Swinging, Resonance, & the Line of a Poem

What is a line of poetry?—what does it do?—what can it do?

One way to explore poetry and poetics in the long 20th century is to examine what constitutes a line of poetry, for whom, and at what time.

Dickinson. Whitman. Crane. Frost. Stein. Cummings. Eliot. Pound. Williams. Stevens. Moore. Hughes. Bishop. Rukeyser. Ginsberg. Olson. Merwin. Graham. Hillman.

Maybe it is as “simple” as a line is a line is a line . . . or maybe we need thirteen ways of looking at a line—and thirteen ways of hearing a line—before we get anywhere.

A couple of years ago, I read Folsom and Nelson’s interview with W. S. Merwin, “Fact Has Two Faces,” and I was struck by Merwin’s sheer bewilderment (and adoration) of what constitutes a poetic line. Why break the line there, in that moment?—toward what effect?—toward what poetics? Though bad form, I quote a long passage from the interview in order to capture Merwin’s sustained bewilderment/adoration concerning what exactly is a line of poetry. He is committed to both preserving the ineffable nature of a poetic line and yet striving to understand it. (This passage erased the stock answers I used to offer when teaching what a line is all about):

There’s a huge amount of talent around now, including some really gifted young people coming out of colleges, but some of them have a very shaky sense of what a line is. This is obviously bad for individual poems, but it’s also very bad for the possibility of their development as poets or for the development of anything resembling a tradition—even for the continuation of an Olson or a Williams tradition. You can’t go anywhere if you’re not fairly clear about what a line is. Yet I’m not even sure that I want to say what I think a line is, though I’ve thought about it. I’ll describe how I’ve taught the topic, though that may prevent me from doing it again.

With students in certain places I’ve thought it was valuable to try to force them to figure out what they thought a line was. A year and a half ago I was at Oberlin, where the students were very gifted. I read a lot of manuscripts and said, “I’m not going to do the workshop thing of going over your papers and making little suggestions. I don’t think that’s really the most appropriate thing. What I’d like to do is go around the room and make everybody who wants to be involved in this try to figure out what a line of verse is.” After two hours, we hadn’t got very far. They realized that they’d never really thought about it. We left it with my saying, “I think this is what you have to think about the next time you stop a line somewhere. At the risk of losing a great deal of spontaneity for awhile, you need to look closely, to figure out what in hell you think you’re doing: why you stop it after three syllables, why you stop it after two beats, or why you stop it where you do—what are you doing? Are you just writing prose and saying, ‘I like it better this way,’ or is there really some reason for doing it?”

As far as they could get spontaneously in two hours, these young people who’d read a lot—mostly in their own contemporaries, but they were addressing themselves to poetry with some seriousness—was to realize that a line was a unit of something. What it was a unit of was something they couldn’t agree on. (59–60)

A few moments later in the interview, Merwin suggests that a line need not relate to (Olson’s notion of) breath, though it could. Rather, he sees it relating more to the material gestures of the body: “[a line break is] a rhythmical gesture and also as a gesture of meaning. . . . it’s important to stop in such a way that the stop itself has something to do with impetus” (61).

The theory of gesture and impetus can be expanded if we think of swing sets.

I recently read Carolyn Hill’s “Changing Times in Composition Classes: Kairos, Resonance, and the Pythagorean Connection” where Hill discusses the art of pumping. Drawing on K. C. Cole’s work, she establishes how each kick must be timed. If the swinger kicks with a tremendous amount of force at the wrong time, all that power does nothing: “adding energy without timing gets you nowhere” (qtd. in Hill 218). A kick at the right time generates resonance, or to use Merwin’s language, generates impetus. Later in the essay, Hill shares how she uses the phenomenon of resonance of swinging in order to illuminate what is actually happening on a page of text: “I have come to believe that the energies needed for writing (and its close relation, reading) must come first from a much stronger sense of one’s own resonance with the many kairotic situational rhythms within which one writes or reads” (221). This is very similar to Merwin’s admonition for writers—and readers!—to listen to the “actual weight of the language as it move[s]” (62).

