Posts Tagged ‘line break


On John Berryman’s Syntax and Music and Other Observations

For my poetry workshop class at The University of Southern Mississippi with Rebecca Morgan Frank, one of the assignments was to read the collected poems of a poet. I chose John Berryman. At the end of the semester, we’re expected to write a 3-4 paper about our experiences with the collected poems. I, however, decided to also takes notes as I read so I’d remember things to to say. Below are 50+ double-spaced pages of notes. The notes are either something resembling an initial draft to essays or just long notes for potential essays. Hopefully, I will develop some of these notes into larger essays or perhaps they will make you look at/listen to Berryman in new ways. Perhaps, you will expand on one of my observations or disagree with what I have said. In the end, I just want to keep the Berryman discussion progressing.

I tried to write about what I observed in the poems, but, occasionally, I referenced other sources, which are noted. My not referencing other sources was not done out of arrogance, but rather to have my own intimate experience with Berryman. Plus, I thought it closer to the intent of the assignment.

In addition, all the Berryman books I refer to appear in The Collected Poems: 1937-1971, edited by Charles Thornbury, except for the Dream Songs, which appear in The Dream Songs. All other sources are noted as they appear and in the Works Cited section.


John Berryman – Collected Poems 1937-1971    John Berryman – Dream Songs

I am choosing John Berryman: Collected Poems 1937-1971 and John Berryman’s Dream Songs as the poet to focus on for a few reasons. One, I have both books on my shelves. Two, I want a poet who writes in meter. At this time, I don’t know if he always wrote in meter, but I know he did often enough. I wanted to hear his meters because it’s not often I hear metrical poetry anymore, and this semester I want to explore the musical measure of the line. (I want to explore the possibility that iambic pentameter is really iambic tetrameter. Instead of five feet, there are four bars of stress laid on top of a back beat of iambic pentameter.) And I wanted someone who writes from the personal, as I think he does often enough. I want to learn how to do that because it’s a very rare occasion to find me in my poems and want to be able to put me in. Fourth, I want to refamiliarize myself with his poetry of which I haven’t read enough of. Fifth, my favorite poem is “Berryman” by W. S. Merwin (though “Berryman” isn’t my favorite Merwin poem), and so I want to get an even deeper appreciation of that poem. These are the main reasons.

– Wednesday, January 16, 2013.


John Berryman – The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed [1948]

It’s good to know that Berryman order the poems in his books pretty much in the chronological order in which he wrote poems because I will be able to clearly see his growth. The opening poems in The Dispossessed move forward on syllabics and often on a four-beat measure, the grammar/syntax of the poems is fairly straight, and the image has balance between the concrete and abstract. That continues until section one’s penultimate poem, “The Ball Poem.” In this poem there is a lot syntactical variation, which I expect to see a lot more of as I travel through Berryman’s years of poems. Some variation is simple but effective, such as “As he stands rigid, trembling staring down / All his young days into the harbour.” Here “staring down” works in two ways: the boy is down to where his ball is, and the boy is staring down his history. We’ll see a more effective use of this with the word “Right” in “The Moon and the Night and the Man.” Other variations in “The Ball Poem” include: “I would not intrude on him, / A dime, another ball, is worthless” or the use of the unrestrictive phrase in “He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes, / The epistemology of loss [. . .].” This may not seem a grand variation, but it’s the first or one of the first variations of its kind in poems where the poems move forward with interruption, pause, or nonrestrictive phrases. I think “The Ball Poem” will end up being a pivotal poem to which other poems will be compared.

Later in the section, Berryman gets involved in the repetition of words. For instance, in “Farewell to Miles,” in the first stanza, he repeats “therefore” three times in lines 2-4, “man” three times in lines “1-4,” and “hard” three times in lines 6-8. This creates a cadence on top of the rhythm on top of the meter. There are three beats going on as a result. In addition, it creates the feeling of expectation and the feeling of loss. We expect to hear the word again and we do, and then we don’t. The expectation is lost. But then a new word arises. The beat is hope to loss. (A down beat of sorts.) Later in section three is the line break/syntax pivot effect of “Right” that I mentioned above: “A stupid well-intentioned man turned sharp / Right and abruptly he became an angel.” “Right” concludes the previous action turn sharp right, and begins the next action of “Right and abruptly he became an angel.” That is a very effective first word. Again, not a great invention, but for him at this stage in his poetry it is.

Section four’s opening poem is “Cantor Amor,” and it’s a wild crazy poem that’s a love poem and ars poetica among other things. Here, Berryman’s syntactical/stylistic variations arise again to more effect and are more complicated. Stanza two has some interesting but simple variations in the parenthetical in its first line (which is rare for Berryman so far) and then the simple inversion of “bless” and “You” in the stanza’s last line: “If (Unknown Majesty) I not confess / praise for the wrack the rock the live sailor / under the blue sea, – yet I may You bless.” Typically, the “You” would come last.  In the second line, he doesn’t use punctuation in the list “the wrack the rock the live sailor.”  I think the end of the K sound causes a natural pause, though brief, that it can act as a comma. Then hear how much emphasis gets laid on “live” as a result.  It’s a long and hard syllable. Merwin wrote a letter to me telling me he doesn’t use punctuation because “the mind doesn’t think in punctuation.” I don’t think that’s why Berryman is doing this, but it’s a new effect for him, but an effect I’ve worked with for years. I may not think in punctuation either, but my poems think better with punctuation. Also notice in this poem how for the first time in this collection of poems, the first letter of each line is not capitalized unless it begins a sentence. This poem like “The Ball Poem” may be another important that other of Berryman’s poem will end up talking to and evolving from.

But later is where the interesting stylistic variations occur.

   […] Also above her face
   serious or flushed, swayed her fire-gold
   not earthly hair, now moonless to unlace,

   resistless flame, now in a sun more cold
   great shells to whorl about each secret ear,
   mysterious histories, white shores, unfold.

   New musics! One the music that we hear,
   this is the music which the masters make
   out of their minds, profound solemn & clear.

   And then the other music, in whose sake
   all men perceive a gladness but we are drawn
   less for that joy than utterly to take

   our trial, naked in the music’s vision,
   the flowing ceremony of trouble and light,
   all Loves becoming, none to flag upon.

There’s a lot going on in those lines. First, from the bigger view, there are four sentences in these excerpted five stanzas. The first two stanzas each contain one, long complicated sentence. This provides an effect on the third stanza, which has two sentences. These short sentences want to emphasize the simplicity of the masters’ music. But like a master there are some subtle complications going on. For instance, the second sentence beginning “One the music …,” should actually be two sentences. The comma after “hear” should be a period. The comma plus the line break add up to a period, at least to the ear. It does not sound incorrect. It flows. It’s simple. It doesn’t interrupt. At the end of the stanza, is a list with no commas as occurred in stanza 2. In this case, one action flows into the next. “Profound solemn & clear” are not separate actions but three that work as one. So simplicity has subtle complications in it that work simply surrounded by more complicated sentences that emphasize the simplicity in the middle stanza. Also, there a lot of commas. More and more commas appear as I read Berryman. He’s using them to vary his language and his music. Between the commas is information that adds to the description as well. It becomes an accumulative force in language. I’m not quite sure how to hear it yet. That is, I’m not quite sure the musical effect.

A few poems later in “A Professor’s Song,” however, I can hear Berryman finally writing from his ear. He’s not counting syllables or stresses in this poem. He following sound like Jimi Hendrix follows sounds on his guitar. The poem opens interestingly, too, but I’m not sure why or how it is working. The first line is “(. . rabid or dog-dull.) Let me tell you how”. Berryman has been using the two periods with space in between as an ellipsis but I wonder if it is also a musical device like W. C. Williams later does.

In section five’s opening poem, “Rock-Study with Wanderer,” Berryman abandons the period at a sentence’s end in favor of a triple space, except for the two occurrences of the period-space-period ellipsis. This triple space, I think, also anticipates Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse.” So far Berryman has anticipated two future poetic devises – Projective Verse and the musical notation in Williams later poems. But in this poem the space-in-place-of-a-period creates a few effects. First, it affects how we read it and breathe the poem. It also acts like a line break as the pause seems as pronounced as a line break, but also because sometimes we don’t know if a sentence continues or begins. For instance in stanza two:

   The music & the lights did not go out
   Alas    Our foreign officers are gay
   Singers in the faery cities shiver & play
   Their exile dances through unrationed thought

“Our foreign offices are gay” acts as an independent sentence where “gay” is an object of are. “Singers in the faery cities shiver & play” also acts as an independent sentence. However, the two could be combined into one long sentence where “gay” would become a modifier for “Singers.” I think what makes this work is the lack of periods, the line break, and the capital letter at the beginning of the line. A better example is the penultimate stanza:

   Draw draw the curtain on a little life
   A filth a fairing    Wood is darkening
   Where birdcall hovered now I hear no thing
   I hours since came from my love my wife

“Wood is darkening” could be its own sentence as could be “Where birdcall hovered now I hear no thing,” or it could be one long sentence. In the end, all three coexist simultaneously. He’s already built on the double line-break meanings in “staring down” in “The Ball Poem” and in “Right” in “The Moon and the Night and the Man.” It’s simple in delivery and complicated in effect.

A little later in “The Long Home” he uses triple space again but not as a period but as a pause, a place to breathe, such as “He   is going where I come.” When there’s a breath pause like that and like at the beginning of a poem, it’s difficult for the word at the other end of the pause not to pick up a little more emphasis. Without the space, “is” is unstressed. With the space, “is” picks up a little stress because in the pause the breath is held and on pronouncing the “is” there’s an initial exhale which is slightly stronger than if there had not been the pause. So the “is” gains a little emphasis from the breath. And in this case, we get an etymological pun because “is” as Olson points out in “Projective Verse”: “comes from the Aryan root, as, to breathe” (18).

– Wednesday, January 16, 2013.


John Berryman – Sonnets to Chris

Sonnets to Chris [1947, 1966]

Early into these sonnets, I notice Berryman doing three things: he’s trying to create rhythms that play against the iambic pentameter, he’s really straining syntax a lot, and a lot of that straining and music playing comes from the caesuras that are in the majority of lines. Through the first six sonnets I believe he’s taking Pound’s dictum, “Don’t sacrifice sound for sense.” Berryman has taken this to an extreme of sorts. He has good sounds and when he counters the iamb it’s to good effect, but sometimes he mangles the syntax to make a sound. It’s hard to quite know what he’s up to in meaning making. I’m not sure if I even catch a tonal meaning. Actually, Berryman so far seems atonal. But then we get to Sonnet 7. Here are the first three lines:

   I’ve found out why, that day, that suicide
   From the Empire State falling on someone’s car 
   Troubled you so; and why we quarrelled. War,

The third line is very effective. The first syllable because of the meter should be unstressed but here it is stressed with “Troub” in “troubled.” By breaking the meter, he introduces a musical tension which underscores “Troubled.” The next stressed syllable is “why.” One might want “so” to be stressed, and it is a little (a semi-stress (more on this throughout)), but relationally, it’s not as stressed as “Troub,” “why,” “quar,” or “War.” The line begins and ends on a stress. Three of the stressed syllable (or morphemes) suggest tension of some sort and are closely associated, at least to me: “Trouble,” “quarrel,” and “War.” Those three word all imply some sort of conflict. Notice how “quarrelled” slant rhymes with “War” (“quar” and “war”) and slant rhymes with “Troubled” (“ed” and “ed”). That’s a strong line. The line also has two caesuras, as does line one. Line one jerks forward. The line flows uninterrupted like a man falling from a building. There’s an impact when the faller hits the car and there is also a stress on “car.” The sentence and rhythm stop. The sentence then continues on the line with an altered rhythm that will correct itself. The syntactical arrangement of the first line has a parallels with the last line: “Did you bolt so, before it caught, our fire?” The last line is not as herky jerky as the first, but it has three spread out caesuras and the long I in “fire” recalls/rhymes with the long I “suicide” from line 1, as well as “cried” in line 4, “wide” in 5, “side” in 8, and “desire” in 11. But because of the way the line is carved out, the similar arrangements of line 1 and 14 make their rhymes more enhanced or louder to my ear. Line 5 also has three caesuras, but it ends on a spondee.

The more I read, the more I hear a longer rhythm from these caesuras or the stress that comes after. It’s almost like there’s a time unit before a caesura is entered. For instance, it’s like’s he hearing a pause everything 2 or 3 seconds, and when that moment arrives, it’s time for a pause. The pause is sometimes skipped over but it picks up again. I’m not sure if that is the correct duration, but it feels/sounds like there’s a duration between the pauses and sometimes it forces itself in, such as the beginning of Sonnet 13: “I lift – lift you five States “away” your glass.” I hear a pause after the first “lift” (as you would expect), and after away. I’m not sure if I hear a pause because of the long distant rhythm or because of syntax and grammar. “I” is the subject, “lift” is the verb, and “your glass” is the object. It could be better understood as: “From five States away, I lift your glass,” or something similar. And in fact, if we look at the larger part of the poem, listen to what happens:

   I lift – lift you five States away your glass,
   Wide of this bar you never graced, where none
   Ever I know came, where what work is done
   Even by these men I know not, where a brass
   Police-car sign peers in, wet strange cars pass,
   Soiled hangs the rag of day out over this town,
   A juke-box brains air where I drink alone,
   The spruce barkeep sports a toupee alas –

   My glass I lift at six o’clock, my darling,
   As you plotted . . Chinese couples shift in bed,
   We shared today not even filthy weather,
   Beasts in the hills their tigerish love are snarling,
   Suddenly they clash, I blow my short ash red,
   Grey eyes light! and we have our drink together.

Notice where the em dashes lay. The sentence is really, “I lift my glass.” And then there’s the pause after “My glass.” It’s all tangled up. It could be: “I lift my glass at six o’clock.” But the “I lift at six o’clock” parallels “lift you five States away,” and both phrases are followed by a pause before the line’s last two syllables. This poem is about their places in environments and toasting. The first stanza is about what immediately surrounds him and the second stanza is what surrounds them both on large scale, what surrounds them in the world. Really, the poem’s main sentence is something like: “I lift your glass, I lift my glass, and we have our drink together.” The main parts of the poem are about him or them and the rest is what is going on around him or them. What an interesting strategy.

As I continue to read these poems aloud, I feel like Ezra Pound. There’s a vibration in my throat and a determinacy in the pace. I feel like I should have a baton to conduct the notes. The sonnets stop hard like a Yeats poem. Often a poem will have a crescendo or decrescendo, especially in the last few syllables, but these poems don’t. They just keep on in the same, flat, straight, vibrating tone. The sonnets end hard with certainty. They stop. I expect more for a moment. But it stops. My throats continues to vibrate. When it stops, so does the poem. There’s almost a sophisticated British affectation to the aloud reading, at least that’s how I’ve translated when I read them. Rather, the sonnets translated my readings. Something un-American is going in the tone to say the least.

