Posts Tagged ‘Louis Zukofsky


Poetry Assignments: The Book (Online): Fun with Letters, Words, Language, & Languages


Brian Warner's The Cave

“The Cave” by Brian Warner. Used with the permission of Brain Warner.

or 100 Jackhammers for the Poet with Writer’s Block;

or 100 Ways to Jumpstart the Engine;

or 100 Pencil Exercises;

or 100 Ways to Stimulate Your Next Wine, Cheese, & Poetry Night


Table of Contents


  1. Finding the First, Discovering the Middle, & Chasing the End
  2. Imaginary Worlds
  3. Science, the Universe, Time, & Other Evolutions
  4. Fun with Letters, Words, Language, & Languages
  5. Forms: Obscure, Updated, & Invented
  6. New School; or Double Vision; or WWI (Writing While Intoxicated) & Its Repercussions
  7. Miscellany; Trying to Relate the Unrelated; or These Gotta Go Some Place . . . So Here
  8. Stupid Money, Dumb Politicians, & Celebrating America
  9. Responses; or Calling All Poets (Dead & Alive); or Talking to Eternity
  10. It’s All About You


Fun with Letters, Words, Language, & Languages

New Meanings

Take a poem you have written (preferably a dead poem, a poem you have given up on), find a word within the poem (a pivot word/an important word), change its meaning, & make that the title. For example, in the following Emily Dickinson poem:

   Faith is a fine invention
   when gentlemen can see,
   but microscopes are prudent
   in an emergency.

I will choose “microscopes” & make it mean “love.” The title of the poem will be something like – “If Microscopes Meant Love” or “Read Love for Microscopes.”

It’s a bit of a language thing, but hopefully it will bring to life a dead poem, at which point you should chase that life & play with the poem until it sings anew!


The “Dialouges” Experiment

This one is a result of Thom Caraway’s fine eyes & ears. “Dialouges” is pronounced (die ya loogz). The word doesn’t exist. The poem is to make this word exist. If you can work Plato into the poem, then even better.


The Bernadette Mayer Experiment

I am stealing this from Bernadette Mayer’s essay “Experiments” [here’s a version of the essay:] in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. pp 80-83.).

“Using phrases relating to one subject or idea, write about another (this is pushing metaphor and simile as far as you can), for example, steal science terms or philosophical language & write about snow or boredom.”


The Tod Marshall Project

I’m stealing this from Tod Marshall, or making a variant of a Tod Marshall experiment.

In this assignment: describe an abstraction to a noun.

For instance, Marshall has a poem called, “Describe Custody to an Omelet,” which I think is in his new book, Dare Say (University of Georgia Press, 2002).

(9-2-06 addendum): I heard Tod Marshall read some of these poems at a reading with Nance Van Winckel in Sandpoint, ID. It was a late-afternoon reading that was done by candlelight, after the town lost electricity. I wrote the assignment before reading Dare Say. The poems do not appear in Dare Say, but appear in a forthcoming manuscript of Tod Marshall. Nonetheless, Dare Say is a kick ass book, & the assignment is still a good one.

(11-16-06 addendum): Here are some examples. With permission of Tod Marshall.

   Describe Entertainment Tonight to HDT

   I went to the woods because I wished to live celebrities,
   to suck the Mia Farrow out of life, to know Katie and Tom,
   Bennifer and Brangelina, to chat with Hugh Jackman and Jessica Simpson,
   to feel the inner turmoil of Mariah Carey and the desperate plight of Bobby Brown,
   to corner life and find its meanness, to eat woodchucks and wildness,
   to plant beans and catch pickerel, to read and walk and deliberate,
   but mainly to live celebrities.
   How soon arguing with Tom Cruise becomes tedious,
   how awful in my small cabin to listen to the musings
   of Kid Rock, to bump my head continually
   against Pamela Anderson’s boobs.
   How tiresome Ben and Jennifer and their brat.
   The deep pathos I feel for Lindsay Lohan’s emaciated frame
   fades when she leaves prescription bottles in my bean rows,
   when she and Paris drunkenly drive a Range Rover through the garden
   and let that fish-bait nipper of a dog
   yip at the stoic deer. Can I say it again? Arguing with Tom Cruise
   is like chewing bricks, listening to another speech on the merits of slavery,
   on the necessity of this or that war,
   taking ice picks, slamming them into your temples,
   and wiggling them around until you hear the metal clicking.
   Next time I walk to Concord I’ll have a few things to say about quiet desperation,
   and I think that I’ll bring Ralph Waldo
   a copy of Glitter, the unrated version of Dukes of Hazzard,
   dvd season three of American Idol,
   a year’s subscription to People, and Ashton Kuchar arm in arm with Demi Moore
   to prove my case about the stars
   and how hard people work not to see them.

