29
Nov
11

The Line Breaks in Nathan E. White’s “From Sense Each Inheritance Is Named”

By the time you read this, I will have briefly gone over the line break in my Introduction to Creative Class at SUNY Brockport. For the class, I had the students read Lineation: An Introduction to the Poetic Line, which I wrote for a lecture some time ago. Most of that essay/lecture is about the line and the line break. At the end are two exercises, where I give the reader/student two chunks of non-lineated text and ask them to insert line breaks. That is I give them the text of the poem with the line breaks removed so it reads like a paragraph of prose. And then I ask them to put in line breaks where they think they should occur. And then they compare to the original, or we work on it as a group and compare it to the original.

Rock & SlingI want to do the same thing in the class, as well. But I can’t use the same poems, so I am going to use Nathan E. White’s “From Sense Each Inheritance Is Named.” This poem first appeared in Rock & Sling (Issue Six, Number Two. Summer 2011). It’s a fine journal out of Whitworth University in Spokane, WA, and edited by Thom Caraway.

In class, the line breaks will be made as a group effort. The students will decide where to put the line breaks, and I’ll insert them in a Word doc that is projected onto the wall. After they are done, we will compare their breaks to the poem’s breaks. As a result, I have to explain why the breaks are where they are in the poem. So here are the notes I wrote. I want to share them here because I think there are interesting things going on that I want to share with more than 22 students.

But first the poem.

     From Sense Each Inheritance is Named

     Whispering tsk, tsk the straw swishes:
     the boy watching the dust drift studies
     the absence of shadow in the fields.
     Before him, without a sound, dark shapes
     of men in their lines breaks off from ground.

     At the table, he studies faces
     held above each plate. He wonders why
     they must ask for a blessing. At night
     they talk of harvest, frost, how they need
     to rest, cold crossing the lower fields.

     While they sleep he fixes the distance
     between stars, imagining angels
     whose work here is the movement of air
     through bodies at rest: each one dreaming
     of cold fields, dust waltzing before light.

So that’s the poem. Here’s what I have to briefly say about it to my students. That is, here are my notes.

The first line seems pretty straight forward. It ends on punctuation and with straw swishing. It’s an image/thought all to itself. And it’s end-stopped, which means it ends on punctuation.

Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney

The next line, while a bit awkward in its delivery, also delivers an image/thought for the line, but this new clause unit, runs on to the next line. This is called enjambment. When a sentence or clause is completed on the following line or lines, then the line is enjambed. It’s also known as a run-on line. This device was widely used by the Elizabethans, such as Shakespeare, Marlowe, Sir Phillip Sidney, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Thomas Campion, and it was also used by Milton. Then the use kinda vanished for a while until the Romantics in the 1800s, who resurrected it. They saw enjambment as a symbol of liberation from neo-classic rules. And it’s been all the rage for the last hundred or so years.

So what happens on an enjambed line is magic. There is an amount of time it takes the reader’s eye to go from the end of the line to the beginning of the next line. A lot can happen in this small time. This is where the reader’s imagination really interacts with the poem. This is where magic happens. In this case, on this line, it’s some minor magic, as we are left with a boy studying, but we wonder what he is studying. As we read this poem for the first time, which is kinda how a poem should always be read. The first reading is the experience, and each re-reading is to relive that same experience with new knowledge and meaning. This is why it’s so important to create an experience that is understandable on the first reading. We don’t want to confuse the reader or mislead the reader or trick the reader. All of those things kick the reader out of the poem. They make the poem an exclusive territory when it should be an all-inclusive territory. Just like when you talk to your friends, you try to speak clearly so they can be included in your experiences. Unless of course, you don’t want them as your friend, then you talk in an exclusive manner.

Dust DriftsBut here we are on the line turn. A boy is studying a dust drift or his work in front of him. We have the image of studying. But when we get to the next line we see what he is studying. He is studying “the absence of shadows in the fields.” Wow, that’s a pretty terrific image. He’s not only studying the absence of something, but the absence of shadows. It must be night. But what happens is that this poem creates two instances – the boy is studying a dust drift or something and the absence of shadows. Okay, so why not say

he studies a dust drift and the absence of shadows.