The following two lines (lines 5-6 from sonnet 47) really sum up what Berryman is up to:

   Double I sing, I must, you utraquist,
   Crumpling a syntax at a sudden need

“Utraquist” (yoo truh kwist), a Latin word,  means “each of two” or “equivalent,” according to Music and syntax are each of two and equivalent, but sometimes the syntax has to be altered to suit the musical needs.

I’ve tried to capture his rhythm and crumpling syntax in a sonnet I wrote titled “Measure in Time 5.1”.

– Wednesday, January 23, 2013


John Berryman – Homage to Mistress Bradstreet
Homage to Mistress Bradstreet [1953]

            A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The above quote is the Second Amendment to the Constitution. It’s filled with crumpling syntax. It’s so crumpled that no one can rightly say what that sentence is intending to say. What is modifying what? What is the subject or subjects of the sentence? The predicate is certain: “shall not be infringed,” but the rest is uncertain. This type of crumpling also occurs in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. The Second Amendment’s confusion may have arisen because multiple people were involved in writing it, but for Berryman, only one person is writing and the crumpling syntax is a choice. But what is the effect of this?

In stanza 3, there’s an interesting effect in how it opens with two passive sentences and then two active sentences.

   thy eyes look to me mild. Out of maize & air
   your body’s made, and moves. I summon, see,
   from the centuries it.
   I think you won’t stay.

Here, things are coming to order. The fourth sentence is clear and direct. The first two sentences are clear but passive. The third sentence is active, but a bit difficult to follow. It’s like my ear wants to hear: “From the centuries, I summon and see it.” It wants balance with the anticipation of how sentence two appears to start with a prepositional phrase. By the end of sentence of two we realize “Out of maize & air” is the object of the sentence and not the prepositional phrase we expect.

Then there are poems like stanza 31:

   – It is Spring’s New England. Pussy willows wedge
   up in the wet. Milky crestings, fringed
   yellow, in heaven, eyed
   by the melting hand-in-hand or mere
   desirers single, heavy-footed, rapt,
   make surge poor human hearts. Venus is trapt –
   the hefty pike shifts, sheer –
   in Orion blazing. Warblings, odours, nudge to an edge –

I like the opening. It’s not the ordinary: “It is Spring in New England.” The apostrophe es makes Spring possessive and, to my mind, causal. I read it almost like this is the effects of Spring in or on New England. The next sentence is straightforward. The third, sentence, starts to read like the Second Amendment. By the time I get to “in heaven” or just after, I’m not sure what is a modifier and what is a predicate. I’m not sure what is happening. I move along through the images, but confusingly. I can hold together “fringed in yellow” and “in heaven” and “eyed” may be the predicate to “Milky crestings,” but are the “Milky crestings” in heaven or are they fringed yellow there. Are the Milky crestings like yellow-fringed, fallen angels or are they still in heaven? And what follows is even more confusing: “by the melting hand-in-hand.” What is melting? Actually, what are milky crestings? Can they melt?

I don’t think the crumpling syntax is sign of a weak writer trying to rhyme, either. Berryman was doing these things in earlier poems. The structure of the poems does recall Gerard Manley Hopkins “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” though the rhyme scheme is a bit different. There are even some places where he sounds Hopkinesque:


   faintings black, rigour, chilling, brown
   parching, back, brain burning, the grey pocks
   itch, a manic stench
   of pustules snapping, pain floods the palm,
   sleepless, or a red shaft with a dreadful start
   rides at the chapel, like a slipping heart.
   My soul strains in one qualm
   ah but this is not to save me but to throw me down.

Listen to all those gerunds accumulating momentum and cadence and that are draped with the multiple harmonies from the many consonant sounds. Even the tone is Hopkinsesque. This could have been written by Hopkins. That’s one thing I’ve notice about Berryman so far, he likes to use consonants as a harmonic device more often than vowels. He likes hard consonants more than long vowels. He must have terrific headaches.

And then I wonder if Berryman is trying to mimic a Puritanical grammar, an Anne Bradstreet grammar. Is he trying to recreate the confusion of the times?

I’m going to leave this book alone for a while, and see what he does next. I assume he is building to something larger, something closer to the way he mind works or perceives or thinks or aches.

– Monday, January 28, 2013


John Berryman – His Thoughts Made Pockets & The Plane Buckt

from His Thoughts Made Pockets & The Plane Buckt (1958)

            According to John Thompson in “Poetry Chronicle,” “His Thought Made Pockets & The Plane Buckt is a pamphlet containing twelve poems printed in funny type on hand made paper toweling” (108). However, the whole book His Thoughts Made Pockets & The Plane Buckt is not in this collection. “The Black Book” I, II, and III are excerpted. I assume editor Charles Thornbury has chosen a selection that is representative enough of this book. I wonder why he didn’t include the whole book? Anyway, let’s look and listen to what we Thornbury gave us.

The book opens with a six-line poem epigraph. Lines 2 and 3 rhyme and lines 4 and 6 rhyme. Already, Berryman is inverting expected word orders: “Careful Henry nothing said aloud,” where we would expect “Careful Henry said nothing aloud.” Berryman also uses variant spellings for word, such as “de” for “the,” “dropt” for “dropped” (which is something Robert Duncan does quite often because that “ed” does sound like a T (I wonder who came to it first?)), “buckt” for I don’t know what (maybe “bucked”?), “Parm me” for “Pardon me,” and “Orright” for, I assume, “Alright.” So I can see/hear that I’m going to be involved in some syntactical play, perhaps something that is mimic a colloquial speech pattern, which I assume from those variant spellings which may be suggestion regional diction. Thompson says:

These minor oddities are becoming to Berryman’s small, surface crankinesses, his ampersands and his spelling: & The Plane Buckt. Beneath these, there is a deep and stubborn individuality. Berryman’s style in most of these short poems is something like that of his Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, harsh, wry, broken, a speech that seems all fragments or symbolist dissociation, but in the end coheres strongly. (108)

(The poem that opens the book later becomes the second stanza to Dream Song 5.)

Having now read “His Thought Made Pockets & The Plane Buckt,” I have to disagree with Thompson. These poems are not like Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. The opening poems’ forms recall Homage, but that’s about as close as it comes for me. In reading this, I feel the epigraph is misplaced. I don’t get the connection between it and the poems. And the language of the poems is fairly straightforward, especially for Berryman. I don’t hear or see much experimenting going on here. He actually seems less involved in these poems than the previous books. He doesn’t seem as focused or as concentrated. It’s almost like regular syntax and/or filling the rhyme is leading him instead of he leading them. What’s new is “his ampersand and his spelling,” as Thompson noted, but spelling variants are few.

– Wednesday, February 06, 2013


Of Poetry and Power: Poems Occasioned by the Presidency and Death of John F. Kennedy
Formal Elegy [1964]

This is about a three-page poem of 10 sections. It appeared in the anthology Of Poetry and Power: Poems Occasioned by the Presidency and Death of John F. Kennedy. The tone of the first section is judgmental with hints of anger. There are some syntactical parallelisms: “A hurdle of water, and o these waters are cold”; “Murder on murder on murder, where I stagger, / whiten the good land where we have held out”; “& fear & crazed mercy”; and

   Ruby, with his mad claim
   he shot to spare the Lady’s testifying,
   probably is sincere.
   No doubt, in his still cell, his mind sits pure.

                                                                     [My bold]

The technique in the opening of section V is interesting:

   Some in their places are constrained to weep.
   Stunned, more, though.

The S sounds push this forward or hold these two lines together. The first line’s syntax is contorted a bit. It sounds like he’s bending the arrangement of words so he can get “weep” at the end so he can later rhyme it, which he does two lines later. It’s “in their places” where the awkwardness occurs. To what effect of even having those three words create? I think it adds to the rhythm. Those three words extend the line. If you read the line, “Some are constrained to sleep,” the line works fine, but the following line won’t. The following line (“Stunned, more, though”) needs the longer previous line in order to work. The second line can’t succeed with out the lengthier preceding line­. It’s like “in their places” locates the people who are weeping because of JFK’s assassination and it limits the number of weepers. Part of that limit comes as residue from “constrained.” It could almost be read, “A few people are only able to cry.” Because of that, “more” becomes successful. It plays off “some” and the limited few. The “Stunned, more, though” is a syntactical arrangement that mimics the stun. Weeping is long. It’s a process. Being stunned though is like fragmented or jarring or disconnected thoughts. “Stunned, more, though” reflects that with the comma and the three long, stressed monosyllabic words. There are more people who are stunned than weeping, and, in fact, the language maybe also be suggesting that those that are weeping are also stunned. I also wonder if “Stunned, more, though” is reflecting the gasping and the short phrases that accompany sobbing. On top of it all, it sounds right when it’s read. It’s not jarring, but it is new. It sounds like it just came out natural for Berryman. In fact, that line (“Stunned, more, though”) might be the most Berrymanesque line in this poem, or least as I am expecting it at this point.

– Wednesday, February 06, 2013


John Berryman – Dream Songs

Dream Songs (1964, 1968)

John Berryman – 77 Dream Songs

            77 Dream Songs was released in 1965, and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest was released in 1968 and concludes The Dream Songs. There are 385 Dream Songs in total, so I plan to read about 77 per week. I’m not sure if this an aggressive pace with everything else I have to do, but I’ll see what happens. I’ll read:

  • Sections I-III (Dream Songs 1-77)
  • Sections IV-V (Dream Songs 78-145)
  • Dream Songs 146-223
  • Dream Songs 224-278 (146-278 make up section VI),
  • Section VII (Dream Songs 279-385)

Dream Song 1 starts with a solid trochaic rhythm with the extra stress (catalexis) at the end of the line, which is the same meter as the beginning of William Blake’s “The Tyger.” Knowing how Berryman works and plays so far, suggests that he is letting the reader know that this will be the back beat off which he play his rhythms because after that the rhythm varies. In stanza two there are four sentences. the first and last sentences have non-restrictive clauses. The first, “like a woolen lover,” is not set off by commas, while the second, “pried open for all the world to see,” is set off by commas. Both of those sentences also rhyme: “side,” “pried,” and “survived,” which suggests those sentences have some connection.

With the first non-restrictive clause, there is a natural caesura after “world” and preceding the non-restrictive clause, and there is an imposed one after the non-restrictive with the line break after “lover.” Berryman must have heard those pauses and omitted commas. He must have decided those notations (commas) weren’t needed for the poem’s musical score. I wonder if that is how/why he uses commas. For him, commas aren’t necessarily being used grammatically but as notations of where to pause or breathe. He often uses the stress mark over a syllable to indicate where he hears a stress where one might normally hear less than a stress, so perhaps he’s doing something similar with commas.

With the second non-restrictive clause, Berryman uses commas on either side. Here he must or else the reader would be confused as to how to read the sentence. This non-restrictive clause is also interesting because it pries open the sentence like Henry is being pried open. It pries apart Henry and his verb, “survived.”

In the second Dream Song, “Big Buttons, Cornets: the advance,” the speech becomes colloquial or imitating an uneducated speaker. The first sentence comes across in standard diction and grammar, but sentence two uses the incorrect verb tense: “Henry are baffled.” At this point, the reader must be thinking the speaker is uneducated or has split personalities, like Golem in Lord of the Rings. The next sentence has alternate spelling for “everybody” – “ev’ybody” – and the sentence starts in what I think is called a declarative, “Have ev’ybody head for Maine,” but on the line turn, it morphs into a question.

   [. . .] Have ev’body head for Maine,
   utility-man take a train.

Is “utility-man take a train?” a sentence fragment? I’m not sure how I’m supposed to read that. The rest of this poem continues to fall into a language of an uneducated, Southern speaker. Or maybe it’s just some bizarre dialect.

Here’s what Richard Ellman has to say about 77 Dream Songs:

The poem the, whatever its cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, and sometimes in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses himself as Mr. Bones and variants thereof. (911)

So the speaker does kind of have a split personality. As for Mr. Bones, in the same preface to the John Berryman section in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (second edition), Ellman notes, “Mr. Bones is name from the minstrel show circuit” (911).

So far I’ve notice that Berryman works with stressed syllables and he enjoys consonants more than long vowels. Then I read Dream Song 8, and I can hear that he also works on a quantitative level of rhythm, too, and in an interesting way. Here’s the first stanza (– = long, / = stressed, x=hard stress, u/=semi-stressed, u = short or unstressed, u– = middle length, and // = caesura):

Dream Song 8 scansion

What results is a tension in syllabic length on either side of the caesura. In line one, the first half is shorter in duration than the other side of the caesura. The length underscores the emotional tone of the content. The first side is ordinary weather talk and is mostly short. The long I in “fine” tries to bring in some emotion to the bland word. The second half of the line is more alive and interesting. It’s not ordinary and there are long syllables and four long vowels.

A similar thing occurs in line two, but not to the same extreme, but the spondee “backhand” lengthens those syllables and brings some action to that side of the line.

In line three, there are three long syllables corresponding with three stressed syllables. “[H]alved” is interesting word choice here, and I think it means they cut his hair. A pattern is also developing with “his,” which is short and unstressed in this first stanza. Line three also ends the sentence dramatically with long syllables, the halving, and the oddly colored hair. The V and its sound in “halved” also harmonizes with the V in line four’s “loves” and line five’s “voices.”

In line four, there are two caesuras. In the fist third, there are longer syllables than the other two thirds. The long syllables dramatize the action and “his loves.” The second third is all short syllables and undermines “his loves.” As I read it, “his interests” is more of a non-restrictive clause adding definition to “his loves.” So the line moves from excitement in action to boredom and more abstractions.

The point of this scansion is to point out the rolling motion Berryman creates which emphasizes the schizophrenic nature of the speaker. I picture the speaker sitting in bed and maybe tied up, and he’s swaying back and forth and talking to himself. On the lean forwards are the short-syllable measures, and the on the sway backs are the long-syllable measures. And in case we don’t hear it, Berryman gives a clue after the short (both line length and syllable length) line 15, when he says in line 16, “They flung long silent speeches. (Off the hook!)” Surely this character is in a mental-care hospital of sorts, but the care is more of a torture.

This motion then gets played again in Dream Song 14, “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.” This first half of line one, “Life, friends, is boring,” has three long syllable, and two of those are enhanced by the commas. The first half of the line is slow like ennui and has a low pitch. It’s a deep sound. The second half of the line is much quicker, despite it having more long vowel sounds than the first half. The pitch of the second half of the line is higher. The line slows and falls, then speeds up and rises. The next line is dominated with long syllables amid the dramatic if not clichéd imagery: “After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns.” The third line (“we ourselves flash and yearn”) has two halves to my ear, which puts a slight caesura after “ourselves.” The first half is quick and the second half is long. The juxtaposition of lengths dramatizes the ironic juxtaposition of “we ourselves” with “flash and yearn.” The irony is made more apparent because the mother says “Ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no // Inner Resources.” It’s the admitting that you are bored that is indicative of lacking “Inner Resources,” whereas boredom more likely might come from lacking “Inner Resources.” Or maybe the boredom comes from having “Inner Resources” and with no place to put them or to use them. The speaker can’t even use his inner resources with people or literature or even great literature. He lacks enthusiasm that a mere dog has.

