Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Campion


Swinburne, Four Syllables, and Learning to Listen to Write

The prompt for this essay was to write a 10-15 page paper about poems, stories, or novels that influenced my writing. Below is my response.


Algernon Charles Swinburne

“Algernon Charles Swinburne” by painting George Frederic Watts 1867.

As I thought about what poems changed my work or writing, I had to ask myself in what capacity. In the capacity of expressing myself? in the capacity of using images? being concrete and clear? in the capacity of using the line? in using etymologies? in sounds? etc. Many poems of course came to mind, such as John Donne’s Holy Sonnet #10, Edmund Spenser’s “One day I wrote her name upon the strand,” Gerard Manley Hopkins “The Windhover,” W. S. Merwin’s “The Mountain,” “The Unwritten,” “For the Anniversary of My Death,” and “The Last One.” Two essays also came to mind: Ezra Pound’s “A Retrospect,” which was really the start of everything for me, and Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse.” There were so many choices, but the more I thought about it the more I kept dwelling on Algernon Charles Swinburne and one of his poems. In fact, it was really just four syllables in this poem that I kept turning to for ten years during the 1990s. I believe these four syllables changed my writing more than any other poem. As a result, I will show how this happened and what I learned. In essence, I will show the growth of how my ears learned to listen. As a result, much of what follows will probably be common knowledge to anyone who’s been writing poems for some time, but it is still a sketch of how I learned prosody, or invented my own prosody.

I was introduced to Swinburne by way of Ezra Pound’s “Swinburne and His Biographers.” In this essay, Pound says:

Swinburne recognized poetry as an art, and as an art of verbal music. [. . .] No man who cares for his art can be deaf to the rhythms of Swinburne, deaf to their splendor, deaf also to their bathos. [. . . ] The rhythm-building faculty was in Swinburne, and was perhaps the chief part of his genius. (292-93)

Before I found my way to that essay and to Swinburne, I had been living in and practicing Pound’s advice in “A Retrospect.” You are probably familiar with the three principles (“Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective;” “To use no word that does not contribute to the presentation;” and “to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome”) as well as the motto “Go in fear of abstractions.” In the “Rhythm and Rhyme” section of the essay, Pound also points out:

Let him dissect the lyrics of Goethe coldly into their component sound values, syllables long and short, stressed and unstressed, into vowels and consonants.

It is not necessary that a poem should rely on its music, but if it does rely on its music that music must be such as will delight the expert. (5)

As a young writer, I of course wanted to “delight the expert,” as well as everybody else. However, I didn’t know how. Nor did I know what long and short syllables were. I only knew stressed and unstressed syllables, and not very well. And then, as I mentioned, I met Swinburne, and he, and especially one of his poems, drastically informed and changed how I wrote poems during the 1990s.

Swinburne’s poems will force anyone to hear stressed and unstressed syllables. One really can’t “be deaf to the rhythms of Swinburne.” It’s unavoidable. It’s with him my decade-long research into meters (qualitative and quantitative) and forms began. Swinburne wrote in so many meters and forms, I felt required to do the same. I especially loved Sapphic meters, and he has two Sapphic-metered poems, but they are done with qualitative meters instead of quantitative meters. However, I didn’t know this yet. All I knew was to listen.

And so I listened to Swinburne and other poets and my own poems. It was a long training process, but the poem that may have taught me more about meter and rhythm and influenced my own writing is one of the chorus sections from his Greek-like play in verse Atalanta in Calydon. The chorus opens:

Before the Beginning of Years

And it continues for 46 more lines in a bouncy rhythm. The backbeat of the poem is iamb, anapest, and anapest, which Swinburne will play off of throughout the poem. However, there’s much more going on than that. Here’s a typical scansion of the opening line:

Before the Beginning of Years - Simple Scan

In this scansion, I use “u” to indicate an unstressed syllable and “/” to indicate a stressed syllable. That scansion is absolutely correct, or is it? There’s something more complicated going on in that first syllable. I didn’t realize it the first few times I read it, but eventually, sometime later, I heard it different.

I read the opening line over and over again. I read it loud, soft, fast, and slow to try and figure out what was happening with that first syllable. While the “be” in “before” is unstressed, it certainly has more stress than “the.” “How can that be?” I asked myself. I discovered a number of reasons for this.

