I was having dinner a few weeks ago with a friend who is highly accomplished, a true polymath, and one of most inquisitive and open people I know. I don't remember how we got there, but at a certain point he asked me, "What is poetry?" just like that. I think I said something like, "Poetry is whatever a given community of poetry readers agrees it is," which may be true, but wasn't very satisfying to either of us. It became evident that he was talking about the kind of poetry that has no regular meter or rhyme scheme, and may not feel so different from prose chopped up with line breaks — in other words, free verse, the dominant way of working for contemporary poets, at least in this country. I told him something that I'd heard the poet Galway Kinnell
say about free verse, that it does all the same things formal verse does, just not in a predictable pattern. That is, it intensifies the physical properties of words — their acoustical (rhyme, assonance, alliteration, etc.) and their visual properties (how the poem looks on the page) — and, hopefully, is compressed in the way that it makes meaning.
We agreed that without concrete examples, this was a harder discussion than it needed to be. So when I got home that night I emailed him one of my favorite poems by a living author, Anne Carson's "First Chaldaic Oracle," from her book Men in the Off Hours:
There is something you should know.
And the right way to know it
is by a cherrying of your mind.
Because if you press your mind towards it
and try to know
as you know a thing,
you will not know it.
It comes out of red
with kills on both sides,
it is scrap, it is nightly,
it kings your mind.
No. Scorch is not the way
that thing you must know.
But use the hum
of your wound
and flamepit out everything
right to the edge
of that thing you should know.
The way to know it
is not by staring hard.
But keep chiselled
keep Praguing the eye
of your soul and reach—
towards that thing you should know
until you get it.
That thing you should know.
Because it is out there (orchid) outside your and, it is.
My friend wrote back and said, "Here's a dumb experiment":
There is something you should know. And the right way to know it is by a cherrying of your mind. Because if you press your mind towards it, and try to know that thing as you know a thing, you will not know it. It comes out red, with kills on both sides, it is scrap, it is nightly, it kings your mind. No. Scorch is not the way to know that thing you must know.
But use the hum of your wound, and flamepit out everything right to the edge of that thing you should know. The way to know it is not staring hard. But keep chiselled, keep Praguing the eye of your soul, and reach — mind empty — towards that thing you should know until you get it. That thing you should know. Because it is out there (orchid) outside your and, it is."
"How much is gained by breaking it up into lines?"
Well, that freaked me out. I knew the poem didn't feel at all the same to me in prose form, but why? I read it again, for about the 50th time in my life — good poems are like good songs, they are perpetual energy machines that keep on giving no matter how many times you take them in. What occurred to me first is that slowness is gained by breaking it up into lines, so I asked my friend, who is a brilliant composer, what is gained by playing Bach's Goldberg Variation number 25 slowly rather than quickly. And then I proposed my own dumb experiment, though I didn't think his dumb at all: hold an index card over Carson's poem, and, beginning with the title, move the card down one line at a time, slowly, and feel what the experience of each line is like, and the flow of energy and meaning from one line to the next.
So now I'm going to re-enact my dumb experiment, and put an index card over all but the title of the poem. "First Chaldaic Oracle." When I first read this poem I knew vaguely that "Chaldaic" was somehow biblical, and that an oracle was someone through whom a god spoke, perhaps in a way that was encoded or mysterious. So the title creates the anticipation of a godly communication. I move my index card down and see "There is something you should know." Now I'm being addressed directly, with the implicit promise that I'm going to be told, by a god, through a human, something I should know. What should I know? More anticipation. I move my index card down. "And the right way to know it" — all right so maybe I'm not going to be told by this god what I should know but how I should know, and in any case it is becoming clear to me that this oracular speech is taking the form of instructions. And in that second line the poem is creating more anticipation, this time not just semantic but also grammatical — the line break interrupts the sentence before the predicate arrives. And if sentences may be thought of as miniature knowledge delivery systems, Carson is putting this one on pause before letting it complete its delivery. In poetry this is called enjambment: breaking a line in the middle of a phrase. I move the card down. "Is by a cherrying of your mind." "Cherrying" is an example of what's known as anthimeria, using one part of speech (a noun) as another (a verb). (Shakespeare liked to use anthimeria, as when Cleopatra says to a messenger she's really mad at, "I'll unhair thy head.") So Carson's poem is telling me that usual rules — of grammar, and, by extension, of knowing — must be stretched a bit, in order for me to know this thing I should know. And, for me anyway, "a cherrying of your mind" creates a weird little visual image in, well, my mind. Do I understand it? Not in the usual way I understand a thing, but let's see what happens when I move the index card down again. Nothing. I am confronted with a little bit of nothing, a little blank space, a pause I can use to contemplate what it might mean to cherry my mind.
Well, I'll stop the experiment there, but I see the way that this poem's line breaks slow down the reading as enabling at least two things: suspense and contemplation, both of which are relevant to a poem that is delivering Truth but in mysterious or coded form. Not every free verse poem is so elegantly constructed, and not every one gives you such distinct implied instructions about how to read it, but here I feel the line breaks and stanza breaks are indispensable to the meaning and effect of the poem, and it occurs to me that one of the kinds of knowledge for which you may need to cherry your mind is the knowledge of poetry.
In general, I would say that line breaks in free verse poems tell you, if nothing else, This is a poem. Treat these words differently than you would treat words that come in paragraph form. Slow down. Take time to appreciate not just the message being delivered but the package the message is coming in, though of course the two — message and package — aren't really separable. As the poet William Matthews said in his book Curiosities, "form and content want to be each other." (He said the same about fun and pain, by the way.)
One more thing about my experience of this poem: There was a fairly long period of time recently when I had to flamepit out everything, and I can attest without exaggeration that it was scrap, and nightly, and though I really wasn't expecting it to do so, it did eventually king my mind a bit, and still does, occasionally.