Monday, February 8, 2010

Slow Poems or Fast

Those of you not interested much in the craft of making poems might want to go out for a bagel at this point. It's apt to get technical in here. But if you like lurking over the shoulder of a writer at work, pull up a chair and pour another cup of coffee. Here's my issue: in a writing group last week, I heard two equally intelligent poets make opposing statements about the effect of line length on the speed with which they read the poem. One said that the long lines in Poem A slowed it down; the other said that short lines in Poem B slowed it down. Can we have it both ways? Making a poem is not like ordering a chili dog where you get to choose from six different garnishes. Well, bad analogy--I like poems with lots of spice and chili dogs with just sharp cheese and mild chili so I can still taste the dog, and while there are not infinite ways of using the language, there is a bewildering variety of effect. (I think I'm giving myself a headache.)

Since that evening, I've tried tuning in to statements about the length of lines and their effect on the pace of the poem. The most interesting idea came from The Poet's Companion by Laux and Addonizio. These two admit, "We read somewhere that short lines speed up the pace of a poem, but we feel the opposite; we experience a poem in short lines as a more gradual movement" (112). I want to suggest that the pace is more susceptible to the length of the syllables, the presence or absence of enjambment, the rhythm within the line, whether or not the line ends as stressed or unstressed, and the white space around the poem. If the line walks along in primarily iambs, those most familiar feet by which we make progress through the piece, and the words are fairly short, the line either end stopped or at least finished with a noun, I see the pace as moderate. If the rhythm is in triple feet (dactyls or anapests) or in the thudding of spondee boots, it runs ahead like a pup off leash. The eye takes more time to cross the blank desert of a stanza break or open field design, thus letting the line linger a micro-second longer in the reader's brain.

Then there's the question of rhyme, not a matter I have any legitimate business talking about, but that's never stopped me before. My writing partner, Larry, is fond of rhyme and we often tangle about the ways it draws attention to itself and impedes the progress of the poem (my position, his differs). But here's the cute thing that popped up Saturday morning, when we ended up agreeing on an idea about rhyme. Rhyme both retards and rushes the line, we decided. Once the rhyme scheme is established, we rush forward to find the next rhyme, but at the same time we are pushed back to recall the previous rhyme. No wonder I freeze in the company of heavy, exact rhymes. It's like riding a Push-me Pull-you from Dr. Doolittle. So I suppose it's a bit of a wash in its effect on the speed of any given line, but the influence is there for us to care about. I welcome help on this question. Once one of you has negotiated peace in the Middle East, cured cancer, and fed the whole hungry world, let me know what to think here.


mattiespillow said...

Interesting post. I recently wrote on a similar subject, but exploring the effects of Emily Dickinson's lines by starting with a simple throw-away poem fragment, adding random dashes, then using her meter and line break style, then rhyme/slant rhyme. The dashes especially let air into the poem, while the meter and rhyme gave it structure. The end result wasn't exactly my style of poem, but gave me lots to think about.

Karen Douglass said...

And lots to think about is a good thing. Thanks for engaging. Anyone else?

mknighten2 said...

Well, surely both meter and punctuation do count for something. I find I can stumble over a long line as easily as a short one, but I've spent pleasant days trying to settle whether a comma or a dash allowed the pace I needed. Do I want any of those days back? Would I rather have been balancing the checkbook (OK, so that takes me a day, and some sulphurous mutterings) or even painting the ceiling? Surely not. One of those days was spent with these lines:

You make too much
of this, Camus--
It's not that hard.
Who acts will live,
and who does not--
does not.

Ah, and that second dash was the rub. Would it have been better with a comma? Eventually I thought not, but it was at least the better part of the day getting there. And there's a thought, too: Perhaps punctuation does not slow the poem, but it certainly slows me.

Karen Douglass said...

I can just see you staring at that first dash and shaking your head. You're right. I'd let the second one stand and ditch the first. That let's the second one work harder. But speed? Guess I'll never prove one way or the other, but I think I'll try writing out your poem in longer lines and see what the clock thinks.