Monday, May 07, 2018

A capital choice

The three poetry books
shown on this post all have
jacket art by painter
Clive Hicks-Jenkins of Wales.
My poetry books are Claire, Thaliad, The Foliate 
Head, The Throne of Psyche, and...
a still-secret one, coming out late this year.
Don't skip the preface...

I should preface this little explanation by noting the simple fact that I have many poet friends who write in very different ways from me--who have entirely different ideas about lines and form and poems. And that's fine.

I like many different sorts of books and poems. But I hold that each writer must decide on the building blocks of writing for his or her own work.

* * *

A capital choice

This morning I received a fat paper letter from a writer and friend--it's so marvelous to get a letter on paper! The internet has swept away such things, except for those who rebel against its winding tentacles, its sneaking power. Luckily, I know such persons.

And one of the things he asked me was why I capitalize the start of lines in poetry. It's an excellent question because I started out as a good pupil and inheritor of Modernism, only using a capital letter when beginning a poem or after a period mark. Back then, I accepted the idea that the practice of using capitals at the start of a line was out-dated, artificial, and peculiar in a modern/postmodern context. It still looks peculiar because almost everybody else in the realm of poetry today does as I once did, even those who are obsessed with that weirdly freeing practice, formal poetry.

Why did I stop?

Part of the answer lies in my semi-abandonment of free verse. I say semi- because I recently wrote a whole manuscript of poems that most people would call free verse, though they are heavily influenced by certain Yoruban and ancient Hebrew structures.

The more I moved into forms, the more compelling I found them--the more I liked the way form dislodges this poet from her own limited thoughts. Rhyme can nudge a poet right out of the grooves of where-she-intended-to-go and into surprise. Meter makes the writer consider more closely how to handle the line, how to fit words and thoughts into units of rhythm.

Modernism is packed with theories and statements about poetic line, many having to do with breath, though in reality a great many poets just go by the slippery judgment of what feels like a rightness. (I should say that the work of the first Modernists reveals their own sharp understanding of meter, sound, and shape even when dismantling the old order in free verse.) Unfortunately, not everybody is equal in the matter of poetic rightnesses, as Wallace Stevens called that act of the mind that seeks perfection in freedom. Many poets seem to break unthinkingly at syntactical units or occasionally to make a kind of pun by stopping the line with what seems a complete thought that is then transformed by the next word on the next line. (I've done both of those things in the course of many years of writing poems.) A lot of free verse contains words that appear lonely and slack, abandoned on a line. Not all, of course, but some of recent poetry simply isn't interesting in a line by line consideration. (I'll get to disjunction and fragmentation later.)

Now you may say that a poem is not simply lines but is a whole--just as a novel had better be more than well-crafted sentences and yet sometimes is not much more than pretty sentences--and that is true. Nevertheless, I want the cake and the eating at once; I want good lines and good poems, or at least the best that I can make.

For me, a capital letter at the start of a line frames the line, separates the line, and forces the writer to think about the whole with its relationship to the part in a more focused way. To pluck an image from Modernism, it is like a tiny Joseph Cornell box; it needs a certain richness of sound and meaning, even when spare. Like meter and like rhyme, this framing of the line is yet another form of discipline that I set as a bulwark against the an era in which the short, self-focused lyric has dominated to the point of banishing poetic drama, long narrative, and a whole wide range of once-useful poetic modes. (Although I simply woke one day with it already in my head, Thaliad must also be part of my own rebellion against such a narrowing of poetry.)

In my own writing, I'm not attracted by the syntactical shiftings and disconnections that provide an uneasy order to so many lyrics, often suggested as the natural result of the disjunctions and chaos of "today's world"; I'm concerned with a wholeness and clarity constructed from well-made parts. Whether or not I succeed, the framing of the line makes me more conscious of those parts, sets up a demand that each one work and be worthy. That desire and ideal may or may not be fulfilled. In saying that each line must be worthy, I'm talking about revision because I tend to be an instinctual writer who composes in a sort of tempestuous flood that afterward I inspect and tame as needed, building little weirs and channels.

