Sunday, January 17, 2010

Nick Thran: The Length of the Line

Talk turned quickly to Larry Levis during a recent post-lecture Q&A with poet Philip Levine, who, in one of his many, many functions, was Levis' early teacher and lifelong friend. Levis, who passed at the age of 50, had, with his final three books (Winter Stars, The Widening Spell of the Leaves and the posthumous Elegy), pushed his sweeping, narrative line about as far as it is possible to go. I’ve often wondered if he would have tried to push it further. I asked Levine his thoughts on the subject. He answered, “Well, leading up to his death, Larry had been writing a lot more prose.”

Levis’ line evolved from Whitman’s line, of course. There’s something undeniably North American about it, its yearning for open spaces, its appetites and excesses. It may not be too far a stretch to think of a turn back to a more compact, economical line running parallel, in some instances, to wider social concerns regarding the exhaustion and mishandling of our environmental and economic resources. In Jorie Graham’s Sea Change, we see an attempt to meld the sprawl of Whitman with a line right out of Emily Dickinson or William Carlos Williams. It’s an interesting form. Like a hybridized Escalade (well, not really like a hybridized Escalade), it seemed too calculated in its desire to have the best of both worlds. The same sort of thing is done a little more fluidly in Michael Dickman’s The End of the West. The wide readership of both these collections seems to confirm an interest in this sort of negotiation. If exhausting the white space at the end of the margin can seem a part of many contemporary North American poets' make-up, so too, at this juncture, can the equally urgent desire to rein that line in.

Lately I find myself begrudgingly turning a Canadian collection or journal ninety degrees—the horizontal, left-to-right format no longer sufficiently containing a number of poets’ sprawling lines. Many of these poems, like Ross Leckie’s recent group Wetlands of Pure Reason (published in The Malahat Review) show, in spite of their sprawl, a remarkable amount of control. They’re terrific. It’s the book format itself that seems to fail them. Too me there’s something centre-fold-like about the experience of reading that way. You’ve read the poems in that tired old magazine format, okay, now, ninety-degree turn: check out this!

I’ll take that minor frustration for a terrific poem. But I can’t help feeling I'd rather read these sweeping lines printed on a railing somewhere. Lines that you physically have to walk to the end of, that you have to move more than your eyes to keep up with. Perhaps one day soon we’ll read one of those city-funded “Poetry on the Way” poems with lines that run the whole length of the subway car. I just hope, in the spirit of preservation, that more and more people are taking that train.
Nick Thran is the author of one poetry collection, Every Inadequate Name (Insomniac Press, 2006). A second collection, Earworm, will appear in 2011 with Nightwood Editions. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.


Lemon Hound said...

Great post, Nick. Thinking too of Ginsberg's desire to include everything. That may be partly what is at work. Though I don't know, doesn't Mark Strand also do the long line? It's been a while...I bring this up because I'm not entirely sure that a long line necessarily is you point out with Graham. Though yes, I think scale is one of the essential problems of our time.

Nick said...

Hi Sina,

Inclusiveness is definitely a big part of it. That said, trying to include the history, function, and varied employment of the long line in contemporary North American poetry in a five-hundred word blog post may (to keep with these terrible car metaphors) be a bit like trying to fit an elephant into a smart car. I don't mean to dismiss all of the other things a book like Sea Change, which I enjoyed very much, is; merely to bring it up as a collection that openly deals with the question of scale vis a vis, on one level, the physical length line. Graham's lines are at this point Grahamanic, to be sure. Cadence, content--all of these other things play a role. Reading the book, I personally thought the flip to the compact wasn't always justified in terms of the sweep of the poems themselves. But I certainly applaud it for taking on this issue of scale, its implications, among so many other things.

Chris Banks said...

Nice to see you talking about Larry Levis here Nick. He was an immense talent and a huge influence on my writing. If you do not have the academy of american poets CD recording of Levis, get it!

His poetry collection The Widening Spell of the Leaves is my desert island top pick if I was to live the rest of the my life with only one book of poetry to read. Hayden Carruth's collected shorter poems coming a close second.

C.K. Williams is also a master of the sweeping grandiose long line. I'm thinking of his collection Flesh and Blood.

gary barwin said...

Interesting post. Thanks. I wonder how the short lines/breath of a form such as haiku reflect a relationship between viewer and viewed, between person and the world. Haiku would be so different if it had Whitmanesque lines.

Of course, this reminds me that of when I went shopping recently. The problem with the Walt Whitman Mall (
though it contains multitudes, is the long lines...

Lemon Hound said...

Have you heard Graham read? I think the book changes tremendously after you have heard her use the length of the lines...

Lemon Hound said...

And as you know, I loved Leckie's poems.

Nick said...

The Selected Levis might be a desert island pick for me too, Chris.

Gary, I'm disappointed to see The Walt Whitman Mall (registered trademark) has a mere 100 retailers. Multitudes, people. Multitudes!

And Sina, I'll have to track down a reading from Sea Change. The voice does have a way of splashing water on the page/eyes/brain.

Thanks for the comments.

Lemon Hound said...

Yes, Chris, I was thinking of CK Williams, not Strand. Again, hearing Williams' changed how I read him.

Going back to Graham now Nick I see the notion of the escalade. The wide readership might signal a desire for unity more than the negotiation of the long line, though Graham's text is not an easy one in terms of content. Haven't read Dickman's yet, but from what I have read the content is on the lighter side--see the avant lyric discussion back in December.

MR said...

"Passed." You mean "died"?