Review of James Longenbach, The Art of the Poetic Line, and Donald Revell, The Art of Attention (Graywolf Press)
As James Longenbach points out in The Art of the Poetic Line, a volume in Graywolf’s series of single-subject books by writers on writing, line is one of poetry’s bedrock traits but also one of its most mysterious. With little familiarity, you can tell the pentameters of Stevens from those of Ashbery or Frost. Yet, outside strict formalism, rationales for lineal integrity—units of breath or concentration, stylized parceling, visual splay—are often more beautiful than true.
Even within traditional prosody, it’s difficult to do more than observe case-by-case triumphs and trip-ups; Longenbach frequently qualifies his conclusions with reminders of this challenge. If you believe, as Longenbach does, that poetic effect comes primarily from forging and torquing patterns, creating topographies of tension and relief, then you need to consider how every line turns on each corner of Pound’s trinity: sound, image, and rhetoric.
The Art of the Poetic Line is most interested in the third category, in the rhetorical rise and run on which readers bob and settle like the bubble in a carpenter’s level. How does lineation administer a poem’s intelligence? How does it give us the sensibility of a poem’s sense?
Longenbach foregrounds this interest by revising our terms—lines do not break, they end. I love this; it posits lines not as frayed edges, blurring one to the next, but units that, in interaction with sentences, change “the way we hear the sentence’s pattern of intonation and stress.” Lines do to sentences what actors do to a script. Lineation, then, continually re-composes content that has been previously set down.
In his opening chapter, while considering lines long and short, formal and free, Longenbach illustrates these rhetorical effects in poems that use steady refrains with varied lineation. Here are three stanza endings from the gorgeously poignant Donald Justice poem “Nostalgia and Complaint of the Grandparents.”
Don’t get around much anymore.
The dead don’t get
Around much anymore.
The dead don’t get around
Longenbach demonstrates how these line endings change because of rhyme. “The consistent pattern of the stanza,” he writes, “works against the variable grain of the sentences” so one reads “as the lineation demands.”
This claim sets up a frequent technique of Longenbach’s book; he likes showing how alternate lineation changes poems, as Justice’s refrain changes his. In the second chapter, Longenbach connects this idea to distinctions that could aid any writing desk or workshop room. Drawing on thoughts from John Hollander and J. V. Cunningham, he details how lines can parse and punctuate sense, emphasizing a poem’s voice, message, and mind. He charts the interplay of these effects—how line endings rough up and soothe a poem’s language and world. Because of it, I heard the included poems by Moore, Williams, and others with crisp, directed interest.
At times, the book has an opening-week-of-classes air that caused me to find more pleasure in the quoted poems than in Longenbach’s analysis of them. Perhaps this is as it should be, a critic’s line of sight not obscuring his subject’s line of flight; this book shows tremendous flights from Louise Glück, Frank Bidart, Richard Howard, and others, including entries from Yeats’ journals that led to poems.
Still, Longenbach’s focus can turn from line to poetic effect much more generally, especially in the final chapter. There, rather than apply his schema of endings to the cadences and consciousness of prose poetry, he quickly suggests that in prose poems “the absence of line would not be interesting if we did not feel the possibility of its presence,” as though that’s the main effect. His consideration of mixed form work by Ashbery and Williams may too easily equate lines with rupture and prose with continuity, making me wish he had included more ideas from his intriguing list of further reading.
Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention, in contrast, is less guided tour than city-in-itself. His critical method is blitz and Berlitz, going headlong through his subject, rather than stepping back to look at it. Once Revell places us in the lively intimacy of his thought, we see that the line of sight is itself a kind of transport. With an interest in light that recalls St. Bonaventure, he focuses on the spirit of perceptive formation that turns sight into vision, verse into Poetry.
His thesis (or better to call it a reverie?), amid many beautiful sentences, is that “it is simply natural that plain attention is a piety and that the unaggressive articulation of attention in poems may be a form of prayer.” This sort of attention, in which the poet accepts the limitations of his personal self in order to receive the world without limits, leads to rapture—humble, reverent, and accepting of the blissful thick of things.
Throughout, Revell’s personal approach is closer to epistle than to diary. In one of the book’s most autobiographical sections, he shows how his development as a poet has consisted of improving his attentiveness, largely through replacing a fretful, received authorial stance with “an authority uninsistent and incandescent, an authority unlikely to be deserted by its circus animals because it never once imagines itself nor wishes to be confined to little rings inside a tent or ever to hold the bullwhip of a ringmaster in his fancy dress.”
This process involves moving through “the oldest pun of all, at least among poets” from “I” to “eye.” The book shows how other poets have done this, drawing on Herbert, Levertov, Ronald Johnson, the Bible, Apollinaire, and others. It shows how translation, “a behavior not a knack,” helps, as a sort of “wake-up call.” It gives readers and writers new heroes: not crafty Odysseus, but reverent Aeneas; not Orpheus with his melodrama, but “spontaneous, gratuitous affirmation” as Pound gives upon seeing a “child / walk in peace in her basilica, / The light there almost solid.”
Like Keats or Frost in their letters, Revell follows his fascination so thoroughly that it becomes technically useful for others. In claiming that his “poetic is neither craft nor method” but his “way of being in the world,” he does not evade practical questions of technique but sets up his intensely felt investigation of them. Here, as in friendship, intimacy makes ideas that could feel fragile, strong.
Particularly toward the end, these ideas include strains of Emersonian mysticism that are intriguing but, compared with much of the book, closer to a lyric mode than to an expository one. If we want clear engagement with the world, how does calling nature blissful differ from calling it cruel? Is the “imperative” of spiritual salvation through poetry at odds with creating the kind of organized language, meaningful to others, that Longenbach focuses on?
Emphatic with abracadabras, however, Revell’s book suggests that these ends are compatible. In order for poetry to be Poetry, it must follow the revolutions of the spirit attentively enough, with the honesty of simple, receptive sight. If it does that, the words will be in line with higher symmetries, an attitude that, like much in the book, recalls Blake.
At least, that take is a partial extraction from Revell’s rich and wide-ranging volume. His book presents a rare sort of writing about writing, in which the needs of inspiration and intelligence merge. After all, in addition to its content, all criticism gives us an orientation toward the world, as doctoral students reading theory or writers inspired by handbooks know. Typically, this orientation happens through a lens, like the useful ones Longenbach offers. For Revell, it occurs through the eye itself.