BRILLIANT CORNERS: An Experiment in Visual Prosody
by Michael Milburn
I was naked without my line ends.
Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop
A few years ago I found myself adjusting the line lengths in my poems, replacing words and tinkering with punctuation and syntax to make the right margin appear flush on my computer screen. I didn’t do this with every poem, just a few where two or three lines in the first typed draft lined up, which led me to see if the remainder could as well. I have always appreciated visual symmetry in poetry. When revising I try out stanzas with different numbers of lines, preferring but not insisting on the same number in each. After all, stanza length, whether fixed or variable, makes a big difference to a poem, affecting pace and therefore expression. Couldn’t the same be true of lines?
Lately, my preoccupation with alignment has increased, as I have completed several poems where the lines, at least in my Helvetica typeface, all appear exactly the same length, and my quest for this look not only influenced word choice and syntax, but line breaks as well. Again, I don’t insist on this, sometimes abandoning the effort if the poem resists it, sometimes settling for a few matching lines here and there. I know this practice sounds pointless, counterproductive, maybe nuts—even if the end words line up on my screen and print-outs, they won’t necessarily do so in a different font or word processing program. More than once a poem that I have labored to align has appeared in a literary magazine with slightly uneven right margins. This outcome no longer disappoints me—rather, I’m glad to have put those poems through whatever revision it took to get the margins straight, even as the published versions remind me that permanent alignment is impossible.
While I recognize the eccentricity of what I’m doing, I’m not sure that I want to stop. First, breaking a line so that it will look the exact same length as the ones above and below is not that different from doing so on the basis of syllable count, a respectable method of composing poetry. More importantly, trying to find the word, syntax, even punctuation to shorten or elongate a line requires more precise, sustained attention than my revision process used to involve. Even choosing between a colon and a dash (an em dash being equivalent in length to three colons on my computer), forces me to analyze ruthlessly what I want to say. Previously, the closest I came to this sort of sight-based scrutiny was deleting a line from the middle of a poem in uniform stanzas solely to avoid having a surplus line at the end.
I haven’t heard of any other poets sharing my mania for alignment, or found evidence of it in published poems. But in this age of word processing and the poet’s ability to experiment with how his or her poems look on the screen, I wonder if no one else has been tempted to try. When a few lines do line up in others’ poems—inadvertently, I assume—the result is a sort of visual rhyme. Viewed both on my screen and on the pages of their respective books, the following lines please my eye through their identical lengths and their end words’ vertical pairing.
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
from “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” by W.B. Yeats
He lifts his one great claw
And holds it over his head;
from “Lobsters in the Window,” by W.D. Snodgrass
New ghost is that what you are
Standing on the stairs of water
from “Is That What You Are” by W.S. Merwin
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
from “Let Evening Come,” by Jane Kenyon
When the end words rhyme, the payoff is even greater:
If lip-readers move their lips when
lip-reading, what do they say then?
from “From a Distance,” by Bill Knott
don’t quote me. This is all:
A rose is not a cannonball.
from “Prelude to a Glass City,” by James Tate
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
Lady Lazarus,” by Sylvia Plath
The visual rewards of alignment in these examples resemble those of two common poetic devices—assonance and alliteration. In addition to the appealing sound and sensation the following line produces when spoken, it also creates a visible pattern with its repeated vowels and consonants. What the eye sees reflects what the ear hears and vice versa.
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way.
from “Elegy Composed in a Country Churchyard,” by Thomas Gray
Revising with an eye simultaneously on line length and expression reminds me of trying to write in meter, swapping words in the service of stress and syllable count. Often the metrical demands would lead the poem in new directions. This doesn’t happen with free verse, which makes me wonder, as someone who no longer writes in meter, whether I miss having strict formal rules to work with and against—playing tennis with a net in Robert Frost’s words. Alignment may not qualify as a legitimate prosodic practice, but it makes my writing of free verse less dauntingly free by providing me with a formal anchor. And even when I undo a length-driven revision, usually because it sounds wrong or a line break jars, the process has often led to other changes worth keeping. Sometimes that jarring line break, arrived at solely for alignment’s sake, works, the kind of fortuitous discovery that must be familiar to poets who write in syllabics.
