By JOHN WILKINSON.
A recent (2023) posting by Jeremy Noel-Tod to his Substack blog ‘Some Flowers Soon’, muses on line-breaks in free verse, prompted by a poet remarking in public discussion that occasionally they shift a page’s right margin to see what effect this will have, a practice suggesting line-breaks are of critical importance, or that they are arbitrary, or both. Giorgio Agamben’s The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics has conferred philosophical respectability on the axiom that what distinguishes poetry from prose is line-breaks, but as Noel-Tod, editor of The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, would be the first to acknowledge, confutations of this axiom are rife. Here I consider line-breaks or what might pass for line-breaks in recent work by two prominent contemporary poets, one American and one British, revealing a strange affinity in their different kinds of line-breaks’ diminution into insignificance. Both poets’ line-break management will be contrasted with the exemplary practice of Ezra Pound, before the essay finishes with some thoughts on why line-breaks and the weakening of free verse through embrace of external authority, should matter.
Monica Youn’s from from is a prestige poetical product whose Acknowledgments flaunt a comprehensive accreditation by the American poetical-industrial complex in a staggering roll-call of fellowships, prizes, residencies and retreats, academic sponsorships, top-ranked journals and high-profile friends thanked. Youn’s book has also attracted endorsements from two poets I greatly admire, Joyelle McSweeney and Cathy Park Hong. It seems reasonable therefore to regard from from as exemplifying the state of the poetic art in the US. This book could be used to present an anthology of exceptions to the proposition that line-breaks are of determining poetic significance. More than half the book is to all appearances in prose, and other sections comprise sets of statements, syntactically complete and each occupying its separate line, on the page appearing more like epigrams than verse while more instructive than witty. Verse where it occurs tends to be recognisable through couplet form, but its line-breaks cannot bear the metaphysical significance asserted by Agamben, and are quite possibly set by word processor page margins, as per Noel-Tod’s report. There are exceptions to Youn’s exceptions where stanza organisation performs some work, notably in ‘Study of Two Figures (Echo / Narcissus)’, but on the whole, line breaks seem irrelevant to the status of Youn’s writing as poetry. Yet assertively this is lyric poetry, as assertively as the ‘American lyric’ of Claudia Rankine, and may not be consigned to the category of ‘chopped-up prose’ – a common charge, often regarded by poets as philistine, but which might pithily indicate a shortcoming in the line-break test.
‘Study of Two Figures (Echo / Narcissus)’ demonstrates how shaping discursive prose into stanzas can introduce a rhythmic force which is also conceptual – to read this poem is to feel how an argument is urged forward while assent is enforced. Here are the first three stanzas of the poem’s twelve:
To “force a flower” sound more violent
than the process turns out to be: more a sequence
of planned deprivations, fashioning a little well
any “force,” such as it is, inheres
in this excess of intentionality, the way one
might set a table or bait a trap. It’s an American
tendency to treat such
care, as itself proof of guilt—premeditation
as what tips the scales from mere mishap
Possibly Youn wrote this poem first in prose and subsequently broke it into stanzas, but that would be immaterial to a reader joined into the sensation of proceeding with its argument. Within the stanzas, syntax passes over line-breaks easily, with no anxiety evinced that either poem, life or the world might end, but does anyone except the most show-offy academic close reader, feel or claim such anxiety except in very rare cases? Line breaks slightly thicken the significance of ‘violent’ and ‘care’; the stanzas are short and syntactically coherent enough to act effectively as long lines, introducing stresses thickening ‘want’, ‘deliberateness’ and ‘crime’. Stanza breaks in Youn’s poem make the poem work as a series of steps exciting attention, activating the stanza the breaks begin and end – breaks serve to induce an internal force-field whose name is rhythm, or at least a faint pulse in the otherwise colourless prose. At the same time, the authority of the poem is located externally, asking assent to propositions whose arrangement instructs a reader, as though in reciting a catechism. This poem’s stanza breaks mitigate such authority with a becoming hesitation.
The balance works in ‘Study of Two Figures (Echo / Narcissus)’ because the breaks do not conform to syntactical units (although the stanzas do tend to comprise semantic units), so taking effect as both retrospective and prospective, assuming part of the function of rhyme, with the second line of each stanza heard as poised on the fulcrum of a caesura. Much contemporary free verse does not function as verse at all, its breaks determined simply by syntactical units; therefore the poet/reader cannot accord with a rhythmic inducement or sense the break’s semantic significance – not so much that death might supervene, or horror of horrors! that the poem might end, as that the expectation or surprise of a break can make a line feel satisfying or crackle with tension.
