Grace Notes — Singing the Poetic Line

Posted on February 15, 2012


Each line a poem, each line reaching out beyond its line break into an uncertain endlessness – and so each line earning that sort of honor. Or not. In a sense, this installment is more impressionistic than specific. But its intentions nevertheless have to do with very specific qualities of attention and regard, somehow achieved despite the difficulty most of us have in holding off distractions and failures of nerve. We get the competing gravities.

For now I’m less interested in how-to’s and exercises. Instead, let’s explore — by looking and listening closely — how rhythmic impulses inform the line, and how the well-informed line stands alone. A thing developed out of close regard becomes a thing worthy of close regard. So, then, this is to encourage a certain way of thinking about the line: how it begins, where it goes, how it gets there.

The Line: Broken and Unbroken

As poets we tend to give so much thought to the line break, but far too little (or so it seems to me) to what happens to the line after the break. No, I don’t mean to imply that we don’t think about the next line – of course we do. But that’s something else. That’s a new line (a new poem) with intentions of its own and its own immortality to earn.

So, not that. Rather, I mean to ask, what happens to that very line after the line break, the line we left behind? Where is it heading? What sort of hooks and feathers does it cast into the waters of the universe? What pulse does it suggest before the next line accepts or borrows, inherits or improvises upon that pulse? And to ask these questions about what happens to the line once “ended” we need to pay even closer attention to how the line is brought into being. Because it’s here, at the beginning of the line, where we are more apt to fail at giving the line’s pulse the kind of bounce it needs in order to make something of itself. So, before we can think about line breaks, we have to think about line starts. The felt impulse that launches the line into existence.

Here, for example, is a poem that pays brilliant attention to the life of each line, which is to say, its life and its afterlife. It’s by Angela Shaw, a poet, a prodigy, who pays attention, who takes risks and whose attention and loosened reins are fully repaid.


is all laze and boudoir. She reclines, wigless
and half-naked in the haze of her private
rooms, chain smoking, deflowering éclair
with furtive tongue, bemoaning the pinch
of her little miss shoes. She is more freckled
than is suspected, less young, and when the mouth
of her silk robe unfolds, it confesses
her dimpled skin, the lap of rich thigh
on rich thigh. She jiggles her clinky
bottles, sips at her tinctures, weeping
easily over this hidden toilette: burnt
curl, slipped hem, the short, huffy cough
of powder puff. Her muttered curses are coarse
as grosgrain as she totters in corset
and stockings, rehearsing protocol, her self-
mocking curtsy. But she clears like water and later
will deny you saw her or knew her as she
litters with lipstick imprints spring’s cotillion.

 From: The Beginning of the Fields (Tupelo Press, 2009)

So often the impulse that begins the line constitutes, alas, a gesture of exposition, of scene setting or explanation, of syntactical orientation where the language comes to attention, lets us feel secure, cared for, protected, saluted, understood. These are fine ways to wake up the troops and give the orders of the day. But these habits make for a fairly plodding sort of poetry. It’s hard to make a line sing and sway while it’s standing at attention, even if halfway through the line, things loosen up a bit.

For example: about a week ago I sat in on a master class given by Fred Hersch, the extraordinary jazz pianist who, after listening to a student trio plod its way through several choruses of a jazz standard, asked the musicians (who were beginning each phrase squarely on the beginning of the measure) to try beginning every solo – every new line of improvisation – on the upbeat – that moment that happens just before the downbeat, the “true” start of a musical phrase. The quick “ta” in “ta-dah!” (If you’re old enough, think of Lawrence Welk with his: “a-one an’ a-two.” Those little “a’s” are the upbeat.)

If played even more quickly than a measured upbeat (sing the “ta” in “ta-dah” as quickly as you can), then that mini-note becomes what musicians call a “grace note” – a musical note – more of an impulse — that’s added as an embellishment and not even counted in the rhythm.

Here’s Fred Hersch and guitarist Bill Frisell playing “Wave” by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Notice how often we’re on the upbeat. Notice how often each musician uses grace notes (and “ghost notes” – but we’ll save that for another day) to propel his improvisations.

