friday roundup: bidden, notes on line, and a little song

"Abend an der Ostsee" (Evening at the Baltic Sea) by Ernst Oppler

“Abend an der Ostsee” (Evening at the Baltic Sea) by Ernst Oppler, wikimedia

Hello, Reader, and happy Friday.

I’m a little low on words today, but have found a few gems — some new to me, some not — to share.

Let us commence:

bidden In a letter to his mother 1923, William Carlos Williams wrote:

“Art is a curious command. We must do what we are bidden to do and can only go as far as the light permits.”

In my experience, sometimes the light lets us see all around a room, or a good way along the path in front of us. Other times, it barely lets us see our own shoes. This week, I needed this reminder —  that we must do what we are bidden to do. I think it’s good advice for art and life.

(BTW, have you ever wondered how many possible gems future generations of writers will lose out on because most of us no longer write letters? I mean, my own correspondence exists in the world primarily of texts that say things like: “At dr appt will call after” and “I.cannot.possibly.cook.another.dinner.” But maybe the gems will still be stashed somewhere by poets who are thinking worthier thoughts than I.)

notes on line  Line is probably my favorite craft element of poetry because it can do so many different things. This week I went back to Best Words, Best Order to re-read a few things Stephen Dobyns says about line (in section three of his essay “Notes on Free Verse”).

Many times I’ve been in discussions with poets about whether or not line breaks should be “read” — that is, when reading a poem out loud (or in one’s head, for that matter) should one pause where the line breaks, or not? And if yes, for how long? (Full disclosure: I fervently believe that line breaks should be “read.”).

Denise Levertov famously said that a line break is worth “half a comma” — a pause not long enough to think, but “long enough to register something.” No pressure.

Dobyns lightens our load — I mean, how long is half a comma??? — by saying,

“(t)he exact duration is unimportant. It lasts about as long as it takes to move one’s eyes back to the beginning of the next line.”

I feel like I can commit to that.

Here are a few more things Dobyns says line / line breaks can do:

  • create tension
  • resolve tension
  • allow slips of  meaning
  • influence cadence
  • duplicate the process of thought

He says,

“Where the line breaks can never be a matter of accident since the line break is so much a part of both form and content. Indeed, it is often here that the poet’s most personal rhythms are clearest.”

a little song  Last week I started reading Cecilia Woloch‘s new chapbook, EARTH, recently released by Two Sylvias Press. I started reading it, and finished, and started again, and finished again. I keep going back. It’s that good.

This is a lovely book, both object-wise — beautiful cover art, pleasing look and feel — and content-wise. In fierce but lovely language and image, these poems remember loved ones and lost worlds, explore mortality and inheritance, and allow their speaker to claim his/her Self (yes, that’s Self with a capital S). One of my favorite poems from the collection recognizes the reality that one’s Self actually contains a multitude of Selves. Here is:


Oh beloved, oh afraid
of the bloodstain, dark spot, ticking clock
of what has shone in your life like luck —
too bright to last — oh fortunate
who slipped the licked stones, glittering
inside your pockets, spread your arms
and dreamt your ghost wings would unfurl
from your bony shoulders — angel bones
and that the sky would hold you up
and love — a tree from which you swung —
oh branch you called your father’s name
oh bird who sang your mother’s song
oh little sweeper of the world
whose life inside my life has burned.


(!!!”oh little sweeper of the world”!!!)

One of my Selves now must go off and schlepp some groceries for the Feeders of the Wee, Small House. (I think of them as Feeders. As in, “a person or animal that eats a particular food or in a particular manner.” Forgive me.)

I wish you a happy weekend, ample light to see by, a clear bidding from whatever your art might be, and a little song for your one afraid. Thanks for reading.

6 thoughts on “friday roundup: bidden, notes on line, and a little song

  1. Thanks for so much more to think about, as always. In terms of line breaks (which I keep insisting is one word and which all dictionaries keep insisting is not), like most poetics, I’ve learned more by trying to teach the concept than in any other way. In my beginning creative writing classes, most of my students have never be taught how to read a poem, so they rush through it, much as they rush through paragraphs of prose, desperate to be “finished.” I, then, do overly dramatic readings of poems emphasizing end-stopped lines and using body movements to indicate the “falling feeling” of an enjambed line.

    Also, if one doesn’t “read” the line break, then why the bleepity bleep do poets spend so much time thinking about them?

    • Sandy, YES! I keep insisting linebreak is one word, too! (oh, look — spell check is underlining my word in red). I love hearing about how to teach line to your students and your description of an enjambed line giving us a “falling feeling.” Yes, exactly.

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