Friday, January 02, 2004

One of the things I like about Glenn Ingersoll is that he gets to the point. Responding to my comments on the line “being ‘implicit in all language’, the idea that ‘without it even an individual spoken word would lack beginning, middle & end’” here December 29, he asks “What the hell is he talking about?” Good question. Herewith, then, a little demonstration. Consider the following:




One letter of the alphabet. How do we know that I “wrote it” rightside up? Or don’t have it backwards? Here is another letter:




Now we can make some assumptions – one is that this is the 16th letter of the alphabet and that, unless I have some version of dyslexia, I have not confused it with either of the following:


b       d


What distinguishes these last three letters from one another is the placement of the vertical bar – in the latter two letters the bar comes either before or after the circle, but in the first it is positioned exactly as it is for the letter b save for the fact that it drops below the line. We can tell if the letter is rightside up or backwards. The line is already implicit here in the individual written letter. It is exactly this positioning system we call the line that enables me to deploy these letters into any number of conceivable combinations:


bop            pop            bod


And from here the leap into syntax is simply the next logical step. The line has always been implicit in writing & it’s no accident that we learn to write on pages that contain not solely the primary line at the bottom of the letter, but a secondary one that occurs at the top of the curve in an “o.” Those markers are there whether or not they’re visibly drawn wherever writing occurs. Even in poetry that attempts to break out of the line, such as Robert Grenier’s scrawl works, it continually reappears. A poem such as the one linked here is literally all line.


My argument the other day, however, was that the line is not simply peculiar to writing. It occurs in speech & can be found in oral literature even prior to the advent of writing. The line is literally what enables positionality within a word & the positionality of words within any statement. For me at least, that is its core definition. In oral literature, the line is most audible through the evidence of devices such as rhyme, which demarcate units & break a long tale down into measurable (and memorable) segments. Imagine Homer thinking of The Odyssey as one long line. Indeed, the very word verse etymologically recalls the primacy of the line, the function of turning back, reversing to a margin.** Thus, the instant you have a word, any word, you find the line. Without positionality, there would be no differentiation between pots, stop & tops and this is as true for speech as well as for the written.


It is precisely because the line is always already there, even when we mumble amongst ourselves, that it is so very difficult to pin down in contemporary poetry. One might as well attempt to productize gravity or light.





* Also worth reading is Katey Nicosia’s response, tho I can’t say that I share her enthusiasm for Russell Edson.


** Thus verse can occur prior to writing, but “free verse” & the prose poem cannot. & historically, this has always been the case. There is no known language in which the appearance of these forms occurs in “reverse order.”