If eyes sing

When it is cold and windy at night, the morning often reveals many deer lying in the garden, sheltering in the downslope under dogwood and forsythia. Here, they find a break from the breath of December on their not-quite-winter coats.

The rest of the yellow leaves from the maple fell last night, making golden beds. Here, a woodpecker dips its red head into the feeder for a peanut, and then a titmouse picks out a sunflower seed and flies off to a branch to crack it open. They all are very particular about the comforts they seek.

Poets are very particular, too. Our design of the line is how we make a shelter for the emotion that wants to sing.

You’ve seen the sort of cutting of phrases made by line breaks across the normal pauses of sentences. These breaks are called enjambment.

If you observe the way your eye runs along a poem with a lot of enjambment you might notice that your pace quickens or slows at certain times. Enjambment can cause your eye to speed up across the line breaks to find the continuation of meaning in the phrase or sentence. It is one of those tricks that you can only play in lineated poetry, obviously.

"The White Room" 
by Charles Simic

The obvious is difficult
To prove. Many prefer
The hidden. I did, too.
I listened to the trees.

They had a secret
Which they were about to
Make known to me,
And then didn't.

Summer came. Each tree
On my street had its own
Scheherazade. My nights
Were a part of their wild

Storytelling. We were
Entering dark houses,
More and more dark houses
Hushed and abandoned...

The first and second stanzas’ short, enjambed lines accelerate, accelerate, accelerate, and then stop suddenly at their end lines. The third stanza accelerates past its end, only to hit the curb at “Storytelling” which then plunges us unwillingly into “dark houses, / More and more dark houses…”

There was someone with eyes closed
On the upper floors.
The thought of it, and the wonder,
Kept me sleepless.

The truth is bald and cold,
Said the woman
Who always wore white.
She didn't leave her room much.

The sun pointed to one or two 
Things that had survived 
The long night intact,
The simplest things,

Difficult in their obviousness.
They made no noise. 
It was the kind of day
People describe as "perfect."

Gods disguising themselves
As black hairpins? A hand-mirror?
A comb with a tooth missing?
No! That wasn't it.

Just things as they are,
Unblinking, lying mute
In that bright light,
And the trees waiting for the night.

from The Voice at 3:00 A.M. - Selected Late & New Poems 

In these stanzas, the line breaks mostly follow the breaks between clauses and phrases, which feels more rhythmic or even hypnotic. The power of the line can pry out the obvious kernel of the poem when none of its images can do it.

Can visual artists use line breaks, too? I was wondering this at Chasing Icebergs, a newly opened art exhibit at Olana State Historic Site in Hudson, New York. This is the famous estate of Frederic Church, a Hudson River School painter who traveled the world to find subjects for his art. Lines of icebergs, colors of icebergs show a depth of reverence and wonder in Church’s works from a trip to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1859.

The way a line can move your eye deep into white space and silence is even swifter in a drawing or painting.

The restraint of the usually picturesque painter is eloquent in Church’s pencil and ink studies.

These stereoscopic photographs on display would have been viewed with lenses that create a 3D effect — so cool to see this “virtual reality” tech from the 19th century.

Here in the 21st, as we accelerate the demise of the polar regions’ ice sheets, scientists observe with every sense we can muster, including audio. Singing icebergs are for real.

Singing, yes. This brings me back to Denise Levertov’s discussion in the essay “On the Function of the Line,” in which she argues that line breaks affect the melody of a poem. Maybe you don’t really think of a poem as having a melody, unless the poem is really a song lyric. But this is another weird trick that only lineated poetry plays.

Change the line breaks and line lengths in a piece, and the pitch and inflection with which you read it might change too. She wrote, “The intonation, the ups and downs of the voice, involuntarily change as the rhythm (altered by the place where the tiny pause or musical ‘rest’ takes place) changes… a pitch pattern change does occur with each variation of lineation.”

Yusef Komunyakaa also comments on this feature of lineation, but as a visual sense that gets translated into musicality by the mind itself. In an interview about the shape of his poetry, he said “Sometimes the shaped intention reflects a poem’s tone and oral signature, its music. And to have those gestures inform the emotional architecture of a collection can be rewarding for the writer and the reader.” 

Another influential poet whose deliberate use of lineation for melodic and other kinds of effects is absolutely brilliant is Louise Glück. In an American Poet interview, she reflected “I think the poem is a communication between a mouth and an ear—not an actual mouth and an actual ear, but a mind that sends a message and a mind that receives it. For me, the aural experience of a poem is transmitted visually. I hear with my eyes and dislike reading aloud and (except on very rare occasions) being read to. The poem becomes, when read aloud, a much simpler, sequential shape: the web becomes a one-way street.”

Maybe birds and icebergs and poems sing in similar ways. They are like cousins: related to one another but also pretty different in interesting ways. We need to remember our connections, follow the lines home to heart. That’s what art is about for me.

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