Saturday, August 20, 2005

Thinking about Walt Whitman and really long lines of verse

I'm working on a poem with long lines and looking at the techniques Whitman used to give them music and structure. He used neither rhyme nor meter to make them work. In the first edition of Leaves of Grass the pages were wide enough to accommodate them. In later editions, designed to fit into a pocket for portability, Whitman changed the page size but not the line breaks.

Long lines give an expansive, rambling feeling that can be dangerous. If it truly sounds rambling, the reader loses interest in wading through all those words. By contrast, look at Whitman's first version of "Song of Myself" published in the first edition (1855) of Leaves:
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooks you round the waist,
My right hand points to landscapes of continents, and a plain public road.
The lines lead off short before launching into a long one. And the dialogue format -- the direct address to the reader -- provides an irresisible element of interest. We all sit up straighter when we're the subject of the conversation. Whitman was clever to bring the reader into his poems in the intimate address he uses, almost of a lover wooing.

But what can you do to make a long line irresistibly poetic if you don't want to woo the reader so obviously? I notice another trick in these and many other Whitman lines: the juxtaposition of the small, intimate details with a vast landscape. He was a master of the "pull-back shot." He was cinematic before cinema was invented.

His other big device is repetition. In the lines above, the repetition is simple: "you" and "I." In other poems, a whole clause or sentence is repeated in a list poem.

This gives me the idea that the way to make long lines really work well is to find sonic devices that bring them back to lyric poetry's beginnings. I'm thinking assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, slant rhyme, repetends. Perhaps even meter, though I find a line doesn't hold well beyond pentameter.

Your thoughts?


  1. Using the lines you quoted, Rachel, I note strong visuals. The mind's eye never really rests, and so what general language and abstraction he uses don't confound the lines.

    Consider --

    I loafe and invite my soul.
    I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

    Loafing is something a reader can imagine. This gives balance to the abstraction of "soul." Then, in the next line, there is the strong alliteration ("lean and loafe,") and the repetition of "loafe."

    Next, Whitman deploys a single blade of grass, not a lawn, not a grassy meadow. No, a single unit. The visualization is as sharp as that blade.


  2. Fred, I love the idea of the highly specific juxtaposed against the intangible. Neat trick! I'm going to try it. Pattiann Rogers does this too, especially in her new book, Generations. The idea of the eye never resting is interesting. What do you think accounts for that?

  3. hi Rachel,

    Did you receive my email about reading with Poetry & Pizza?


  4. Glenn --

    Look for an email from me. Thanks!

  5. Anonymous12:12 PM


    By Rachel Mallino, Re: Privacy at Alsop Review
    Mr Conway, you should be ashamed of yourself. You’ve taken something which could have been a healthy debate and turned it into shit tossing, something our ancestors did billions of years ago during the planet of the apes. I thought someone of your stature, college professor and author of several books, would have evolved beyond such low standards of communication.
    Double shame on you for stealing a thread posted on a separate forum, a forum people join using their real names with the understanding that those threads do not pull up on search engines, without the knowledge of those who participated. You are no better than the people at whom you sling shit.
    Rachel Mallino

    {{{You ought to inform your posters of the Whois address for (not the College Professor or the Senator) and the reason that so many trolls can post from so many different locations, Canada/New York being the current flavours.}}}

  6. Anonymous --

    I'm really not interested in these posts from Foetry. I also don't approve of people who post under pseudonyms. I highly support the Gazebo's policy on this, but the aka shenanigans and false names some people may be giving to register at the Gaz will have to be ferreted out by someone else. I don't even like ferrets (faces too long).

    So share with me about poetry and rockets and writing, but no more Foetry, okay?


  7. Rachel,

    I don't know if this helps, but I learned something about how the eye scans text during my master's study in literacy. The eye takes in chunks of words, not single words ar a time, so success in long lines needs, in my opinion, to take this into account. Proficient readers see three or four words at a time, so they are 'aware' of words before they actually get to them. I would go so far s to say there is something to the visual aesthetic which triggers pleasure in reading, though imagery and sonic far outweigh any possible effect visuals might have with poetry.


  8. Justin, that's fascinating. I read a book about memory by a neurologist/researcher that talked about how you memorize. One of the techniques was called "chunking," which was to grab information in 3-4 digits or letters. This is why, the researcher wrote, they put social security number and telephone numbers in 3 and 4 digit sections. That's how we remember. No double it's linked to how we read.

    Perhaps it makes the idea of long lines more manageable if you can "chunk" them into phrases. Just thinking aloud here.

    I've also been reading Whitman again this weekend and noticing how often he interpolated really short lines in amongst the humongous ones.

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