radio UserLand website.
 




December 2004
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
      1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29 30 31  
Nov   Jan


ARCHIVES

Mar 2008
Feb 2008
Jan 2008
Dec 2007
Nov 2007
Oct 2007
Sep 2007
Aug 2007
Jul 2007
Jun 2007 (empty)
May 2007
Apr 2007
Mar 2007
Feb 2007
Jan 2007 (empty)
Dec 2006 (empty)
Nov 2006 (empty)
Oct 2006
Sep 2006 (empty)
Aug 2006
Jul 2006
Jun 2006
May 2006
Apr 2006
Mar 2006
Feb 2006
Jan 2006
Dec 2005
Nov 2005
Oct 2005
Sep 2005
Aug 2005
Jul 2005
Jun 2005
May 2005
Apr 2005
Mar 2005
Feb 2005
Jan 2005
Dec 2004
Nov 2004
Oct 2004
Sep 2004
Aug 2004
Jul 2004
Jun 2004
May 2004
Apr 2004
Mar 2004
Feb 2004
Jan 2004
Dec 2003
Nov 2003
Oct 2003
Sep 2003
Aug 2003
Jul 2003
Jun 2003
May 2003
Apr 2003
Mar 2003
Feb 2003
Jan 2003
Dec 2002
Nov 2002
Oct 2002
Sep 2002