Monica Youn’s practice invites comparison with what Andrea Brady in contributing to a Fence magazine symposium titled ‘What’s the Problem with American Poetry Right Now?’ (maybe the felt necessity to be ‘right now’ is part of the problem), identifies as the ‘arrangement poem’. She describes this prevalent American poetic form as ‘structured as series of discreet propositions, convening under a title. It has the character of a reading journal, a bundle of apperceptions, a catalogue of surprises, an inventory of gimmicks, a cross-section of digital strata’.1 (‘Gimmick’ has become a critical term labelling a category of things typifying late capitalism – see Sianne Ngai’s Theory of the Gimmick.) Brady admits the arrangement poem’s ‘desire to overturn the existing world whose violence is embedded like shrapnel in the commodities that surround us’, but her compelling essay contends for ‘the continuing value of poetic argument’. Where the arrangement poem disperses the subject in rubble, prey to a pessimistic submission to the totality of the fragmented, she argues for ‘forms of subjectivity that extend beyond the triviality of making arrangements’, a sly characterisation dissing the most self-consciously radical poetry as a hobby harmless as flower-arranging and risking as little. The arrangement poem differs from the ‘chopped-up prose’ characteristic of the sentimental narrative poems now the middle voice of American poetry; rather it represents a collapsed avant-garde in its eschewing of syntactical continuity. Line-endings lose power when artful arrangement is the exercise; such poems rest content in their ineffectuality – what can follow each exhibit but a pileup of further evidence whose breaking-off implies little more than exhaustion or boredom?
Youn’s cumulative, spatially-separated sentence-poems depart from the arrangement poem because like ‘Study of Two Figures (Echo / Narcissus)’ they proceed step-wise. The opening of the long piece ‘Detail of the Rice Chest’ illustrates the technique:
In the 2015 Korean film The Throne, the rice chest sits in the center of the vast symmetrical courtyard of Changgyeonggung Palace.
The film is called The Throne in English; in Korean it is called Sado.
A Korean-speaking audience would be presumed to know in advance who Prince Sado was.
An English-speaking audience is presumed not to have this knowledge.
Although this is a historical film, for a Korean-speaking audience, the well-known story functions as mythology, at the level of symbol.
For an English-speaking audience, the unknown story functions as narrative, at the level of plot.
There is an “I” in this poem.
I know who Prince Sado is. I can read the Hangul word Sado. But I do not speak Korean.
These statements, which are not propositions as they are not open to rebuttal, march on for nine pages. The intervention ‘There is an “I” in this poem’ brings to mind Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric; here too a style of prose similar to Rankine’s claims lyric status, since everyone knows the presence of ‘I’ signifies lyric. (Rankine appears in the book’s Acknowledgements.) Why is this set of statements (part of) a lyric poem? One answer might be that it demands: Pay attention! in a way learnt for lyric reading. Until the appearance of ‘I’, the poem’s sentences could be set as ordinary prose and read as a kind of op-ed for slow learners; but their separation asks alertness to the possible resonance of each sentence. Casual reading of the text would be liable, given that from from is centrally occupied with the tensions between this Asian American poet’s self-as-experienced and self-as-object, to leave unruffled the insensitivity, deafness and blindness of white people, whereas readers (if not white, stained with whiteness) are prevailed on here, sentence by sentence, to fully take in what incontrovertible statements demand of them, essentially a conversion experience. Don’t just assent, easily, but reform under the scrutiny of each sentence. In other words, ‘Detail of the Rice Chest’ is a poem because it demands lyric reading – which given the socio-political profile of poetry readers, means actually the poem is likely to receive easy assent.
If Youn’s poem says it’s a poem with an ‘I’ in it, there’s a lyric on the page. But it’s a lyric-denying lyric. It asserts: most of what defines a lyric is frou-frou, old aesthetic stuff of no present consequence, whereas this new American lyric is serious. It’s Puritan. What it pronounces is unarguable. There is no type of ambiguity exploited, none permitted; one task of such poetry is to expose ambiguity as an élitist ideological formation, a calculated confusion. Attention must be trained not on the micro-moves of the prosody but on the reader’s conscience. In common with Rankine’s immensely influential books, from from is strenuous devotional poetry – not the kind of devotion that wrestles with doubts, but the kind that sternly tests a reader’s state of grace. This form can be designated the tractarian poem, its relationship to lyric poetry much like that of the biblical tract to the Bible.
Line-breaks can, however, reduce to irrelevance even in quite conventional verse-forms, and in poetry that seems to move an argument through extended syntax. Here is a poem from the British poet Toby Martinez de las Rivas’s recent book Floodmeadow:
Maugré mon cuer
I was married on the floodmeadow,
& the intercessor said: Do you think he comes
to bring you rain? He comes to hunt you
down among the rushes with the bells on his reins
ringing as the wheel turns on its axle;
as the river sings with a cold voice through the stones
& around the river there is the floodmeadow
& the psalms with the deer panting.