It should also be noted that the poem’s first three sentences are written in standard grammatical English. The first sentence is brief and definitive. The second sentence is a long compound sentence, but it doesn’t have any of the Berryman syntactical variations. The third sentence, too, lacks Berryman’s “crumpling syntax.” Then sentence four arrives, “Peoples bore me.” There’s a grammar slip, a dialect shift, an identity slip. It’s no longer “friends,” which suggests a close relationship (though in its irony it suggests distance) but it’s “Peoples,” and a distant relationship – a distant as far as he from the dog, and emphasizing how is absent from life.

I’m reading quite a number of these poems aloud. Aloud I read, and when I read, a rhythm I hear infectious to me. Those last sentences are play at mimicry. However, I have been reading aloud. When I do, I fall into his voice. I start with my voice and it takes a few lines, but then I fall into his voice, which is deeper than mine and which vibrates a lot in the throat. Berryman’s poems emanate from the Adam’s Apple. Ripples of vibrating consonants fill the throat and make it hum like some Hindu mantra repeated over and over without change in inflection. A drone. It’s like repeating the V in “have” or “over” over and over. The lips get their vibrations, too. I mentioned this earlier in Sonnets to Chris, and I forgot I mentioned it, but it’s still there, especially at a line’s end where it vibrates and extra beat or so. A good place to hear this is in Dream Song 66, among others. By analogy, you could think of the repetitious sounds in the movie Inception, and you’d have an idea of what I mean.

Dream Song 75 seems like reflection on the books, or book, he wrote. Henry wrote a book with the possibility of revealing himself and exposing himself. But “No harm resulted from this.” The great luminaries in writing (“Neither the menstruating     stars (nor man) was moved”) were not impressed, but the critics (“Bare dogs drew closed for a second look”) gave it some attention. Here, Berryman’s irony continues as “friendly operations” most likely means the dogs/critics pissed and shat on his writings. Nonetheless, it was receiving some attention so something good must be happening, else why would one respond to it. Without a response by the critics, surely means the book sucks. But I wonder if any of that matters. The lines “thing made by savage & thoughtful / surviving Henry / began to strike the passers from despair” implies that if Henry writes out his despair, he’ll impact his readers out of their despair. Exhilaration follows as he stands on the shoulders of his predecessors.

I just mentioned Inception, a movie about invading another person’s dreams and understanding the logic of the dreamer’s dreams. Once understood, the person’s dreams can be influenced to affect the dreamer in the dreaming and, most importantly, in the waking state. Berryman wrote The Dream Songs with similar understanding, I assume, else why call them dreams? The poems are hard to follow. They are difficult to make conscious sense of, but a sense is felt, at least a sense of movement. The poems are definitely not haphazardly put together, and neither is a dream. I think the jerkiness of the poems, the “crumpling syntax,” is a the distortion a dream can take. Dreams have their own language and syntax and so do these poems. Sometimes a poem is more clear and readily understood by the conscious mind than another poem, but the accumulation of poems, the overwhelmingness of them all leads to a larger understanding – Henry is in crazy despair with occasional bouts of joy, a “bark rejoiced.”

– Monday, February 11, 2013


John Berryman – His Toy, His Dream, His Rest His Toy, His Dream, His Rest

(Dream Songs 78-145)

The poems in The Dream Songs have a structure. There tends to be three six-lined stanzas. The stanza’s rhythmic structure often has five or four beats in lines 1, 2, 4, and 5, and lines 3 and 6 tend to have a three-beat measure. In addition to the rhythmical structure, there’s a movement structure, at times. The first stanza at times describes a personal or a Henry experience. The second stanza often goes beyond the personal or Henry and occasionally it is done metaphorically or with a metaphor or analogy or comparison of sorts. And the third stanza realizes the other world actually does exist even though the realization comes about in a disappointing manner. It’s as if the realization comes against the personal will or Henry’s will because neither want that other, non-personal world to exist. The realization only enhances his pain as he realizes his pain is more personal and less universal than he expects/wants/hopes/assumes. I plan to read the upcoming Dream Songs with that in mind as to prove or disprove this hypothesis.

Dream Song 79, “Op. post. no. 2,” provides a good example.

   Whence flew the litter whereon he was laid?
   Of what heroic stuff was warlock Henry made?
   and questions of that sort
   perplexed the bulging cosmos, O in short
   was sandalwood in good supply when he
   flared out of history

   & the obituary in The New York Times
   into the world of generosity
   creating the air where are
   & can be, only, heroes? Statues & rhymes
   signal his fiery Passage, a mountainous sea,
   the occlusion of a star:

   anything afterward, of high, lament,
   let too his giant faults appear, as sent
   together with his virtues down
   and let this day be his, throughout the town,
   region & cosmos, lest he freeze our blood
   with terrible returns.

The poem’s first stanza is involved with a personal Henry experience. It’s Henry-centric. In the second stanza, it leaps to an outside world via “The New York Times,” which ends the line with three stresses, and the metaphor(s) arises in the last three lines. In the third stanza, through the “high lament” is the disappointing realization of this outer world, and it’s moreso disappointing because “his giant faults appear.” His despair is unto himself and is not universal even though the final lines imply he wants it to go beyond himself:

   and let this day be his, throughout the town,
   region & cosmos, lest he freeze our blood
   with terrible returns.

Sometimes the order gets reversed, such as Dream Song 88, “Op. posth. no. 11”:

   In slack times visit I the violent dead
   and pick their awful brains. Most seem to feel
   nothing is secret more
   to my disdain I find, when we who fled
   cherish the knowings of both worlds, conceal
   more, beat on the floor,

   where Bhain is stagnant, dear of Henry’s friends,
   yellow with cancer, paper-thin, & bent
   even in hospital bed
   racked with high hope, on whom death lay hands
   in weeks, or Yeats in the London spring half-spent,
   only the grand gift in his head

   going for him, a seated ruin of a man
   courteous to a junior, like one of the boarders,
   or Dylan, with more to say
   now there’s no hurry, and we’re all a clan.
   You’d think off here one would be free from orders.
   I didn’t hear a single       word. I obeyed.

In this poem two outer worlds (the dead and “Most”) interact with his world, and he wants neither to exist. In fact, in this instance, both don’t want the third outer world of the dead to exist. He actually aligns himself with those others in “we.” The second world then recalls others, such as Bhain and Yeats, who is the metaphorical vehicle. And in the last stanza, especially, the last line, the poem turns to the personal/Henry experience: “I didn’t hear a single    word. I obeyed.”

It’s interesting to note that this string of poems is titled “Op. posth. no. #,” which is short for “Opus Posthumous Number #,” which implies a body of work after the author’s demise. Work left over that the author/musician didn’t complete/publish in his lifetime. Should the reader assume the poems are incomplete?

This latter installment of Dream Songs is much easier to follow. The syntax is much more normalized. I’m starting to miss the irregularities and inventions. I can often hear him trying to invent, but it’s only through the content which is trying to overcome linguistic invention. The invention of content is successful and to be applauded, but based on what preceded, despair is soon to follow. Dream Song 103 is a terrific poem, but the syntax is more regular:

   I consider a song will be a humming-bird
   swift, down-light, missile-metal-hard, & strange
   as the world of anti-matter
   where they are wondering: does time run backward –
   which the poet thought was true; Scarlatti-supple;
   but can Henry write it?

   Wreckt, in deep danger, he shook once his head,
   returning to meditation. And word had sped
   all from the farthest West
   that Henry was desired: can he get free
   of the hanging menace, & this all, and go?
   He doesn’t think so.

   Therefore he stakes and he will sing no more,
   much less a song as fast as said, as light,
   so deep, so flexing. He broods.
   He may, rehearsing, here of his bad year
   at the very end, in squalor, ill, outside.
   – Happy New Year, Mr Bones.

The second line is an example of content invention overcoming syntactical play, as is much of the poem.

– Tuesday, February 12, 2013


John Berryman – His Toy, His Dream, His Rest His Toy, His Dream, His Rest

(Dream Songs 146-223)

The language, syntax, and music are becoming very commonplace. For the most part, I hear him writing to fit a rhyme and to please his ear, or a meter he hears. There’s not much play musically, though. The rhythm and rhyme are generally predictable, unlike in his previous books. The syntax is very ordinary as is the language. This can be expected, I assume. How many poets can write in the same form for 385 poems without losing some imagination? I think even Berryman picks up on this. For instance, in Dream Song 175, he writes: “Blank prose took hold of Henry’s soul / considering all the deaths & considering. There is a little life upstairs.” The deaths he refers to are a number of poets who recently died – “First he [god] seized Ted, then Richard, Randall, and now Delmore. / In between he gorged on Sylvia Plath” (Dream Song 153). Ted I think is Theodore Roethke, I don’t know who Richard is, Randall is Randall Jarrell, and Delmore is Delmore Schwartz, who many of these early poems in section VI are about. Back to Dream Song 175. There are two things to notice in those quoted lines. One, the use of long vowels. Berryman, so far, has been a consonant man. His daring and crumpling come from his consonants, especially his use of plosive consonants which mirror his gashing comma use. Pound tells of to “pay attention to the tone leading of vowels.” Here, I think it’s especially important. Here I think Berryman is relying on the long vowels to create an emotional atmosphere, whereas before he would have done that through rhythm and syntactic variation. No matter the reason, he’s relying on vowels instead of consonants. The second thing to notice is the period at the end of the second quoted line, which is line 5 in the poem. Here it does try to evoke some syntactic creativity by ending on “considering” with the reader’s ear expecting an object for the verb, but one does not come. However, an earlier Berryman would have used the line break to his advantage. He most likely would have a put a comma there to act as a pivot to carry “considering” over to the next line that it could exist without an object on the line break and then pick up one on the line turn. He could have created two effects from the price of one line break. Or maybe he wouldn’t have even used a comma, but the daring here is less effective than a younger Berryman.

Berryman also realizes his lack of invention a few poems earlier in Dream Song 166, which opens: “I have strained everything except my ears, / he marveled to himself: and they’re too dull.” Then he concludes the poem “Only his ears sat with his theme / in the splices of his pride.” To a degree, this acknowledges what was just noted above: he’s writing by ear and sound. I do read “splices of his pride” as a play on words about his comma splices and other original uses of the comma, and the music has replaced that. If only the music were more interesting. It sounds too much a metronome, though not a metrical metronome, but a Berryman metronome, which was gone from wild to tame.

This is true up to Dream Song 175. Maybe those deaths really did affect him because by Dream Song 177, man, he’s blazing and continues to do so for the most part.

In Dream Song 194, I noticed something about his use of accent marks. Here is the first stanza:

   If all must hurt at once, let yet more hurt now,
   so I’ll be ready, Dr. God. Púsh on me.
   Give it to Henry harder.
   There lives content: one area, taking a bow,
   unbothered, whére I can’t remember, lovely,
   somewhere down there,

Berryman added accent marks over “Push” and “where.” He wanted them stressed, which I’ve noticed before, and which he probably borrowed from Hopkins. But if you read the lines without the accent marks, those words are already stressed. One could make a debate for “where” not being stressed, but only if the argument included over stressing the following “I.” Maybe, that’s Berryman letting us know to not read it like as I guess one could. Nonetheless, what I wanted to note and point out were the effects. When you draw attention to a stress like, whether Berryman wants to stress what is normally unstressed, to stress it even more, or to ensure the reader reads –the line correctly, one thing happens – there’s a pause. It’s so unnatural to pronounce what should be unstressed as stressed syllable or to add extra stress that the body, voice, mind has to stop. Maybe the stop occurs to readjust, but there’s a pause, a caesura, an unnatural caesura. The rhythm stops. In the case of “Push,” maybe he wants the reader to actually push when they read “Push,” and then in the pause the reader collects him/herself and pushes on to “on me.” Maybe Berryman is trying to orchestrate content and sound here. Or maybe he just likes creating unnatural pauses. Maybe he’s trying to crumple music like he crumples syntax. Hopkins, if I remember correctly, put accents over words that would be accented anyway. Maybe I’m on to something here. Maybe not. But there is a pause.

– Wednesday, February 20, 2013



John Berryman – His Toy, His Dream, His Rest His Toy, His Dream, His Rest

(Dream Songs 224-278)

For these following Dream Songs, I will look at the use of plosive consonants. Plosive consonants are consonants explode from the mouth after a blockage of air by the tongue against the teeth (dental or alveolar plosives), tongue against the soft part of the palate or against the back roof of the mouth (velar plosives), or by the lips (bilabial plosives). Dental plosives arrive with D and T, such as “dawn” and “time”; velar plosives arrive with G and K, such as “gaggle” and “ache”; and bilabial plosives arrive with B and P, such as “bed” and “pillow.” I know this is simplified, but it’s a starting point for what I want to listen to.

Dream Song 224 provides a good demonstration of this, especially in stanza 2:

   Dry, ripe with pain, busy with loss, let’s guess
   Gone. Gone them wine-meetings, gone green grasses
   of the picnics of rising youth.
   Gone all, slowly. Stately, not as the tongue
   worries the loose tooth, wits as strong as young,
   only the albino body failing.

As you can hear and feel in your mouth, there are an abundance of plosives in this stanza. In fact in stands in contrast to stanza one, which is dominated by non-plosive consonants at the beginning of words, such as approximants (“Lonely,” “leaned,” “living,” “friend,” “friend”), fricatives (“his,” “his,” “it’s,” “sang,” “thoughts,” “snow,” “sound,” “them,” and “though”), voiceless fricatives in “Henry” and “hymn.” There are some plosives at the beginning of words, such as “great,” “Abbey,” “Pound,” and “bowed,” but most plosive sounds arrive at the end of words, such as “friend,” “leaned,” “burning,” “hymned,” “living,” “rang,” “sound,” “Pound,” “bowed,” “hard,” “old,” “sang,” and “word.”

Here’s the first stanza:

   Lonely in his great age, Henry’s old friend
   leaned on his burning cane while hís old friend
   was hymned out of living.
   The Abbey rang with sound. Pound white as snow
   bowed to them with his thoughts – it’s hard to know them though
   for the old man sang no word

The more I listen to this poem the more complicated it becomes. There are a lot of interesting sounds. The first line has harmonies with L, long A, long O, G, en, and long E sounds. There are two spondees, which both come before a pause. The spondee pattern is repeated in the next line, too, except one spondee bridges a pause/caesura: “cane while.” In lines 3-5,the ow sound is harmonized four times (“out,” “sound,” “Pound,” and “bowed”), but the persistence of the O sounds continues in “snow,” “to,” “thoughts,” “to,” “know,” “though,” “old,” and “no.” Those are a variety of O sounds but they all arise from the O. This stanza relies on these longer vowels and shorter consonant sounds.