So, I have been looking at a line of poetry as something that generates momentum and resonance through the gesture of the break. It brings the energy of the line to fruition, and the break—like the kick on the swing—must be timed so as to generate more momentum. A break at the wrong time generates no resonance, impetus, momentum.

Easier said than done.

But the image of the timed kick on the swing clarifies what happens during a brilliant line break. Merwin has plenty of such lines, and I may discuss some of them in the future. Now I want to turn to some lines from Brenda Hillman’s Practical Water:

i understand the horse
who broke her front
legs trying to run
i understand that horse

all women understand her
we all understand that
horse we all understand

her all of us do (65)

The resonance of the line breaks generate new meanings, new rhythms, new energies. If Hillman was on a swing, she’d be looking well over the top bar:

i understand the horse
who broke her front
legs trying to run
i understand that horse

all women understand her
we all understand that. . . .
horse, we all understand

her all of us do

Like Merwin outlines, these line breaks are a gesture of meaning and a gesture of rhythm; they create impetus. Suddenly, the word “that” becomes full of resonance: we all understand that, i.e. the desire to extend beyond ourselves, the passion of the moment, the willingness to run beyond what we can do. The next line, then, due to the break, allows us to turn to the horse, to speak to her, to empathize with her: “Horse, we all understand.” I find myself caught up in the repetition, the resonance, the timing of each kick in these lines, and I must say that I agree with Merwin. This is not about the breath. A line break, rather, is about the body and achieving resonance through the body. I am not exhaling and inhaling with each line break, but my body gestures with each stop—each timed kick.

Line breaks are difficult because kairos is difficult. When is it the right time? When should one kick? Where and when does the energy reach fruition? What time and what place will a break generate resonance from the line throughout the stanza, poem, section, and book?

Moreover, on a swing, one must lean back and pull with the hands in conjunction with the kick. Both must be timed. Well, what other gestures accompany a brilliant line break?

The theory of the swing helps illuminate the ineffable nature of the line break—and though it may bring some understanding—the mystery is still preserved. The line break cannot be prescribed. It must be intuited through a body who “gets” resonance. The theory helps.

The problem with some literary theories, though, is often they become too esoteric. They exclude and alienate before the illuminate. I am more interested in theories that can illuminate, for broad audiences, the dynamics of reading and writing poetry. Too many people “don’t get” poetry already. The theory of swinging and resonance is simple. Anyone who has learned how to swing understands it. We all understand that. . . .


Note on Hill’s Essay:

Hill’s essay appears in Sipiora and Baumlin’s Rhetoric and Kairos: Essays in History, Theory, and Praxis. This collection of essays helps place kairos back on the map. It is a fascinating concept, untranslatable to English. Each essay in the collection adds another perspective of kairos, Hill’s, of course, adding the concept of resonance within writing. For starters kairos is all about the timely; it is qualitative time existing within quantitative time (46–49); it is the vintner’s grapes coming to fruition (51); it is a god who has wings on his shoulder blades and on his heels, carrying a scale balanced on a razor sharp edge, with a forelock encouraging the swift to seize him (xii); it is the opportune time and the opportune place for something to happen (2); it is the fitting and the timely (143); and I add here that it is the poetic line coming to fruition at the break.


Works Cited

Hill, Carolyn Eriksen. “Changing Times in Composition Classes: Kairos, Resonance, and the Pythagorean Connection.” Rhetoric and Kairos: Essays in History, Theory, and Praxis. Ed. Phillip Sipiora & James Baumlin. Albany  NY: State U of New York P, 2002. 211–225. Print.

Hillman, Brenda. Practical Water. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2009. Print.

Merwin, W. S., Ed Folsom, and Cary Nelson. “‘Fact Has Two Faces’: An Interview with W. S. Merwin.” The Iowa Review 13.1 (1982): 30–66. Print.