I have hated you as light drains from the world,
hated you in the dayfall & in the night,
in the slow hours when all the faces are blank
& nothing rises in them like the water.2
In this stanzaic, largely anapaestic poem, breaks produce an effect at two points: ‘hunt you | down among’ which chains two near-proverbial phrases, and ‘panting’ at the end of the second stanza, yielding a dramatic pause before ‘I have hated you’ even as deer’s or river’s psalms guarantee the momentarily-deferred advent of the transcendental, while directing to the Biblical psalms as a phrasal model for the poem’s third and last stanza.
The present poem occurs about half-way through Floodmeadow, and by this point it is obvious that de las Rivas’s poems hew to a template, each hastening towards encounters with God through varieties of transcendence often afforded by (impressively observed) details of the natural world. Connective ampersands are characteristic; links made between phenomena are weak since all point in the same direction and the poem can’t wait to get there. The positioning of ampersands at the start of four lines, hasty signs of onrush, illustrates the line-breaks’ insignificance. The final stanza’s apparent negation plays into the transcendence met by onrush; the hated intercessor’s role is to underwrite what must rise. Were the intercessor to seed doubts seriously troubling faith, a few stumbles might be expected in the galloping rhythm. But nothing can get in the way when the endpoint is pre-determined. Such inevitability drains the poems of a power which their meticulous detail and rich vocabulary might otherwise gather, reducing them to exhibits of a poetic attitude of exemplary Englishness, despite numerous European literary allusions and occasional Buddhist terminology. This English pastoral however, lacks the crushing material love of a Clare or Gurney. Its beautifully-observed birds reduce to props. It is hard to resist the idea that de las Rivas’s Christian faith makes his poems lazy, and allows laziness in readers. ‘Praise picnicking in the English countryside’ as John Lydon snarled, and make sure you left it as you found it.
No-one could doubt that ‘Maugré mon cuer’ is a lyric poem; its very appearance on the page renders that assumption incontrovertible. Yet the poem’s title leads to expectation of much more, of a dwelling rather than a launch-pad, and of recognition of the possible delusions of faith; it is taken from a motet by Guillaume de Machaut whose singer never did receive a sign of love from the lady whose love he feigns to celebrate. This would require kinds of reflexiveness and involution that prosodic counter-currents can accomplish. The poem’s restraint from traditional lyric resources and effects feels as motivated as Youn’s. The structuring principles of both books are theological, in the one case tractarian and in the other spirit-fuelled.
Such religious instrumentalising of lyric returns this essay to its opening with Noel-Tod’s thoughts on breaks in free verse, for neither Youn’s nor de las Rivas’s poetry is free. For sure, as Pound reminds us, no verse is free, and neither is any poet free from external or internally-compelled dictates. What a poem can do, however, whether free in a prosodic sense or following a received form, is to free itself from those dictates, if only to a limited degree, and from its designing or unwitting author. A poet may break for freedom, but freedom requires recognising that breaks are but one instrument in the signifying rhythmic poise or imbalance of a line, and in relation to the constraints whose presence must be felt if not fully-recognised for freedom, however limited, to be actuated rather than asserted. Ezra Pound’s free verse remains the essential study. The poise of ‘The Spring’ (first published in March 1915), a poem coming to rest in an endless fade-out after division by a dazzling volte, exemplifies prosodic control:
Cydonian Spring with her attendant train,
Meliads and water-girls,
Stepping beneath a boisterous wind from Thrace,
Throughout this sylvan place
Spreads the bright tips,
And every vine-stock is
Clad in new brilliancies.
And wild desire
Falls like black lightning.
O bewildered heart,
Though every branch have back what last year lost,
She, who moved here among the cyclamen,
Moves now only a clinging tenuous ghost.
