The amazing poet Terrance Hayes was just on npr, talking about his new book, American Sonnets for my Once and Future Assassin. I heard him read some of these strange, powerful poems in Seattle last year and I’m looking forward to the book. But what’s on my mind now is a phrase he used about how a poet is always trying to activate the space between the lines. I hurried to write that down: activate the space between the lines. The idea is one I think about all the time, but have ne’er so well articulated. I try to point to it when I talk to students about the rhythm of the line, about tautness rather than slackness, about making a poem rather than saying something. What I’m getting at is how those lines create a force field in the spaces between them.
I think these force fields exist in metric poems and free verse, in parts of long poems (you know them when you come to them in Wordsworth’s Prelude, for example) and some whole shorter poems. I think it’s what took the top of Emily Dickinson’s head off. Poems that have this can be translated, but they can’t be paraphrased. I can’t offer a more specific definition, but here are some examples of the electricity I mean, the sparks leaping across the white space.
First, this familiar early 16th century lyric:
O Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!
W. S. Merwin
I have been cruel to a fat pigeon
Because he would not fly
All he wanted was to live like a friendly old man
He had let himself become a wreck filthy and confiding
Wild for his food beating the cat off the garbage
Ignoring his mate perpetually snotty at the beak
Smelling waddling having to be
Carried up the ladder at night content
Fly I said throwing him into the air
But he would drop and run back expecting to be fed
I said it again and again throwing him up
As he got worse
He let himself be picked up every time
Until I found him in the dovecote dead
Of the needless efforts
So that is what I am
Pondering his eyed that could not
Conceive that I was a creature to run from
I who have always believed too much in words
IN THE EVENING
In the evening
I saw them
across the blood water
their invisible company
their invisible company
you beauty I never
did not know
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.
Calm comes from burning.
Tall comes from fast.
Comely doesn’t come from come.
Person comes from mask.
The kin of charity is whore,
the root of charity is dear.
Incentive has its source in song
and winning in the sufferer.
Afford yourself what you can carry out.
A coward and a coda share a word.
We get our ugliness from fear.
We get our danger from the lord.