The second stanza relies on shorter vowels and longer consonant sounds. By longer consonant sounds is meant plosive sounds. Plosives, to my ear, lengthen a syllable. These two stanza work in opposite directions to the same end. The first stanza is slowed by the spondees, longer vowels, and plosives at the ends of words, and the last line of the stanza is brought to a crawl with the five stressed words, “old man sang no word.” The second stanza is slowed by the spondees, the plosives at the beginning of words, and the increased use of punctuation with commas and periods. There’s even a hint that Berryman is aware of the plosiveness of this stanza when he writes, “not as the tongue / worries the loose tooth.”

The title to this poem is “Eighty.” It’s one of the few Dream Songs with a title. I’m reading this poem now as a poem about Ezra Pound who would have been 80 around the time of this poem, and at this time rarely said a word; hence, “for the old man sang no word.” Maybe  Berryman is mimicking Pound’s growth of sounds from a younger Pound working with vowels to an older Pound working off consonants and spondees. The first stanza is filled with tone leading vowels, and the second is filled with alliterative plosives.

The fricatives then return alliteratively in the final stanza with “Where,” “what,” “white,” “while,” and “white,” here,” and “hue.” There are also a number of es sounds. It’s like this stanza is mellowing out in its old age. It’s almost like the last stanza is wheezing or whimpering in its old age.

Stanza one is passionate with its long vowels, the second stanza is more cerebral with consonant, and the last stanza is filled with wheezing old age.

As I proceed into Dream Songs, I’m not finding what I expected, which was a heavy reliance on plosives. What I am hearing, though, is a heavy use of consonants, in general, at least in relation to long vowels.  I’m also notice the intricate uses of consonant harmonies.

–        Wednesday, February 27, 2013


John Berryman – His Toy, His Dream, His Rest His Toy, His Dream, His Rest

(Dream Songs 279-285)

            I’m reading Berryman with a very stuffed up nose, which is like trying to drink wine with a very stuffed up nose – the experience is okay, but it’s not complete. I can’t hear the sounds correctly, and so the poems lose some energy and meaning.

The beginning of Dream Song 314 appears to be in passive in voice, at least lines 2-4:

   Penniless, ill, abroad, Henry lay skew
   to Henry’s American fate, which was to be well,
   have money in the bank
   & be at home.

However, the lines are not passive, but why not? Wouldn’t the sentiment be more effective, or is the intent to have “American fate” play an active role in Henry’s life? I think that is the intention. The opening could easily be: “Henry being penniless, ill, and abroad, Henry lay skew.” But if that is case Henry is an active participant in being penniless, ill, and abroad. He’s also active in changing the course of plans (“lay skew”). The American fate is acting on Henry, but not syntactically. Henry still does the acting. The choices he makes or the desires he wants are not of his choice, but the syntax makes it seems as if he deliberately has the desires for health, wealth, and being at home.

To add to the complexity, the rhyming pattern is also playing a role in how the poem is shaped, which is being shaped against its will. The poem opens “Penniless, ill, abroad,” but the definition of “American fate” is “to be well, / have money in the bank, / & be at home.” The order of conditions changes from money, health, and location to health, money, and location. The second arrangement of condition has been altered to meet the rhyme scheme. This switch must be deliberate and for cause. Or the opening condition could be rearranged: “Ill, penniless, abroad,” but then there’s three unstresses in a row, which is not a condition that is desired by a poet who earlier wrote in Dream Song 297, “I perfect my metres / until no mosquito can get through.” (And if no mosquito can get through, not only is the meter tight, but no blood will be lost, either.) So the line could be rearranged: “Abroad, penniless, ill,” which is must closer to the current situation, and it’s not an unfamiliar meter to these Dream Songs.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of forced deliberateness going on in these lines in Dream Song 314, and maybe that’s the point. Henry is acting a certain way because he has no money, is sick, and is far from home, and he’s also acting a certain way because of “American fate.” All of that mirrors how the poet ordered the Henry’s conditions of state, which was organized not by poet, but by the meter and rhyme he heard. I think often is the case when Berryman writes to the rhyme in compromise to a tighter image or focus, which is fine, I suppose. “Never sacrifice sound for sense” says Ezra Pound, and if a good effect is had in sound without losing too much sense, then Berryman has succeeded, but has the poem? Maybe “his mind was not in it. His mind was elsewhere / in an area where the soul not talks but sings” (Dream Song 352). Maybe the last lines of Dream Song 314 have the answer: “Were there any other gods he could defy, / he wondered, or re-arrange?” Maybe this is why he re-arranges at the beginning while talking about fate.

Maybe the issue is even bigger than that. Maybe the issue is on another level about wishing the fate of death would act on him so he didn’t have keep pushing on. I say this because of what he says in two poems. In Dream Song 324 “An Elegy for W.C.W, the lovely man,” Berryman writes, “if envy was a Henry trademark, he would envy you, / especially the being through.” Berryman is saying he wants to be dead like Williams. In the next stanza, however, he writes, “Too many journeys lie for him ahead, / too many galleys & page proofs to be read.” Here he gives he is reason to live, but he does it in a passive voice. I hear those lines as if Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh were reading them. There’s so much despair in those lines. Hope is undermined by the passive voice. But when it comes to the wants of dying, he says in the active voice, “he would like to lie down / in your sweet silence,” where “your” is Williams. These are the types of effects I was thinking about with American fate.

The other poem is Dream Song 331 in its last stanza:

   Yeats listened once, he found it did him good,
   he died in full stride, a good way to go,
   making them wonder what’s missing,
   a strangeness in the final notes, never to be resolved

I think this is echoing Berryman’s desire to die before all his creativity and talent fade, as often happens in later years with writers and artists. He wants to go out while people still think he’s great, so they can wonder forever what other great poems he would have written or so, as he says in line 3, so “nobody will be ashamed of me.” He’s very concerned about what people think of him and his poems. So I wonder also if he is tiring of writing poems, or trying to get the music to work out, as is hinted at in “a strangeness in the final notes, never to be resolved.” Is Berryman tired of getting all his poems resolved, especially the music of them? Is he tired of trying to satisfy and audience and critics? Is his ego his downfall? Is Henry his ego? That can’t be as Helen Vendler points out:

Henry, the Id, has a great deal to say: he is petulant, complaining, greedy, lustful, and polymorphously perverse; he is also capable of childlike joy and disintegrative rage. Henry’s life has been blasted, as he tells us, by the suicide of his father when he was a boy; he is driven by a random avidity, often sexual, which he indulges shamelessly until the unnamed Conscience reproaches him.

Maybe he’s just tired of writing in general and looking to resolve poems and their musics. Maybe he thinks, “The only happy people in the world / are those who do not have    to write long poems” (Dream Song 354). Whatever it is, these Dreams Songs in the last section are certainly taking a turn toward the desperate and suicidal.

– Wednesday, March 13, 2013



John Berryman – Love & Fame

Love & Fame [1971]

I expect something new to happen with this book. While much of The Dream Songs was good and some seem half-assed, there wasn’t much innovation that I noticed. Berryman is still only doing much of what he was doing in The Dispossessed and Sonnets to Chris, which is still just “crumpling syntax” and in now obvious ways while his metric is becoming flabby, which is to say without restraint. The music is just him pushing forward in authority and syntax and not in sound and rhythm.

This request of change is very selfish of me. It’s hard for any writer to change or to discover something new twice or thrice, but I hope. Plus, I’ve concerns after reading what Hayden Carruth said “Love, Art, and Money,” a review of Love & Fame. The review opens: “John Berryman’s new book of poems is in some respects, as the advance rumors have warned us, a departure from earlier work; but not after all, as we come to look at it, much of a departure. […] these are changes in degree only.” (437). Carruth concludes that Berryman’s poems are still just “language twisted and posed” (438), which I agree with.

One of the reasons I chose to read Berryman was to learn to write about the personal. What I’m learning in this book, which often makes me think of Allen Ginsberg in his honesties, is that Berryman, like Ginsberg, is unconcerned. He’s let down his pride, but unlike Ginsberg, his kept up his fists. Berryman is going to tell you his truth, but he’s not going to let anyone fuck with it. He’s wearied of the critics, though I think he still seeks their approval. Maybe what I really want to say is best seen/heard in “Images of Elspeth”:

In this poem about a lost love and muse, he is sentimental but tough or grounded in reality.

   O when I grunted, over lines and her,
   my Muse a nymphet & my girl with men
   older, of money, continually,
   lawyers & so, myself a flat-broke Junior.

That’s the opening stanza. The first line creates the parallel between writing and muse. The implication here is that he is having sex with a poem he writes (“lines”) in a similar fashion with a woman/muse (“her”). The image also shows he is domineering. He is “over” the poem like he would be on top of woman during sex. He’s in the dominant position. One could even read that he grunts when alone as “over lines and her” are set off by commas and because of what happens in the next three lines.

First, we realize the “Muse” is a nymph who is not loyal to Berryman. (One might want to say “not loyal to the speaker” but the details in these poems are so intimate and protective (he uses initials instead of names, for instance), the speaker and Berryman are the same. Plus, as Carruth notes, “he [Berryman] is writing with candor about his own explicit autobiography; he is writing in simpler, more accessible language than that of earlier poems.” (437).) The muse is nymph. She’s there to get him going sexually and poetically. He’s not good enough for her anyway, since she can be better off with men with money. He is distanced from her.

Second, we realize this is an incomplete sentence. The subordinate clause “when I grunted,” is not completed. The subject of the sentence is “I” and, maybe, the object of the sentence is “myself” or “flat-broke Junior,” which are one in the same, but where’s the predicate pulling them together. There’s only one verb in this whole sentence/stanza – “grunted,” but it’s in the subordinate clause.  He is distant from action or completion.

He is alone with her memories. Even in the next stanza when he was first with her, she wouldn’t let him see the naked pictures he took of her:

   But the one who made me wild
   was who she let take naked photographs
   never she showed me but she was proud of.
   Unnerving: dire.

He’s even distanced from her when he’s with her. And when he’s real distant , when he’s with other loves, she’s still in there confusing him:

   My love confused confused with after loves
   not over time did I outgrow.
   Solemn, alone Muse grew taller.
   Rejection slips developed signatures,

(I want to read the second “confused” as “confussed.” I want the oo sound to become an uh sound.) In her absence, she becomes an even greater influence – she “grew taller.” She grew like she was becoming a good or a grand statue worthy to be praised. And the next line, “Rejection slips developed signatures.” That’s a terrific line. It suggests a few things. First, it suggests he is sending out poems to journals. It then suggests that his poems were receiving the rejection form letter. They were no good. It also underscores that he is nobody and is alone. If the rejection can’t address the author, then the author is anonymous. These lines also show that as she grew taller, his poetry got better. How do we know? Because even though he was still getting rejected, he wasn’t receiving rejection form letters. Someone signed the letter. The rejection has become more intimate. When that happens, the writer feels like he/she has been read. Berryman must be gaining some confidence and not feeling so alone. He might be feeling like he is somebody. And the next two lines tell us this:

   many thought Berryman was under weigh,
   he wasn’t sure himself.

(Here “under weigh” means “getting going.” I point that out in case some, like me, thought it was “under way.”)

Eventually, his muse gets married and he almost does. And in the almost marrying a new muse, he becomes domestic and develops “a sense of humor” which is “fatal to bardic pretension.” By the end he still wants his original muse. In the end of this poem that so far has been 7 four-line stanzas, there is one isolated line: “wishing I could lay my hands somewhere on those snapshots.”

Berryman has exposed an inner sentimentality while acknowledging the harsh realities. He lowered his pride to show his vulnerability. He lets the world and possible future lovers/wives know that they will be second to Elspeth: Muse and His Poetry. He’s saying, “I’m sentimental, but don’t fuck with it because that’s who I am. If you want to love me, you’ll have to contend.” (No wonder his wife “feels ‘inadequate’” (“Of Suicide”).)

I may have imposed on this poem, but I think it’s okay. I think the poem invites that. As Carruth says:

Some readers may say that these matters of substance have no ultimate importance aesthetically and should not concern the critic, whose job is to examine, not the experience but how the experience is turned into poetry. I do not agree. A critic has moral as well as aesthetic obligations, and certainly a journalist-reviewer, as distinct from a critic has a duty, to report the substance of books which he has seen before they are available to the public. (437)

In addition, I think many of us, especially us poets, have an Elspeth. And in learning to write personal poems, I need to negotiate my experiences into his poems to see how my possible personal poems might appear. I’ve learned I need to let down my ego to reveal inner truths that might be unsettling once out in the world, but at the same I’ve also got to let the reader know to not fuck with those personal issues and just accept them, which is probably just good advice in the everyday world, too.

At the same time though, maybe he needs some more pride to gauge what is interesting in his life. Despite him saying “I am not writing an autobiography-in-verse” (“Message”), it certainly seems that way. Many of these poems have uninteresting content, such as concerns about grades he got in school. Uninteresting content can be fine, maybe, but only if it finds something out about the self or is written well. Many of these poems just seem written. I had this feeling in Dream Songs, too. I can’t recall if I mentioned it, but a lot of the middle Dream Songs seemed like they were being written because he had a contract to fulfill. There are so many uninteresting rhymes and even the crumpling syntax can’t save them.

Fame has certainly affected his poetry which has affected Love & Fame, and I think he realizes it to at the end of “Monkhood”:

   Will I ever write properly, with passion & exactness,
   of the damned strange demeanours of my flagrant heart?
   & be anyone anywhere undertaken?
   One more unanswerable question.

– Sunday, March 24, 2013


John Berryman – Delusions etc of John Berryman

Delusions etc of John Berryman [1972]

I’m only seven pages in and I don’t recognize Berryman’s style in here. Maybe it’s my two week absence from reading him, but he’s new. He’s up to something new, even occasionally borrowing old and/or old religious wording, such as “Thou hard” (“Matins”), “Behold, thou art taken in thy mischief” (“Matins”), “Thanks be to God” (“Prime”), “Now hear this programme for    my remnant of today” (“Sext”), etc. But in “Nones” (the seventh poem) he starts to sound like Jim Morrison in “The End” or “Spanish Caravan”: “you are afraid are my brothers – veterans of fear – / pray with me now in the hour of the living”; “I was alone with You again: ‘the iron did swim.’ / It has been proved to me again & again”; “I am olding & ignorant, and the work is great, / daylight is long, will ever I be done”; “Flimsy between cloth, what may I attain, / who slither in my garments there’s not enough me”; etc. Provocative statements are made and they sound cool, but connecting them is the issue. There’s an internal associative leaping going on within the mind as if a secret message is underneath the words for him and him alone or his god. The images and lines draw me in, but I don’t know what I’m drawn into. When I read them aloud as if singing a Jim Morrison song, I’m in. my body gets it. When I step back to read to see where my body’s been, then I’m not quite sure. It’s like a religious experience. Is Berryman trying to find god?