   Describe Haiku to the Labyrinth

   a woman loves
   a great white bull.

                               (old stone pond)

   Winter, nothing blooms.
   But in the maze
   mushrooms erupt on rotting bodies.

                               (frog jumps)

   Spring means forgive.
   The string wound
   in a ball,  the gate.

                               (sound of water)

   Lupine  and pearly everlasting:
   be lost.


a: Crackbrains, Cranberry Trees, & Everything in Between; or a Slice of the Lexicon

You will need a dictionary for this. (My favorite, without exception, is The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. (Third & fourth editions, especially [or http://The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language Fifth Edition].))

In most dictionaries, a header on each page contains two words: one word indicates the first word alphabetically listed on the page that will be defined, & the other word indicates the last word alphabetically listed on the page that will be defined.

Your assignment: randomly flip to a page in a dictionary & use the two words in the header as starting points & ending points of your poem. Between those words, use all the words listed on the randomly-turned-to page. I suspect a few interesting things will occur as a result: the poem will have harmony, the poem most likely will have meaningful connections on an etymological level, not to mention the imagination that will be riding those two elements, & a few other surprises.

This poem, however, does not have to begin & end with the header words, but they should be near the beginning & end. For instance, with “crackbrain” & “cranberry tree”:

   Fernando Pessoa was not a crackbrain
   for not obeying his mother’s crack downs
   . . .
   he ate too many raw cranberries
   from the cranberry tree in back
   & the savory sourness
   puckered his mind
   til it split into two –
   the poet & his critic.

Ok. Get cracking.

The Criticb: The critic, or “It stinks!”

Thinking of Pessoa – who actually did write poems under one name, & then criticized them under another name, but who had multiple personalities. . . . After completing your poem, you are to write at least a one-page literary criticism of the poem. And to make it fun, pretend you are someone else. Perhaps write in the voice of Marjorie Perloff, or I.A. Richards, or Derrida, or Robert Bly, or Jay Sherman, or even John Lovitz (ug). Ok.


A rose is a rose is a symbol is a something Moses supposes erroneously; or putting the BIG back in ambiguous; or no more hijacking/taming the language

In the last three or so years of my writing poems, my main focus has been clarity: Make certain the poem is understandable, at least on the surface level. Well, I think I have basically achieved that clarity . . . but along the away sacrifices were made. I became a reductionist with the language. That is, I ended up reducing words: One word has one meaning & can be in only one syntactical position.

(Saussure says something like: Language is like a game of chess & each word is like a chess piece – each word has certain roles, can only do certain things, & can only move in certain directions. And the rules of chess are like the grammar/syntax of language.)

That type of thinking, which on the other hand deconstructionists rightly or wrongly will say is fine thinking/presentation, limits the magic/power of the word. Almost all words have either more than one meaning or associations or innuendos or homonyms, etc, & the metaphor relies on the magic of the word: however deconstructionists don’t trust the metaphor:

“Derrida equates metaphor with usury, saying in effect, that it ‘promises more than it delivers’ while exacting a terrible, hidden, bankrupting interest on the ability of language to pay off, to signify without succumbing to ‘epistemological ambivalence.’ This is metaphor as loan shark.” (From Peter Sharpe’s new book The Ground of Our Beseeching (Susquehanna University Press, 2005). A great study on metaphor in contemporary American poetry.)

I’m not picking on the deconstructionists or those who use the language as I have, but it is in thinking about the subtleties of the word/metaphor, in part, where poetry can be fun.