Edmund SpenserThe first reason was breath. “Be” is the first syllable of the poem, as a result it receives the first exhale from the speaker’s mouth. It receives initial breath, which is more powerful than subsequent breaths in a poem, at least when it pertains to unstressed syllables. When reading a poem aloud, one can’t help but to burst into the poem on the opening syllable, even if it’s just a small burst. The breathing takes time to regulate, usually a syllable or two or three. What I learned from this is that the opening syllable to a poem can’t really be unstressed. Actually, where I first realized that the opening breath adds stress to an unstressed syllable was in the opening line of Edmund Spenser’s “Sonnet 75,” which begins, “One day I wrote her name upon the strand.” The “one,” while correctly scanned as an unstressed syllable, is more of a semi-stressed syllable. I read Spenser’s poem again and again, I compared “One” to “u” in “upon” and to “the,” which are obviously unstressed syllables, I thought about it, and then applied what I learned to Swinburne’s chorus. It held true there. It held true with many other poems, too. It held true with the poems I wrote. What I learned is that the opening syllable will almost always have a little more stress than the same syllable later in the poem, unless there is a deliberate metrical play being facilitated by the poet. This semi-stressed syllable realization while important was still not fully developed, especially in me and my poetry.

The idea that there was the special syllable intrigued me. I had assumed there were either stressed or unstressed syllables and nothing else. This is all I ever read in books or was taught. Even in the dictionary, there are only stressed and unstressed syllables, and the “Be” in “Before” is unstressed. But here’s a third syllable that is neither. “Is it just an aberration? Is it only true of opening syllables?” I asked myself. I eventually found two answers. The first was realizing that stressed and unstressed syllables are not absolute. They are relational, as hinted at before with the “u” in “upon” and the “the” in Spenser’s poem. While “be” in “before” will usually be unstressed, its unstress comes in relation to the other syllables around it. Since the “be” in “before” is always surrounded by the stressed “fore,” it will almost always sound unstressed. Still, it is more stressed than the “the” later in the Swinburne line. In fact, articles are almost always unstressed, especially when it follows the stressed “fore.” The next unstressed syllable that follows the unstressed “the” is also “be,” but this time in the word “beginning.” This “be” is also considered an unstressed syllable because of where it is in relation to the stressed “gin.” But when I listened closely, I heard it being more stressed than the preceding “the.” I didn’t hear the “be” in “beginning” as stressed or unstressed. It was in between. This time, however, it wasn’t because of initial expulsion of air. It was something else.

When I listened to the lines in this chorus, I heard rising rhythms. Of course, the rhythm will rise naturally with iambs and anapests, but there was more nuance in the rising in Swinburne’s chorus, and it occurs in the second syllable of the anapests. It turns out Swinburne wasn’t using a two-scored scansion system of syllables. He was using a three-scored scansion system. Here’s a different scansion of the opening line:

Before the Beginning of Years - Three Tier

In this scansion, I use “u” and “/” as I used them above, but here I use “u/” to indicate a semi-stressed syllable. When I scanned it by hand with a pencil in the 90s, I used a “u” with a slanted line through it. I was inventing my own scansion and scansion markings, and I would invent more. But back to this line. The rising rhythm is nuanced. It’s smooth. It glides up into each foot’s stressed syllable – unstressed to semi-stressed to stressed. But there’s even more to this rising.

Again, after reading this poem many more times, as well as reading other poems and writing my own poems that tried to imitate meters and rhythms, I heard this chorus’s opening line differently. This time I heard how the last syllable “years” is more stressed than the other syllables in the line. Here’s how I scanned it:

Before the Beginning of Years - Four Tier

Here I use “x” to indicate what I call a strong stress. My ear now heard four levels of stress and I had built my scansion system to include one more scansion symbol. My poet’s ears were really coming alive. Hearing the sounds wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to know why it happened and how I could do it. While figuring it out, I reread Swinburne’s poem “Sapphics.” I liked the way the poem moved, but I didn’t know why it was called Sapphics. At the time, I had a little 4 ½” x 3 ¼” inch Collins Gem Latin Dictionary. (I still have it.) In it, in the prefatory materials, there is a seven-page “Metres” section about Latin meters and poetic forms. One of those was called “Sapphics,” after the poetic form Sappho used, which may have been created by Alcaeus of Mytilen (Sappho’s contemporary). But when the dictionary laid out the meter and format of the poem and gave a brief description of it, it didn’t use stressed and unstressed syllables. It used long and short syllables to represent the three hendecasyllabic lines (or “lesser Sapphics”) and the one adonic. I then remembered Pound mentioning “syllables long and short.” I realized some syllables have a longer pronunciation duration than other syllables. For instance, the “e” in the word “he” is longer than the “e” in the word “the.” I listened to that opening line again.

Before the Beginning of Years - Quantitative

The “–” below the line indicates a long syllable and the “u” below the line indicates a short syllable. My scansion system continued to grow as did my scansion markings as did my poet’s ears. The quantitative scansion system, I would later realize, is also relational, but the relationship has a wider scale. It works mainly with the whole line rather than what is nearby, as in qualitative scansion.

At this point you may be asking, “Why is the ‘Be’ in ‘Before’ longer than the ‘be’ in ‘beginning’?” That’s a good question. Outside of this poem, or if “before” and “beginning” are spoken as independent words, both “be”s would be the same length. In this opening line, however, I hear the “e” in “Be” in “Before” as a long “e.” It is as if the poem begins with a running start or as if the speaker is tuning his/her voice with the commencement of the poem. It might also be because of that initial expulsion of air. Nonetheless, pronouncing it as a short “e,” as in “beginning,” just doesn’t sound right. It’s seems out of key and out of tone, especially with the mood of the poem. One could argue that it is in fact a short syllable, and that is fine, as scansions can be debated. However, I heard and still hear it as a long syllable. The more important observation is the long syllable “years.”

I’m sure Swinburne was aware of long and short syllables, but he didn’t seem to consciously implement them. Even in his poem “Sapphics,” he translates the Greek quantitative meter into an Anglo qualitative meter. Pound will later write at least two Sapphic poems (“Apparuit” and “The Return,” though he disguises the form) where he plays quantitative meter against qualitative meter, and even later on, James Wright will Americanize Sapphics in “Erinna to Sappho,” using three iambic tetrameter lines and an iambic dimeter line. That, however, is another lesson. Back to Swinburne. No matter what Swinburne’s intentions were or were not, “years” is long and stressed. I thought this is how he made the syllable have more stress than a typically stressed syllable. I would later learn that a long syllable, and sometimes just a long vowel, can not only make a stressed syllable more stressed, but it can add stress to an unstressed syllable. In the opening to the chorus, the length of the syllable may also contribute to “Be” in “Before” being a semi-stressed word.

So what I had learned so far and practiced in writing by way of Swinburne? While there are stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry and they can be used as a backbeat to build a poem on, there’s more nuance to those syllables. There are at least four levels of stresses and they can be impacted by the length of the syllable. I learned that I can play stress and length off each other to create certain auditory effects. I would later learn that there’s even a fifth stress. It is more stressed than the strong stress I represented with an “x” in the above scansion. I picked this up from Robert Duncan, who somewhere wrote something like, “in each poem, there is one syllable that is more stressed than all the other syllables.” I found and find this to be often true. Though sometimes there are two syllables that are more stressed than all of the other syllables and sometimes there aren’t any outstandingly stressed syllables. I also learned that stresses are relational as well as the length of the syllable being relational. In addition, this chorus from Swinburne also aided me in realizing that rhythms can rise and fall, rhythms have their effects and can be used to create effects to please a listener’s ear and “delight the expert,” and they can also be used to affect meanings.

Writing in quantitative meters in English, however, is more a difficult endeavor and much more complicated than the four levels of stress. In the Romance languages, as I understand it, the lengths are more certain, just like our Anglo-American stresses. In Anglo-American, however, there are so many variable lengths of syllables it’s too difficult to scan effectively, but knowing when to use a long or short syllable is still useful in composing a music that “will delight the expert.” Further complications in quantitative syllables are compounded with schwas and diphthongs. How many syllables are in a diphthong? For instance, is “fire” one or two syllables? Or is it even more syllables as Robert Pinsky once pointed out when he was in the south and saw a woman running from her burning house yelling “fire” as a five-syllable word. This also became a learned lesson: context can dictate how a syllable is pronounced.