The title to the opening poems of this collection are: “Lauds,” “Matins,” “Prime,” “Interstitial Office” (where “office” means “canonical hour”), “Terce,” “Sext,” “Nones,” “Vespers,” and “Compline.” Where do these names come from? According to Wikipedia: “Already well-established by the ninth century in the West, these canonical offices consisted of eight daily prayer events: Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline, and the Night Office.” And according to New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia: “The name Prime (prima hora) belongs with those of Terce, Sext, None, to the short offices recited at the different hours of the day, called by these names among the Romans, that is, prima towards 6 a.m.; tertia, towards 9 a.m.; sexta, towards noon; nona towards 3 p.m. At first Prime was termed matitutina (hora), morning hour; later, in order to distinguish it from the nocturnal hours of Matins and Lauds, and to include it among hours of the day, it was called prima. The name is first met with in the Rule of St. Benedict. In the Bangor Antiphonary it is called secunda.”

So it seems that Berryman is turning to religion, which explains his turn in style, tone, and language. A language that now moves more conventionally.

This book, I learned, was written before his suicide, but released after.

In the next section, Berryman appears more Berrymanesque, or at least less religious. But he does evoke the old with “Washington in Love” and “Beethoven Triumphant,” and in “Your Birthday in Wisconsin You Are 140” and “In Memoriam (1914-1953)” he evokes a neo-Sapphic stanza, or at least poems that try to be. I call them neo-Sapphic because the shape is the same, but there’s an extra line. I think he wanted to do so, too, as the first two lines of “Your Birthday in Wisconsin You Are 140” begin with hendecasyllabic lines.

Your Birthday in Wisconsin You Are 140 scansion

(where x=extra stressed and u/=semi-stressed) and a Sapphic meter for a hendecasyllabic line in qualitative metrics is:

   / u /   *   / u u /   u / /

(where * is a free syllable)

He’s trying here, but he’s tired and overwhelmed. He’s losing his ear and discipline, as noted in Love & Fame. In “In Memoriam (1914-1953),” he Americanizes the Sapphic meter into lines of trochees and ending on a stress and maintains the traditional Sapphic stanza shape of four lines. He builds the poem on falling meters but catches a rise at the end of the line and reinforces the rise on the line turn, and this is true for the first two stanzas, then the variations begin. He establishes his meter for us, sets the background rhythm, and then improvises off of it after he collapses. In section two of the poem the variations become more apparent, but in section three he tries to recover the original falling meter of the first two stanzas, and eventually he does (almost) in the penultimate stanza, where the poem turns into a song.

Perhaps the delusion in this book is that he does not know how to complete what he starts. And that could be true of his poetry as a whole. Berryman, through his career, gives us syntactical rearrangements, a sharp ear early on but flat in later years, he introduces how a poet can introspect while using a persona to camouflage his ego. He shows how one can write about the self, which he does. But in Delusions etc of John Berryman, he can’t concentrate or stay focused. He drifts in form, structure, music, image movement, but in all of that drifting, he is most true to himself, I think. He’s guard seems down. It seems less like he is trying to impress an audience, critic, or benefactor. He’s writing for himself. The drifting is him drifting from an impression of himself to himself.

   “The bamboo of the Ten Halls,” went on Ch’en
   “of my time, are excellently made.
   I cannot find so well
   ensorcelled those of later of former time.
   Let us apply the highest praise, pure wind,
   to those surpassing masters; –
   having done things, a thing, along that line myself.”

                                                                           (“Scholars at the Orchid Pavilion” 4)

– Sunday, April 7, 2013






Works Cited

Berryman, John. The Collected Poems: 1937-1971. Ed. Charles Thornbury. New York: Noonday Press, 1991. Print.

—. The Dream Songs. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988. Print.

Cabrol, Fernand. “Prime.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. New Advent. Kevin Knight. 7 Apr. 2013. Web. 7 Apr. 2013. <>.

“Canonical hours.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 Feb. 2013. Web. 7 Apr. 2013.

Carruth, Hayden. “Love, Art, & Money.” The Nation 211.14 (1970) 437-38. Ebscohost. Web. PDF. 24 Mar. 2013. <>.

Ellman, Richard. The Norton Anthology of Modern American Poetry (Second Edition). New York: Norton, 1988. 911. Print.

Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.” Selected Writings. New York: New Directions, 1966. 15-30. Print.

Thompson, John. “A Poetry Chronicle.” Poetry (Vol. 95, No. 2.) November 1959. Pages 107-116. PDF. 06 Feb 2013.

“Utraquist.” Origin. 2013. Web. 23 Jan. 2013.

Vendler, Helen. “from The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition.” Modern American Poetry: On The Dream Songs. n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2013. <>.




W. S. Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius (2008)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 11, which was published circa January 2009.


W. S. Merwin's – The Shadow of SiriusDoes W. S. Merwin’s newest book, The Shadow of Sirius (Copper Canyon Press), need a review from me  . . . a mortal? Probably not, but not for the reasons you might think. Quite often in this book I think Merwin transcends time, and he succeeds in actually yoking together his whole life:

   that I would descend some years later
   and recognize it
   there we were all together
   one time                    			
                                             (“Europe,” 28)

The now, the past, and the present become one, not just because he says so, but because you can feel it through his use of verbs. He uses simple verbs like “is,” “was,” and “will be” in a complicated reflective-visionary-staring-into-the-now manner and in an easy to read manner, and those two modes, in part, create this timeless effect.

To a larger extent, Merwin continues to write to the large past and the large future and the large present of poets – he talks to them all simultaneously, which may be even easier than yoking together his life.

Oh, there’s obviously more to this book than time, his time, and humanity’s time. There is his new experimentation with line breaks, which has subtle and interesting effects on the Merwinian tone. This undertaking is much like an older John Coltrane experimenting with bending notes in a Seattle concert, but it is easier on the ears. Yes, there’s much more than time and line breaks, like words:

   apparently we believe
   in the words
   and through them
   but we long beyond them
   for what is unseen
   what remains out of reach
   what is kept covered      		
                                        (“Raiment,” 26-7)

Yes, Merwin is still relevant, strong, and uncovering more great poetry for us.//




Merwin, W. S. The Shadow of Sirius. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2008.//


Christian Wiman’s Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (2007)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics ) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 10, which was published circa April 2007.


Christian Wiman's – Ambition and SurvivalChristian Wiman’s voice is strong & powerful in Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (Copper Canyon Press), and if I were younger, before I knew who I was, before I knew my writing ways & its limits & its strengths, this book would have influenced my writing, as much as Ezra Pound’s essays did. Instead, Wiman is just influencing my thinking.

An early challenge of this book, a challenge that is discussed throughout the book in various ways, is a response to form. Wiman notes the argument of the critics that since:

our experience of the world is chaotic and fragmented, and because we’ve lost our faith not only in those abstractions by means of which men and women of the past ordered their lives but also in language itself, it would be naive to think that we could have such order in our art. (p 94-5)

Wiman responds to this argument:

What I am interested in, and what I want to focus on here, is a kind of closure that compromises itself, a poetry whose order is contested, even undermined, by its consciousness of the disorder that it at once repels and recognizes. (p 95)

And what underlies Wiman’s response are two thoughts. One, Wiman wants us to confront our conventions & forms. From that I extrapolate, we are the new generation, and this is our obligation. Wiman is shouting for my generation.

The second thought and what underlies much the book is the conflict that many poets/artists have – the separation of art and life. Should there be a split? Wiman thinks not. He wants more life in poetry. More experience in poetry. But he doesn’t want a life that is lived for an experience to put into poetry. He realizes that we live in a universe of a large-order through which we flounder in our own chaos and there is an inability to express that perfectly. So, is the poem “more authentic if rough and unfinished,” as critics would suggest? It’s a theme that keeps me thinking throughout the book.

Another theme is silence – the silence between the finished poem & the beginning of writing the next poem, and how the poet handles that silence. Wiman is quick to realize that all of us poets don’t write a poem a day (& I wonder how many of us younger poets actually do write a poem a day). For those who don’t write every day, there is much silence to fill. Wiman tells us why some poets drink – drinking fills the horrible silence (or perhaps quiets the screaming anxieties of not writing, either way there is silence that needs to be dealt with). Wiman, however, suggests writing prose, which is not the same as writing poetry, but it does rid the silence and the prose will have lots of attachments to the poet’s poetry. This theme of silence is explored with more intimacy and details throughout the book, though not directly.

Now, I want to talk about that Poundian voice I mentioned earlier. It comes through loud and clear in “Fourteen Fragments in Lieu of a Review.” Here’s the opening fragment from what was supposed to be a review of an anthology of sonnets.

There isn’t much literature there couldn’t well be less of. A four-hundred-page anthology of sonnets? It takes a real aberration of will to read straight through such a thing. Another man might win an egg eating contest, with similar feelings, I would imagine, of mild shock, equivocal accomplishment  obliterated taste.

Before I get further into the Pound voice, I need to side track for a moment. Anyone who wants to learn about sonnets, what sonnets should do, how they should behave, and how they work in larger view than iambic pentameter, voltas, etc., needs to read this essay. It’s a damn fine discussion that won’t be heard in the classroom, and he presents arguments/ideas, again, that make me think. New arguments and ideas. Now, returning to the Pound voice. Yes, Wiman is like my generation’s Pound. Both worked for Poetry magazine. Pound as Poetry’s foreign correspondent and Wiman as Poetry’s editor. Both are smart & influential. However, Wiman doesn’t come across as authoritative as Pound, in tone that is. Wiman is authoritative, but his authority comes across different. His tone is like what Pascal says and that Wiman quotes, though not in reference to himself. “One must have deeper motives and judge everything accordingly, but go on talking like an ordinary person.” This is what I like about Wiman. He talks smart, but he also talks ordinary. Yeah, I could have drink in a bar with this guy and have a good time chatting, whether it be about poetry or something else.

There’s much more to be said about this book, but not the room to do it. So now I must end this celebratory review, and I have three ways to end it, but I don’t know which way to choose, so here are my three endings.

One. I’ll leave you with these three out-of-context quotes that underscore the themes of Ambition and Survival.

[A] poem that is not in some inexplicable way beyond the will of the poet, is not a poem. (p 123)

There are varying depths of this internalization, though varying degrees to which a poet will inhabit, bridge, endure, ignore, enact (the verb will vary depending on the poet) the separation between experience and form, process and product, life and art, and one can see a sort of rift in literary history between what I’ll call, for simplicity’s sake, poets of observation and poets of culmination. (p 134).

I’m increasingly convinced that there is a direct correlation between the quality of the poem and the the poet’s capacity for suffering. (p 136)

Two. Ambition and Survival is really a search for this: how “[m]ore and more I want an art that is tied to life more directly” (p 23).

Three. I recommend Ambition and Survival to two types of people. One, those who write poetry. Two, those who write poetry & who are two to three years out of college & who now have to create their own writing energies in the absence of the energies a college created and radiated out, & who, in the absence of energy, are starting to question the significance of poetry in their life or the need to write it.//




Wiman, Christian. Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2007.//


On Christopher Howell’s “Listen” – Line Breaks and Harmonies


     Is it an empty house, the body alone
     with its weary old clothes
     or its bullet holes and severed arteries,
     last laugh still shining in its teeth?                         

     The road of answers leaps its ditch
     and descends a dusty hollow
     where nightbirds coo, Pass by, and the Angel
     of Nothingness does his nails.

     Often sky dazzles
     over the great breathing earth.
     Often of its own accord the grain begins again
     to simmer. Deep in the dark

     I find my wife's hand and listen
     as the blue trees bow and bend and I want my soul
     to tell about itself almost

     And it says I, too, am a traveler.
     Wait for me. 

GazeI first saw this poem on Verse Daily, but it appeared earlier in Christopher Howell’s Gaze (Milkweed Editions, 2012). (I also post this poem without anyone’s permission, but I hope no one minds. If you do, let me know.)

The poem opens with the beginning of a question, which is followed by a comma. This comma acts as a pivot because here the poem creates a balance on either side. The comma also sets up a metaphor and establishes the tenor and vehicle. The first line also sets up some of the sounds that help accelerate the poem forward. Those sounds are the T, long E, and the long O. You’ll also hear the Z/S sound in “Is.” And the  long E sounds on either side of the comma yoke together the “empty house” and “body alone.” So what this line does, on one level, is to ask, “Is ‘the body alone’ ‘an empty house’?”

The poem begins by asking this, and then continues to extend the metaphor in the next three lines. I also hear this tug and pull between between the short T sounds and the long vowel sounds or just long sounds in general. The poem starts quick – “It is an” and then we get that long em sound that’s rounded out with the P sound in “empty,” and this followed by the T and long E sounds. You can hear this type of play here and there in the poem, and most effectively in line 8, “of Nothingness does his nails.” The effect there is that the line starts quick with all the short syllable in “of Nothingness”. This abruptness then allows the reader to hear the necessary slow down effect that would accompany someone who “does his nails.” Doing your nails is something you do slowly. It implies slowness. It’s like the Angel of Nothingness is just leaning against a wall, hanging out, watching, and doing his nails.

But to those opening lines. The first line, as explained, behave as a balancing act, and its long O rhymes with the long O at the end of line two. Lines three and four also rhyme with the long E sounds in “arteries” and “teeth.” You’ll hear subtle rhymes like that some more in lines 6-9 with the L sounds, and then there are the S and T sounds that rhyme at the ends of lines 13-15, and if you want to hear the “th” in “anything” as a type of S sound, then there’s an additional rhyme sound. And of course, there’s the long distance rhyme of the long E in “me” at the end of the poem, which recalls the long E sounds in line one. The long E sound also occurs in a few more places, as it walks in the cellar of the poem’s sounds like a ghost. You can hear those long E s in lines 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 14, and 16.

Lines 3-5 also establish or reestablish the L, S, T, and long O sounds that continually appear and accelerate the poem forward on an harmonic level.

By why are lines 2, 3, and 4 breaking where they are? I think it is because each line is an image thought. Line two shows the body “with its weary old clothes,” which is a single image or the conclusion to the image in line one. Line three has two images, but they seem connected as both indicate an abusive entering into the flesh. Plus, you can’t sever arteries without making a hole.  Or maybe the bullet holes severed the arteries. Anyway, the violence of penetration holds those images together as an image thought. Line four is tight in sounds: three L sounds, the two AH sounds in “last” and “laugh,” the three S sounds and a fourth if you hear “th” as a type of S sound, the short I sounds in “still,” “ing,” “in,” and “its”, the two N sounds, and the four T sounds. All those sounds certainly get stuck in the teeth, so they can be pronounced again later. The fourth line ends the question that began in line one. Still, I wonder about the “last laugh.” Since “laugh” indicates a plural verb, then I wonder if the “last laugh” applies to both the house and body. So while line one established a metaphorical relationship around the comma (which means body and house are the same or as one) the verb tense in “laugh” actually makes them act as one.

What stanza one does, then, is to tell us why the title is “Listen.” We need to listen to the sounds and for an answer to the question. So, let’s continue listening.

