|The three poetry books|
shown on this post all have
jacket art by painter
Clive Hicks-Jenkins of Wales.
My poetry books are Claire, Thaliad, The Foliate
Head, The Throne of Psyche, and...
a still-secret one, coming out late this year.
I should preface this little explanation by noting the simple fact that I have many poet friends who write in very different ways from me--who have entirely different ideas about lines and form and poems. And that's fine.
I like many different sorts of books and poems. But I hold that each writer must decide on the building blocks of writing for his or her own work.
A capital choice
This morning I received a fat paper letter from a writer and friend--it's so marvelous to get a letter on paper! The internet has swept away such things, except for those who rebel against its winding tentacles, its sneaking power. Luckily, I know such persons.
And one of the things he asked me was why I capitalize the start of lines in poetry. It's an excellent question because I started out as a good pupil and inheritor of Modernism, only using a capital letter when beginning a poem or after a period mark. Back then, I accepted the idea that the practice of using capitals at the start of a line was out-dated, artificial, and peculiar in a modern/postmodern context. It still looks peculiar because almost everybody else in the realm of poetry today does as I once did, even those who are obsessed with that weirdly freeing practice, formal poetry.
Why did I stop?
Part of the answer lies in my semi-abandonment of free verse. I say semi- because I recently wrote a whole manuscript of poems that most people would call free verse, though they are heavily influenced by certain Yoruban and ancient Hebrew structures.
The more I moved into forms, the more compelling I found them--the more I liked the way form dislodges this poet from her own limited thoughts. Rhyme can nudge a poet right out of the grooves of where-she-intended-to-go and into surprise. Meter makes the writer consider more closely how to handle the line, how to fit words and thoughts into units of rhythm.
Modernism is packed with theories and statements about poetic line, many having to do with breath, though in reality a great many poets just go by the slippery judgment of what feels like a rightness. (I should say that the work of the first Modernists reveals their own sharp understanding of meter, sound, and shape even when dismantling the old order in free verse.) Unfortunately, not everybody is equal in the matter of poetic rightnesses, as Wallace Stevens called that act of the mind that seeks perfection in freedom. Many poets seem to break unthinkingly at syntactical units or occasionally to make a kind of pun by stopping the line with what seems a complete thought that is then transformed by the next word on the next line. (I've done both of those things in the course of many years of writing poems.) A lot of free verse contains words that appear lonely and slack, abandoned on a line. Not all, of course, but some of recent poetry simply isn't interesting in a line by line consideration. (I'll get to disjunction and fragmentation later.)
Now you may say that a poem is not simply lines but is a whole--just as a novel had better be more than well-crafted sentences and yet sometimes is not much more than pretty sentences--and that is true. Nevertheless, I want the cake and the eating at once; I want good lines and good poems, or at least the best that I can make.
For me, a capital letter at the start of a line frames the line, separates the line, and forces the writer to think about the whole with its relationship to the part in a more focused way. To pluck an image from Modernism, it is like a tiny Joseph Cornell box; it needs a certain richness of sound and meaning, even when spare. Like meter and like rhyme, this framing of the line is yet another form of discipline that I set as a bulwark against the an era in which the short, self-focused lyric has dominated to the point of banishing poetic drama, long narrative, and a whole wide range of once-useful poetic modes. (Although I simply woke one day with it already in my head, Thaliad must also be part of my own rebellion against such a narrowing of poetry.)
In my own writing, I'm not attracted by the syntactical shiftings and disconnections that provide an uneasy order to so many lyrics, often suggested as the natural result of the disjunctions and chaos of "today's world"; I'm concerned with a wholeness and clarity constructed from well-made parts. Whether or not I succeed, the framing of the line makes me more conscious of those parts, sets up a demand that each one work and be worthy. That desire and ideal may or may not be fulfilled. In saying that each line must be worthy, I'm talking about revision because I tend to be an instinctual writer who composes in a sort of tempestuous flood that afterward I inspect and tame as needed, building little weirs and channels.
The capital-letter frame device emphasizes and makes conscious the fact that the riverine path of a poem is spilling through shapes, through lines, that it must flow forward in meaning while falling through each level or line. Why do I desire flowing sense? Why don't I want for my own poems any marked disconnection or scrambled syntax? To me, postmodern modes of discontinuity seem exhausted, vampire-long in the tooth, gone gray-haired or bald. For others, what I see as an ancient trendiness is alive rather than musty, but for me it feels of little use in making a poem.
Moreover, all poets (no matter what sort of poem they choose to write) are aware that such a way of making poems has alienated and still alienates readers who are not poets. It deliberately destroys many of the purposes that are at the heart of poems, which at their start appear to have been oral gifts made by some sort of bard who sang or recited his own or handed-down poems to other people. And I do like, indeed love, to have a range of readers, even though Modernism and its aftershocks have done their best to make poets the primary readers of poets.
My altered preference also stems from writing novels, and perhaps I never would have embraced capitals at the start of lines and many other elements if I had not started to write fiction. My first long fiction--the novella Little Jordan--lacked causality. Back then, I had been persuaded that plot was artificial. But I soon became fond of propulsion, which has an awful lot to do with causality and, hence, plot. I reached a point where I wanted my novels to be as much like novels as they could be, whatever that meant. And what it meant was a thing I wanted to find out for myself.
The counterpoint to that desire was to wish for my poems to be as much like poems as they could be. And that meant going forward by diving back into the tradition because many of the contemporary poets I read appeared to be descended not from the tradition of poetry but from a narrow part of the prose tradition. But I wanted to be a child of poetry. I wanted to come close to singing in my words, and I wanted to be dramatic. Old forms, old techniques, old tropes, old sources of drama: I wanted to make them new for myself. I wanted their strength. I wanted to stand tiptoe on bigger shoulders than my own.
Adding a capital at the start of the line was one of my later choices and a part of the idea of making my poems as much like poems as they could be. And one of the great differences between poetry and prose is that prose is made of sentence units, and poetry is made of line units. To have an initial capital at the start of the line is to insist on and claim with fierceness the line as the unit of poetry, whereas much contemporary poetry says that the sentence or the isolate, broken phrase is the unit of poetry.
Like every obsessed writer, I have made my many choices. Long ago, when such jobs were hard to obtain, I gave up a tenured job to write, to escape from a realm where poets were part of and supported by the many-tentacled system of academia. Since then, writers have made most of their income and their useful connections in academia, so it was a bad decision in a worldly sense--a bad decision in terms of worldly success and support from the system. But I persist in thinking it was the right sacrifice for a poet and writer. Outside those bounds, I have worked and groped and thought my way, making books as I felt it best. Whether I have made my choices rightly or wrongly is not for me to say. But it is essential for me as that odd creature called a writer to have made them. For a writer, for a poet, it is essential to know and follow and sometimes change those choices. That little, seemingly-wrong choice of the initial capital is, for me, one of many decisions that have made me the sort of writer I am.