I have tried line dancing a few times in my life, usually at weddings or baby showers, and I find it surprisingly energizing and pleasing. Something about rows of bodies, bodies in all sizes and shapes, bobbing and turning in sloppy synchronization brings out the playful. But what I want to talk about here is lines of poetry, lineation, and the way it can bring energy or surprise or joy to the body of a poem.
James Longenbach, in his pocket-sized primer, The Art of the Poetic Line (Graywolf Press, 2008), quotes the Objectivist poet, George Oppen, as saying: “The Meaning of a poem is in the cadences and shape of the lines and the pulse of the thought which is given by those lines.” Longenbach says in the preface: “The line’s function is sonic, a way of organizing the sound of language, and only by listening to the effect of a particular line in the context of a particular poem can we come to understand how line works.” So much of what is being said here has to do with music —cadence, pulse, sonic— yet how do we get sound from the silent field of the page. Longenbach —who prefers the term “line ending” over “line break”— claims that the music of a poem, whether metered or not, depends on what the syntax is doing when the line ends. I’m working on a poem I began in June, where the line endings have been shaped and reshaped in an effort to evoke music and uncover meaning.
I started the poem in a workshop, where the assignment was to write about an incident for which we had strong feelings then flip those emotions by contradicting everything we had just written. I found the assignment challenging, but soon settled on the events, two years earlier, surrounding the death of my 89-year-old mother. In June of 2012, my mother, who had been remarkably healthy, received a diagnosis of a stage-four, inoperable brain tumor. We were told she had weeks, maybe months. It turned out to be forty days. Her decline was immediate and we five children took up the roles of care takers and personal attendants. I had strong feelings that June as I struggled to lift my mother from bed to commode, but as I began to write about them, I saw that I could transform pain into something approaching joy, and the truth was, that as my mother’s days —and mind and muscles— were shrinking, I was grateful to have time with her, any kind of time. There was joy in caring for my mother in ways that I knew she had once cared for me. My parents had been avid ballroom dancers since the ‘70s, and the instinct to use the language of dance felt right. On my first revision, I had another insight: make the lines couplets. It thought it was brilliant—two lines, two bodies. It wasn’t. The reworked paired lines, now longer than the original, were wooden. The poem wasn’t dancing. It was barely getting off the floor. So I turned my ear to the shape, sound, and intention of each phrase, to syntax, to get at a lineation that would get the lines moving. Calling the poem “Pas de Deux,” I settled on a narrow, 23-line column, with a neat left-hand margin and jagged line endings. It begins:Swing both legs over the edge of the bed, legs that danced the meringue and rumba, lift arms to arcs, drape them over my shoulders, me now the waiting partner
I thought I was done (is a poem ever done?) until last fall, when a reader, new to my work, suggested that white space and an irregular left-hand margin would better get at the physical effort of lifting my mother (who weighed less than 90 pounds, but had little muscle control; it was like lifting a sack of water). I thought his suggestions were worth a try, and my next revision looked like this:Swing both legs over the edge of the bed, legs that danced the meringue and rumba, lift arms to arcs, drape them over my shoulders, me now the waiting partner
My new reader liked this effort but suggested the tercets were still too regular. He wondered if I, could push the lineation further, and offered this:Swing both legs over the edge of the bed, legs that danced the meringue and rumba, lift
Suggestions, from any reader, are just that—suggestions. These lines felt like they were coming undone, spinning out of control, and that wasn’t my experience in caretaking my mother. The lifting was a challenge and I did have strong feelings about bearing witness to my mother’s measured death, but I didn’t feel out of control. What we were engaged in was a kind of dance, both physical and emotional, with love and endings—of life. I’m still undecided on the line endings of “Pas de Deux,” but I think the shape of them will embrace struggle and joy, movement and stillness, the dance a mother and daughter do only once. That is the meaning of the poem. I plan to turn back to it soon.
—Jane Poirier Hart, WROB Poetry Fellow