linebreaks

Provoked by Mike Snider’s post on the subject.

I’d always been of the ‘pause slightly on the linebreaks’ school of reading, because if you don’t pause on the linebreaks, what are they there for? But I’d never done any public reading of poetry to speak of. When I came to practice for a reading at my brother’s wedding, of a (rhyming, metrical) poem I wrote for the occasion, I was interested to discover that if I *didn’t* read straight over the linebreaks, it was almost impossible to preserve the proper intonation that the sentences would have in normal speech; so I printed a copy of the poem without the enjambed linebreaks to make it easier to ignore them.

BUT I did feel that the fact it was rhyming made a lot of difference; hopefully the rhyme will come through and indicate the line-ends. In unrhymed free verse (or even blank verse), perhaps the linebreak is doing something different. I actually wonder if the dropping of rhyme from English poetry was a more drastic step than the dropping of metre.

In The Sounds of Poetry, Pinsky uses this poem by Ben Jonson to discuss linebreaks:

My Picture Left in Scotland

I now think love is rather deaf, than blind,
For else it could not be,
That she,
Whom I adore so much, should so slight me,
And cast my love behind:
I’m sure my language to her was as sweet,
And every close did meet
In sentence of as subtle feet
As hath the youngest he,
That sits in shadow of Apollo’s tree.
Oh, but my conscious fears,
That fly my thoughts between,
Tell me that she hath seen
My hundreds of gray hairs,
Told seven and forty years,
Read so much waist, as she cannot embrace
My mountain belly and my rocky face,
And all these, through her eyes, have stopt her ears.

Pinsky says: “[…] For Ben Jonson, writing this brilliant poem early in the 17th century, the opposite is true: the ear is the avenue of the spirit, while the eye is duped by mere seeming. What he means about the ear he demonstrates in sentences that skim and dance across the lines and rhymes, flamenco-style, or like Michael Jordan creating space where there was none.” One thing that’s interesting about the poem, for me, is the fact that you can (nearly) relineate from its peculiar mix of line-lengths into IP:

I now think love is rather deaf, than blind,
For else it could not be, that she, whom I
adore so much, should so slight me, and cast
my love behind: I’m sure my language to
her was as sweet, and every close did meet
In sentence of as subtle feet as hath
the youngest he,
That sits in shadow of Apollo’s tree.
Oh, but my conscious fears, that fly my thoughts
Between, tell me that she hath seen my hundreds
Of gray hairs, told seven and forty years,
Read so much waist, as she cannot embrace
My mountain belly and my rocky face,
And all these, through her eyes, have stopt her ears.

That creates some odd line breaks, but if you read it aloud, the sense of the play between the syntax of the poem and the lineation would, I hope still communicate itself to the listener, because the rhyme acts as a marker. Would it be possible to create the effect so well in an unrhymed poem? One thinks of Shakespearean blank verse. If one was performing Hamlet, and trying to use the natural rhythms of speech, would the linebreaks come across in a passage like this (and would the audience lose much if they don’t)?

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!

On the one hand, I think that when actors read poems, they often turn them into dramatic monologues and obliterate the poemness of them – including the lineation. But, as I said earlier, it’s very difficult to read a poem out loud and communicate both the lineation and the syntax – unless it rhymes.

Either way, I think that these discussions tend to talk too much about linebreaks and not enough about lines. They also tend to concentrate too much on local effects – one break at a time – rather than the broader interaction between syntax and line.