Between the Lines

June 21, 2018

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


Jean Valentine

In the evening
I saw them

their little
open boats

carrying us
across the blood water

their invisible company
their invisible company

you beauty I never
did not know

no time
no place

you beauty
little ferryman


Heather McHugh

‘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.

Share the word

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  • Reply ChrisD June 21, 2018 at 3:18 am

    I just found this blog last week and signed up for the emails. What interesting timing that turned out to be. I took a couple classes from you at Ohio University around 2000. The year before, I had been at Columbus State Community College, where my favorite teacher was Terrance Hayes. I went to see him read a few Monday nights at a bar called Larry’s. And I excitedly bought his first book, Muscular Music, when it came out that year. I still have a copy with a nice inscription, as well as one of his earlier chapbooks.

    But what seeing his name on your blog made me think of instantly was one of my most embarrassing moments in college. At some point, you asked us each to bring in one of our favorite poems to share with the class. I chose Terrance’s “Noir: Orpheus.” It was only once I was reading it to the class out loud that I realized I’d never done that before. I’d never read it out loud. And I had no idea how to pronounce Eurydice. Needless to say, I butchered it and felt like a fool. And I still think about that sometimes. If I’m being honest, I don’t even think I understood all of the piece. But I was so drawn to a few lines that I really didn’t care. I still remember them verbatim. And I’m not the type of person that can just quote things.

    Love should be a tow truck-
    What rescues our stalled, abandoned hearts;
    What leads us back to repair.
    Love should save us,
    But it won’t.

    Anyway, I’m glad you are still at it and seemingly well. I’m glad I decided to look you up and found this blog. And I look forward to reading more. Thanks.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet June 21, 2018 at 8:59 pm

      Hi Chris. I’m so glad you saw this and posted. The lines you quote here are exactly what I mean. You were lucky to have him as a teacher–he blows my mind every time I read him or hear him. Thanks for this.

  • Reply Natasha Saje June 21, 2018 at 8:29 am

    Thank you, Sharon, for this post…I’m getting to leave for VCFA and was thinking about how to articulate “activate the space between the lines”–the Hayes quote is perfect.

  • Reply Robbie Gamble June 21, 2018 at 9:49 am


    Forrest Gander

    And came home with beggar ticks in his pubis
    And the light syrup stink of urine on his jeans,
    Godawful b.o., sat down on the bed unlaced his redwings
    And lay back on the brown blood stains in the unmade
    Sheets and the ferruginous odor of her period, saying
    Holy holy holy, I do not feel kindly
    To the copperhead in the copple-stones and the brown
    Recluse making its nest in my underwear,
    I hate poison sumac poison ivy poison huckleberry.
    The ganglia of blackened liana
    And the bowers of meshed kudzu trouble my step.
    From spraddle-legged dumps, the fissure blooming between my cheeks,
    I said the degenerate itching of my locust-leaf-wiped butthole
    Only increaseth among company. I have pointed my sweatblind face
    Through tents of webworms, I have lava-soaped striped leeches
    From bruised ankles, I have brushed the hair
    Of outrageous arachnids and their eggsacks burst and crawled
    Every slake and chine of my sopranic skin.
    Placed my unwitting palm on dead things nailed to fenceposts,
    Imagined bodies and parts of bodies in the footsucking weedlots,
    Startled at the crack of limbs in wheezing copses,
    And I have grown strange.
    But thou oh moon backsliding coolly from blue slips of cloud
    Over bare semi-dark autumn fields where the stars smoke dimly for anyone,
    Restoreth my peace.

    For me, there is just so much visceral electricity coursing through these lines. And then the release.

  • Reply Bob Lind June 21, 2018 at 11:03 am

    I love this topic, Sharon. So many times I’ll read a poem or hear a lyric and think, why am I so moved by this? I look at the lines and there’s not enough there to touch me so deeply. Then I realize that the words on the page have a trapdoor beneath them that seems to open of it’s own accord, allowing me to fall through and into the real depth of what’s being said. Restraint is a big part of it — the poet knowing not to hit me over the head, trusting that the emotional flesh will be there on those word-bones. This is one of my favorite examples of what I think we’re talking about here:

    225 days under grass
    and you know more than I.
    they have long taken your blood,
    you are a dry stick in a basket.
    is this how it works?
    in this room
    the hours of love
    still make shadows.

    when you left
    you took almost
    I kneel in the nights
    before tigers
    that will not let me be.

    what you were
    will not happen again.
    the tigers have found me
    and I do not care.
    Charles Bukowski

  • Reply eileen cleary June 21, 2018 at 6:15 pm

    THE ONLY ANIMAL by Franz Wright

    The only animal that commits suicide
    went for a walk in the park,
    basked on a hard bench
    in the first star,
    traveled to the edge of space
    in an armchair
    while company quietly
    talked and abruptly
    the room empty.

    The only animal that cries
    that takes off its clothes
    and reports to the mirror, the one
    and only animal
    that brushes its own teeth—


    the only animal that smokes a cigarette,
    that lies down and flies backward in time,
    that rises and walks to a book
    and looks up a word
    heard the telephone ringing
    in the darkness downstairs and decided
    to answer no more.

    And I understand,
    too well: how many times
    have I made the decision to dwell
    from now on
    in the hour of my death
    (the space I took up here
    scarlessly closing like water)
    and said I’m never coming back
    and yet

    this morning
    I stood once again
    in this world, the garden
    ark and vacant
    tomb of what
    I can’t imagine,
    between twin eternities,
    some sort of wings,
    more or less equidistantly
    exiled from both,
    hovering in the dreaming called
    being awake, where
    You gave me
    in secret one thing
    to perceive, the
    tall blue starry

    strangeness of being
    here at all.

    You gave us each in secret something to perceive.

    Furless now, upright, My banished
    and experimental

    You said, though your own heart condemn you

    I do not condemn you.

  • Reply Molly McGee June 22, 2018 at 11:26 am

    Hi, Sharon, and thanks yet again for a wonderful topic. The “activated force field” is, as you say, the heart of poetry; it’s what leads the practical words of language to art. Haiku poems are “just” the force field for me. When you mentioned the topic I immediately thought of a relay race and that chaotic moment before the baton is passed off. It’s a chaotic split second because it vibrates with so much potential … then the right phrase takes up the baton and the race seems inevitable again. It’s all flat on a page but the reader is breathless. Any word can do it to you, even the word “Eurydice” (I love ChrisD’s entry).

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet June 22, 2018 at 11:38 am

    I’ve never run any kind of race, but this moment of passing the baton is utterly compelling to me, and what you describe–vibrating with potential. That’s what I want lines and spaces to do in poems, both of them.

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