Lines into Columns cont...
Extract taken from my second book, On Mourning: Theories of Loss in Modern Literature (Edinburgh U.P., 2004) with siginficant modifications.
My work on columns comes, as I have said, from considerations of language and loss:
It is useful to try to think of every poem as consisting of two columns or of two sides. Some of the most important elegiac works of our age have tried to do precisely this. I have already mentioned the double columns of "Litany." This same technique is however used by Jacques Derrida in his prose-poem Glas, still one of the most challenging and confounding works on death we have, where he conducts two separate deconstructive readings of death and mourning, one of Hegel and the other of Gide while Blau duPlessis' "Draft 5: Gap" mixes single columns with double columns. However, because "Litany" is such a remarkable conception we ought to begin there where Ashbery conducts a debate on the spatial duality of the line throughout the poem. In this poem there are two columns, the left hand column is the usual location of the poem within the field of the poem, the right hand column is the interloper and is italicised to emphasise its otherness. A note at the beginning of the poem says: "The two columns of Litany are meant to be read as simultaneous but independent monologues".
First Ashbery registers the reader's own confusion when confronted with two columns: "A shipwreck seen from the shore, / A puzzling column of figures." Then he refers to the issue of symmetry, "Concerns galore / Under both headings, the identical twin numbers." Before ending with the most clear statement to date on the location of death in the right hand margin of every poetic lines:
And so I say unto you: beware the right margin Which is unjustified; the left Is justified and can take care of itself But what is in between expands and flaps The end sometimes past the point Of conscious inquiry, noodling in the near Infinite, off-limits.
Naturally this warning comes in the right margin, which is italicised to differentiate it from the left, and brings to the fore the dual columns of poetic language that, as far as I am aware, has rarely if ever been considered. We find in the elegiac work of Ashbery, Derrida and Blau duPlessis the realisation that on every page of every poem we have two columns not one. On one side is words on the other their absence. Rising up through the middle is the jagged plume of the truncated lines. For every line that is left behind there is the line that has transcended, which cannot be seen or read precisely because it has crossed over to the other side of language.
Perhaps the line does not fall in enjambment, instead maybe it is broken. One half peels off and rises nimbly upward, light and flighty like the ashes of burnt paper. The other half remains on earth. Thus elegy is the epitome of the line that does not lie down and die; the act of expression that chooses not to fall due to its transcendental qualities but also because it keeps the dead alive for the duration of the work. However, at the same time in enshrining eternal spirit in a clear semiotic tension, it continually grounds the spirit in the material world of language. Is this why there are two columns. One is noisy and full of stuff, the other silent and allows for the poem to come to presence. The first column drags the poem down, the second releases it into air.