It may be a mistake to press too hard on the geographical and historical allusions of this poem; they impart a general sense of a lost classical idyll. More important is their conjuring of a paradisiac garden. Meliads are dryads exercising divine authority over all plants, and while Cydonia refers to an ancient Cretan city it also names the quince tree; hence the ‘attendant train’ of spring might include ‘bright tips’ and ‘new brilliancies’ – the ‘Meliads and water-girls’ expressed visually in their burgeoning. The lines of the poem themselves are ‘stepping’ prosodically, shorter steps than Youn’s, until the unexpected (because this is free verse) rhyme of ‘place’ pauses to allow looking about, finding the previous antiquarian hints suddenly brought forth in the ‘bright tips’ of the orchard and ‘brilliancies’ of the vineyard. What of the line-break in ‘And every vine-stock is | Clad in new brilliancies’? Could any word be at once more self-effacing and assertive at line-end than is? There can be no semantic ending with is outside Aristotelian philosophical discourse. Is here helps enable a spring forward into full springtime, landing on the word clad; aurally, it becomes evident through the emphasis on clad that this is the Meliads’ purpose, to dress bare branches and stocks. Is serves also to influence brilliancies through its aural lingering, suggesting both that these brilliances form a unity, form a singularity from a plurality, and that they persist. Neither can fullness be enough, being followed by and twice over – which, like is, is a word any instructor would advise against using in a poem at all, let along prominently at start or end of a line, no matter if disguised as an ampersand by de las Rivas. ‘And wild desire’ performs both a break, a stanza break, and a continuity, a continuing line. But what a continuity! The astonishing ‘black lightning’ flips this scene into its negative, delivers an electrical shock to the calm ‘sylvan place’, with the perversity of ‘wild desire’ entering a world already perfect, what more could be desired? (There’s a serpent that knows the answer.) The heart is bewildered, wild both restored in the word bewildered and threatening a wilderness ahead, stopped down in a line of monosyllables where steps are reversed, the shortest of steps.
Pound’s choice of cyclamen to echo Cydonian and conjure the departed spring, is both aurally apt and botanically correct since cyclamen die back in spring at the time orchard branches reclothe. The stress on here beautifully brings the nameless she back into haunting presence, clinging as mist clings to branches before late May’s rising sun burns it off. The abrupt vowel of lost stretches at the close to the open vowel of ghost, a virtuoso performance of unending. So yes, where the poem ends does reverberate in its denial of ending, which achieves its effect against the expectation of completion.
The contrast with Youn and de las Rivas is more than technical. Youn, Rankine and de las Rivas displace their poems’ action to faith in an external authority. This guarantor might be a stern embodiment of The Truth for Youn and Rankine, conveying an air of patriarchal authority in the poem’s proceedings (ironically enough), or, for de las Rivas, a Creator who has contrived the wonders of nature to manifest His glory. Where lyric presence is repressed, it can return in totalitarian guise. These accomplished books furnish tests and examples amounting to catechisms. Pound’s poem though, casts a spell, elusive in itself, of summoning and emergence. Just as a loved one lost to death can leave a trace in memory, returning in an involuntary advent of lost and unique presence more poignantly full than a loved one alive can quite equal (since we are never ‘all there’), the trace becoming a final fulfilment of the corporeal – so out of the hesitations, doubts, the tentative remembering a poem performs, which along the way elicits a presence from flat text, for that moment (which can be rediscovered in a later reading) ending and not-ending, being and not-being unite. The remembered lives as a singular gesture. Contradiction dissolves. This is paradise, as near to it as imaginable.
Pound and W.S. Graham wrote poems consciously tracking how this advent happens, because they so wanted it (Pound so much he becomes a fascist in demanding a social, national advent, belying it into authority), but it is a phenomenon of great lyric poetry from Wyatt to O’Hara that trace can find embodiment. This is never a foregone conclusion, any more than is the triumph of a great Joan Mitchell painting in emerging out of the struggle of recollection, cancellation, dribs and drabs, jabs and failed attempts, into an ineluctable presence fuller than the setting the painter might have sought to recreate. The setting would have set, but the painting lives; its advent is mysteriously adventitious. Line-breaks participate with exquisite rhythmic touch, whether in poetry, painting or music, in the organisation of a polyphony compelling the compages that might be called presence as it retreats and returns.
Presence has had a bad name for its turn to authority, but, O bewildered heart, where presence comprehends advent and loss in a lasting fleeting, there can be found great art. Both Youn and de las Rivas enjoy the resources of skill, intelligence and heart, but leave their poems servile. This may result in part from deference to audience; while de las Rivas’s audience is divine, Youn’s is a crowded poetry reading where messages need to be delivered in ways that can be recognised and appreciated swiftly. Audiences are pleased to hear their preconceptions delivered in ways that strike them as fresh truths, and where readings have become occasions of social affirmation of more influence on poetic work than expectation of the solitary reader’s trained attention, poetic forms adjust to that reality.
JOHN WILKINSON’s recent books of poetry are My Reef My Manifest Array (Carcanet 2019) and Wood Circle (The Last Books 2021). His critical book Lyric in Its Times (Bloomsbury) was published in 2019, and a book of essays, The Following, by The Last Books in 2020.
Note: Edited following publication to correct a typographical error 22 June 2023.
- Andrea Brady, ‘Alternative Arrangements’. Fence 40, Winter 2023, pp. 211-217,
- Toby Martinez de las Rivas, Floodmeadow. London: Faber & Faber 2023.