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long lines, long stanzas

May 23, 2009

This month at “poem” we’ve been discussing and seeking inspiration (and instruction) from Brent Goodman‘s poem “Evaporation” (available here at Linebreak). You can see in the prompt we wrote from “Evaporation” that some of the things that impressed us about the piece was how it told a story, introduced characters, claimed space for the narrator, enhanced imagery with a touch of science and used repetition to establish an interesting pace.

At the same time, I have been reading One Hidden Stuff (2006, Penguin Books) by Barbara Ras, and I realized the poems in OHS have something in common with “Evaporation” — long lines and long stanzas. “Evaporation,” in fact, is a single stanza: 36 lines. The opening poem in OHS is a single stanza: 48 lines.

I struggle with line breaks more than any other thing during the process of writing a poem, and as I’ve read “Evaporation” and OHS, I’ve realized that I rely heavily on shortening lines instead of extending them. Stanza breaks give me similar difficulty. I’m afraid of lines that stretch across the page, poems that go to the bottom of the page or beyond without coming up for air.

It takes guts to write long lines and long stanzas, to have faith that your writing is strong enough to keep the reader chugging along to the end of the line, to the end of the poem. Goodman and Ras clearly have the skill to do it and do it well. As a reader, I am spurred on and on, one line to the next, to the next. For me, it creates a sense that I am not in a “regular” poem, which would break at more frequent (and predictable) points in the phrasing, that I am instead, in a poem that has something it can’t wait, even until the next line, to tell me, a poem that refuses to let me decide when it will and will not pause, a poem that takes me out of ordinary time and rhythm and pace.

Here are the first six lines of “Moonshine” from OHS:

Out here in the backyard, we’re watching the moon to see if it’s closer,
brighter, bigger, anything special, being it’s the last fullness
on the last solstice at the end of the millennium,
and though it looks the same, it’s bathing everything in the kind of light
you notice when you think this is it, the end of something, a glow
you want to inhale, hoping it will make you light-hearted.

Even if I had been fortunate enough to pen those words, I wouldn’t have imagined breaking them in those spots, giving the reader such juicy, chunky lines. It’s wonderful, and Ras uses the long line persistently in the collection.

So this week, for my “poem” poem, inspired by both Goodman (long-ish lines, repetition and “evaporation”) and Ras (really long, sustaining lines), I challenged myself to write a poem with lines that extend beyond my comfort zone. It was a great exercise. The draft is here — a body length poem — for comment and critique; I’m especially interested in changing the last line. If you need the password, leave me a note in the comments of this post.

  1. May 23, 2009 4:48 pm

    To me the great model for long-lined poetry in English is William Blake: he wrote those great thundering fourteeners, in “Milton” & so on, but also surprisingly delicate ones, as in the Book of Thel. I’ve always aspired to be able to write that sort of line, but I don’t believe I’ve ever written a good poem in it.

  2. May 26, 2009 12:18 pm

    I love this thoughtful examination. To me, your line breaks always sound just right and completely natural. You are very good at them.

    Probably the more you read poems with longer lines, the more you’ll write like that. I’m thinking of Allen Ginsburg and Walt Whitman. Wallace Stevens and the haiku gangs have influenced everyone to go shorter!

  3. Michelle permalink
    May 26, 2009 2:01 pm

    “It takes guts to write long lines and long stanzas”

    I think so too.

  4. May 28, 2009 2:14 am

    Oh Michelle, you stole my comment!!!!! Yes, I totally agree, it does take guts and I can’t do it. Unless it’s a prose poem…..but otherwise, I start out long and end up taking up the hems!

  5. Michelle permalink
    May 28, 2009 3:07 pm

    Taking up the hems, I like that, Jo.

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