So despite what Gertrude “Gerty, Gert, Gewürztraminer” Stein thinks, we are going to loosen up the language. We are going to make poetry fun again. We are going to purposely write as ambiguously as we can. And by ambiguous, I mean multi-meaning – plurisignative. I mean a phrase/sentence/metaphor suggesting more than one idea/thing/moment at the same time, & as a result, we are going to make so many associations & suggestions & hints with our ambiguities that we are going to connect everything in the universe, or as much as we can, into one poem.

“A diminishment of reality takes place when our experience is negotiated without ambiguity. . . . This ambiguity [in poetry] permits the spectator to insert details of his or her own, niches of perception left undetermined or open by the artist” (Tess Gallagher, quoted from William Heyen’s essay “Ambiguity” in Pig Notes & Dumb Music.) Heyen continues, “(Hemingway and others, of course, have spoken of the writer’s need to have a feeling for what to leave out.)” [Quote from “Ambiguity” by William Heyen published in Pigs Notes & Dumb Music by BOA Editions, Ltd., in 1998 © and used with permission.]

“The poet, no less than the scientist, works on the assumption that inert and live things and relations hold enough interest to keep him alive as part of nature.” – Louis Zukofsky

We are going to make metaphors that breach time – that connect the past, present, & future. We are going to create time!

You can even be fragmentary if you want to suspend time, like Franz Wright does in Walking to Martha’s Vineyard.

So what do I mean by all of this? Here’s a good example of what I mean by ambiguity, in part. We will continue with Franz Wright & move to a poem of his from Ill Lit: New and Selected Poems (Oberlin College Press, 1998).

   The Forties

   and in the desert cold men invented the star

What could this poem be about. With the title, I’m led right away to the 1940s & quickly after to the nuclear bomb. “the star” is the nuclear bomb. It was created & detonated for the first time in the desert in the 1940s. So we got that going.

But let’s consider more. Since there is no punctuation in the poem, we kind of have to figure out where some punctuation could be. So let’s put a comma after “desert”. How does the poem read now? Well, according to history, the a-bomb was exploded in the early morning, so the men who dropped the bomb could have been physically cold. But also, & here is where the ambiguity & metaphor works, the men could have been cold in another manner – as in cold, heartless men, since so much destruction, death, & a “cold war” will be created after WWII concludes with the dropping of the bombs on Japan.

Now let’s remove that comma & reposition it after “cold”. In this case we get more of a creation myth story – men invent the star, but most important to this poem, & this assignment, it still ties back to the nuclear bomb. The star is a star is a nuclear bomb.

With the underlying creation myth, & with the desert & with the star, & with the men, there are some religious undertones to the poem, too, perhaps. And with the title, “The Forties,” & religion & forty days & forty nights, how far off from another creation story are we? It echoes of the birth of Jesus a bit. Perhaps that it is stitch. But if you read the poem in low, deep-toned voice, like the voice of god, then it comes across better, maybe.

Also with the creation myth in our minds or not, by starting the poem “and” we are instantly put into epic mode – in media res. (Think of Pound’s The Cantos, Homer’s Odyssey, H.G. Wells The Outline of History, etc.). Then with no period at the end of the poem, we are lead to think of a continuing story. This poem is a pivotal moment between what was & what will be – it divides history in to what was before the cold war & the cold war that follows. (Does “cold” act as foreshadowing, also?)

Also note the power of these nine words. Four words are small & almost inconsequential. And there are only five big words that our minds can grab on to.

So, what I’m suggesting is: Be vague, be subtle, be suggestive, be inclusive & exclusive. Be a metaphor.

I think this assignment can also be done on an ambiguous tonal level, too. Can it be done on a melodic level, too? Let’s try & find that out, also!


Etymological Rotisserie

This idea came to me from reading Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wallace Stevens, & most recently Natasha Sajé. First go back in time & find an Indo-European root word. (They are all in the back of the American Heritage Dictionary). List all its derivative words, & then try to get all those words into one poem.

