7 December, 2015Issue 29.4LiteraturePoetry

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Black/White: Toward a visuopoetics of the line break

Pierre Antoine Zahnd

michaux

 

 

“Music is the silence between the notes.”
–Claude Debussy

 

 

 

 

 

The practice of poetry predates by far the invention of writing and our visual experience of texts. Most of the effects that underlie modern poetic idiom have their roots in oral-formulaic tradition and were originally geared toward learning by rote for public performance: alliteration came to us from Old Norse; rhyme derives from Arabic poetry; quantity (which we know in English as stress pattern) from Ancient Greek scansion. Caesura itself has been inbuilt to poetry since its beginning, mimicking as it does the natural need to pause for breath. This paradigm shifts once one starts to consider poetry visually, in terms of its interplay of black against white. Paying particular attention to enjambment, or run-on—what happens when a line unit doesn’t coincide with a syntactic unit—I want to examine how visual lineation affects our entire experience of poetry in ways that never quite translate into oral performance.

I am reading a line of poetry. As I progress, my eye moves away from the white on the left margin and closer to the white on the right margin. However faintly, I am always aware of this. Our reading process is known as parafoveal: it is not clearly segmented letter groupings, but rather takes in each word in relation to its immediate surroundings. On a broader level, a seasoned reader will usually have gained a feel of a line before even going through it fully.

I am reading a line of poetry. I sense the white space nearing. As Don Paterson puts it, “we synaesthetically associate white with silence.” The more white there is around a black shape, the more attention we pay to it. Consequently, the white space structures, delineates, and the visual ebb and flow of lineation tends to enact thought processes. It can be used for weighing out an idea:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
(Shakespeare, Sonnet 18)

Or for clarification:

he opened his mouth opened

his eyes but he didn’t open anything
useful like his mind
(Art Allen, ‘Halloween VS Three Days in Space’)

Or for narrowing in on sensorial perception:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense […]
(Keats, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’)

In any case, the regular return to the next line produces and structures mental figuration and reconfiguration. See how vision shifts and blurs as the speaker of John Burnside’s ‘The Fair Chase’ hunts the elusive “creature”:

or glimpsed through a gap through the fog, not quite discerned,

not quite discernible: a mouth, then eyes,
then nothing.

The pauses for breath become a series of blinks: as the lines scan the landscape for the animal, the eye zooms in, refocuses at the break, and finally loses the object of the gaze. In Burnside’s (unenjambed) lines, the creature disappears entirely into the white mist following “then nothing.”

Enjambment takes this further. In theory, the term simply refers to the spatial isolation of two segments from the same syntactic unit: a line is said to ‘run on’ when its syntax is carried out in the next, as in Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn’:

And its pure virgin limbs to fold

In whitest sheets of lilies cold.
Had it liv’d long, it would have been
Lilies without, roses within.

In practice, however, enjambment doesn’t only delay the connection that we ultimately make between the two segments: it also alters it. Etymologically, enjamber is ‘to stride, leap over’ (over an obstacle, and often uneasily). In lineation, the obstacle becomes a rift, a fissure both visual and syntactic: the reading eye must travel through the white gap without the foothold of units of sense. This is particularly striking in enjambment, where the leap is often one into something not previously conceived of or imagined. In The Pleasure of the Text, an essay concerned such gaps and fissures within literary texts, Roland Barthes discusses the “profound tearing apart [déchirure]” which “the text of jouissance forces not onto the mere temporality of its reading, but onto language itself.” Poetry, with its regular patterning of interstices woven out of the textual fabric, is conducive to this kind of occurrence. Enjambment inhabits and operates across the visual and syntactic distance between line break and line opening: the space where such déchirures are most likely to manifest. Consider Burnside’s ‘After the Chinese’:

but this is the time of year
when nothing to see
gives way to the hare in flight, the enormous

beauty of it stark against the mud

At ‘enormous’, the eye hangs between the last semantic unit of the line and the nonverbal, oblivious abyss of white. The brain’s response to this gap is to make sense of it by exploiting the recent lexical information that it has been given. The closer to the eye, the more influential the information. In Michel Riffaterre’s theory of poetic semiotics, a word put in a prominent position (any setting, as Paterson has it, where it will receive the most attention) will become a semantic nucleus projecting a “descriptive system” of related concepts. The nucleus ‘perfume’, for instance, sets up as descriptive system ‘vial’, ‘wrist’, ‘dabbing’, ‘seduction’, ‘privacy’ VS ‘sociality’, and so on. The most prominent part of a poetic line, of course, is its end: thus the enjambed word will ‘run on’ its own referential power. Look at Burnside’s section again:

the enormous

beauty of it stark against the mud

Here, by isolating qualified from qualifier, the poem promotes free play between the adjective ‘enormous’ and its vast field of possible referents. In such cases, the cognitive process usually goes from the literal (very large in size; an enormous pizza) to the metaphorical (very large in extent; an enormous ego). Given time (white is silence, and in poetry, as in music, silence is a pause, a unit of time), the mind may travel back to etymology (ex-norma; out of rule, irregular, shapeless), to close cognates (enormity; transgression, crime, near-sin), and, vitally, to various personal associations. The white space, like snow, is never without imprint after one has travelled through it. It bristles with a semantic energy that inevitably affects our reading of the qualified once the eye finally reaches the next line (which, in the case of a stanza break, takes enough time for this process to unfold). Reconfigure: ‘to fashion after a pattern again’. Through the very visual arrangement of its lines, the poem encourages a newer, richer reading of both ‘enormous’ and ‘beauty’ and, more faintly, of the close-set nouns ‘hare’, ‘flight’, and ‘mud’.