That night, after the master class, Hersch gave a solo concert of such aching beauty and brave intelligence that I still can’t sleep. We were all of us blown away – exhausted, exhilarated — by what we’d just heard, as if a journey through a possible, heretofore unimagined and unimaginable world in which the soul might not leave the body after all, “but lingers with it through every degrading state of decomposition and neglect,” (John Cheever, “The Death of Justina”) and resembling nothing so much as Cheever’s own flickering back and forth between a yearning for light and the lure (alcoholic, carnal) of darkness. Hersch’s lines, like the work of W. G. Sebald or the solo improvisations of Keith Jarrett, sound as if they have always had a posthumous quality to them. Hersch has, moreover, that uncanny knack of making his hands (his ARMS, his whole body) somehow contain both the light and the threatening weather that surrounds them.

In music, as in the poem, a gesture is implied by a voice, a state of mind by a gesture. Or as Fred Hersch said to students at his master class: “There’s the line, and then there’s the feel of the line.” Hersch feels his lines. He plays as if his house, the entire street in fact, had been plunged into total darkness and everything luminous happens and every devil dared where his hands meet the keys, and that phrase continues to happen after he’s lifted them away. I don’t mean just the echo, but also the very idea of the phrase.

We’ve all heard that the human animal alone is capable of fearing its own death. But what treads perhaps more lightly than the burden of too much life is that the fear of life and the fear of death are intertwined. This is Freud, of course: his existential formulations. We are reluctant to move out into the overwhelmingness of our world, the real dangers of it, where things spin out of control (the center doesn’t hold). As animal organisms we sense the kind of planet we’ve been put down on, chaotic, menacing, changeable. So one of the first things a child has to do is to learn to “abandon ecstasy” – to do without awe, to leave fear and trembling behind. Is it any wonder that when Hersch spreads his arms wide as the planet’s orbit, almost childlike, we feel him daring everything the adult has come to know. Hersch risks everything in every line (every group of measures) – yet not once do we feel that it’s a performance he’s giving us, his listeners. He’s not taking those risks for us. He’s doing it (if  “for” anybody then) for himself, or rather, as if by honoring the integrity of the line — of every line — he might make this life survivable.

In a review of a performance that Hersch gave a few days later at the Village Vanguard in NYC (with a trio, in this incarnation – John Hébert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums) the NY Times reviewer Nate Chinen intoned: “At one point, simultaneously poking around the piano’s lowest and highest registers, he had his arms outstretched as if to welcome an embrace.” Well, I saw him do the same thing a few nights earlier, but it was no mere embrace I saw, nor any mere welcoming. It was instead an opening of his own heart while simultaneously flinging himself into the, well, whatever.

What he was doing, in the poetic sense, was extending the line. Using all that horizontal white space to let himself hear the entire line in motion, to explore its possibilities front-to-back and back-to-front, as a way of bringing back into focus the work of all the shorter lines. It was rather like the recurrence of each instance of end-word in the last quatrain of a villanelle, the poet knowing that the risks have been taken, airing them out, letting them ring:

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) a disaster.

I’m thinking here, even while Fred Hersch and Elizabeth Bishop hang in cumulonimbus, about an esoteric book (esoteric even to a poet): Art Flick’s New Streamside Guide to Naturals and Their Imitations (The Lyons Press, Guilford, CT 1983). Yes, a book about fishing (and fly tying). Yes, by some guy named Art Flick. Why? Well, his prose is rectilinear, blocky, without much grace. Rather earthbound:

“It is the first May fly of consequence to emerge, coming rather early in the season, often appearing when the air is so cold that few of the flies are able to leave the water, being numb and unable to fly.” (p. 35) But his prose manages to take flight, to alchemize itself into poetry, when he creates his list poems: the short lines that declaim the necessary ingredients for each fly.