The capital-letter frame device emphasizes and makes conscious the fact that the riverine path of a poem is spilling through shapes, through lines, that it must flow forward in meaning while falling through each level or line. Why do I desire flowing sense? Why don't I want for my own poems any marked disconnection or scrambled syntax? To me, postmodern modes of discontinuity seem exhausted, vampire-long in the tooth, gone gray-haired or bald. For others, what I see as an ancient trendiness is alive rather than musty, but for me it feels of little use in making a poem.

Moreover, all poets (no matter what sort of poem they choose to write) are aware that such a way of making poems has alienated and still alienates readers who are not poets. It deliberately destroys many of the purposes that are at the heart of poems, which at their start appear to have been oral gifts made by some sort of bard who sang or recited his own or handed-down poems to other people. And I do like, indeed love, to have a range of readers, even though Modernism and its aftershocks have done their best to make poets the primary readers of poets.

My altered preference also stems from writing novels, and perhaps I never would have embraced capitals at the start of lines and many other elements if I had not started to write fiction. My first long fiction--the novella Little Jordan--lacked causality. Back then, I had been persuaded that plot was artificial. But I soon became fond of propulsion, which has an awful lot to do with causality and, hence, plot. I reached a point where I wanted my novels to be as much like novels as they could be, whatever that meant. And what it meant was a thing I wanted to find out for myself.

The counterpoint to that desire was to wish for my poems to be as much like poems as they could be. And that meant going forward by diving back into the tradition because many of the contemporary poets I read appeared to be descended not from the tradition of poetry but from a narrow part of the prose tradition. But I wanted to be a child of poetry. I wanted to come close to singing in my words, and I wanted to be dramatic. Old forms, old techniques, old tropes, old sources of drama: I wanted to make them new for myself. I wanted their strength. I wanted to stand tiptoe on bigger shoulders than my own.

Adding a capital at the start of the line was one of my later choices and a part of the idea of making my poems as much like poems as they could be. And one of the great differences between poetry and prose is that prose is made of sentence units, and poetry is made of line units. To have an initial capital at the start of the line is to insist on and claim with fierceness the line as the unit of poetry, whereas much contemporary poetry says that the sentence or the isolate, broken phrase is the unit of poetry.

Like every obsessed writer, I have made my many choices. Long ago, when such jobs were hard to obtain, I gave up a tenured job to write, to escape from a realm where poets were part of and supported by the many-tentacled system of academia. Since then, writers have made most of their income and their useful connections in academia, so it was a bad decision in a worldly sense--a bad decision in terms of worldly success and support from the system. But I persist in thinking it was the right sacrifice for a poet and writer. Outside those bounds, I have worked and groped and thought my way, making books as I felt it best. Whether I have made my choices rightly or wrongly is not for me to say. But it is essential for me as that odd creature called a writer to have made them. For a writer, for a poet, it is essential to know and follow and sometimes change those choices. That little, seemingly-wrong choice of the initial capital is, for me, one of many decisions that have made me the sort of writer I am.


  1. I'm astonished this comprehensive yet compressed account of your beliefs and attitudes towards poetry comes to an end without mentioning the other end of the line which may or may not start with a capital - notably the punctuation.

    As you know, I came very late to poetry. I was able to read and appreciate free verse but was far too timid to imitate it. To the growing irritation of my literary friends I stuck with the Shakespearean format sonnet because I needed the comfort of its strait-jacket. Through ignorance, no doubt, I found it coped with what may be regarded as modern sentiment:

    I waited, knowing the festivities
    Would choke the flow of transatlantic calls,
    Delays which brought their own blank auguries,
    A prelude to the saddest of farewells.

    “Ah… yes…,” my brother said, quite languidly,
    Languor that looked for comfort in delay.

