Tuesday, May 08, 2007


I have a question about the line and linebreaks. I’m mindful of a monograph I read by Bertram Bronson when I was in college on the standardization of punctuation & capitalization in English. The two salient points were (1) that the transformation from variable everything to an accepted standard occurred quite rapidly, essentially over the course of a single decade around 1760, and (2) nobody at the time thought to comment on it.

The linebreak in poetry – or at least in typography – is undergoing change, and it’s worth noting. When I first came into poetry in the mid-1960s, all poets & publishers treated long lines the same way – if it ran over the length of the page, one broke it, using a small hanging indent to indicate that it is not a new line. This is the model for the run-over line used by Walt Whitman in the first edition of Leaves of Grass and up until sometime around 1990 was uniformly employed by every book of English-language poetry I ever came across. Doing anything different was a sign not of innovation, but incompetence.

But sometime or the last decade, this consensus has begun to break down. In recent years I’ve come across two different kinds of typesetting for the run-over line. The first literally treats it as tho it were prose, taking the run-over line all the way back to the lefthand margin. In a verse text, this can make it hard (if not outright impossible) to discern a new line from the extra material of a long previous one. In some ways, this makes the line visually closer to the concept of a paragraph, distinguishable only by the capital letter at the lefthand margin. Since I’ve always tended to think of the line as a unit hovering in the general vicinity of the phrase & sentence, this newer approach offers a certain tension that I find I like. As if to challenge the idea of what is a complete thought and what are these units, anyway. In an age in which the average poet has read not only Saussure on the differences between speech & writing, but Derrida’s critique of Saussure, this makes some sense.

The second kind of run-over line usage I’ve seen is visible in Jorie Graham’s book Overlord, where she incorporates the extra material with a right-side hanging indent, whose actual starting position seems to depend on the position of the word furthest to the right of the first line of text. Thus, if I can mimic this in HTML,

clock if it was the kitchen, alongside the tapping of the wintered lilac’s branches on the violet-shadowed    

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen run-over lines treated this way, and I admit that I always find it jarring, perhaps because it seems to violate the left-margin bias I presume for the printed page. In one sense, it is probably a natural consequence of decades of justified type for prose, the right-hand margin now taking on as much power & potential as that of the left. If so, it’s a subtle, but deep change in how we read & indeed in what the physical act of read implies for those of us using English.

But Graham carries this dynamic one giant step further, by consisting running short or secondary or indented lines (however you want to think of them) in exactly the same manner beneath lines that go nowhere near the right-hand margin:

One where you can go back. I thought each new

now, new


are full, and the song begins. One day

I woke up, I was

Or, just to underscore that she wants you to know she is doing this:

Looked everywhere, all the way back. The


tells me

I have to come back here, here to the front, there is
no further I can go….

The variable right-hand margin here is as powerful, although in a very different way, as the left. These shorter lines make you go back to that first long instance, what once had seemed to be a simple run-over line, now makes you wonder, is it really? In Overlord, only the compound violet-shadowed appears on the second line.

This reminds me of discussions I heard in the 1960s that circled around Williams’ use of a three-step line (or stanza). Is it one line or three? There seemed to be some sense at the time that if any of the lines pushed past the start of the indented left margin of the next, then they were to be read as separate lines, but that if not, then not. The poetry of the period, and especially the more playful of the Black Mountain poets (Blackburn, say, a man who was willing to put s p a c e s between every letter of a word to get an effect he sought), often seemed to want to have it both ways, which is perfectly possible if your concern is – as Graham’s clearly is – with the poem itself and not the problem of categories. One could after all have a reversed stepped line as well, with three (or more) segments, each of which is indented less deeply than the one above.

In the English-language verse line, or at least the free-verse line, the most powerful word is always the last, the second-most powerful being the word at the left margin,¹ both of these occasioned by the left-biased gravity of the printed page in this language. Graham’s play at the right margin suggests that we need to look at it a little more closely. Is it conceivable, say, that within the School of Quietude (from whence Graham has come as a writer, tho she’s moved a considerable distance over her career), these basic dynamics of the line don’t apply in quite the same way and that therefore one might (perhaps must) initiate such right-sided play as a means of strengthening that side of the line? I don’t know the answer to that question, but it’s worth mulling over, dreaming on.

If Graham were more, say, Duncan-esque as a poet & did this maybe five times as often as she does in this book, Overlord would take on the character of a verbal dance (not unlike Duncan). As it stands, a poet could do well to read Overlord just to watch how Graham uses the line. She and Eleni Sikelianos are perhaps the two writers who do the most to explore its parameters & dynamics since Charles Olson. That in itself is something to think about.


¹ Carrying this out further, if the line is long enough to have a palpable caesura, then the third most powerful word is the one just before it, the fourth most powerful, the one right after.

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