Evel Knievel Snake River CanyonLine five is a good example of a line break behaving in the manner of its content. When you get to the end of line five, you are forced to leap over the ditch in your imagination. The line turn is the leap. I kinda feel like Evel Knievel over Snake River Canyon on this line turn, except this leap is successful. You can also hear the L sound that echoes to line four and that may be acting as a connecting sound between stanzas one, two, and three, especially since the L sound rhymes at the end of lines 6, 7, 8, and 9. In line five, the L sound has the feel of a discus or hammer thrower to me. It’s spinning in centripetal force from line to line and adding to the final acceleration of the poem. The S sounds in lines four and five provide a connective sound between the stanzas and lines, too, but it’s effect is bigger as its sound is almost in every line, and it is in every line except the last if you hear “th” as a type of S sound. The S sound is more like a drawstring that pulls the poem together tight.

Line six is the continuation of the actions of “answers” in line five. After it leaps, it must descend, and so it does in image and sound, a “low” sound. The early sounds in the line are higher in pitch than the “low” sound in “hollow,” so it really is a descent. And the low sound essentially continues in the next two lines, except for the two high-pithced long I sounds, and those low sounds feel of despair until the upbeat of “Angel.” Wait. Maybe there isn’t anything to despair after all. An angel is hope. It’s a good thing. Right? Nope. Oh, there’s a brief glimmer of hope on the line turn after “Angel,” but then it’s abruptly taken away with “Nothingness.” The “Angel of Nothingness.” Oh, despair can only be made more despairing when hope presents itself but fails or is taken away. (I wonder how much the capital “A” in “Angel” added to the hope. The capital “A” makes it a proper noun, a specific angel, and not just a generic angel. More hope can come with specificity. Plus, the capital “A” points to the sky like a mountain. Maybe we will rise from “a dusty hollow.”) So line five leaps, line six descends, line seven describes the hollow and offers hope at then end, and then line eight takes away that hope with a patient angel doing his nails, which I’ve discussed above.

In line nine, we hear the last of the L sound for four lines, but as we hear it, we also hear it and the Z sounds in “dazzles” rhyme with the L and Z sounds in line eight’s “nails.” The movement is connected by sound, but the images in the lines eight and nine are contrarian in their meanings. Line eight is patient and chill, and line nine is dazzling. Is that why the line ends there? to juxtapose at-easness with something that dazzles? And in the dazzle, the rhymes stop for a while, too. Also, the dominance of long vowels that were in the first two stanzas fades a bit. In this stanza, the consonants take dominance. It’s more of that tug and pull I mentioned above.

Line ten, like like six, continues the action of the previous line as we see where the dazzling occurs. Notice how slow this line moves, too. I imagine the earth breathes slow, too. Line eleven starts a new action – the grain beginning . . . something. The line has six trochees and ends on a stressed syllable. It’s the longest line in the poem with 13 syllables. It has five N sounds and ends with three G sounds. There are also two “in” sounds – “Often” and “begins” – But it looks like there are four with the repetition of “in” in “grain” and “again.” The “in” was set up in the previous line, so it has its echoes there, but it also recalls the two “in” sounds in line four. And it sets up the two “in” sounds in lines 12 and at the end of line 13. But back to line 10. Why is it so long? Rather, since it is the longest line, it draws attention to itself. It must be significant if it needs so many syllables to say something. I think it is because the tone of the poem is turning. In addition, I think this is where the metaphor we thought we had in line one becomes real. It turns out, in fact, that line one wasn’t performing as a metaphor. It was being literal. In other words, is it an empty house if there’s only one alone person in it? But we need that metaphor, so we can feel the aloneness and despair that accompanies an empty house. perhaps, the metaphor is literal and figurative. Perhaps, he is an empty house with only one alone person – himself –, and perhaps the house and himself weren’t empty when his wife lived with him, in him, and in the house. So line 11 is a volta, a turning. Something is rising instead of falling. Something is growing instead of dying. Line 12 answers affirms that something is growing. The grain simmers “Deep in the dark”, or the logic of the line tells us that. That is the image we get. But “Deep in the dark” will act in two different ways, and it achieves this because of a line break. The line break, now acting like the comma in line one, also creates another metaphor between seed in the dark and the wife’s hand “Deep in the dark.”

Line 13 connects to line 12, as described, by the hinging line break, but it also connects with the D sounds. “Deep,” “dark,” “find,” and “hand” are now connected. Line 13 also begins with four long I sounds in a row. It’s an elation. It’s the high-pitch of joy sound. “I find my wife’s.” The high joy and hastened pace in those first four words and syllables, lower and slow in the next four syllables. The pace drops off after the “d” in “hand.” It’s like there’s a slight caesura there. One might be tempted to put a line break after “hand.” It feels right, but then the change in emotion might be lost or not as strong. By not putting a line break after “hand,” the poem goes from elation to concentration in one line motion. It goes from happy to serious. The transition in emotion is seamless when on one line.

Line 14, like the second line in each of the previous stanzas, continues the action of the previous line. However, it doesn’t continue the action of what was in the preceding line (such as “the body alone,” “answers,” or “dazzles”), but it does continue the action of the scenery and mood of the previous line. Line 14 is also the longest line on the page, but not in syllables.  Lines 13 and 14 are also dominated by long vowels sounds – the long Is, the OO in “blue,” the long E in “tree,” the OW in “bow,” and the long O in “soul.” Long vowels tend to emote, and there’s a lot of emotion going on here. There’s also some tug and pull with the B, D, S, and T sounds, just like there was in the transition from joy to concentration in line 13.  I kind of want to hear the beginning of line 13 and the end of line 14 as the speaker being selfish or overly concerned with the himself. Line 13, as said above, begins with all those long I sounds, so how can you not hear the “I” of the poet especially when coupled with “I” and “my.” And then the end of line 14 also has “I” and “my.” But line 15 tells us that it’s not that he wants his soul, he wants his soul to tell him something about itself. He wants to listen. So this stanza is about listening. It’s about the title.

Line 16 is the shortest line on the page, but it has three syllables just like the last line. Those two lines speak to each other just as his soul speaks to him. Line 16 ends on a type of gasp or last wish that is kind of like “just tell me . . . anything.” But oddly, he doesn’t want to hear anything, he wants to hear “almost / anything.” There are some things he doesn’t want to hear. The worst of them would probably be to hear nothing, or the sound of an empty house, because then he would surely be alone.

Line 17 starts with “And” to recall the “hand” in line 13. Line 13 has one or two long vowels, depending on how your pronounce, but it’s dominated by  the T, S, and L sounds that we’ve heard so often before. Then after the line turn, in line 18, we return to the long vowels with the long A and long E. So not only to we have the tug and pull between long and short sounds in this line, there is also some tugging between line 18 and the three syllable “anything” in line 16.

GazeThis poem now as I hear it and think about it is about the tug and pull between life and the afterlife, between aloneness and the company of love, and it’s between listening to sounds and hearing nothing. It’s about patience. Patience like the Angle of Nothingness has in lines 7 and 8, and the patience of waiting for the soul and the afterlife to be with the loved one again.

Once again, I first saw this poem on Verse Daily, but it appeared earlier in Christopher Howell’s Gaze (Milkweed Editions, 2012). (I also post this poem without anyone’s permission, but I hope no one minds. If you do, let me know.)

For more about lineation and line breaks in general, please read “Lineation: An Introduction to the Poetic Line,” a fun, conversational, an in-depth look at line breaks. //


Lineation: An Introduction to the Poetic Line

When I was asked back in late July or early August to do this lecture on the line in poetry, I had a clear idea of what I wanted to talk about and explore. I have since forgotten that clear idea, but I do remember the prompt. A few months earlier in the Just Poets meeting there was a new lady who was interested in poetry. She was a prose writer. Her questions were contentious despite the appearance of wanting to learn about poetry. At that time I had suddenly had new understanding – what distinguishes poetry from prose is the line. Of course there are other elements lending to poetry’s identity, and the line is obvious, but there was something more. I mentioned to the lady the tension between line and syntax and the magic that happens at the line break, but she seemed to tune it out. I think she was looking for reasons that conformed to her ideas, which were to keep writing prose and that prose is better. So that’s what brings me to you. The line.

I can’t possibly cover everything about the line and what it can do, so this will be a brief overview.

So what do we know about the line? What makes a line? What are its characteristics? As a writer, how do you know when to end the line? There’s intuition, of course, and that will work sometimes. There’s syllabics, where you make sure you hit the right number of accents per line. There’s the metrical line, such as the well-known iambic pentameter. But there is also free verse, vers libre. Robert FrostRobert Frost said something like, “Free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” However, Charles Wright is rumored to have responded, “Free Verse is the high wire act without the net.” I’m concerned with the latter for this introduction.

In free verse there are many line measures. There’s the line defined by breath, as Charles OlsonCharles Olson explores in the essay “Projective Verse” and his own poetry. There is the image-thought line, where there is one image or thought per line. There is the haiku leap, or as Ginsberg says in “Howl,” “jumping with sensation.” Those lines are defined by leaps or lightning bolts or perception zaps.

The first snow,
just enough to bend
the leaves of the daffodils.


Weathered bones
on my mind,
a wind-pierced body.


A bee
staggers out
of the peony.

Matsuo BashoThose are haikus from Basho. (By the way, the plural of “haiku” is “haiku” or “haikus”.) Each poem is a direct perception or thought. Short bursts that leap from line to line. And there’s the magic at each line’s end. The snow is bending something. What is that something? Perhaps it’s the snow. Have faith in this line-break leap as we will see it is the slightest weight of snow bending the slightest thing – a daffodil leaf. Zap zap zap.

That seems pretty effective. Why not just keep writing like that? Why not write:

I saw the best minds
of my generation
destroyed by madness

That’s from the first line of Ginsberg’s “Howl.’

Allen Ginsberg's Howl

Ginsberg was very much into Haiku. He even had the four-volume, 1600-page collection of R. H. Blyth’s translated haikus, the main and maybe the only source of haiku at the time in English. He and Gary Snyder and others called it their Perception Bible. So why not write “Howl” in haiku and give the reader/listener a jumping-with-sensation jolt?

I kinda like how that above haiku moves. But Ginsberg chose:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

What’s the difference between the two? Perhaps we should ask the content.

“Howl” is anger, a rant, a celebration, an anthem for a generation. It’s a loud proclamation that needs to be heard “over the roofs of the world,” as Whitman would say. Can haiku achieve that voice? Maybe. For a short while, but it would sound odd especially after each little pause after each five- or seven-syllable line.



The short lines slow down the reading. This poems needs to be oracular. Loud. It’s a rant that needs long lines. The shorter lines in this case also become disjointed and not fluid. When we turn those short-lined stanzas into one line, then there is one long breath per line. One outburst. The longer lines speed up the reading. The longer line can also become more inclusive. It can hold more, unlike the discreteness of the short line. Ginsberg also gets one image-thought per line.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the           machinery of night,

After the opening three lines come a whole bunch of anaphoric lines starting with “who.” The anaphora is another way to create lines. By beginning each line with the same word or a few words, you can create a whole new rhythm. Often a rhythm of expectation, but in the case of “Howl,” a further definition or inclusion of who is he talking about. Each “who” is probably a specific person. So now we have each line a reflection of a person and his or her actions.

But there are more to lines than direct perception, rants, slow, and fast. I mean, so much depends upon the line.

There is the line of everyday speech. Wordsworth and Frost and others tried to keep their language as close as possible to everyday speech, which we all know. However, what they didn’t do is use the line as a measure of everyday speech. Maybe back in Wordsworth and Frost’s time, people spoke and thought in 10 syllable lines. Maybe, it was because of location. The world moved more slowly and allowed for such thinking. But closer to home is William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, and Robert Creeley. Now their lines seem close to how we actually think and talk when we are at the grocery store talking to friends, when we are at the playground watching our kids while talking to other grown-up adults, when we are at the bar drinking and talking. Then we tend to speak and utter in three, four, six, or eight syllable bursts. Oh sure, if it’s five minutes to last call we may have a sudden burst of energy and announce some certain alcohol-induced profundity that will save the world, and that burst may last 10-12 syllables. But that comes after considerable thought and liquid courage. And the next sentence most likely is, “Yeah.” It balances out.

William Carlos WilliamsThe line as measure. William Carlos Williams in his essay “A New Line is New Measure” talks about how Louis Zukofsky reinvented the line. In the essay Williams says:

There is actually no “free verse.” All verse is measure. We may not be able to measure it, we may not know how but, finally, it is measured.

The new line is a new measure.

This essay, which I just read, got me thinking about the line as a measure of common speech, as noted above. Let each line be a thought/speech burst. Let it reflect how you would speak. And since utterances vary in length, you will get movement and variance in your lines. The lines will add to the meaning. They will imitate breath and thought. These are similar conclusions Cid Corman also came to when he first started to explore improvised poems into a wire recorder, which was like a tape recorder. Let’s look at the middle lines of one of Zukofsky’s shorter poems, “25 (for Zadkine)” from Anew:

Louis Zukofsky' 25 for Zadkine

So you can see hear how there is a burst of energy in the first line of this excerpt. You can see/hear the variances in length paralleling thought. But what do these lines have in common with the haiku we saw before:

The first snow,
just enough to bend
the leaves of the daffodils.


Back in the fifties, when they were trying to make haiku work in English, they thought to use the 5-7-5 syllabic form. That was one way to do it, but it is not much practiced anymore. (Robert Kelly probably got the best English syllabic equivalent to the haiku in his form The Lune – 5-3-5.) They also thought a good measure for haiku was the breath. One breath per haiku. The idea of breath can also be applied to the line. For a full overview of that, read Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” and then his poems, as well as Robert Duncan’s poems. One of the many things we can get from reading Olson’s essay and Olson’s and Duncan’s and other’s poetry is one breath equals one line. Or as Olson says in “Projective Verse”:

the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE
the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE

The breath is the line. The breath makes the poem physical. So maybe we can read “Howl” that way, too?

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the           machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of    cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on    tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy    among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the    skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and    listening to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New        York,
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos    night after night

Breathing Robert DuncanThose are some big-breath lines there. It’s almost difficult to do. But the long-breathed lines also add to the poem’s anxiousness and speed and chaos. But it stables out with the anaphoric “who.” It keeps you from going dizzy from lack of breath. The “who” teaches you how to breathe for this poem. The breath becomes more regular. It’s more like regular breath. Because the “who” dictates a long, deep inhale. It’s anticipated. The anxiousness dissipates. The breathing becomes more regular. That’s what these lines and this poem needs.

But what of poems with line lengths of 8-14 syllables? Despite how we speak in shorter sentences, or how Ginsberg speaks in ginormous sentences, there are still some poems with line lengths in between. Let’s look at Robert Duncan’s poem “The Torso, Passages 18” from Bending the Bow.

