The Big If

Over many years, I led workshops for the University of Toronto, Ryerson Literary Society, and local writers’ groups. Closest to my heart was the 12-year, evening Poets’ Workshop for the Toronto Board of Education. Delving into the challenges of the art with others who took the pursuit seriously was inspiring. It also made me think about the whys and wherefores of what poets do. One evening’s discussion, in particular, remains vivid and meaningful for me today.

As our group pored over the final draft of a poem, a young woman seated across from its author looked up. “I am puzzled by line 3,” she said. “Why did you cut it off in mid-sentence on the word ‘at’?”

The author drew himself up and peered at her over the steel rim of his glasses. “That,” he announced, “as you obviously don’t know, is enjambment.” He sat back, as if applying the label made his choice indisputably right.

“Yes,” I intervened, “but it is bad enjambment.”

Of all the words in a free-verse line, the last, being the freshest in mind before rounding the corner to the next line, has the most impact. Why squander that strong position by breaking on a colourless preposition such as “at”, “to”, “in”, “on”, the conjunctions “and”, “or”, “nor”, or even, beyond mere shock value, the splitting of a hyphenated word? Instead, that last word can use its subtle power in so many ways. It can emphasize a key idea, create suspense or surprise, reveal an unusual slant on a common expression, set up a contrast to follow, or by its length and sound slow or speed the pace, and even guide the reading aloud of the poem. The biggest travesty is then bumping bad enjambment line after line after line down a whole poem, like a ride along a rutted road.

Emboldened, the young woman continued. “And why is your so-called ‘free verse’ chopped up into identically three-lined blocks of text? It’s not a traditional metred poem.”

Good question. Yes, the symmetry of the strophes did look pretty on the page. However it was misleading, since the content of each strophe was not self-contained, as its visual separation implied. Nor did the three-line groups unfold like smoothly ascending or descending triads. As ideas lurched stop-start, stop-start, stop-start down the intervening bands of white space, form contradicted, not supported, thought.

The author of the poem tossed his head. “Even if the physical pattern and thought aren’t matchy-matchy, it doesn’t prevent the reader moving forward. Besides,” he raised an eyebrow at me, “I recall you insisting—and more than once—you can do anything you want in free verse.”

I sighed. “No. You’re forgetting the most important part: I stated you can doing anything you want in free verse if—and I emphasize if—you can make it work.” However, his jerking enjambment, and discordant form had the opposite and bewildering effect. Instead, technique should assist the birthing of an idea or feeling, help something already implicit to find clearer expression—in short, to convey meaning, not confuse it. Otherwise it is just flirting with surfaces, a distraction.

Decades later, such poetic perversity is still with us. Then why not make it work? Part of the answer lies in what a poet wishes to accomplish in the first place and how he or she views the relationship with a potential reader. For example, what if the poet is self-cast as avant-garde, ever eager to “break new ground”, or espouses a poetic ideology. For example, postmodern theory intentionally disrupted immersion in the experience of art, forcing the reader to step back and confront the poem as a self-conscious aesthetic construct, as in the jarring final line of this excerpt:

“… & the fish hawk circles
turning on the wind
as it turns
above the river
in this poem.”1

How ironic, when you consider a supposedly “old fashioned” form such as the sonnet or ode. The strict patterns of metrical feet, rhyme, and repetition also show clearly it is an artificial construct. The difference is that this artificiality is designed not to undercut meaning, as in postmodern writing, but rather, to enhance it through the additional pleasure of image, sound, and rhythm shaped to express something valuable within tight formal rules.

On a more personal level, an unsuspecting culprit of bad enjambment may be the friendly poetry klatch. If members hesitate to be viewed as too critical and unsupportive of each other’s efforts, misplaced tact may let weak aesthetic choices flourish. Ambition plays a part also. A writer hungry for recognition and publication may be tempted to copy the stylistic idiosyncrasies of the latest poetry stars.

And of course, people sign up for writing groups, as for pottery lessons or ballroom dancing, for all sorts of reasons. Decades ago I was shocked when a colleague described a poetry class she was offering as “edutainment”. She was candid. One man joined only to corral an audience. But he was so proud of his stilted verse he rejected all suggestions for editing even one word. Some sought the literary encouragement that was unforthcoming from family and friends, while others wanted new social connections, or just something different from last season’s yoga or photography course. Naively I had assumed that all workshoppers took poetry as seriously as I did, and with my own groups I always aimed to proceed in that spirit—no strutting egos, mutual admiration societies, or dalliers! We came together to study the craft and diligently explore ways to improve our writing, no matter how humble.

Nonetheless, I had to be realistic. My groups were not “professional” writers. Several may have published a poem here and there in a newsletter or local paper, or put together a chapbook on their own, but were still dreaming of a full-length book published by an established literary press. Their poetry may have been a work in progress, but I was touched by the ache for excellence and the unending efforts toward improvement. Did there have to be anything more?

My real quarrel with bad enjambment, I realized, lay not with workshoppers, but with poets already published in literary journals, anthologies, and well-received collections, some of whom had even won prizes. Surely, they ought to know better, I fussed. Regardless, what I viewed as bad habits persisted. When any declared themselves concrete poets or experimental writers, I sighed and made allowances. To be fair, in the name of experiment, anything is worth a try, although as painter Yvonne Lammerich remarked, the attempts may be “valid, but not enduring”. And yes, I still love the extraordinary poems of e.e. cummings. When I first encountered them more than 50 years ago, so fresh and surprising, the whimsy and airiness of his daring enjambment illuminated and gave his themes wings. For me, he was able to make it work—as has been the case far less often with imitators.