Take for good example:

“The dressing for Quill Gordon”

Wings – flank feather of mandarin or wood duck

Body – quill from peacock eye, light

Hackle – natural blue dun, medium

Tail – few wisps blue dun barb or spade hackle

Hook – No. 12 or 14

Or this,

“The dressing for the Light Cahill”

Wings – flank feather of mandarin or wood-

            duck drake

Body – light belly fur of red fox

Hackle – very light ginger cock

Tail – ginger cock’s barbs

Hook – No. 12 or 14

Silk – yellow

Genius happens inside these lines, each one entirely of a piece with something wholly musical going on, the glorious sounds of the language, formerly merely English, and — within it — brilliant, beautiful, dashing, while the writing turns spare to the point of becoming elliptical, and the markers of syntax almost disappear beneath the waterline, the “poem” floating just above in its belly fur and ginger cock and flank feather of mandarin. Like an adobe church, we see that the fly is shaped entirely from human intention, earthly habitat of mammals and the avian sky clear through to the world of fish.

Here’s an excerpt from Schubert’s Trout Quintet, complete with trout. See if you can hear how each phrase (line) of the melody begins with an upbeat even as it’s traded from instrument to instrument. See if you can hear how the surface of the melody carries with it a pretense of opacity and simplicity. See if you can see into the deep water beneath the melody.

Charles Rosen, in his masterful The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven (winner of the 1972 National Book Award for Arts and Letters), discussing Haydn writes: “Sophisticated simplicity of surface is typical of most seventeenth- and eighteenth-century pastorals, as well as a pretense of opacity, a claim that the surface was everything—with the understanding that if the claim were granted, the whole traditional structure would collapse.” W.W. Norton 1972 (p. 162)

Do you hear the upbeats in those lines? “Wings – flank feather,” “Body – light belly.” He’s giving direction, and yet there are no directions. No explanatory throat-clearing. Not even a verb. But you hear the love in the language and the language as it lives in each peacock quill or spade hackle. Whatever that is. Whatever, each line is thing loved and another thing loved, and each line is so thoroughly compelling we hardly need (or want) to move on to the next. It sings and we wonder with it and over it.

Here’s another prodigy: Dan Beachy-Quick, whose language is music:


This wind also alters, also utters,
This cloud of gnats gathering in translucent
Bodies the sun, almost mine, this morning’s
Thoughts, feeding on the light that fills them,
A prism with a wing, this wind that breathes
The germ into the tree also blows the seed,
Also breaks the limb, also blasts from stem the leaf
That bodied the breeze into song, that song
Almost mine, verging on destruction, my mind
That assembles in the sunlit gnats and altar
That also darkens, this song, also disrupts, this wind
Divorcing itself of current: then stillness
Deeper than no motion, where clouds plummet
Into pillars that hold up or open the sky,
And the grass is this audacity, standing up.

From: Circle’s Apprentice (Tupelo Press, 2011)

Even though Dan Beachy-Quick hardly relinquishes syntax, and even though he’s even less given to the enjambment so enjoyed by (and enjoyable in) Angela Shaw’s “April,” there’s such propulsion in his gorgeous language – created by that masterful interplay of sound and silence – that I’m reminded of an especially wonderful moment in John Cage’s book, Empty Words: Writings ’73-’78 (Wesleyan University Press, 1979):

Due to Norman O. Brown’s remark that syntax is the arrangement of the army, and Thoreau’s that when he heard a sentence he heard feet marching, I became devoted to nonsyntactical “demilitarized” language. I spent well over a year writing Empty Words, a transition from a language without sentences (having only phrases, words, syllables, and letters) to a “language” having only letters and silence (music).

Cage felt that syntax functions like a sort of language drill inspector — and as an anarchist, he wasn’t much interested in regimented order and restraint. Of course, I’m not advocating that we let the troops fall out entirely. They look good in their uniforms, even when slouching. But I am loving very much the wider privileges of silence in combination with sounds, as that’s where music happens, and when music happens, even stripped down to its skivvies, the line has a fighting chance, from upbeat to echo.

Posted in: Poetry