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What are we talking about when we talk about lines?

By Sina Queyras

Gillian asks about the line in the 22nd century, what will it look like and do. It’s a question that helps me get at another question that has been hounding me of late, one that concerns a certain strand of thinking that tends toward protecting poetry as if it’s an endangered species. This tendency seems to manifest itself in a concern for content, tone, or accessibility, but mostly it’s around the shape of the single poem; that short squirt, usually of formal verse, that many see as the primary, or originary shape of poetry, everything else being pale imitations or strange mutations or defacements of the latter.

Perhaps this is partly why my visceral response to your question, Gillian, is dismay. Not that I’m not curious as well, but because I wonder why we are so concerned with controlling poetry? Why, to such an extent that we want to worry about what the line will be like in the 22nd Century. Are we that afraid that if we let poetry run its course we won’t understand it in a hundred years? That poetry might evolve into something indiscernible to the Romantic soul?

I love that Christian Bok’s account of his Xenotext poem follows your post:

I am, in effect, engineering a life-form so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also an operant machine for writing a poem—one that can persist on the planet until the sun itself explodes…

Well, I admit that project isn’t for me. I don’t want to write a virus. And I don’t want all poetry to be that…but I’m glad someone is taking poetry to this extreme. Earth poets. Concrete poets. Light poets. I would like to see poetry enacted on a field, in an urban square, in a Petri dish, or projected into the sky. Why not? Everyone seems so very concerned about protecting a version (generally the one they are most comfortable with), one version of poetry. I wonder about this no matter what end of the spectrum the tendency appears, or when it appears in myself… I wonder about the wisdom of trying to create a lineage by assuring one has disciples who write about one’s poetry and write in the shadow of one’s poetics. I wonder about any attempt to create an orderly march forward.

Why are we so busy trying to say what poetry is or isn’t in the first place? How can we, in the 21st Century, be interested in poetry of less than 40 lines, for instance? What if the poem has 42 lines? And as Gillian points out, what is meant by lines? Can those lines be longer than a CK Williams line? Can they gather in a circle? Can they be random? Can they be gestural? Can they be creating a visual poem? Or oral? Can they be a virus? What kind of lines do you have in mind? It would seem that if you’re defining poetry as occurring in 40 lines or less you have something very precise in mind. Perhaps something that is thought of as so delicate it needs to be preserved.

Well, I doubt that. Poetry is responsive, flexible, and vast. It can be held, memorized, constructed. There are poems in the world that take days to recite. There are poems that are enacted, silently, at night, and have never been witnessed. There are so many unread poems and unwritten poems it makes me ache, and then it makes me energized to move forward. My desire is to be completely shocked by what comes next. I hope I can’t imagine how it will look on the page, or how it will sound, or what thinking or feeling it might evoke. It’s a strange and wonderful moment when I am confronted with a poem that I don’t yet know how to read. There is a jolt of excitement, a flicker of anxiety, an accelerated heart rate, some effort, and usually, reward.

So yes to thinking about the future of the line. Yes, I assume it will hold echoes of the lines that have come before, and it will be great fun to try and trace lineages such as they might be. But I share Virginia Woolf’s anxiety of influence, and frustration at the glacial pace of innovation (yes, even in our time), hoping for a future that will blow my mind, not simply mimic it.

Or as Vanessa Place might say, we are entering poetry at the end of poetry. Or as Daniel Zomparelli might say, Poetry is dead, finished. Now, let’s write poetry.


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, April 6th, 2011 by Sina Queyras.