Of course, bad enjambment is not my only bugbear. What may have originated as other genuine experiments in technique are often copied, played with, expanded, and touted in their own right, regardless of whether they contribute essential value within a given poem. I am talking about mechanical imitations of such eccentricities as lowercase replacing all capital letters, blanks substituted for the subtle differentiations of punctuation, and so many scattered white spaces the physical poem disintegrates, as well as poems laid out virtually impossible to read as side-by-side columns. I am not against any of these devices per se on principle. In fact, I am fascinated and thrilled to discover the rare writer with imagination enough to use them brilliantly in a poem to enhance, not overshadow or distort its substance.

In his essay “Steampunk Zone”, Carmine Starnino tackles such a challenge. His detailed analysis of poets presented in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012 lists additional devices they use:

“intricate puns, up-to-the-minute slang, scat-singing wordplay, many-sided metaphors. … These poets belong to a circle that aggressively resists schools, unsettles assumptions, and crossbreeds near-infinite varieties of form, from rhyme-rich free verse to mishmashes of lyric and found texts.”2

But beneath that verbal glitter, do they actually have something to say? Although Starnino gives careful attention to the lively works of the steampunk poets, he admits feeling glum:

“… while our poetry is now home to ravishingly odd confections, and while many of these poems bring me under their spell, they never quite make the sale. I’m a pushover for anything ‘counter, original, spare, strange’, as Hopkins put it. I read such poems for matters of style, of sound. I read to understand why I like what I do, why some poems seem to me more memorable than others. I read, ultimately, to take this knowledge into my own poems. But after a point, after celebrating the explosion of poetic techniques, I have to ask myself: what are all these techniques for, exactly? ... Am I the only one who found himself impressed, then distressed that I could grasp a great deal about the poems, except why they were written?”3

Well, why do any poets write this way? With their verbal pirouettes, hurdles, and detours, it seems they have thrown responsibility aside, choosing not to communicate, but just to revel in their own virtuosity on paper. I am reminded of a certain three-year-old trumpeting her newfound talent to anyone nearby: “Want to see me jump?” Is it all more game than poem, Starnino wonders.

A game is all very well for the poets, but what about the other half of the equation? Robbed of the poem’s anticipated insight or emotional experience, what speaks to a frustrated reader when hit with only how fashionable, or ingrown, or clever such a poem demonstrates its writer to be? These days, more than ever, I refuse to be such a long-sufferer, and at first inkling of yet another vexing performance, flip the page.

One Christmas, a non-writer friend gave me a pretty little book, Best-Loved Poems. The majority were composed in the traditional set forms of the past, but also included were selections from modern poets such as William Carlos Williams, Seamus Heaney, and T.S. Eliot. A few had been on the English curriculum when I was in high school six decades ago. At that time, their value was obscured for me by dry classroom exercises in scansion and ferreting out examples of metaphor, simile, personification, etc., as much as by subject matter disconnected from my urban adolescence. Now as an elderly woman, I better understand their appeal. It’s not only their apparent ease with metre and rhyme, or their imagery and music. It’s also the topics that transcend poetic wordplay to address concerns common to most people, in the book arranged in sections on Love and Marriage, Life, Loss and Comfort, War and Peace, Animals and Nature, Magic and Mystery. In a harsh world, the gentleness of a little sentimentality is comforting too. Most of all, what strikes me is their refreshing simplicity and clarity that actually welcome a reader to listen.

So to go back to the author at the beginning. His pride in applying the label “enjambment” to his badly broken lines reminds me of a neighbour many years back. After returning from her first visit to New York, over coffee she announced, “Abstract art is easy!” With no understanding of the interrelationship of colour, line, proportion, balance, perspective, and other elements within a composition, untutored she took up painting and declared herself an Abstract Expressionist. Her canvasses were crowded with the spatters, sweeps, splotches, blurs, angularities, vibrant palettes, and collage of the few artists she had seen in a New York gallery. But a canvass’ superficial assemblage of techniques, even accompanied by her explanatory text, could not make it work. There was no centre, no urgency, no inherent vision pulling the disparate components into a meaningful expression. Basically, she had nothing to say. Similarly, while poetry may exploit the multiple devices of language, it is more than language. Behind it there needs to be a motive force that informs language for a deeper purpose.

I believe in the Muse. I like to picture her barefoot, in a filmy white gown, her  long, slightly dishevelled fair hair wound back in a loose golden cord, styled like an ancient Greek statue. From her airy, light-filled promontory she does not speak, but is ever watchful, gauging the integrity of our creations. To receive her blessing of inspiration, it is not enough to replicate stylistic quirks and twists. It’s not about a shortcut to artistic recognition, or even about making or keeping friends. The Muse demands that our poems’ images, sounds, and rhythms embody and convey human value. Otherwise, for me at least, there is little point in writing at all.

Notes

1. Ken Cathers, “Hunting Ground”, Quarry, 32, No. 1 (Winter 1983), p. 49.

2. “Steampunk Zone”, Lazy Bastardism: Essays & Reviews on Contemporary Poetry (Kentville, Nova Scotia: Gaspereau Press Limited, 2012), p. 251.

3. Starnino, pp. 254-255.