You are so small, I
am not even sure
that you are at all.
from “Miss Cho Composes in the Cafeteria,” by James Tate
As I said, not all of my poems bring out my compulsion. Typically, I’ll write a first draft by hand and type it into the computer, paying little attention to line breaks or length. As I start to revise, cutting out unmusical parts and polishing promising ones, I’ll start to notice whether any lines seem close to aligning and how they look or sound when I make them match. More often than not the pushing and pulling starts to feel forced, but if this process works for several consecutive lines, I’ll go all in on it. Few poems—about one in ten—survive the treatment and are better for it. A few more contain two to five equal lines; any more and the contrast between aligned and unaligned distracts.
In most cases my length-based choices hold up as good choices for the poem. Recently I tried and rejected the phrases “by which I mean,” “in other words,” and “or rather,” which made the line in question either jut out or fall short. They also sounded wrong, the first because it added another “I” to a poem that already contained too many, the second because it’s a cliché, and the third because it sounded stilted. Finally, as I was doing sit-ups one afternoon, the phrase “which is to say” popped into my mind—impersonal, monosyllabic, succinct. Even before typing it, I knew that it would fit my length needs because it fit my poetic needs. To consider using a word on any grounds other than sound and meaning might seem crazy, but I have learned that a formal fit often equals an expressive fit, even if the latter takes a while to reveal itself. One need only look at blank verse with its relatively even lines to see that length and rhythm are connected:
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
from “Ulysses,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson
Now you and I would go to no such length.
At the same time you can’t deny it makes
It not a mite worse, sitting here, we three…
from “Snow,” by Robert Frost
Each of these lines contains the same number of syllables (ten) and stresses (five), so it’s no surprise that they’re similar in length as well. Conversely, my aligned lines tend to be consistent in stress count, suggesting that alignment dictates rhythm as much as iambic pentameter dictates the look of blank verse. Metrical demands can feel constricting, which is one reason that most contemporary poets decline to submit to them, but others find them liberating. For me, calibrating a line down to the width of a semi-colon requires discipline and invention in equal parts.
Other poets may not make such minute adjustments, but an attentiveness to line length is evident in much contemporary poetry. In the 2018 edition of the Pushcart Prize anthology, twenty of the thirty poems consist of lines roughly equal in length to the blank verse quoted above. Of these twenty, thirteen are uninterrupted by stanza breaks, resulting in a shape similar to that of an unjustified prose paragraph. If one outlined these poems in chalk like bodies at a crime scene, today’s preferred visual style would be glaringly apparent. In some instances, the poets appear to break lines solely on the basis of length with no regard for craft, doggedly following the template rather than creating a specific pause or enjambment.
Poets have always played with the appearance of their poems, scattering words (e.e. cummings), laddering them down the page (William Carlos Williams), shaping them into pictures (George Herbert), or detaching them from sentence sense (Concrete poets). C.K. Williams creates one identity for his poetry when every line in his book Tar exceeds the page’s width and needs indenting, and I remember “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” as much for its rectangular stanzas as for its clip-clop tetrameter.
In the modern era, before poetry readings proliferated, one’s first impression of a poem was typically visual, established before one started reading. As I turn a page of The New Yorker, the sight of a two-page long-lined poem by Jorie Graham prepares me differently than two skinny quatrains by Charles Simic, the first promising discursiveness and the second pithiness. It seems likely that Elizabeth Bishop intended the wide lines of “The Man Moth” to mirror her creature’s massiveness, and the jagged path of “The Moose” to trace the narrow provincial Canadian roads the speaker’s bus follows.
The whole shadow of Man is only as big as his hat.
It lies at his feet like a circle for a doll to stand on,
from “The Man-Moth,” by Elizabeth Bishop
down rows of sugar maples,
past clapboard farmhouses
and neat, clapboard churches,
bleached, ridged as clamshells,
past twin silver birches,
through late afternoon
a bus journeys west
from “The Moose,” by Elizabeth Bishop
Even with prose poems I not only notice the right margin, I can’t help reading it expressively. Three different settings from different publications of this prose poem from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, for example, cast the lines, line-ends, and, yes, line breaks in three different ways.
To live through the days sometimes you moan like deer.
Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that. Another sigh.
Another stop that. Moaning elicits laughter, sighing upsets.
Perhaps each sigh is drawn into existence to pull in, pull under,
who knows; truth be told, you could no more control those
sighs than that which brings the sighs about.
Citizen IV, as formatted on poets.org
To live through the days sometimes you moan like deer. Sometimes you sigh. The
world says stop that. Another sigh. Another stop that. Moaning elicits laughter, sighing upsets. Perhaps each sigh is drawn into existence to pull in, pull under, who knows; truth be told, you could no more control those sighs than that which brings the sighs about.