    Except for one thing: note those twirly things, dead tadpoles, at the ends of lines 2, 3 and 5. How do they mate with those trumpeting capitals? The answer is they don't. But I am not alone in employing the pendant comma (or for that matter a whole gallimaufry of advanced punctuation). Viz:

    Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
    Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
    Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
    And summer's lease hath all to short a date:

    I merely adopted what others had practised, the Pepper-Grinder Principle. Scatter the punctuative grains wherever they may fall; don't look for justification, much less sense.

    Very occasionally, feeling as if I lacked a handrail, I dipped a reluctant toe into what I hoped was free verse (allthough it may be doggerel for all I know):

    Like some unwanted old bassoon,
    Sad comic of the orchestra,
    Conduit of mistaken farts and groans,
    Now left to gather attic dust,
    Reeds split, keypads unstuck, the case
    A velvet nest for mice and memories

    and the commas appeared as if spread by another hand.

    1. The question dealt solely with the strangeness of my choice of the capital--maybe I'll deal with punctuation another time! Or maybe you will...

      Thanks for this capsule version of your life in poems! I enjoyed it. And I very much doubt that your only thoughts about punctuation were of the pepper grinder sort.

  2. Capitalizations are helpful navigation markers for readers. I suppose that empty headed declaration makes no poetic sense, but to me as a reader with meandering mind and cataractic eyes it makes much sense.

  3. It is the custom to print poetry in the classical languages without capital letters at the beginning of lines, or for that matter sentences. Most of those authors were some centuries dead when the scribes got around to inventing minuscule letters, I guess.

    Presumably--my own efforts never rose above doggerel--the poet wishes to tell the reader how to read the poem--where pause, where emphasize, where not. I don't see capitals as particularly adding to this. Yet their absence might leave the reader wondering whether the absence itself is making a point, and if so what point.

    1. I dislike the movement of poetry in the 20th century toward the unit of the sentence. Capitals remind me that the unit is not the sentence.

      Mmm, like ancient Hebrew poetry too. That's why a ton of poetry in the Bible is translated as prose, which is an idiotic thing for Moderns to do, in my opinion.

    2. Can you explain what you mean about the sentence as the unit? The examples that come first to mind of 20th Century stanzas have sentences spanning multiple lines.

    3. And many of those poems are written as prose, either thoughtfully or arbitrarily broken into lines. My feeling is that much poetry is an inheritor of prose--some is descended from poetry, some from prose (whether or not it is "prose poem" or broken into lines.)

    4. I do not follow you. Clearly you have thought much more and much more clearly about this. Could you give me an example each of a poem descended from poetry and a poem descended from prose, preferably something that is likely to be in anthology or otherwise not hard to lay hands on?

    5. George, I look forward to Marly’s answer and exam0les. To my mind, in the meantime, consider the differences between a blank verse soliloquy from his _Hamlet_ and a typical sonnet by William Shakespeare. Those came to my mind in reading Marly’s comment.

    6. George, I think that I have a post that covers this to some degree: Dear Mr. K.

    7. Take a look and see if it answers your question. There's a poem, and there's a well-known comparison.

    8. Garrison Keillor's taste for poetry seems to be heartier than it is discriminating. Your "Dear Mr. K." post was correct.

      Yet when I speak of sentences that take up whole stanzas, I have in mind something like J.V. Cunningham's epigrams, e.g. "For a College Yearbook" or "On the Helmsman". For that matter, when I opened a collected Yeats just now to confirm my memory that the last stanza of "Sailing to Byzantium" is of just once sentence (it is, and so are the second and third), the volume opened to verso "Coole Park, 1929" and recto "Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931": two poems in which each stanza has just one sentence.

    9. Oh, okay--I don't disagree with you that sentences (well-written ones, I hope) exist in poems. I just think that the line is still the measure, though the sentence (iambic or not) is broken across the line.

  4. Fascinating post, Marly. I will admit I'd wondered why a few poets persist in capitalizing the first letters of lines.

    1. For a long time, I thought it was a bad idea. Then suddenly it seemed entirely meet and right! And that is definitely a result of writing fiction.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.