Isn’t that the same experience? Yes and no. It says the same thing, kinda, but the experience is much different. In the one line he is only studying a dust drift or something else that we imagine. Perhaps he is studying books. But this moment of studying is one experience. Then we get another experience on the next line, he’s “studying the absence of shadows in the field.” The statement I wrote, “he studies a dust drift and the absence of shadows” means he is studying both things at once. This poem creates two different instances for the reader. And this line is also end stopped.

Let’s look at another spot to make this more clear. Let’s look at the second stanza, which is filled with enjambed lines. Note how each line could be like its own story:

At the table, he studies faces

There’s an image that stands on its own, and it also recalls the “studies” from stanza one. Because he was studying the absence of shadows before, I get the feeling that he must be studying really intently. I mean, who studies the absence of anything, let alone shadows, without studying intently. That feeling now carries down here with the second use of “studies.” So he’s really studying faces.

held above each plate. He wonders why

Daily Bread Man Praying At Dinner TableHere the image is completed. People are praying and he’s studying them praying. Praying is an intense activity, too. So now we have two intensities. This line, too, kinda stands on its own as a mini-story – “held above each plate. He wonders why.” Eh, kinda. Anyway. Now he adds another intensity because “He wonders why.” At the end of this line, however, he doesn’t leave the reader with an image to hang on to. Similar to the second line in the first stanza, this second line has the reader start imagining on the line break. Here the reader is trying to figure out what he is wondering? Is he wondering about the faces the he is studying? Yes and no. And this is the beauty of the line break. He can create two instances, each one an experience that you can experience. It’s an accretion of experiences like the “studies.” The accretion here is that he is wondering about the faces in the intensity of prayer and he is wondering about why they ask for a blessing. You get to move with the author. He’s not saying “I’m wondering how they pray and why.” No. He’s delivering each experience to us as he experiences it. You, the reader, get to move with him.

This line also kinda reads like a mini-story – “they must ask for a blessing. At night.” So you have that effect. It’s like a weird, double enjambment in experience and meaning. For one sense is “He wonders why they must ask for a blessing” and the other sense/experience is “they must ask for a blessing at night.” It’s like one experience blends into another, as often happens in life. The fluidity of moving and living is occurring in this line. Also, it’s interesting how there is a slant rhyme occurring in stanza two’s second and third lines with the long I. “Why” and “night” are both magical and mysterious, so they are yoked together through a subtle harmony of the long I. We’ll hear this long I at the end of the poem, too. How do those long Is connect?

Anyway, to stanza two’s third line. So we’ve got that fluid experience going and another enjambed line. Here the reader is doing one of two things, they are either in the fluid experience asking for a blessing at night, or they have started a new thought with the new sentence, and most likely the latter. Here the reader holds on to their image of “night” on the line turn. You have to give the reader something to hold on to here. You have to give them hope. They are taking a big leap of faith to get from this line to the next. So they need something to hold to comfort them and transition them to the next line. Here they have the “night” to hold on to. We also expect some action to occur to on the following line. So maybe our minds are trying to figure out what happens “at night.” All sorts of things happen, and all those things that we can imagine happening are crucial and become part of the poem and the experience. What’s the first thing you think of when you read “at night.” Is it something scary or comforting? Either way, it will deliver you into the next line.

Harvest FrostOn the next line we learn what happens at night. They talk of the crucial things. That’s what happens at night. So if you imagined scary, you are still in that zone, because “harvest, frost” and “needs” are kinda scary when your life depends on these things. And if you were in the comfort zone of night, then you are abruptly taken out of that and get to experience something of dire importance. You get to feel the shift in mood.