Citizen IV, as formatted on metaphorformetaphor.tumblr.com
To live through the days sometimes you moan like deer. Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that. Another sigh. Another stop that. Moaning elicits laughter, sighing upsets. Perhaps each sigh is drawn into existence to pull in, pull under, who knows; truth be told, you could no more control those sighs than that which brings the sighs about.
Citizen IV, as formatted in print in Citizen, An American Lyric
I prefer the last version, and assume that Rankine does too since that’s how the poem appears in her book. The justified text makes the line ends and breaks meaningful, even if they’re not intentional. Alignment heightens meaning, emphasizing the line as a unit, to some extent self-contained, and the line break as its provisional end. It gives the justified breaks an authority that makes the unjustified ones feel blander, weaker in comparison.
Version 1 Unjustified:
Another stop that.
Version 2 Unjustified:
Another sigh. Another stop that.
Version 3 Justified:
sigh. Another stop that.
If line length and equivalency matter this much in a prose poem, where technically they don’t matter at all, it follows that they would affect verse, where a poet can make deliberate use of them.
My interest in a poem’s appearance, not just its shape but the sight of the words together and on their own, keeps me from enjoying poetry readings where I haven’t seen the text. Listening makes me want to look, and frustrated that I can’t. Not knowing what visual impression the words and lines make, or whether they’re arranged in the slivered stanzas of “Miss Cho,” C.K, Williams’s sprawl, or Rankine’s prose, creates a kind of aesthetic blindfold. In a review of The Essential W.S. Merwin, the critic Dan Chiasson likens the phrases in Merwin’s “The Hydra” to “driftwood scattered on the sand,” concluding that ”their dispersal on the page is the source of their power.”
I was young and the dead were in other Ages
As the grass had its own language
Now I forget where the difference falls
One thing about the living sometimes a piece of us
Can stop dying for a moment
But you the dead
Once you go into those names you go on you never
You go on
Similarly, for all its aural beauty, the assonance of Merwin’s line “And bowing not knowing to what” (which ends “For the Anniversary of My Death”) only achieves its full effect if one sees those successive “o”s and “w”s. John Ashbery said of translating Rimbaud: “You have to see the poetry as well as hear it; even the shapes of the letters have something to do with it.”
The most successful spoken poems are usually strong narratives, or polemical, or witty, or delivered in a beautiful voice like Seamus Heaney’s, or rhymed. The rhymed ones work in part because the end words serve as auditory guides to line (and sometimes stanza) lengths and ends. I rarely hear free verse line breaks unless the speaker tries to reproduce them, which sounds affected. On his recordings of “This Is Just To Say” and “The Red Wheelbarrow” William Carlos Williams makes no pauses between these lines, obscuring their visual ingenuity.
I have eaten
that were in
so much depends
a red wheel
Similarly, listening to Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “North Haven” would conceal two important formal decisions in the poems’ final stanzas.
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
from “For the Union Dead,” by Robert Lowell
You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue…And now—you’ve left
for good. You can’t derange, or rearrange,
your poems again. (But the sparrows can their song.)
The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.
from “North Haven,” by Elizabeth Bishop
My ear would hear Lowell’s last two lines as one, and Bishop’s last line as two lines, with the break coming between the sentences. Just hearing the poems would keep me from knowing how these lines look, and, as importantly, from wondering why the poets placed them as they did. Did Lowell want to use “servility” and “grease” as end words in order to emphasize or juxtapose them? Did Bishop reject a longer pause between her two closing sentences so as to achieve a “here’s the bad news all at once” momentum? Or did both poets need their final stanzas to match the preceding ones, Lowell requiring an extra line to fill out his last quatrain, Bishop having one too many for her quintain? Maybe they disliked the tidiness of alignment:
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility slides by on grease.
The words won’t change again.
Sad friend, you cannot change.
“Art, it seems to me, should simplify,” Willa Cather wrote. “That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process.” Most poets would agree that they are always revising toward greater directness and simplicity, even when adding words. When I arrive at a plainer way of saying something, it often seems so obvious that I’m surprised I didn’t find my way to it sooner. This quest drives my alignment work, which I suspect is partly a way to get myself to keep streamlining a poem that I might otherwise have considered finished. I have to trust myself to recognize when this starts having a deleterious effect. That goes for all revision, which proceeds on the assumption that we’re making the poem better, until we’re not.
About the Author:
Michael Milburn teaches high school English in New Haven, CT. His book of essays, Odd Man In, was published by Midlist Press in 2005, and his most recent book of poems is Carpe Something (Word Press 2012).