Line Measure: Historical Precedents
Up until the twentieth century, with some notable exceptions, the dominant unit of measure and rhythm in poetry was the syllable. This is not so say that other elements of the poem could not also take measure or produce rhythm, but that syllabic effects were foregrounded to such a degree that the visual field of the poem or the distribution of the lexicon, to give two examples of areas that can have definite rhythmical patterns, tended not to be seen or heard.
Syllabic measure relegates the line to a container of syllables so that once the poet has determined, say, to go with four stressed syllables the line must exist merely to accommodate this, probably in a tetrameter of some sort and the patterning of the lines themselves exists merely as an accidental by-product of this. Similarly, stanzaic patterns, which can be visually arresting such as in Keats' odes or Byron's terza rima, dictate the number and distribution of the lines so that any rhythmical effects are either accidental or, to a degree, just icing on the syllabic cake. While these lines can have a visual rhythm to them, and they are fundamental to the metrical patterning of the poem, they are not, on the whole, a direct decision on the part of the poet to produce an effect. Then came Wordsworth, Whitman, and Mallarmé...
Wordsworth's lineation in his conversation poems and The prelude remind me somewhat of the late works of Turner or Monet. They didn't intend to fall into abstraction they just pushed the limits of representation to a point where abstraction occurred. In the same way I am sure Wordsworth did not want to destroy blank verse but the extremities of his run-on lines, over-leaping the semantic purpose of the line-break, indeed of iambic pentametre in general, so as to fit his ideas into the poem field mean that blank verse comes to look pointless. His subject matter, the soul or effects of memory, is larger than one or two lines and too diffuse to fit neatly into units of 10, 20, 30 and so on.
Whitman, of course, chose as his subject matter in Leaves of Grass a vast nation and the sheer breadth of his lines reflect this. Heis, as far as I am aware, the first English language poet to abandon syllabic measure in favour of line-measure. America is big, democracy is big, the human spirit is big, the breath of the seer is big, and therefore the poem line must be big also. In some ways Whitman is less radical than Wordsworth in that the semantic and semiotic always coincide, by which we mean each line lasts as long as the idea so that the breaking of the line supports rather than challenges the semantic aims. Yet in abandoning syllabic-measure he allowed us to see and hear the line as a line thus opened up a whole new field of poetry for the century to follow.
The final 19thc poet to mention in this regard is, of course, Mallarmé. His masterwork, Un Coup de Dés presents us with a rhythmical interchange of lines that still seems fresh today. He practically wrote the book on line-measure. I am looking at the poem now, I never tire of looking at it. It is beautiful and exciting. I would like it on my wall. I would rather look it than many works by Mondrian or Kandinsky. It exploits the effects of the distribution of lines in space that are the essence of twentieth century art. Put it next to a Pollock and you begin to get the idea. Who cares if it is in French or English? I don't want to read it; I want to gaze at it.
In addition to fully revealing the rhymicality of interactions between serial strings of words and the space around them, the poem also shows what the breaking of a line does, what columns do, what typefaces do. In that work you understand the vertical field of moving from line to line, the horizontal field of moving from word to word, and the diagonal interchange of the two. Sometimes the poem moochs moodily at the left margin, other times it leaps to the right margin, then it undermines the idea of frames altogether finding internal margins that, visually, enact Derridean deconstructive ideas of margin and centre. A fact, I am sure, not lost on Derrida.
If one puts together these three poets one begins to understand the potential, the importance and also the challenge of line-measure. I will summarise some of these below in note form: -The tension between the semantic and the semiotic, the content of the poem and its distribution across breath, space and time, need not be resolved -When the idea overwhelms the line, the line can either run along with the idea or it can fight back with line-breaks -The look of the poem is now central to the rhythm of the poem, people see many more poems than they hear or read -The visual field of the poem is determined by the dimensions of the page just as in a painting, a photo or a film -All the dimensions of the page can be exploited in linear distributions in the midst of space for a wide variety of effects -The beginning, middle and end of a line are all important, as is the location of their occurrence -Yet the line also oversteps the page. The page is to the poem as the sentence is, in linguistics, to the phrase, an artificial and non-essential imposition which is, nevertheless, fascinating -Lines can be longer than the limits of the page vertically but not really horizontally -A line break occurs at the end of the line but not only there, they also break at the beginning and the middle sometimes -Space is as much part of the semiotic fabric of the poem as words and marks are, and this can produce definite, if limited, semantic effects.