For instance, kailo-, which means “whole, uninjured, of good omen.” Its derivatives (words that came from it) are: whole, hale (as in “free from infirmity or illness”), wholesome, hail (as in “to salute or greet”), wassail, health, heal, holy, halibut, halidom, holiday, hollyhock, hallow, Allhallowmass, & Halloween.

Those are the words to try & work into the poem. Not all have to be in, but give it a go.



This one comes to my attention from Laura Stott. We do not know the original creator.

Use the words below to write a poem that makes leaps (kinda like Deep Image poetry). You do not have to move straight across from the first Noun to first Verb to the first Other, but use the nouns in the order as they come & fill in the spaces. When you are inclined to use a verb, pick the first verb & do likewise with the “Other” words. Force yourself to make jolting connections in a similar fashion as a deep image poem. Think “emotive imagination” & make what leaps you have to create an experience through your intuitive self. The following words come from W.S. Merwin’s poem “For the Anniversary of My Death” in The Lice (Atheneum, 1971), which can be found in The Second Four Books of Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1993).

Nouns Verbs Other
Year Knowing Without
Day Passed Last
Fires Wave Tireless
Silence Will Lightless
Traveler Surprised Strange
Beam Love Shamelessness
Star Writing Three
Garment Hearing Cease
Earth Sing
Woman Falling
Men Bowing


Vowels & Consonants; or Vowel Movements

I suddenly just awoke from a really deep, deep sleep after several days of very light sleep. It was so deep that it took my mind a second or two to figure out where it was, & it took my body, especially my limbs, at least seven seconds to make the journey back to this more physical/conscious world.

After a few more moments, I said to my self “I am so tired.” (As I look at that phrase now, it seems so short compared to how it sounded.) But what I realized, or was reminded of, was my hypothesis I’ve been carrying around for some time now. My probably, improvable hypothesis which states:

In the poetry of the English Language, vowels carry the emotion & the consonants carry the meaning. (And it’s usually the long vowels that provide the emotional content & schwa’s act more as consonants.)

Using the above example, “I am so tired,” I can elaborate. Each word has a long vowel, & because I was so tired, the “a” in “am” was dragged out quite some way to make it sound & act long, & the “o” in “so” was the longest vowel & “so” the longest syllable. (Yes, sometimes & usually, the content dictates how to read syllables.) Each syllable in that phrase was dragged out to emphasize my tiredness. But what made the sentence move forward was the turn of the consonants. Those consonants provided the meaning to the emotion. The consonants framed, or gave the vowels a context in which to work – in which the emotions could gather/find meanings.

Ok. Here’s the assignment. Write two poems about the same thing. In one, be heavy handed with vowels. In the other, be heavy handed with consonants. Then compare & contrast to see if any of what I said above may be true. You could also translate, or replace, an English poem’s words by substituting more vowel induced words in one case or more consonant induced words in another.

Poets to read that might be helpful in this assignment: maybe Campion for vowels, & an Old English alliterative poet for consonants.

If anyone discovers anything fascinating, or has their own ideas, please share.


Tonal Dialectic

This one invaded me last night/this early morning (Thursday, December 18, 2003, around 4:30 a.m.) as I couldn’t sleep, & I started thinking about my recent poems & what I may try to do with my new poems to better reflect my thought/emotional processes. Also, I’m doing it because I came up with a cool phrase/coined a cool phrase in those wee hours, & now, I want to give the phrase some context.

I’ll start like this, I guess. In metrical poetry, a poem moves forward in part because of the stressed & unstressed syllables, or the long & short syllables, or both. (It also moves forward by tone, images, rhythm, line breaks, narrative momentum, etc., but mainly the syllables.) There’s an interplay and a tension between the stressed and unstressed syllables.

Ok. Here’s the assignment: do that with tone!

I thought of the term “tonal dialectic,” & I think it works in a similar manner as metrical movement. Shifts in tone. A tension can be made there. Meanings can surface!

So perhaps stanza one is in tone A, & stanza two is in tone B, & stanza three resolves them with tone C. Perhaps even more stanzas & tones. Or tone changes with lines, or whatever you see/hear fit.

