Giorgio Agamben's Basic Theory
One of the central works on lineation is Giorgio Agamben's essay "The End of the Poem," which puts forward a theory of line tension that he locates as the basic definition of poetry. As I have already mentioned, one of the main issues in the rhythm of the line is the point of its truncation and it is this point, especially at the very end of the poem, which Agamben theorises:
poetry lives only in the tension and difference…between sound and sense, between the semiotic sphere and the semantic sphere…Awareness of the importance of the opposition between metrical segmentation and semantic segmentation has led some scholars to state the thesis (which I share) according to which the possibility of enjambment constitutes the only criterion for distinguishing poetry from prose. For what is enjambment, if not the opposition of the metrical line to a syntactical limit, or a prosodic pause to a semantic pause? "Poetry" will then be the name given to the discourse in which this opposition is, at least virtually, possible; "prose" will be the name for the discourse in which this opposition cannot take place. (Giorgio Agamben, The End of the Poem, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford Cal.: Stanford University Press,1999) 109.
There are numerous problems with this proposition but before we get on to those perhaps we need to clarify what Agamben is actually saying. His portrait of poetry, for example, may not be the likeness that many people have in their minds.
Poetry, first and foremost, is a period of suspension and of imminent collapse. Agamben sets up a dialectic here between the materiality of language, in this instance of poetic language, and the meanings available within that material. However, the synthesis is not some transcendental sphere, synthesising the two realms, as one might find in Romantic poetics, but a much more contemporary conception of deferral, process and event. The breaking of the line, enjambment, is the precondition for poetry, he argues. Let's call it the semiotic event. Until this happens the line is prose as prose is defined by a lack of tension between the semiotic and the semantic. When it happens, then the choosing of a semiotic moment over the semantic progress of the line and of syntax introduces this tension which Agamben calls poetry.
The semiotic event of the poem is, then, the line. The measure of the poem, indeed the meta-measure, is not syllabic organisation into regular patterning per se, this can exist in speech, but in the pauses in those patterns. These breaks not only foreground patterning and regularity, they also demand that the reader/speaker pause at a particular moment in the syntactic progress where a pause may not be needed, semantically. What we can see here is that there are two sorts of pausing, the pause of meaning which follows grammatical, syntactical and communicative norms, and the pause of non-meaning which interrupts these structures.
One more thing to add at this stage is that enjambment is not a break in meaning but a challenge to meaning's dominance. No one goes insane at the end of a couplet; we are just reminded of the materiality of language at the very point where, in pausing, we ought to be reflecting on the content. The line-break allows materiality to usurp meaning at the moment where meaning ought to be vouchsafed.
What happens after that? I will come on to the issue of endings in a couple of days, for now it is enough to note that after the semiotic event, to our relief, we fall back into meaning for the duration of the next line or serial phrase at least. But in the back of our minds is the tension which rises, yeah this line is comfortable, I like being here, but how long will it last...?
You might think then that the longer the line the better but in poetry very long lines are also a source of tension. However, it is safe to say that the more broken up and distributed the line is in the field of the page, the more tense the reader becomes. And if the line measure is one word say then the tension never really goes away. Does this mean meaning is defeated? Does it also mean that if the semiotic predominates that the semantic is lost and the poem gets thrown out at the same time? What of poems that are prose? And finally, is it accurate to reduce poetry to these two traditional terms placed in a rather outmoded dialectical relationship? I will come on to these issues at a later date.