Reading and writing are physical things. The eye moves, the index finger taps the beat on a table, the hand is already palpable in manuscript. A text (from tessere, ‘to weave’) is a clothed body: a corpus. In this regard, line ends are frayed hems, rips in the signifying cloth where the unknowable flesh shows. Following Barthes again: “the pleasure of reading evidently comes from certain ruptures… do the most erotic places in the body not lie precisely where the garment flares open?” Here, as elsewhere, the ‘erotic’ is less concerned with sexual contentment than it is with imagination unfettered. Consider ee cummings’ ‘5’:

the first of all my dreams was of
a lover and his only love

Or Sharon Olds ‘The moment when the two worlds meet’:

That’s the moment I always think of—when the
slick, whole body comes out of me

Conjunctions (“of”) and definite articles (“the”) bear so little semantic charge that virtually anything could follow: for a fraction of a second, the poem is wide open. In Olds, of course, such line ends enact a search for the right word—she has it on the tip of her tongue. But more generally, the real excitement stems not from the teleological, verbal actualization of what is actually said, but in the intuition, at the enjambment, that something is coming. This tension (Barthes’ frottement) between black and white and black again, is where the pleasure lies.

So far I have only discussed the kind of enjambment known as prospective. Prospective enjambment occurs when the end of a line advertises its own need for syntactic resolution, as in “she drove in a blue/raincoat”. A study of visual eye tracking in poetry reading has shown that the eye moves most quickly across a line break when it has registered syntactic incompleteness. When told that there is “more to this story”, we crave to know it fast. Retrospective enjambment, however, proceeds from the opposite strategy, and to very different effects. An example from William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Right of Way’:

I saw a girl with one leg
over the rail of a balcony

By presenting itself as a syntactic standalone, the enjambed line lures the reader into the false sense that meaning is complete. By doing so, it also downplays any expectation that the opening of the next line might be much of a challenge: it will simply be the beginning of a new clause. But consider how the meaning of Williams’ couplet shifts entirely at the second line, and the effect that this has on the first. As neuroscientist Andy Clark has it, the brain is a “prediction machine” which, when proven wrong, deals with its prediction error by immediately paying more attention to the surroundings which it has misinterpreted (in the same visual tracking study, the eye was shown to linger on both the enjambed word and on the first word of the next line considerably longer than it does in any other line break). Charles Yuchen achieves something similar in ‘Untitled’:

If I decide to move freely from the world
of my room, restless resting
place

The opposition of world versus room, or macroscopic versus microscopic, may seem commonplace, but it serves both to ground our expectation of the section’s mood and theme—the ultramundane and metaphysical—and to shift them toward the domestic. By doing so, this contrast also retroactively colours our comprehension of ‘decide’, ‘move’, and ‘freely’. What this sort of method tries to elicit from the reading mind is the mental process of reexamination, of reconfiguration. It often proceeds through a shift in scope or dimension similar to Yuchen’s, which, in Emily Smythe’s ‘Ode to Helen’, is coupled with a shift in grammatical category:

It should bother me— This
Other woman, the one
Whose smell haunts the linen

Closet.

The lineation enacts the speaker’s thought process: consider the ample diction of lines two and three for expansive contemplation, the full stop after the first word in line four for repression. But a glimpse of her emotional trouble has been caught in the descriptive system hovering about “linen”: clothing, skin, shroud, marital bedsheets—which “closet” clicks shut. This one word also relocalises the speaker’s trauma: the conceptual “other woman” fleshes out once we realize that she has been in her bathroom.

Lineation, then, does not only structure the arrangement of a poem on a page; it also organises the cognitive process by which we apprehend its utterance. Page poems steal much of their meaning from that split-second of white between one line and the next, and this is one of poetry’s defining features. The effects of this process are so pervasive because they have to do with the drama inherent to our experience of living: enjambment sets up expectation, encourages individual response, and confuses the predictions which we have made not only about what a poem is saying, but also about the very language that it uses. Enjambment at its best guides us into unexpected places; it slides an element of surprise and wonder into the rightward-downward regularity of poetic lineation. It isn’t surprising that one may find similar effects in other time-bound arts: enjambment is cognate with the pause before a musical shift in pace or tonality, with cinematic cuts of fades, or, in dance, with the poise before movement. Such considerations are enlightening to the reader, but also critical to the poet: much contemporary verse, proceeding perhaps from a literal understanding of vers libre, tends to treat lineation arbitrarily. But poetry is the articulation of language across time, and there is no liberation from either of those things. As Glyn Maxwell puts it, when working in unpatterned verse, “line breaks are all you’ve got”. The pull of white against the black weighs heavily on the way we read poems; it must also be taken into full account when we write them.

Pierre Antoine Zahnd read English Literature at St Andrews and is now in the first year of an MSt in Creative Writing at St Anne’s College, Oxford.