So the assignment is to write a poem with different tones rubbing against each other to create something! But hopefully the tones will work in a progressive nature, not an arbitrary one.

It’s a bit abstract, I suppose, & I have no advice except to read Donald Hall. His poems ride on tones, as I hear them. Or listen to Schoenberg.


Tonal Dialectic, part two – Using a Separate Language

I just finished reading David Budbill’s wonderful new collection of poems While We’ve Still Got Feet (Copper Canyon Press, 2005).

In this book, Budbill is basically reflecting on life/living. In part this is how he does it: because he’s an American but seemingly deeply influenced by ancient Asian poets, Budbill writes poems that have an ancient Asian tone about them but with a contemporary American linear language.

So what I mean is that the tone of the poems is similar to the tone you would expect to find, for instance, in a Muso Soseki poem or a Li Po poem or in The Kokinshu. And then he uses American language, because that is probably what he grew up with & how he thinks, to push the poems forward. For example:

   Gama Sennin

   Gut hangin’ out
   Stick on shoulder.
   Toad up on me

   Singin’ me songs
   on Red Dust Road,
   headed toward

You can see the American language in “hangin’,” “Singin’,” & in the use of “me” instead of “my.” And the tone comes through, in part, I think, from the images & the last three lines & the title.

There is also this:

   Ryōkan Says

   With what can I
   compare this life?
                Weeds floating on water. 

   And there you are with your
   dreams of immortality         
                through poetry. 

   Pretty pompous – 
   don’t you think? – for a
                weed floating on water?

   (Quoted poems are by David Budbill as they appear in While We’ve Still Got Feet (Copper Canyon P, 
   2005)©, and they are used with permission of Copper Canyon Press.)

There he begins with a one of Ryōkan’s poem then responds to it.

So here’s the general dialectic of the poems. He rubs the tone (thesis, if you will) up with the language (antithesis) to synthesize a resulting poem, or understanding of life, love, ego, politics, poetry, etc. (Please note my reductionary “dialectic” description of these poems is very insulting to the poems, & I’m only using it to generate a poetry assignment. However, the tone/language is genuine & impressive.)

Your assignment is to write a poem with a very certain tone but in a language that is quite different than the tone. So perhaps you may want to write a poem in an Allen Ginsberg tone but while writing with the language (words/grammar) of Alexander Pope. Or this might be fun: write a poem with scientific language but in a religious tone. Or whatever you can come up with. And the poem should be a reflective poem, though not necessarily meditative or lyrical.

a: Tonal Dialectic, part three – Is the tone; or Tone the Is; or Is “Is” the Tone or Does Tone Tone the Is?

So I was watching the news – zoning in & out of it – and a commercial came on. Now I’m mostly zoned out until the end with its written, printed slogan on the screen:

   The Helpful Place

(I dig how John Madden’s voice balances the helpful tone, but I didn’t realize until just now.) What I did realize when watching the ad was the line break, or what the line break has inside of it. It has the verb of the sentence. It has “is”. I thought that odd because if I remember my commercials well, they tend to have a subject & predicate, the objects, subjects, & verbs are not implied, & the verbs tend to be emphasized – but I could be remembering wrong. But nonetheless.

I then drifted to this thought. Can’t we, as writers of poems, do the same? Use the line break to carry the implied. I mean we do, but how often? How does it affect the tone?

Consider these lines from Margaret Atwood’s “Manet’s Olympia”:

   Above the head of the (clothed) maid
   is an invisible voice balloon: Slut.

Couldn’t it have read:

   Above the head of the (clothed) maid
   an invisible voice balloon: Slut.

And some us may even have put an em dash after maid.

But the poem could have done the line break with no “is” or em dash. But, really, it couldn’t. Not in these poems from Morning in the Burned House (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995 (first Canadian edition, which precedes the first English Edition (London: Virago, 1995) & the first American edition (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995))). Not at this point in the book. No, at this point, these poems are too sassy, up front, blunt. And I’m not sure if it is because of the poem’s tone or because of the uses of “is” within the poem.

