Why write the free-verse line? Why does one line end and another begin? Close to a century after Ezra Pound’s Imagist manifesto, in which he declares, “As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome” (929), and over half a century after Charles Olson’s proclamation, in “Projective Verse,” that the line arises from “the breath… of the man who writes” (1054), their once radical imaginings of lineation are now firmly entrenched in the realm of convention, stock phrases to which writers and readers resort when faced with a free-verse poem in need of explication. “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave” bears little or no significance to those writing and reading many heaves later, bereft of the pressure to count syllables, track feet, or even know the word pentameter.
As many poets and critics have observed, the very term free verse lends itself well to the notion of an arbitrary approach to lineation, justified solely by the poet’s subjectivity and therefore beyond perusal. The absence of accountability that springs from this notion renders the free-verse line paradoxically necessary and dispensable, figuring prominently as a convenient visual indicator that a text is to be identified and read as a poem, only to be immediately disregarded once it fulfills this task. That its prosody is “rhythmic organization by other than numerical modes” (qtd. in Perloff, “After Free Verse”) hardly matters in light of this surface visual function, since, as Marjorie Perloff writes, “the majority of free-verse poems—say those one finds in any issue of Poetry or American Poetry Review—retain the justified left margin, some form of stanzaic structure, and lines of similar length, so as to produce visual columns not all that different from their metrical counterparts” (“After Free Verse”). Not that a keener attention to the aural qualities of many free-verse poems would necessarily revise the common notion of arbitrariness in lineation, or enlarge a reader’s sense of its functions. Upon advocating free verse, Pound just as quickly noted that “vers libre has become as prolix and as verbose as any of the flaccid varieties that preceded it. . . . The actual language and phrasing is often as bad as that of our elders without even the excuse that the words are shoveled in to fill a metric pattern or to complete the noise of a rhyme-sound” (929).
Although their commentaries are many decades apart and their accusations dissimilar, Perloff and Pound both take issue with the inability of the free-verse line to matter in many poems that employ it. On many occasions, it is reduced to an ornament, a surface effect, a device we read past, or read through, but don’t quite read. If, in some instances, the line doesn’t matter at all, in other instances, it doesn’t matter much. James Longenbach, in discussing William Carlos Williams’s “Pastoral” (“When I was younger…”), for example, notes that its approach to lineation is, to borrow J.V. Cunningham’s term, simply to parse syntax. “That is,” Longenbach explains, “while these lines are not end-stopped, they almost always follow the normative turns of syntax rather than cutting against syntax… [“Pastoral”] parses syntax so consistently that the poem cannot generate the energy required to make its own subject matter seem sufficiently worthy of notice” (“The End of the Line” 15, 19).
Granted, each poem will foreground certain devices over others, and no single device can or should be held up as the indispensable ingredient on which a text’s identity as a poem depends or by which a poem communicates its ideas. While Longenbach seems severe in deeming “Pastoral” barely compelling and attributing its tepid quality to its line cuts, his judgment emphasizes that the line does not have much of a stake in the way we receive and grapple with the ideas in Williams’s poem and, by extension, in many poems. “The thrill of a free verse prosody lies in the ability to shape the speed and movement of a poem through the strategic use of different kinds of line endings,” Longenbach writes (“The End of the Line” 21). The overall obedience of the lineation in “Pastoral” to the pacing and pauses embedded in syntax—to the movements that exist regardless of line breaks, in other words—makes it read like prose, which inevitably diminishes the line’s participation in the poem’s meanings.
Fading into the background can make lineation so easily detachable from a poem, but so can dominating the foreground. In Sid Gomez Hildawa’s “Malchus at Gethsemane,” for example, a dramatic monologue about the slave Malchus losing and regaining his hearing during Christ’s arrest, it seems particularly appropriate for the line—the means by which a poem manages its sound—to assert its presence. ...
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