On Line Breaks and Coffee Breaks
This is Jorgensen’s:
This is my friend Lisa:
If you put those two together, add a bagel and a vanilla cappuccino, and throw in a discussion about line breaks and other matters of poetic importance, you have my morning. A very productive and mind-bending morning, I might add: the kind I don’t get often enough, and the kind that makes the aftermath of yet another giant winter storm bearable.
Lisa is a poet. I met her accidentally at a teachers’ workshop about a year and a half ago. Serendipity: her aesthetic = my aesthetic. Since then, we’ve had a couple of opportunities, between paying jobs and swim meets and basketball games, to get together and workshop stuff. And talk poetry in general.
She said something interesting to me today: the impression she took away last time we did this was that I’m “into line.” I’d actually never thought about that, but after a fashion, I guess it’s true. This came up over discussion of one of her pieces, a poem she’d showed me before; I had suggested, back then, that she play with line lengths in a couple of drafts, just to see what would happen. Not that I’m a workshopping guru or anything so silly as that, but in redrafting, that’s one of my favorite exercises: what would happen if I shortened the lines? Lengthened them? At the same time, I like to play with stanza lengths, as well–to regularize them, or de-regularize them, as the case may be; or to turn four-line stanzas into three, or five–just to see how the meaning or the reading would be affected. When a poet changes those things, different words or lines or images suddenly seem to come to the fore. Then the poet can decide: is this what I want? It’s nice, as a writer, to serve yourself up those options.
Back to Lisa’s poem, then. This morning she gave me three differently-lined versions of that same piece. I read them, and knew immediately which one I preferred, but rather than tell her, I asked her to tell me which was her favorite. Because I swear she’s a mind-reader, she didn’t bother to tell me her favorite, but mine instead. It ended up being the shortest of the versions stanza-wise, but with the longest lines. This led us to a discussion of Laure-Anne Bosselaar,
that poetry goddess, who taught me to look at structure as one more piece in the poetic puzzle. If, she would ask, you used couplets, what part of your content would that support? For instance, if the poem has two speakers, or two characters, two-line stanzas might be the structure that would best suit the meaning. Or not. But a writer would never know unless she at least considered that option. That’s the joy of it. A reminder, as Laure-Anne would point out, that the word poem comes from the Greek poesis–a made thing. A piece of art. Anyone can write words; but not everyone can do the work to make the words a poem. So this is what Lisa and I were plugging away at, while brushing sesame seeds off the papers: making art. Making art better.
There’s a certain breathlessness to that.
From there we went tangentially to Wesley McNair, who, in a workshop I took with him in grad school, liked to talk about the tension between the line and the sentence. That is always a fun thing to look at: a sentence will try to pull the reader through to the end mark; but a line break will try to slow that same reader down. That interstice always places an emphasis on the last word (or phrase or image) of a line, as well as on the first of the next line. That happens most strongly, of course, in enjambed lines–end-stopped lines slam the brakes on in a decided fashion; even a mere comma at the end of line slows things down enormously. So people like Lisa and me are suddenly provided with more choices in revision–long lines that conclude the thought? Shorter lines where the thought continues to pull the reader down the stanza? Some weird middle ground, like Walt Whitman?
Contrary to Lisa’s assertion, I’m not entirely about line. Sometimes I’m about word. Words. Word choice. I liked sitting in that booth this morning, drinking down my vanilla cappuccino, talking to someone whose expression did not glaze over when I differentiated between the intellectual word and the emotional word. Palpable was one such word I railed against: too much thought, too little emotion there. Cool: the thing in question can be touched. But what does it feel like? That’s the part I’d rather know about. We talked about a revision exercise, again, of Laure-Anne Bosselaar’s, where you go through and strike out all the adjectives and adverbs, and then read the piece without them. If the nouns and verbs are doing their work, Laure-Anne would say, then the modifiers aren’t, for the most part, necessary. The ones the writer decides she must keep become more like intensifiers–like exclamation points!–signaling the importance of what they modify. It really is a cool idea, isn’t it? Then, of course, I had to throw in a story about Baron Wormser, the mentor who oversaw my critical thesis in grad school: he, at one point, leaned over the table to say to me, “My dear, you really need to make friends with adjectives.” Again, however, it’s nice to have choices about such things at one’s disposal.
Thus the start of my weekend, and a great start, too. I have a packet of my own work that I sent to Lisa ages ago, which I can
troll through for her remarks; I love reading comments first readers make–someone else’s eyes, someone else’s impressions. I’ve had intelligent conversation about words. I sincerely hope I don’t have to wait too long to do it again. Right, Lisa?
I wore to breakfast (among other things) the lovely soft shawl Laure-Anne gave me on her last night at Stonecoast in 2004. As she was leaving, she took it off her shoulders and draped it over mine. Something for you to remember me by. Like I could forget, Laure-Anneke?