In later sections, the use of “is” becomes less frequent, but the sassiness & bluntness are still there, but not as up front as later poems. And in those poems the tense changes & wavers between future & past tenses (or future perfect & past perfect, or whatever those terms are that I can’t remember but intuit).

So I wonder: Is the verb responsible for the tone, or the tone responsible for the verb? Is it that age old question: which came first: the tone or the verb? Ug.

So what we will do to find out is:

  1. Write a poem that uses “is” a lot. Make sure “is” happens at a line’s end or a line’s beginning.
  2. Rewrite that same poem, but replace each “is” with an empty space, unless the “is” happens to not be at the line’s end or the line’s beginning.
  3. Rewrite the same poem with different verbs. Replace each “is” with “would have” or “would be” or “had been” or “was” or “could be” or “could have been,” etc.

Now as I look back at those lines, that colon is doing a lot of work, too. The colon replaces something like “that reads” or “containing the word,” or something like that. So now:

b: Colonial Imperialism of Words; or Colonizing Ellipticism

Let’s explore how we can use the colon to replace words in a manner similar to the previous assignment, part a. But instead of finding a relationship with tone, we will find a relationship with ellipticism.

How far can we push that colon before we lose/distance our reader? How much information can be stored in a colon? Find the brevity inclusive/exclusive breaking point of the colon.

Is this what Alice Fulton & others are trying to do when they use “::”?


Call & Response; or The Line of In-Between; or Silent Echo; or I Always Forget the Title of a Poem by Line Three, Except in this Poem

I have just had my first encounter with Ray Gonzalez. Oh, man! This guy is good. There is one poem, “Emerge,” I find myself returning to for two reasons: one, it’s a kick ass poem (& there are other kick ass poems, too – & by kick ass, I mean, they kick you so hard in amazement, you fall on your ass, even when you’re sitting down, Oi!); two, he does something unique. I’ll explain after you read the poem, which is from Consideration of the Guitar: New and Selected Poems (BOA Editions, 2005).


   As if the sacred is the only way
   and desire is fortune spilled across the desert
   where no one has stepped in years.

   As if the fever lifted from rage could change
   the world and stir the holy water
   tinged with blood.

   As if the fallen song was a great mystery
   and its rhyme came from the unfed mouths
   of those who promised they would not weep.

   As if the willow tree was a warning of green
   and falling things resisting the broken ground.

   As if listing the very heart of truth was outlawed
   by a summer afternoon impossible to breathe.

   As if each thing accomplished was taken away
   by those who don’t speak, but rearrange
   the candle to ward off the starving spirit.

   As if music in the fingers was played in time
   to hear the heron rise, its flapping wings
   changing the river into a pond.

   As if a thousand rocks left one stone to emerge
   through the decaying monument where no
   one said anything as the mountain arrived.

   As if the one thing we believe was finally
   played on a guitar carved from the wood
   of our father’s crib.

   As if the darkness is the beloved teacher
   and its tool the mightiest reason
   to go there together, unafraid.

   As if the sacred is the only way
   and the difficulties are lined up on the shelf
   decorating the hallway into the interior

   where the names we are called
   are the names of those who emerge.

   (“Emerge” by Ray Gonzalez published in Consideration of the Guitar: New and Selected Poems by BOA 
   Editions, Ltd., in 2005 © and used with permission.)

So this is how I hear the poem when I read it in my head. I hear “Emerge” between each stanza, except before the last stanza. It’s like in between each stanza is a brief meditation on “Emerge” – emerge is like what . . . . It’s a calling in the empty space between the stanzas. The next stanza is the response. There’s no real silence in this poem, that is, when you read it in your head.

But Gonzalez was smart enough to not put “Emerge” between each stanza, for to read the poem aloud with “Emerge” between each stanza, doesn’t seem to work. “Emerge” would steal too much energy. “Emerge” would dominate the poem. The poem would be overly dramatic. No, “Emerge” needs to be silent, but understood – understood to be there between the stanzas. And I think this poem succeeds in doing that.

Now, your assignment is to succeed. Create a call-&-response poem with the title intuitively understood to be heard between the stanzas. If you can manage to pull it off, actually put the title word, or words, between the stanza so they are read aloud, then, please, do so.

