San Diego Poetry Guild

notes on guild, poetry, and San Diego


Taking a Line Break

I'm halfway through Rodrigo Toscano's The Disparities and figure it's a good time to say something about lines in poetry.

I think most lines are pretty good. I did a few when I was in college and for the most part liked the way it made me feel, until the next day. Clothes lines, I think, are an amazing invention, so simple and yet such an efficient and inexpensive way to dry your pants, especially in San Diego. Last week, I saw a community theater production of The Sound of Music and was rather impressed with the way the lead (Mary) delivered her lines. I think she was a professional actor, or had been once, and it was a real treat.

Other lines I guess aren't all that good. The lines of cars and people at the border make me wonder constantly about the progressive missions of "modern" societies. Fault lines make me nervous and a bit more willing to believe in God, especially under the overpass at the junction of 8 and 805.

Okay, lines in "poetry" are a different matter, true. But maybe not. You look at a page of poetry and you think – LINES!! – and almost by magic the poem reveals itself as poetry. This is both a good and a bad thing.

Good because in a "modern" world where so much (misery, injustice, inequity) is rendered invisible, it's nice to see in the world of print literature the attempt to make empty space visible via the cutting of language into lines. Good writing always amounts to a form of falling off, of dying, of lapsing into impenetrable sleep, of forgetting, of falling mute. That words in a lineated poem simply by structural/formal fiat register this experience of "falling" is, for the most part, pretty cool.

Bad because the unfortunate consequence of writing in lines (alotta poets do this often, perhaps while eating toast in the morning) is that too often the energy spent in purposefully fracturing the right margin would perhaps be better spent thinking about what the writing itself is doing in the first place. In a moment of exchange almost mercilessly exploitative of the "magic" by which the poetic line evokes that experience of "falling off," the writer relying on lines comes to assert a certain authority in relation to language that really has nothing to do with the authoring of language.

This authority – assumed in the aftermath of tearing words from the right margin – has little, finally, to do with poetry (as if poetry had anything to do with "lines" in the first place), but has everything to do with the appearance of poetry and the meaningless cooptation of strategic forms.

Which brings me back to Toscano's Disparities. In which: What great fucking lines!

I'll open to a page randomly, and check it out:

wrenched from

also wrenches

Not bad, eh? And even where the appearance of delineation speaks to a quasi-exploitative invocation of magical falling off, the push of the magic is lefterly, to the “near” side of the page, which, dense and nearly corrosive, leads one into the foreground of poetry:

ARDOR. Perfect Union. Withdrawn daughter from pope
In stages. The language of an older brother
Stump, stump block, sure site where wood gets re-split, again
Ma comes in with ice to melt, sap to seal cold cracks

and so on. Not even my favorite passage, but who cares. The point being: These lines don't kill the line. They don't break maybe is one way of putting it. Which leads me to believe that the biggest problem with lines is not the lines themselves but the breaks toward which the writing poet has leaned so religiously – sometimes comically – in search of the perfect margin.

Stop making lines break. Start making lines. Or better yet, ignore the impulse to write in lines. Forgive the gravity of a visible, textured, emptiness. Give language some breathing room, sure, but don't choke it off in the interest of looking smart for the interview.

It's all about falling, anyway
so what it looks like doesn't matter.


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