Additionally, after figuring out how a long syllable became a long syllable, which often occurs with a long vowel sound, I learned that vowels, especially long vowels, carry emotions. I thought the long vowel’s emotional effect had to do with duration and pitch. I learned some of this from Robert Bly, who I had thought had a tin ear, but would later realize he was using long vowels to create tones, which was his music. In “Educating the Rider and the Horse,” he briefly discusses it effects:

[The third type of sound a poem with a “wild animal” form is] the conscious intensity – not sequence – of pitches. Syllables that rose high, very high, in the Old Norse line the poets called “lifters.” We can hear them in Beowulf. Sometimes the lifters resemble the peak of a roof, sometimes the dragon prow of a Viking ship that rises and falls. Sounds pronounced naturally in the roof of the mouth, such as “ee,” drive the sound up; conviction drives it up; the beat as it arrives helps drive it up. This is mysterious, unquantifiable. (294)

Allen Ginsberg would do something similar as Bly, but his music came from the ups and downs of pitch. His poems, the lines in his poems (at least the ones I liked and read and studied) would often rise and fall in pitch. Bly would rely on a field of pitch (or a small range of pitches) for tonal effect, whereas Ginsberg would rely on mountains and valleys of pitch for movement and for physical effects. I eventually made up a hypothesis that in poetry the vowels in a word carry the emotions and the consonants carry the meaning, which I think is even more true the further back in English poetry history one listens.

During the 1990s, as mentioned, pretty much all I did was to write in as many meters (quantitative and qualitative) and forms as I could find, including free verse and projective verse. Olson’s “Projective Verse” essay was a major influence on how I wrote poetry. It taught me about breath and breathing, and informed, as a result, though indirectly, my understanding of long and short syllables. I would quote some of the poems I wrote, but I burned them all (all two boxes of them) in a bonfire fifteen years ago on July 3, 1999. It might be for the better because I couldn’t master aligning sound and sense, and to quote them would be embarrassing. Nonetheless, I could write meters very easily. And I could write a line or two that were clear, but writing a whole poem, especially with the complications I added (which I will note below), was more difficult than I could expect it to be. The poems I wrote had intricate meters and sounds, but the meaning of the poems were held together only in my head. They wouldn’t make much sense to other readers. Or the poems would be too abstract. Meters, I discovered, lend themselves to polysyllabic abstract words. At least that is true for me and even Swinburne. Swinburne in his later years fell into polysyllabic music, too. Still I kept at writing in meters and forms. I even tried to train myself to speak in sonnets, but I drift off topic.

Swinburne was not only an inspiration, but he also became a testing ground. If I discovered something in another poem, I would test it out in his poems, as I briefly illustrated above. I would also test it out in my own writings. I began with writing syllabics and used Swinburne’s poem “Syllabics” as a guide, as well as other poets. Once I got syllabics down, I moved on to iambs and then trochees and then to forms with those meters. Then I returned to syllabics and tried to incorporate other musically devices into it, like assonance, alliteration, and consonance. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Campion, Wallace Stevens, and Linda Bierds were vital in this musical development to “delight the expert.” Having figured out how to make those sounds, I then tried laying those sounds on top of iambs, and then atop other meters, and then into forms. This process restarted again with syllabics and then trying to incorporate etymologies into syllabic poems. I learned how to do this from Hopkins and Wallace Stevens. For instance, in one of Hopkins sonnets (I think it is the one that begins “Thou are indeed just, Lord, if I contend”), most of the words in the poem have etymological roots in feudal law, especially concerning lord and vassals, which I learned after half an afternoon with a dictionary in the Paddy Hill Library in Greece, NY. The poem was rooted by way of etymologies. Stevens did something similar, at times, especially with “Crispin” and “clipped” in “The Comedian as the Letter C.” I would even invent a school of poetry called “Skeatsism,” based on Rev. Walter W. Skeat’s An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language and my findings with Hopkins and Stevens. My writing/discovery process continued with the iambs, other meters, forms, and harmonies, etc. Swinburne was then also a motivator to go learn more. While Swinburne can teach a lot, he can’t teach everything, like long and short syllables, the emotions of vowels, and etymological rotisserie. Still there is one last lesson he had for me.