The Torso

Archaic Torso of ApolloThat’s about half of this beautiful poem. Each line is a breath. It’s almost more like a gasp. A gasp of awe and surprise. With that and the extra space between most of the lines, you hear a contemplative man. You hear a hesitant man. A man observing beauty. The breathing lines create a tone of awe. (In fact, on an aside, the tonal awe of this poem reminds me a lot of Hopkins awe in “The Windhover.”) You will also notice there are spaces within the lines. Those are pausing spots, but the pauses are still part of the same breath. You should read these lines out loud to hear a fuller effect and to see what you hear and feel. You can read the whole poem here:

So we just learned three effects of the breath-driven line. There’s the wham-bam-thank-you-poet of the haiku of direct perception, where the one-breath poem heightens the wham-bam. There’s the anxiousness in “Howl.” And there’s breath-induced awe. All of these, as we noticed, affected the emotions and the body. There are more ways to use the breath, and I hope you explore them.

Of course, you can also have multiple breaths in one line. Let’s look at Larry Levis’ poem “Shiloh” from Elegy.


When my friends found me after I’d been blown
Into the limbs of a tree, my arms were wide open.
It must have looked as if I were welcoming something,

Awakening to it. They left my arms like that,
Not because of the triumphant, mocking shape they took
In death, & not because the withheld breath

Of death surprised my arms, made them believe,
For a split second, that they were really wings.
Instead of arms, & had always been wings. No, it was

Because, by the time the others found me, I had been
Sitting there for hours with my arms spread wide,
And when they tried, they couldn’t bend them back,

Couldn’t cross them over my chest as was the custom,
So that the corpses that kept lining the tracks
Might look like sleeping choir boys. They were

No choir, although in death they were restored
To all they had been once. They were just boys
Fading back into the woods & the ravines again.

I could see that much in the stingy, alternating light
And shade they train threw out as it began to slow,
And the rest of us grazed out from what seemed to me

One endless, empty window on what had to be.
What had to be came nearer in a sudden hiss of brakes,
The glass clouding with our reflections as we stood.

Arms & wings. They’ll mock you one way or the other.

The Battle of Shiloh

The Battle of Shiloh

Larry LevisIn this poem about a soldier dying in the Civil War battle of Shiloh, Levis suspends sentences, as he often does in Elegy. The first sentence extends two lines, and the main clause and the subject, “arms,” aren’t known until the end of line 2. “Arms” is a subject of the poem, too. You’ll also notice there is a breath before the main clause. One breath for one-and-a-half lines but with an end pause at the end of line 1, another breath for half a line, and then one breath for line 3. But what you will notice in this poem is that the breath is aligning with the natural pauses of syntax. In this poem, Levis dismisses projective verse. For him, the body is connected through the images. For him, the tension and tone arise from the breathing syntax’s tension with the line and the suspension of the subject.

In this poem, Levis uses the line and the poem to suspend the arrival of the subject and the predicate. It adds to the dizziness that is going through the speaker’s mind. Or maybe it parallels it. He’s telling his story from the other side of life, death. He is in shock. He’s so unsure of what happened, he delays that he is the subject for one-and-a-half lines. This delay happens again at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth stanzas. It again takes one-and-a-half lines to introduce the real subject of “I” (not the dummy subject “it”), and the second line of the fourth stanza ends like the second line of the first stanza with arms wide open. But this sentence that starts at the end of the third stanza has two independent clauses. The first clause delays the arrival of the real subject, “I,” and the second begins with an adverbial clause, “And when they tried,” which also delays the arrival of the subject.

And there are the interrupters – the grammatical and the line-break interrupters.

But more on the sentence suspension. Let’s look at the fifth sentence that begins at the end of the fifth stanza, and a little of what precedes it.

Might look like sleeping choir boys. They were

No choir, although in death they were restored
To all they had been once. They were just boys
Fading back into the woods & the ravines again.

The sentence begins “They were” and then there is a line and stanza break. With the last image before “They were” being “choir boys,” the mind will make the connection that “They were” relates to the “choir boys.” It does. But at this point the mind is thinking “They were choir boys.” And the mind holds on to that image for the long pause until the beginning of the next stanza that begins, “No choir.” This is really good action. This is tension between line and syntax, or associative syntax. The association gives us the choir boys, and after the line break which interrupts the syntax and image, the choir boys are taken away. Just like that. You have choir boys as an image, and then they get taken way. Now if the line were more like:

Sleeping choir boys. They were no choir

Well then the effect would be different. The qualifier of “no choir” comes too quick. The image does not get to build and sustain itself. The line break causes the image of choir boys to build and grow, the rest of the sentence enacts that they were not “choir boys” or a “choir.” And then, and then he takes that away with “although in death they were restored.” In the same line that he taketh away, he giveth. This is what I mean by suspension and interruption.

Still this continuing give and take between the syntax dictating the image and the line dictating the image continues. Let’s just look at the whole stanza.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . They were

No choir, although in death they were restored
To all they had been once. They were just boys
Fading back into the woods & the ravines again.

I just told you about those first few lines, but let’s look at the end of the second line, “They were just boys.” Here the line break creates two meanings because the line break suspends the qualifier of what types of boys there were. First, because “just” is ambiguous at this point, it hasn’t been qualified by the next line, “they were just boys” sounds like “they were righteous boys.” And aren’t all boys righteous in war, and because of the context of this poem. The “just” also takes more of a hit, a bigger accent or stress. Then on the next line we get context for “just.” On the next line we realize “just” means “nothing more than” boys, young boys. And the “just,” in a Zen-syllabic moment, loses some of its accent. Its accent is more equal with “boys” than being stronger. The line break creates that double meaning and the Zen-syllabic-stress moment. The line in tension with the syntax creates the double meaning. So on the line turn we can hear/feel/see young, righteous boys “Fading back into the woods & the ravines.” The tone is passive, so reflective, so somber.

This makes me think of “were.”

The verb of the poem is “were.” It occurs six times. Because of “were” and “had been,” the final lines work.  The past tense formation sets up the possibility the “what had to be.”  And even in that same sentence of future possibility, the poem slides back into past tense with “as we stood.” Then the free floating image, “Arms & wings.” Of course it’s in the now. It’s an image. So we have “were” and “had been” in the early part of the poem jamming up with the existential “to be” followed by an image of the present, and concluded with the imperative. The tone of the poem, especially with all its interrupters, feels passive, which gives the last line such an impact.

If you want to hear and see and see how best to use syntax and the line, read W. S. Merwin. He uses the line as punctuation because he uses no punctuation. He doesn’t use punctuation because he believes the mind doesn’t think in punctuation.  He uses the line as an image-thought. The line reflects the thinking.

Robert CreeleyWe can also look to Rober Creeley’s “The Turn” for syntax-line tension.

The Turn

Each way the turn
twists, to be apprehended:
now, she is
there, now she

is not, goes, but
did she, having gone,
went before
the eye saw

nothing. The tree
cannot walk, all its
going must
be violence. They listen

to the saw cut, the
roots scream. And in eating
even a stalk of celery
there will be pathetic screaming.

But what we want
is not what we get.
What we saw, we think
we will see again?

We will not. Moving,
we will
move, and then

On the line stanza break at the end of the first stanza, he kinda does the same thing we just saw Levis do with “They were / No choir.” This poem, in fact, by the way its sentences twist and turn within the lines, might be an ars poetica about the line-syntax tension. I mean, look at those commas. They are there in large part to cause stammering. To add to the magical act of being and nothing and violence and peace.

be violence. They listen

to the saw cut, the
roots scream. And in eating
even a stalk of celery
there will be pathetic screaming.

But here is a point I want to get to as well. The line break. The line defines the poem, and the line break is where all the magic happens. I believe that almost always you should end a line with a good image or action. Some solid word. Usually, if you end with “the” or “of” or a word that doesn’t evoke something in the mind, you are losing magic. What do I mean by magic? I guess I mean a leap of faith. If you are religious, you can only believe in a god or gods if you make a leap of faith. A leap between here and there with nothing connecting the two. Like Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Without faith, without belief, without any rational explanation, without any visible evidence of a bridge existing and crossing over the bottomless pit between him and the cave with the grail, he closes his eyes, takes a step, and hopes/believes a bridge will be there. And there it is.

The line break manifested in The Last Crusade.

A bridge. And he walks across. (However, he doesn’t have that much faith because he sprinkles some gravel on the other end of the bridge so he can find it again. The leap of faith took that much out of him.) And that’s the magic that happens on the line break. Something that doesn’t exists materializes. You reach the end of the line with a hopeful image, you go through the line turn hoping for something, and during that line turn your mind is actively involved in creating something, just like with the “just boys.” The mind is being imaginative. The mind is involved in magic. It creates something out of nothing, which is why the beginning of the next line is so important because it restores hope. Your leap becomes successful. And if there is good magic, and if there is jumping-with-sensation magic, a new imagination is created on the next line. One you hadn’t imagined. And this creative imaginative force should happen at the end of every line. This is why it so important to end the line with something solid. You need to give the reader hope. You need to give the reader’s imagination a stimulant. The poem needs to give and take.

However, sometimes, and I hate that I’m undermining that passion explosion, but sometimes ending on “the” or “of” can be successful. Look at Sharon Olds’ poetry. That’s her shtick. Whether it’s successful or not is up to you. But in the above Creeley poem, he ends on “the.”

to the saw cut, the
roots scream. And in eating
even a stalk of celery
there will be pathetic screaming.

It’s a clever line break because it mimics the cutting. It’s a cutus interruptus. (Yes, I punned.) The line and the expected words to follow get cut off in an unexpected place. In fact, the cutting starts with the out-of-place comma. That’s where the saw makes contact with the roots. Then it cuts on the line break. But I see these line breaks being more for the head and less for heart. But if done well, it can create a jarring effect that disturbs the heart, as it did here.

The Precarious Rhetoric of AngelsOr what about these line examples from George Looney’s The Precarious Rhetoric of Angels (White Pines Press, 2005), a book where the poems’ meanings revolve around loss, or as he says, “Meaning alludes to something lost.”

Let’s look at these lines from “Faced with a Mosque in a Field of Wheat”:

. . . . . . . . . Not even sex
can disguise the flatness of place
topographical maps turn gray
and the sky blurs, anonymous.

Note how the pauses (the line breaks) cause a tension against the movement of the syntax. Note how that tension forces the reader to slow down to pay attention so as to not overlook, to not anticipate, and to not lose the meaning of what is going on. See and hear how a line makes sense and then is redefined by the next line and the next.

Or consider the opening lines from “A Vague Memory of Fish and Sun”:

Some rivers bend from sight or burn down
to nothing but fossils and dust.

Now some of us may have written:

Some rivers bend from sight
or burn down to nothing
but fossils and dust.

But with Looney’s poem, a different tension arises with the syntactical pause after “nothing,” which seems to complete the thought (which is why I made my line break after “nothing”) and seems to complete the line above. In fact, it sounds like it almost is part of the first line, but that’s just what the grammar ear wants. The first line is doing two things. First, it is saying “Some rivers bend from sight,” that is, they disappear. Then we read the “or”, which seems to indicate something contrary will happen. So we anticipate, when we read “or burn down,” that something will remain. This is where the second thing happens, the line has countered the reader’s expectations. So instead of burning down into a pile of ashes, or something, it “burns down / to nothing”. Now here’s the big pause where syntax and line have finally come to agreement — it’s a mental sigh of relief as we get what is going on in the lines, we get our bearings. But now it’s the syntax’s turn to have its way. And it has its way with “but”. Here “but” is acting similar to the “or” except it is also working against what the lines have already done. The “but” doesn’t slow down the movement of the poem but rather propels it forward. Now what was lost when we read “nothing” is now recovered with “fossils and dust.” These lines mimic a vague memory (as the title suggests), and they play with the theme of loss.

Here’s another example of the line-syntax tension from “The History of Signification”:

nothing. Loss is
elitist and forgetting is best
done in layers.

You see/hear how each line can create its own independent meaning with “nothing” and “loss” balancing and reinforcing each other, and the line almost reads like a definition (if Yoda were reading it). The next line behaves similar with “elitist” and “best” balancing each other, and there is a definition of sorts in there with “forgetting is best.” But here, as is often the case in the poems in this collection, the line is working a tension against syntax. The status of “forgetting is best” becomes a how-to on the line break. “How best to forget?” and the third line responds, “Forgetting is best done in layers.”

The Precarious Rhetoric of Angels is a contemporary book of poetry that one should read if one wants to learn more about the line action and the decisions that can be made for line breaks.

As I said earlier, “In free verse there are many line measures.” And I have covered very briefly only a few. But I want to mention the poem that has no line measure – the prose poem. In prose poetry there are no lines. Prose poetry is like poetry where line breaks can’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t help the text. The tension in a prose poem is elsewhere and it’s not with meter, breath, rhythm, image-thought, or something other rubbing up against the line. I’m still not sure what makes the prose poem a prose poem, but I assume what I just I said – it’s a poem without line breaks.

Lawrence FerlinghettiSo how can I leave you with only one mimetic line device? How can I leave you hovering about and wanting another example? How can I close this lecture that began with playing tennis with a dropped net and high-wire act with no net without including this Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem, “Constantly Risking Absurdity” from A Coney Island of the Mind: Poems (New Directions, 1958), of which I have a first edition, thank you?

Constantly Risking Absurdity

So what you may see in this poem are the lines just starting here and there on the page. However, they move backwards and forwards across the page just like a tightrope walker who steps forward and then kind of steps back to get his balance then steps forward a little bit and a little bit more and then a step back to gain balance and over and over until he gets to the other side, or the end of the poem that uses the line most uniquely. That uses “sleight-of-foot tricks.” (There’s a pun there, too.) That uses line breaks and “empty air” to enhance the poem’s existence.

Thank you for listening to this lecture. For anyone who wants to attend, I will be leading a mini workshop on lineation and the line break.

Thank you again for your attention.











And now for the exercises.

Exercise 1.

Here’s a poem with no line breaks. It’s up to you to insert them. Then we will compare what you did with the way the poet laid out the poem.

In a Jam

Driving one hour through rush hour traffic to bring you a spare set of keys, reminds me of what I would and would not do for you. The moon, weightless lure, stumbles across the road. I have been banished from your sight for lesser sins, lonely and sorry, believing lightning would not rift the same bark twice. In spring, sap pushes upward in a body until it flowers to become nothing more than wet bark, green buds. What is the probability of softening and changing?  The river is a miracle of attentiveness, eyes and blood, wandering through a passage so labyrinthine grief is released, unlike the place we inhabit which stands so certain with a door to lock and a key to fit inside it. And if this is the purpose of all favors, the one requesting the other to relinquish that which arms do not yield then release may, in good turn, be received.











Don’t look until you’ve put in your line breaks. The final poems is below.











Here’s how Harriet Levin laid out her poem (, and it’s below.

In a Jam

Driving one hour through rush
hour traffic to bring you a spare
set of keys, reminds me of what
I would and would not do
for you. The moon,
weightless lure, stumbles
across the road.
I have been banished
from your sight for lesser sins,
lonely and sorry,
believing lightning would not rift
the same bark twice.
In spring, sap pushes upward
in a body until it flowers
to become nothing more
than wet bark, green buds.
What is the probability
of softening and changing?
The river is a miracle of attentiveness,
eyes and blood, wandering
through a passage so labyrinthine
grief is released,
unlike the place we inhabit
which stands so certain
with a door to lock
and a key to fit inside it.
And if this is the purpose
of all favors, the one requesting
the other to relinquish
that which arms do not yield
then release may,
in good turn, be received.

