Syllabic Lineation: Part 2
In Part 1 of ‘Syllabic Lineation’ I focused on the use of parallel construction. I noted that parallels in poetry almost always are parallels of grammatical construction. Here I would like to refer to grammar in general and how grammar can be used to shape a syllabic line.
The idea here is that a line of a poem is also a grammatical unit. This can be the subject of a sentence, the verb or verb phrase, a prepositional phrase, the direct object, indirect object, and modifying phrases such as adjectival or adverbial phrases (or single words), or the line can be a whole sentence. This is an approach that is used instinctively by poets because it is often the case that in ordinary speech a grammatical unit will be signaled by a pause, like a short breath, on the speaker’s part.
The poetry of Japan is an excellent example of a traditional syllabic poetic culture which relies almost entirely on grammar to determine line. Japanese poetry does not use rhyme or meter, but it does have complex and articulate ways of signaling a grammatical unit (a ‘ku’). One of these ways is through the use of ‘kireji’ or ‘cutting words’. What is ‘cut’ by kireji is the sentence into smaller units or ‘ku’. There is no English language equivalent for kireji (I’m not aware of an equivalent in any European language). Still, I have found it helpful in my own syllabic verse to become familiar with how kireji work in Japanese poetry. Though English does not have kireji, or anything that has the same function, what is transferrable is a sense of how a grammatical unit can function as a line. This is something that traditional Japanese poetry can offer the English syllabic poet.
Before proceeding further regarding grammar and lineation I want to say a few words about contemporary free verse. Contemporary free verse (I mean free verse roughly from the 1960’s onward) is distinguished by an approach to lineation which strikes me as arbitrary. By ‘arbitrary’ I mean that the line is often broken in a way that does not reflect grammatical structure. For example, it is common these days to see a line ending with a preposition, thereby breaking the prepositional phrase and distributing it over two (sometimes more) lines. It is also common to see free verse poetry where a line ends with an article which has a similar effect of undermining the sense of a secure line. This contrasts with the older style of free verse where a prepositional phrase would be a single line and where articles are always used to begin a line, or placed mid-line in their natural setting, but not at the end of a line: see Whitman
It is often the case that English poets who become interested in syllabics come from a free verse background if for no other reason than that free verse is well established and tends to be dominant in many poetry organizations and at Universities. For this reason there is an initial application of modern free verse lineation to syllabic forms. That was true in my own case and I have observed this among others as well. It takes some time and experience to realize that modern free verse lineation doesn’t really map very well onto English syllabic forms.
Why do I say this? I say this because in order for the poet to communicate to the reader or listener the specific form, clear lineation is the key. It is clear lineation that distinguishes one syllabic form from another. But if the grammatical structure is not synchronous with the lines of the poem, then the syllabic structure of the poem is obscured, often to the point of vanishing. I am referring here to the tendency of modern free verse poets to overindulge in run-on lines, as opposed to lines that are either whole sentences in themselves, or have linebreaks where there is a natural grammatical division. My feeling is that for many modern free verse poems the linebreaks read like the poet put the word processor on a narrow column formatting and the linebreaks occur where the word processor has mechanically determined them to be. I often have the feeling that modern free verse lineation is so arbitrary that if the lineation was changed the meaning of the poem would not be altered in the slightest. Often it seems to me that the poem would actually be improved if written as a simple paragraph.
The poet who taught me most about grammatical lineation, and how it works, is Emily Dickinson. Dickinson was not a syllabic poet; she was a metrical poet. Nevertheless I believe that her poetry offers excellent guidance for the English syllabic poet. First, because Dickinson’s poems are short and most English syllabic forms are also short. And second because Dickinson’s poems consistently exhibit a sure sense of a line. There are several simple lessons I have gleaned from Dickinson. One is that conjunctions should begin a line: words like ‘and’ and ‘but’ always start a line in Dickinson’s usage. This is one factor which gives Dickinson’s poetry an assuredness of shape and a strong sense of line. Another is that prepositions begin a line; they almost never appear at the end of a line, and the prepositional phrase itself constitutes a whole line. Prepositional phrases are almost never broken up and distributed among multiple lines. The one exception to this might be a prepositional phrase embedded in another prepositional phrase. There are exceptions to these observations, but in general they hold. (As an aside, it sometimes strikes me that Dickinson’s use of dashes at times resembles the use of kireji in Japanese poetry.)