And then, or prior to writing the poem, wonder what type of poem this would be successful in. A contemplative poem, meditative poem. Could a narrative poem work with this? – I think it could. Maybe even lyrical.

But alas, go forth. Talk to yourself. Talk to the poem. Let the poem talk . . . & respond.

NB: The first section of this book: Consideration of the Guitar: New Poems reads as its own book. So really, you are getting a book & then a book of selected poems. How often do you get that?


The Miguel de Cervantes Experiment

“The Prologue” begins Don Quixote, & it offers some good advice on writing, especially on the use of allusions.

The next section is called “To the Book of Don Quixote of La Mancha,” which is filled with poems to & about Don Quixote, Rocinante, & Pedro Panza. The first poem, “Urganda the Unrecognized,” is in a form called versos de cabo rato. The footnote explains the form as follows:

This comical form is called versos de cabo rato (translated: “lines with unfinished endings”). The dropped syllable is the one after the line’s last word’s stressed syllable.

I will quote the beginning:


   I am the esquire Sancho Pan--
   Who served Don Quixote of La Man--;
   But from his service I retreat--,
   Resolved to pass my life discreet--;
   For Villadiego, called the Si--,
   Maintained that only in reti--
   Was found the secret of well-be--,
   According to the “Celesti--:”
   A book divine, except for sin--
   By speech too plain, in my opin--

   Translated by John Ormsby. Quoted from Project GutenbergTM License.

Have fun!

a: Linear Palindrome

This one is for Dan Morris.

This assignment is based on Natasha Trethewey’s poem, “Myth”, which appeared on the Poetry Daily website on Saturday, January 22, 2005. I have given a name to this form as I do not know what else to call it. Since Poetry Daily’s archive doesn’t go back far enough [I shake my fist at them and ask why not?], you can read it here: can also read it in Pushcart Prize XXXI: Best of the Small Presses, 2007. [It also appears in Native Guard (Mariner, 2006).]

As you can see, this poem reads as a palindrome but on a line basis, not a character basis. That is, line one & line eighteen (the last line) are the same, lines two & seventeen are the same . . . & lines nine & ten (the middle lines) are the same. The poem thus reads the same backwards as forwards, not to mention it travels the same ground, but in reverse direction – thus, a new perspective on the same event.

Your assignment then is to write a linear palindrome. To be fair, I think the poem should be at least eight lines long. I think fourteen is a good length. If you go fourteen lines, then why not try to make it a rhyming sonnet, & if you can, write it in iambic pentameter & try to get a volta in there. If you do that, then you will be a linguistic genius.

Thinking of linguistic geniuses. . . . The longest palindrome I know is by Georges Perec. (To read it, go here: Georges Perec, who likes to make crossword puzzles for fun, is the author of Life: A User’s Manual, which is a brilliant & wonderful novel whose structure is based on how a knight moves on a chess board. This novel was translated from the French to the English by David Bellos. Perec also wrote A Void, a novel in which the letter “e” is not used. It was amazingly translated by Gilbert Adair from the French to the English without using the letter “e”. Perec has a sequel novel, W, or the Memory of Childhood. This novel only uses one vowel, the letter “e”. And this too was amazingly translated from the English to the French by Bellos. It’s a crazy novel to read because you can just see how much struggle goes into saying the simplest thing, & how new events must arise & intercede between the beginning of a simple action & its conclusion, such as getting a book off a shelf.

I am thus inspired to have three sub-assignments:

b: “A Dan acts Niagara war against Canada”, or
“A Dan, a clan, a canal – Canada!” or “Poor Dan is in a droop”

Still tippin’ my hat to D.Mo.

You are to write a palindrome, but on a character level.

c: A, I, O, U, & always Y

You are to dust off an old, failing poem, & revise it so it no longer contains the letter “e”.

d: E, E, E, E, E, & E

Using the same poem from the first sub-assignment, revise it but use only the letter “e” as the poem’s only vowel.


Lost in Translation, or Perdu dans la traduction, or For Shits & Giggles, or Pour des merdes et rit nerveusement

It’s spring break for many of us, so this one is for fun. So please have fun!

