Friday, December 14, 2018

Dec 14: Hannah Ensor on Denise Levertov's "On the Function of the Line" (1979)

In the first few months of 2008, I was asked to read Denise Levertov’s essay “On the Function of the Line” in an undergraduate poetry class.
     I learned a lot about poetry and death in that class—a 300-level poetry workshop with Laura Kasischke, in the basement of the building where I work now. I learned how Frank O’Hara died, but not when. Vice versa for Heath Ledger [1]. At one point, Laura said that she writes poems because if a non-poet is walking down a street and a brick falls on her head, she’s just dead. Whereas if she’s walking down the street and a brick falls on her head, at least she’s written poems. I’m likely misremembering this; it’s been a decade. But I remember the death, and the camaraderie, and the excitement of liking other people’s poems, and of people liking my poems, and the time when someone asked me if I was wearing a bandana for religious reasons and I said, NO, FOR GAY REASONS, and also that Laura wore incredible boots.
     But I’m not here to talk about the brilliance that is Laura Kasischke or her boots. I’m here to talk about “On the Function of the Line” by Denise Levertov, an essay about poems (which, if you ask me, is a more appealing concept than a poem about essays).
     When I teach poetry to new or not-yet poets, I always teach “On the Function of the Line” because it’s a really good way of thinking about breaking lines. I know that I care too much about linebreaks, and it’s not because I consider myself particularly “lyric,” and/or interested in any way about sonorousness. (I’m underselling myself, but that’s in character, so I’ll keep going.) It’s because I like how weird our brains are. I think I think about the linebreak in the ways that I do because Denise Levertov’s essay HAPPENED TO ME. Look:
The most obvious function of the linebreak is rhythmic: it can record the slight (but meaningful) hesitations between word and word that are characteristic of the mind’s dance among perceptions but which are not noted by grammatical punctuation. Regular punctuation is a part of regular sentence structure, that is, of the expression of completed thoughts; and this expression is typical of prose, even though prose is not at all times bound by its logic. But in poems one has the opportunity not only, as in expressive prose, to depart from the syntactic norm, but to make manifest, by an intrinsic structural means, the interplay or counterpoint of process and completion—in other words, to present the dynamics of perception along with its arrival at full expression. The line break is a form of punctuation additional to the punctuation that forms part of the logic of completed thoughts. Linebreaks—together with intelligent use of indentation and other devices of scoring—represent a peculiarly poetic, alogical, parallel (not competitive) punctuation. [2] [Emphasis shared—bold is mine, italics are Denise’s.]

Now, let me say, first of all: I think essays can do (at least a lot of this) too. Probably fiction as well. I think it’s probably unlikely that too many essays in 1979 were doing this, and her point is a formal/structural one about how poems have a formal quality that does a thing, and that thing is poetic. But if you see footnote 2, you’ll see that I don’t think that all this talk about the linebreak is really, or only, about the linebreak. But for now, I’ll get back to the linebreak.

The linebreak is not arbitrary, but it is PERSONAL. That’s the whole thing. It’s where the POET’S BRAIN paused. Isn’t that cool?? It happens to me all the time when I’m writing poems, that the line will break where my brain paused, did a little flutter or stutter or wiggle or twist. That’s part of what makes editing poems confusing. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, we can’t fake a flutter / stutter / wiggle / twist. [3] (For more on this, see But still sometimes we have to move where a line breaks to make a poem better. Then again, what is better? What is a poem? Of course, I’m kidding. Poems never get better, and we’ll never know what they are.

The funniest part of “On the Function of the Line” is when she approximates how long to pause at a linebreak: “roughly a half comma in duration.” I’m gonna be honest with you: I love shit like this. She goes on: “The intonation, the ups and downs of the voice…could be recorded in graph form by some instrument, as heartbeats or brain waves are graphed.”

The linebreak, if you read Denise’s essay carefully, is why we have poet voice, and for this we are sorry. But also not that sorry.

[1] One day I walked into the classroom to see, written in huge letters on the chalkboard, HEATH LEDGER IS DEAD—peak 2008. Last night I saw a tweet that said: “Peak 2018. This is how I found out Bush Sr died,” quoting another tweet that said “george bush really had to die tonight just to overshadow the release of the Thank U Next video? you were already president give someone else the spotlight” and that’s another great bridge across this past decade. 
[2] This is all also true for prose poems, which I look forward to telling you about in next year’s advent calendar. 
[3] Except when we’re dancers like my friend and poem life partner Audra is, Audra who I took that class with. Also, it’s not “faking,” it’s just that she can DECIDE to do it, which is maybe something we should learn from when editing poems.

Hannah Ensor's first book of poetry, Love Dream With Television, was recently published by Noemi Press. She lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan. 

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