These kinds of techniques give Dickinson’s poetry a sure sense of lineation, of when a line begins. Whether you are reading or listening, one always feels a strong sense of placement within the form of the poem. And this is the quality that a syllabic poet in English needs to strive for: that strong sense of placement within the poem as the poem unfolds. My view is that the syllabic poet is unlikely to get such a sense of clear lineation and placement by following contemporary free verse lineation practices. Sooner or later the syllabic poet will simply revert back to free verse, or will begin to see that syllabic forms require a different approach to lineation than what modern free verse offers.
Study of modern syllabic poets who have a sense of clear lineation is also helpful. Here is an example from Richard Wright:
The sound of a train
Fading in the autumn hills, --
And tomorrow too.
(Haiku: This Other World, #603)
Line 1 is the subject. Line 2 is the verb phrase. Line 3 takes a turn, embedded the image of Lines 1 and 2 in a larger context. Notice how Line 3 begins with the conjunction ‘and’.
Here is Haiku 132 from Wright’s collection:
What stranger is that
Walking in the winter rain
And looking this way?
Here is an example of a Haiku that is a single sentence, each line representing a grammatical unit of the complete sentence. Line 1 gives us the subject of the Haiku, the stranger. Line 2 gives us the setting of the Haiku and the seasonal reference. Line 3 gives us the action that is taking place, the unexpected ‘looking’. This is classic Haiku form effortlessly mapped onto the English language. The clarity of the line, the masterful use of lineation, demonstrates how Haiku in English, even without kireji, has the capacity to sound like a native English form.
Here is an example from Susan August:
launching the canoe
onto the fog shrouded lake
she returned older
(Haiku Applecart, page 77)
Again we have a single sentence or thought. Line 2 is a prepositional phrase. There is a mysterious quality with this Haiku. At first we read it as descriptive of an event. But with Line 3 the Haiku takes a sudden turn and we realize that Lines 1 and 2 may be metaphorical, or both concrete and metaphorical. It is a Haiku rich in meaning, supported by the secure lineation.
Here is another example from August:
a million dust motes dancing
in autumn sunshine
(Haiku Distance, page 27)
It’s interesting to note that August very rarely uses conjunctions like ‘and’ or ‘but’ in her Haiku. I found a few, but very few. In contrast, Wright’s Haiku often use conjunctions. August tends to a broad use of the prepositional phrase. Wright tends to the use of phrases starting with conjunctions that are essential asides.
But notice how in both the case of Richard Wright and Susan August their practice of lineation follows natural English grammatical divisions. Grammatical units are not scattered over more than one line. This contrasts with the lineation practices of many modern free verse poets. And goes a long way in explaining why Haiku poets like Wright and August create memorable Haiku that is simultaneously secure in its shape as Haiku.
I’d like to close with one suggestion. My own view of the role of grammar in shaping lines for syllabic verse is strong enough that I would encourage those who are attracted to syllabic verse to study English grammar. I don’t mean earning a degree in English grammar (though that’s OK too). I mean taking two to four semesters of English grammar. My observation is that grammar is often neglected in public schools and so you can’t rely on what you learned there. If I were to design a curriculum for the English syllabic poet, I would put the study of grammar as essential. Just as Japanese poets learn the nuances of various kireji so that they can shape their poetry according to Japanese grammatical usage, so also the English syllabic poetry needs to have a sense of basic English grammatical structure so that these basic structures can be used as the basis for their syllabic poetry.
How will studying grammar assist the syllabic poet? The more one understands grammar the more one can use grammar in an expressive way. Here is what I am referring to: grammar maps onto lineation in a range of ways. At one end the entire poem can consist of a single sentence or statement. At the other end each line of a poem can be a full sentence. Here is an example of a Tanka I wrote that consists of five statements, one per line:
I loved that old shirt.
I had it for fifteen years.
It fit like a glove.
I tore it into rags today.
Soon, someone will spread my ashes.
Here each line is a full sentence. Here is an example of a Tanka that consists of one grammatical unit:
The tree branch falling
As I looked out my window
I saw you walking
Farther and farther away
A swan flies over a field
Through the use of pivot lines all the lines of this Tanka are linked together in a grammatically seamless whole. And here an example of a Tanka that is grammatically between the two I’ve quoted:
What a wonderful idea!
If only I could.
After all these years I find
Small things still disturb my mind.
The last two lines form a single sentence after the staccato opening lines.
What I’m getting at here is that lineation and grammar interact in a variety of ways and understanding their range of interaction is a tool that the syllabic poet can use to great emotional effect. In other words, grammar is a significant tool for the syllabic poet and the more skillful a syllabic poet is with this tool the clearer the shape of syllabic poem will be and the more secure the readers and listeners will find themselves.