William Watkin posted the following comment in the comments box for my “Line in Space” post, but it’s so good I’ve moved it out here to the front. If I wanted to give students a crash course in recent (20th century & beyond) innovations in prosody, I’d have William come in and say something like this.
I’ve been working on lineation for a while now, not taking it for granted as a fundamental of poetry but accepting its importance all the same. The most illuminating work in this field is Agamben’s The End of the Poem, which I have discussed in detail on my blog, so I won’t go on about it again here; even I have my limits of interest!
What seems to be behind the differences of opinion in this discussion is an inability to understand the semiotic materiality of the line as a visual unit with the field of the poem, and of course its liminal status as a non-necessary, convenient way of rendering the temporality of the spoken poem in a more portable and lasting form. Sorry, it’s not easy to say all that in a prettier way but basically the line has its own aesthetic presence but it also serves the voice.
This transition from voice to page happened a long time ago now, and it seems time to pay our dues to the line.
True the line was once the supplement to metre and it may be the case that metre has some cognitive or experiential reason for being, although I have never seen any evidence for that, but the line is also a fundamental element of our visual experience. This means that the line itself has an aesthetic power and that lines in space produce a powerful rhythm akin to that seen in painting, particularly abstract work. I have called this “line measure” in the past and, again, it is discussed in my blog.
One other point is that the line has been the location of postmodern and contemporary avant-garde innovations in poetry from Olson, through New York School work, to Bernstein, Howe, Hejinian. The line is the last material sign of poeticity, the last defamiliarisation of so-called ordinary language, and so understandably its significance has been heightened.
These innovative poets have tried to liberate the poem from the line using prose, attenuated lines down to one word or phoneme, extended the line beyond the brain’s ability to see it as a single unit, split it into two using columns, scattered lines across the page, turned them upside down, written one line on top of the other in palimpsests, renounced the page altogether in favour of performative and talk poems, and are now radically altering the limits and potentialities of lineation using html and java coding.
Correct me if I am wrong but we live in the golden age of lineation and should be as excited about these prosodic innovations as people once were, I presume, about the formalised applications of iambs.
I want to add, as an expansion upon the observation that “the line has its own aesthetic presence but it also serves the voice”: this is something that can be said of meter as well. The first application of meter, it’s generally agreed, was as a mnemonic device, a way to keep the words stored in memory at a time when the notepad hadn’t yet been invented. The same can be said of rhyme. So it might be said that meter, which Mike seems to see as the essential index of the poem, is every bit as supplemental an accessory as the line, or capitalization at the beginning of lines, or titles, or the use of print as opposed to script, etc. All these devices--meter, lines, Flash animation, what have you--are on the one hand ways to convey whatever is being “said” in the poem “itself,” and on the other hand can be promoted to constitutive status. That is, they can be emphasized in such a way as to define the poem, while reference slips into the supplemental role, or goes out the window altogether. And these devices are emphasized in such ways, differently in different historical and community contexts.