Type in a poem into a translator (like or or, & choose, for instance, the “English to Spanish.” Then, take what it has translated & translate it BACK to English, & watch the hilarity ensue.



I heard about this one somewhere. Translate an English poem from English to English. I imagine this can done on a word-to-word basis or a line-to-line basis, or the music/melody could just be carried over, or the syntax could be carried over. Whatever you think translation means.



The Poetry Integral

I made the following a month-and-a-half or two months ago for Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose, but what a shame to just keep it confined to those pages. So I’m sharing it here along with the note that appears in Redactions.

Poetry Integral

The poetry integral on page 5 [above] is something editor Tom Holmes created. It is based on the following lines from “A12” in Louis Zukofsky’s A:

I’ll tell you
About my poetics –

An integral
Lower limit speech
Upper limit music

– Louis Zukofsky from A (“A12”, p 138)

I had to add the “Poetry” else what is it an integral of? I can’t remember my calculus well enough, but it should probably be f(poetry) dpoetry, but that doesn’t look as good.//


First Brief Notes on Paleopoetry

I stumbled upon this image just a moment ago.

Woman with Horn

It’s called Woman with Horn. (There may be other names, but that’s what I’m using.) I found a decent brief description of this Woman with Horn carving:

This limestone image of a female carved into the cliff wall at Laussel, in the Dordogne, in France, carries an object that perhaps is a horn, or, by virtue of its lunette shape, might evoke the moon. It dates to roughly 20,000-18,000 BCE, and seems more imposing than its mere 17 inches of height. (Nature and Society)

There’s a lot more to it than that, as I remember from studies, and I think I get to some of it in this poem, which I wrote sometime ago.

All Objects Contain History in this House
after Louis Zukofsky & W. C. Williams

The pregnant lady
on the wall,
she lived here
first. Her left arm broke.
Too brittle
we assume.
We feel sorrow
for her
fingers reach
only inches
above her navel.
No farther. A bit longer
is her right arm
& strong.
She stands with her elbow cocked
as if to throw
the crescent moon
to the end of the year.
We can tell.
She looks
forward with the stone stance
of determined aim,
the crescent has thirteen scratches
made with intent
& a blade.
The marks obviously
are for the passing year’s
every new moon.
Her expectant face
though is blank. Not without
totally but flat
as the wall.
We barely
notice her breasts
to her wrist
& stretch marks.
Her right nipple
also has broken off,
we can’t explain that,
but we can understand
why she wants to throw
away the past.

I started that poem in October 2003 and finished it on April 27, 2007. It now appears in Poems for an Empty Church (Palettes & Quills Press, 2011). If you like that poem, you’ll love the book because the other poems in it are even stronger.

I wanted to share that poem tonight for two reasons. One, I had forgotten about the above sculpture for a long time, and when I saw it, I remembered I wrote a poem about it. So there it is. Two, this is an early attempt at what my friend (Christine Noble) and I are calling Paleopoetry. Clayton Eshleman got there first, and he’s the man, but we are doing it differently. Except for this poem, I think the neo-Paleopoetry (where Eshleman is Paleopoetry) is more imaginative in the direction of the human spirit and soul at the time those Paleolithic artists existed. This neo-Paleopoetry likes to branch out into everything we can find and imagine and that made us human and how we became human. It about how we came to invent things like dolls and burial and cooking. And how the invention then turned back on the inventor and the spiraled outward to humanity and culture and fear and death and love and metaphors and sex and . . . . What it’s really about is living and the beginnings of living and the beginnings of the creative processes and imagination. The above poem isn’t really like that, or not much, but these new ones my friend and I are writing are. Maybe I’ll share some more as time goes by.

Additionally, Paleopoetry is also good place to also continue my explorations into investigative poetry. If I can study the Paleolithic era with enough integrity and write about it well enough, then the Paleolithic era will connect all people at all times. It will become a lense through which I see life and the universe and that I hope others will use to do the same.

I hope to have more detailed thoughts on this as I progress. I just wanted to get those first thoughts out there so I can remember to think about it and come back to it.//


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.


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

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