Monday 16 January 2012

Short Lines

Here is Helen Vendler, an English Professor from Harvard, discussing an anthology of American poetry in the NYRB:

“Printing something in short lines doesn’t make the writer a poet; it only makes him a person with a book of short lines.”*

First I chuckled. Then I blushed. After all I have been writing my own short lines for a few years now, calling them the ‘p’ word. It was like playing violin without any instruction in the instrument, trying to paint without knowing the color circle. Yet it felt right, seductive, as if I were actually writing poetry. After all, the motive wasn’t to express an idea, or even a feeling (I can always cry), but to reach across the transparent barrier to the other side, where Keats’s beauty keeps company with truth. I was reaching for it in short lines with little knowledge, and even less discipline.

I wonder whether I resemble the first pre-historic painters, who tried to reach across such a barrier – ignorant of technique, but trying nonetheless. They felt perhaps a similar impulse move them, and tried scratching an awkward-shaped animal on a cold cave wall. How many centuries did it take from one such impulse to what we now know as ‘cave art’? No one will ever know. I, on the other hand, have it easy. If I want to move from short lines to poetry I should crack-open a book, perhaps even one of Vendler’s own. I hope that’s all it takes - muses make no guarantees.

*Vendler, H. (2011). Are these the poems to remember? The New York Review of Books, Vol.LVIII, 18, 19-22.


CharLarrSF said...

Thank you for expressing what I had yet to understand. I quit writing several years ago because I knew I wasn't making anything special. But I did not know the reason. I thought what I was missing was ability or talent when it was really Discipline.

formerly a wage slave said...

I wonder. If you write in short lines you are not a "poet", but only a prose writer with familiarly eccentric punctuation.
"Poetry" is a word with clout. It is classy. Maybe there is not one good writer who has followed the trend of short lines, but then what is to be said about those who merely use short lines? Presumably they would like to say something. Perhaps they have not got great skills.
But if everyone who wanted to speak waited until they knew all of the truth, no one would speak. And, if everyone who wanted to say something unrestricted by our usual commercial purposes held back because they were afraid they lacked "talent", then would the world really be a better place? AFter all, pat of what's going on is the attempt to express emotions which are hard to grapple with---and that attempt, in and of itself, is worth something.
In conclusion, I think there are two separable points here, one having to do with a strict and technical use of the term 'poetry', and, secondly, a sort of complaint that people are putting on airs. Well, people do sometimes put on airs. (Don't get me wrong. I think CharLarSF is right to suggest that poetry takes discipline. But me personally as a person who is unemployed and caring for his elderly parents and very unhappy living in a land of Puritanism, Militarism, and Economic Repression, I don't intend to silence myself because a hoity-toity privileged critic looks down her nose at my occasional short-lined writing.....((But I should be aware that I aint no Shakespeare; fine he doesn't have my problems.)

formerly a wage slave said...

There is a further point to be made about so-called short lines. Who says that the conventional way of representing sentences in texts has some real basis in psychology or linguistics? When linguists try to discover how sentences work they break them up into phrases. And, when people write short-line texts,
they do something similar. It may well be that the short-line writers are responding to something like the base level organization of sentences. Moreover, there is a question of what can be achieved via the non-conventional visual layout. So, you've got those two factors interacting in the short-line writer's style. No, the more I think about it, the more I think that you shouldn't feel apologetic about your attempts at short-line writing. Call it poetry or not.

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