Harriet Levin's Girl in the Cap and GownBefore I say anything. This poem appears in Girl in Cap and Gown from MAMMOTH Books.

I mainly want to focus on the first part. In the beginning of this poem, the speaker is in a traffic jam, so what better way to mimic the feel of traffic jam than by imitating the sudden stops and starts. The phrase “rush hour” is almost like a word, and here she splits it up. She disrupts the normal flow of how it is worded. The same is true of “spare set of keys”. That’s a common phrase that you wouldn’t interrupt when speaking, but here it’s broken up on a line break, again, to mimic the jarring stops and starts. The third line break is similar, but not as harsh. Perhaps we were in a rubber necker, and now we are at the accident watching it as we slowly speed up. The same feel is at the end of the fourth line. Then we get the romantic line “for you. The moon.” It flows smooth. It has a natural pause at the end of the line. The line is paralleled with two syllables on either side of the period. There is an iamb on either side of the period. It reminded me of Anglo-Saxon verse, which could be another fine study. In Anglo-Saxon verse, like Beowulf, a line has two halves, or hemistichs, and there is a caesura in the middle. In either half are two stressed syllables that are also long in quantity and an alliterated letter. On the other side of the caesura are two more stressed syllables and another alliterated letter. (There are some other considerations, but what I just mentioned are the main ones.) This type of writing is fun practice, as are all syllabics and metrics.

Then the poem moves forward with a good flow. The syntax and line work in unison. The end words, the words at the end of the line, work well. And then she pulls a Larry Levis at the end by suspending the subject and the predicate. The subject of “release” in the penultimate line, and the verb “may be received” is broken doubly with the line break and the interrupter “in good turn.” There’s a certain tension there. It recalls the juts and jukes of the first line, but whereas those jerked the neck, these interrupters and suspensions still flow smoothly. However, isn’t there a juke in the passive voice of the independent clause, “then release may, in good turn, be received”? The subject really being you? “You may receive release” or “release may be received by you.” “You” which may also be “grief” from a few lines before, “grief is released.” “You and grief may receive release.” Anyway. A harsh poem for sure.

And what a way to end a poem with another fulcrum – “in good turn, be received.”

There are good turns in this poem and all poems should have good turns.

Exercise 2.

Bonus example if there is time.

Morton Marcus' The Dark Figure in the DoorwayThis poem is by Morton Marcus. It appears in The Dark Figure in the Doorway (White Pines Press, 2010).

All We Can Do

All we can do on this earth is step into the future with a sense of the many people behind us, the living and the dead, as if we carried our bodies like amphorae filled with sunbeams into each new day, continually reaching inside ourselves to scatter golden butterflies over the land before us, or to fling them against the night, not like tears, but like stars that will guide those who follow across the darkness.





Some helpful definitions

amphora (am-fer-uh) – a large two-handled storage jar having an oval body, usually tapering to a point at the base, with a pair of handles extending from immediately below the lip to the shoulder: used chiefly for oil, wine, etc., and, set on a foot, as a commemorative vase awarded the victors in contests such as the Panathenaic games.

amphorae (am-fuh-ree) – more than one amphora.












Don’t look until you’ve put in your line breaks. The final poems is below.











All We Can Do

All we can do on this earth is step into the future
with a sense of the many people behind us,
the living and the dead, as if we carried our bodies
like amphorae filled with sunbeams into each new day,
continually reaching inside ourselves
to scatter golden butterflies over the land before us,
or to fling them against the night, not like tears, but like stars
that will guide those who follow across the darkness.

I like how the first line keeps moving as if into the future. One could break the line on “step.” That seems natural. It leaves us with a good image-action, but it works better with the extension as the line keeps stepping into the future. Plus ending on “future” means we can imagine the future on the line turn. The future is unknown and so is the line turn. And then the next line ends on “behind us.” Now we are spiraling. Forward at one line break, and backward at the next. That’s good line movement. It mimics how we move in everyday life. It mimics how we write. We write for the future and the past and because of the past. And then the next line has a pivot. The first half defines who those people are, which is a good thing for me because I only thought of the dead, but all people in the past are alive and some of the people in the past are still living today. Then the pause and the return to the sentence. Then the next line is good break, too, because we imagine carrying bodies. I imagined carrying a dead body, even though it is mine. But carrying a body somehow. And then the simile kicks in “like amphorae filled with sunbeams into each new day,” with the natural pause at the line’s end.  I like how the next line is the shortest. Somehow, to me, it mimics the depth of the vase. My hand goes in, but only so far. Certainly not very far compared to the temporal distances we have travelled. Plus, the short line helps the next line scatter. The scattering is mimicked in the longer line length. The line scatters out in length, and then grows longer on the next line that goes into the night and the stars – a distance comparable to the temporal distance we have travelled and then some. Also, if you watch these lines move, they go from a void with the abstract future and past, to the color of sunbeams, then into the darker night with stars and then into the darkness. And all of this happens in one sentence, but there is no anxiety in these lines. The tone keeps the anxiousness at bay. We actually don’t want the period to come. But it comes like death.

What a beautiful one-sentence poem.







Bibliography (or a list of books and essays some of which I have read and some I plan to read when I make this a more in-depth detailed study)

Corn, Alfred. The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon P, 2008.

Longenbach, James. The Art of the Poetic Line. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf P, 2008.

Oliver, Mary. Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse. New York: Mariner B,    1998.

Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.”

Pinsky, Robert. The Sounds of Poetry. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Preminger, Alex, ed. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University    Press, 1974. (I’m sure there are more recent editions.)

Williams, William Carlos. “A New Line is a New Measure: Louis Zukofsky’s Anew.” Something to Say:      William Carlos on Younger Poets. New York: New Directions, 1985. P 161-169.

—. “On Measure – Statement for Cid Corman.” Something to Say: William Carlos on Younger Poets. New    York: New Directions, 1985. P 202-208.

—. “The Poem as a Field of Action.” Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions,    1954. P 280-291.

—. “The Speed of Poetry: James Schevill’s Right to Greet. Something to Say: William Carlos on Younger      Poets. New York: New Directions, 1985. P 217-218.



Jim Coppoc’s Manhattan Beatitude, 1997

A version of the following review will appear in the next issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

Manhattan Beatitude, 1997The first words that popped into my mind when I opened Jim Coppoc’s Manhattan Beatitude, 1997 (One Small Bird P, 2009) were, “A graphic poem?!? That’s a cool idea.” Manhattan Beatitude, 1997 is a long, illustrated, 16-sectioned poem. The editor’s note hints that this is one of the first graphic poems, and I say, “Why not have a graphic poem amid the myriad of other literary and graphical forms? And if you are going to be innovative like that, then why not conjure up the ghost of Allen Ginsberg while you do it?”

I didn’t know this was going to be a poem about the area and happenings surrounding Ginsberg when he died. I didn’t know it would be, in part, a reminiscence of Ginsberg, but as soon as I started reading the poem, I could hear Ginsberg being invoked. One, at first, may hear Whitman, but the rhythms are Ginsberg’s. They echo his chant-like tones.

On one level, Manhattan Beatitude, 1997 is a rhythmic allusion to Ginsberg. I don’t hear rhythmic allusions that much anymore, and when I do, which is really rare, it’s only for a line or two, so it’s a pleasure to hear a well-performed rhythmic allusion. At times, there are also literary allusions, such as to “Kaddish,” and sometimes the literary and rhythmic allusions happen together, such as in one of the opening stanzas.

blessed streetlights hard filtered through the urban haze on the
faces of the club kids and closet freaks winding their way
through Washington Square Park waiting for a hit. blessed the
man in the surplus fatigues calling cannabis cannabis
   cannabis. blessed the hidden transactions, the knowing glances
of chessmen as they con the tourist fortune in five dollar
increments.                                   (p 3-4)

For part of that I hear line 2 of Howl:

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking
for an angry fix

But don’t think this book is filled with allusions. It’s not. It’s much smarter and better than that. The allusions are generally rhythmical, and the literary ones are subtle, like the above mentioned. The allusions won’t get in the way, and you won’t miss anything if you don’t see or hear them. The poem works way beyond that, as it is really concerned with Manhattan Square Park at the time of Ginsberg’s death.

GeezerBy page six, despite the rhythms and subtle allusions, we are sure this book is surrounding Ginsberg and his death, which happens at the same time as when we are introduced to the well-made character Geezer. A full character, Geezer, is created in only two lines and a drawing. Before I forget, Amy Dixon’s artwork really enhances the tone of the poem, especially the muscular “Amen” on pages 22-23. (I hope no one minds the reprint of Geezer here.)

We can also learn something about lines, tension, and line breaks from this poem. Here’s part of section VIII:

1997. Princess Diana is dead.
B.I.G. is dead. William S
Burroughs is dead. Denise
Levertov is dead. Red
Skelton is Dead. Heaven’s
Gate are dead. Gianni
Versace is dead. Deng
Xiaoping is dead. Mother
Teresa is dead. James
Michener is dead. Mike
Royko is dead. Colonel
Tom Parker is dead. Anton
LaVey, the immortal, is
dead. James Dickey is
dead. Jaques Cousteau is
dead. William Brennan is
dead. My grandfather is

1997. Allen Ginsberg is dead.

The section starts with the most-noted death of 1997 – Princess Diana. The line is a simple sentence, a statement.  And then another simple sentence. Then the line break on “S”. The next line starts with “Burroughs,” and it starts hard. A hard first syllable. It slams hard, so does each last name in lines 3 through 13. The “dead” that falls in the middle of each of those lines acts as a pivot connecting the former person with the upcoming person. The breath after “dead” also causes a respite. A moment of prayer and a moment of hope – maybe the next mentioned person won’t be dead. But the next mentioned person is dead. Then the pattern is broken in line 13. There’s still that hope after the “dead” in line 12, which carries over to line 13 and it is sustained when we read “the immortal, is.” Look at that line break. All the preceding lines have “dead,” but here we get “the immortal” and the verb of life, “is,” but life is taken away on line 14’s “dead.” In this manner, each person in lines 13 through 18 is alive for a line – “James Dickey is” for one line alive, but after the line break, he is “dead.”  (Interesting with James Dickey because he once said something like “Death is the easy part. It’s the dying that’s hard.”)

The working with the “dead” in the different locations in the lines and how it affects the lines’ tensions and rhythms is successful in the immediate line-by-line use, and it also creates the somber tone in “1997. Allen Ginsberg is dead.” A tiny bit of that is set up by mentioning the dead grandfather, since that creates a universal association we can all relate to. And I think most people will relate to this long poem and enjoy it.

I’m happy Manhattan Beatitude, 1997 exists. We need more good-spirited Ginsbergian energies out there. We need more good long poems like this.//


Jumping with Sensation: The Haiku Leap

who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed, and trapped the archangel of the soul between 2 visual images and joined the elemental verbs and set the noun and dash of consciousness together jumping with sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus

That line is from Ginsberg’s Howl. That’s a good description of how a poem moves, especially a haiku. The “jumping with sensation” is a good description of the line break, too. For me, that’s the only place in my life that I can perform a leap of faith. This leap, as I’ve been thinking recently, is best exemplified in haiku, especially from line two to three.

In a good haiku,
there is a nighttime of dreams
between lines two and three.

I wrote that recently to describe what I have been thinking, and yes, it’s a lame haiku. This leads me to a recent review of Sonia Sanchez’s Morning Haiku, which appears in the recent Rain Taxi (vol 15, no 1, Spring 2010).

Before we get to the review of the book of haikus, let’s look at the first sentence of the review.

Sonia Sanchez’s latest book resonates boldly as a jazz ensemble; clear and poignant, it is intransigent in her subject matter.

Does every review and blurb I read about an African-American poet have to refer to jazz, jazzy rhythms, and jazz ensembles? I’m sick of the stereotype and generalization.

Now to the haiku that is reviewed. When you are reviewer, the excerpts you use should reflect the quality and tendency of the book as a whole. As a result, I’m relying on what the reviewer shared, which is to say I haven’t read the book. Nonetheless, here’s an example:

we taste the
blood ritual of
southern hands

Hmm. What is a  haiku supposed to do? Well, first, I’m not going to talk about 5-7-5, because that doesn’t matter, and I’m not going to talk about seasons or the accretion of each haiku into the next. I’m talking about the haiku itself. What is a haiku supposed to do? Haiku juxtaposes two images, and then from line two to three is the amazing line break. The great leap that connects the two images. The leap that connects the left side of the brain with the right side of the brain. A leap that is beyond logic, reason, or unconscious thinking. The above quoted Sanchez haiku doesn’t do that do. In fact, it doesn’t do much of anything. There’s no leaping in here. There’s no lightening bolt. This is purely linear. It’s kinda boring. More energy, more tension could have been created if it read:

we taste
the blood ritual
of southern hands

At least now there is a leap. A leap with something the mind can hold on to as it leaps. The mind as it leaps from line one to two can at least leap into the possibilities of tasting, and at the end of line two, it can wonder what the blood ritual tastes like, but with “the” and “of” at the end of the line, there is nothing. The line ends flat with nothing to hold on to on the line turn. My re-line breaking doesn’t help the poem much, as the poem still plods along as prose.

Then there are these:

how to moisten
the silence of an
afternoon molestation?

his touch wore
you down to a
fugitive eye.

The reviewer and the poet are getting caught up in content. It’s strong content, but the lines aren’t helping the experience. In fact, they are undermining the experience.  “his touch wore” as a line is confusing. Yes, there should be tension between the line and the syntax, but the image, rather abstraction, becomes confused. Remember poets: each line is a thought image or thought idea. The reader needs the line to make sense so it can stick in the head. There’s nothing to see or hold in “his touch wore.”

Now, let’s look at more successful haiku.

say no words
time is collapsing
in the woods

That’s better. Even though there is only one image, it moves like a haiku should move, like a poem should move. It could have been much stronger with the second line as “time collapses.” Get rid of that weak verb and gerund.

I feel I’ve drifted a bit from my intention. I wanted to stress the point of the line breaks in haiku, especially from lines two to three. That line break is huge. It’s more than a volta. It’s a leap that connects everything. It’s a yoke that pulls reason and the unconscious together and that bridges the two hemispheres of the brain.

A successful line in a poem should act as a haiku – always connecting. The line break should be an awesome force, as it is in a haiku. In today’s American poetry, most of the poetry that is happening in a poem is only happening in the line break, and often, as noted above, it’s not happening well.

Some attention is also being paid to qualitative rhythm but hardly any to quantitative rhythm, nearly none to harmonies, and almost nothing to the breath. So what I’m saying is, pay attention to the line. Use the haiku as a model.

Calligraphy of geese
against the sky –
the moon seals it.

– Buson, as translated by Robert Hass in The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa.

I think I need to expand on and clarify this more.//

The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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