portion of the artwork for Elizabeth Glixman's essay

How Does One Stop a Line?
Elizabeth P. Glixman

Sean knew a lot about poetry. He knew poetry inside and out. He knew styles, techniques, poetry’s major and minor players, its historical periods and their connection to world history. He knew all this having studied creative writing at both the City College of New York (mentored by the poet Joel Oppenheimer) and Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and through over forty years of writing poems. He also had an amazing ear for the musicality of words and a talent for teaching. Often new poets are not fortunate to meet a poet/editor/teacher like Sean who is not only knowledgeable but is also willing to help anyone wanting to gain a greater understanding of what a poem is and how to go about creating one.

I wanted to be a fiction writer but after participating in an online workshop where Sean read my poems and encouraged me to write, I changed directions. He told me my poems had a recognizable voice. I also was inspired by his extraordinary passion for writing poems, the amount of poetry he wrote, and the honesty of his poems. He once said to me a poet’s life is an open book.

I didn’t realize exactly how much Sean knew about poetry until I asked him about line breaks. I was not often sure where to end a line when I first began to write poems. Sean noticed this. He told me he didn’t understand my line breaks. I felt discouraged and left it at that. I didn’t understand how important line breaks are to a poem. One day I asked him:

“How does one know when to stop a line of poetry? Is it by reciting it out loud and then stopping it where it sounds right? I know this is an elemental question but I have been thinking about what you said about not understanding my line breaks.”

Off the top of his head, he responded:

“It is a combination of eye and ear. Breath, or when you take a breath, is one form. The rising and falling of breath is the end of line. Breathing changes punctuation as well. Read Charles Olson on it. He wrote several books on breath … and poetics. Read his Maximus poems. You will need to get the companion so you understand the allusions. Ezra Pound talks about it in ABC of Reading, not directly, but in his analysis of three aspects of poetry: visual as in image, music as in sound, and idea as content. I also include imagination as a fourth category. Open-form poetry, or poetry without a fixed form, say a sonnet, is intuitive.

“When I look at your line breaks, I am looking at them from my ear and eye, which is different than yours, but there should be some consistency, and the line breaks and stanza breaks do have a pattern in an individual poet and that pattern for a poem does reflect some sense of the pace and movement of the poem. Take short poems by William Carlos Williams and rewrite the line breaks, change them. What you will see, when you do, is that the poem changes, and his line break pattern, because it is set in your mind, seems the best. It may be, or it may not be dependent on the breath. Obviously, his pattern is the one we use, because line and stanza breaks are as much a part of the composition of the poem as the choice of words. Just experiment. A good poem to do that with is Williams’ famous red wheelbarrow poem: “So much depends on a red wheel barrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.” Now, that is the poem from memory without line breaks. Before you read his version, play with line breaks and stanza breaks. This is an exercise I used when I taught college kids twenty years ago. Look at Williams’ long poem Paterson for varieties of line breaks. Many poets talk about this. Williams, Olson, Creeley, Bly, and I am sure there are others I do not know.

“A great anthology out of print but available used on the Internet is America a Prophecy, edited by Jerome Rothenberg. He is also a good source of ideas on this subject. All of these poets write about poetics. For me the most reliable are Williams and Olson, but Creeley is a master, and still alive, a very old poet who is still in residence at SUNY: Buffalo. (Editor’s note: Robert Creeley died in 2005, not long after Sean’s discussion with Elizabeth.) Go to their sites for poetry. Interesting collections of poets there. Of course the poet who changed how we perceived line breaks is ee cummings. I am not sure I understand his variations. They seem arbitrary to me, but he by his experiments made it easier for poets to vary line breaks so the eye is part of the experiment in language as well as the ear.”

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 40 | Spring 2013