Again, this line is enjambed. Like the second lines in the preceding stanzas, this line ends on an abstraction. The reader gets to imagine something on the line turn. At this point, the reader is probably thinking about the need of food because we were just at the dinner table and talking of harvest and frost, which we know can destroy a harvest and, thus, food. This is a real concern. So on this line turn, the reader is probably still thinking about the need for food and all the anxieties that come with the need for food, especially those who grow it themselves.

But on the line turn we get a surprise. We get “to rest.” That must feel good to read, especially after the studying and the intensities and anxieties we just felt. But then we get the comma and the rest of the sentence – “cold crossing the fields.” How do we read that? Is it like “to rest, as the cold crosses the lower fields.” Is it like a subjunctive?

Isn’t it interesting how he uses “crossing” with “a blessing” so close to each other?

Again, this line and the previous line rhyme. They rhyme with “need” and “fields.” They need the fields alright, and that connection is yoked together by the subtle long E sound. These are good ways to rhyme. When they connect things and they don’t get in the way of the poem.

Then we get this big line break or stanza break. Here we are left with the image of cold wind blowing across the fields and we still carry some of those worries, maybe.

Then we get to the next stanza, and everyone except the narrator is asleep. And we get the line “While they sleep he fixes the distance.” Again. Another mini-story. A line can often be a mini-story. But what the heck is he talking about? “He fixes the distance.” (Part of me is thinking this is weird like “I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in / and stops my mind from wandering / where it will go.” Which has its own unique conversation with the poem. But back to the poem.) I’m not sure what this line means on its own, but I’m compelled forward on the enjambed line. That’s another thing an enjambed line can do, it can propel you forward. It’s a place to gain momentum. It’s like centripetal force. You get whipped around. So we get whipped to the next line to answer the question in our heads, and it’s to fix “the distance / between stars.” Oh my god. What an image. And what does it even mean? What is wrong with the distance between stars? Nonetheless, he is going to fix them. He’s going to draw them close, I imagine. Perhaps to make warmth to save the crops.

So here we are on a new line, again, a mini-story. “between stars, imagining angels.” There’s nice balance on that line. The comma acts as a pivot. There are two words on each side. Two actions on each side. And the poem moves forward defining and redefining before it comes full circle with “dust” and the long I sound.

So what am I trying to say about the line break? Let me quote what I wrote in response to one of your fellow student’s poem:

On the line break, there is a brief but long pause as the reader’s eye moves from the end of the line to the beginning of the next. In that moment, all this magic happens. The reader is left on their own based on the image you give them there. They carry that image with them on the line turn and briefly ponder it and imagine it and feel it, and then the movement picks up again. It almost like being on the swings . . . . The line is like the moment the person is pushing you. The whole time that person’s hands are on your back, from the moment their hands receive you, cushion you, and push you off again, that’s like the line in poetry. The line break is all the free momentum that occurs the instant the fingertips and back depart from each other and you fly through the air. The line break is a propellant. It’s magical and freeing and thrilling.

The Swing as Line Break

The Swing as Line Break

//


2 Responses to “The Line Breaks in Nathan E. White’s “From Sense Each Inheritance Is Named””


  1. 1 Wanda Schubmehl
    November 30, 2011 at 10:12 am

    Tom, I enjoyed reading this very much. It never ceases to amaze me how much happens in one word, or one space, in poetry. You’ve given your class a lot to think about! (and me, too! I usually have an intuitive sense of where to end a line, and in most cases don’t consciously study it, but I think I’m going to look at that more when I edit, and see what happens.

    How much of your own work would you say is developed intuitively, and how much is carefully and consciously considered?

    By the way, I wonder if the word “fix” in this poem has less the sense of “repair,” and more “to make fast, firm, or stable.”

    • November 30, 2011 at 12:32 pm

      Thanks, Wanda. And thanks for the new way of thinking about “fix”. I’ll have to think about that.

      As for my line breaks, they are always considered. More and more so with each revision. In the first draft, there may be only a brief thought, but with each revision, I reconsider it and think about it again and differently. Playing with line breaks is one of the funnest parts about writing a poem. I love seeing all the different effects and possibilities.

      :^)>


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