Besides not being able to write successful poems in meter and form, I also couldn’t master what call the ghost syllable. A ghost syllable is a syllable that has no representation in words or sounds. It is a syllable that is felt. It is a syllable that lingers like a ghost lingers after someone passes away. For example, I will return to the Swinburne chorus I’ve been writing about. Here are the opening four lines again, with scansion:

First Four Lines - Simple Scan

You can see and hear how Swinburne varies the rising rhythms in lines 3 and 4. If you listen even closer, you will hear two extra beats at the end of each those four lines. So it can be represented like this:

First Four Lines - Ghost Syllables

Those two extra stresses (“/   /”) at the end of each line are what I refer to as ghost syllables, and they move the poem forward. They create an extra tension between what is heard and unheard. They extend the line. I thought perhaps I might be hearing things. However, once in 2002 or 2003, I gave a poetry reading to a very receptive audience. Not too far into my reading of this chorus by Swinburne, the audience started supplying those ghosts beats at the ends of the lines by stomping their feet and slapping their tables. They picked up on the ghost syllable, and validated my reading. This effect is magical. Later on, I purchased The Fugs: The Fugs First Album. (The Fugs were an avant-garde rock band, and poets Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg are the most known members.) They did a musical rendition of the same chorus and called it the “Swinburne Stomp.” They heard and included the ghost beat, too. (Their rendition of the song has also influenced my reading of the poem, which is now more dramatic, especially at the end.) To this day, I still do not know how the ghost syllables work or how to do it. I wish I did, but I don’t. This among many things is what makes Swinburne a metrical genius from whom I learned so much about the music of poetry. Those two ghost syllables, the “Be” in “Before,” and “years” were the four syllables that affected me the most.

As a result, Swinburne prepared me for listening and listening with intent. He taught me prosody and how to talk about it. He prepared me for Gerard Manley Hopkins, especially “The Windhover,” which was another influential poem to my ears, as well as Edmund Spenser’s “One Day I Wrote Her Name Upon the Stand” (which maybe a perfect sonnet), and it prepared me John Donne’s Holy Sonnet #10, “Death, be not proud, though some have callèd thee.” It prepared me in such a way that I preferred to write musical poems over poems that made sense. That is, I became so obsessed in writing music to “delight the expert” that I forgot about everyone else, which means I forgot about clarity. The reader needs clarity. Writing poems with clarity would take me a whole other decade with W. S. Merwin to accomplish.




Works Cited

Bly, Robert. “Educating the Rider and the Horse.” American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity. New York: Harper & Row Publishers: 1990. 289-96. Print.

Donne, John. “Holy Sonnet 10.” The Norton Anthology of English Language: Volume 1. 5th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986. 1099. Print.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “Thou are indeed just, Lord, if I contend.” Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. 67. Print.

Pound, Ezra. “A Retrospect.” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions: 1968. 3-14. Print.

—. “Swinburne and His Biographers.” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions: 1968. 290-294. Print.

Spenser, Edmund. “Sonnet 75.” The Norton Anthology of English Language: Volume 1. 5th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986. 770. Print.

Swinburne, Algernon Charles. Atalanta in Calydon. Major Poems and Selected Prose. Eds. Jerome McCann and Charles L. Sligh. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 3-67. Print.





– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u u  – u


u = short syllable. – =long syllable.

The first three lines are the hendecasyllabic lines, or “lesser Sapphics.” The fourth and eleventh syllables are open syllables. Originally they were long, but now are variable.

The adonic is the fourth line.

A Sapphic poem usually consists of a number of these formally structured stanzas.




To download a PDF of this essay, click Four Syllables.



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

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

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

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

But first the poem.

     From Sense Each Inheritance is Named

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

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

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

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

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

Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney

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

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

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

he studies a dust drift and the absence of shadows.

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

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

At the table, he studies faces

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

held above each plate. He wonders why

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Swing as Line Break

The Swing as Line Break


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

The Cave

Material Matters

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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March 2023


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