Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 31, July 2013—Mixed Form Issue)

Cole Swensen
No End is Unplanned

Any mixing of forms presumes that the interaction of disparities is a positive thing—that
unalikes ignite, that they create sparks that illuminate all their parts—and other things
besides. We’re in an age that likes disparity, and this seems a very positive thing, a very
optimistic response to inevitable social pressures. The mixing of genres and of formal
principles in contemporary literature offers many minor examples of this, ones that extend
the options for current creative work considerably.

that things very formal

extend considerably

In a few recent books (The Glass Age, Greensward, Ours), I’ve worked with forms that splice prose sections in with sections of verse, and in those cases, the poetry and the prose are visually distinct, though the prose passages are, in fact, somewhat misleading. Though they run from the left to the right margin with what appears to be an arbitrary line cut at the right margin—i.e., the line seems to end arbitrarily at whatever word happens to hit the right margin—in fact, I often rewrite the prose passages until I can get all the lines to end at effective places in terms of sound, stress, and sense. So, technically, I never write prose because I can never give myself up to the accident that prose requires, to the “leap of faith” that the line will end at a good spot. And I can’t do it because it’s not a leap of faith (that I might manage); instead, prose requires a blind refusal to see the line as a physical thing, which is perfectly fitting with prose because there the line is not, in fact, an object in its own right. The basis of prose is not visual, is not corporeal. Prose exists somewhere other than the page, which is demonstrated by the fact that if the typeface, point size, or page format changes, the text block does as well—and thus so do all the line breaks, which creates a complete shift in all the sound relationships. Because, on the one hand, I cannot imagine where that “somewhere other” might be, and on the other hand, I can’t stop hearing the sounds, I can’t write prose. But to appear to do so, and yet deny prose its arbitrary quality—to refuse chance its role—while maintaining the illusion of accident interests me greatly. So I often “fake” prose. It looks like it’s ruled by the chance that directs all prose, but in fact, the rhythm of each line is constructed.

In those works, the sections of poetry (lines broken short of the right margin) intervene for a contrapuntal shift and visual drift or jolt. A page is so importantly a visual experience, and the shift from poetry to prose can be used to fine-tune the visual in a way that directs the timing of the entire piece. But a few projects ago, I got interested in formal blending for its own sake, and so have been working with forms that blend poetry and prose more fully, trying to access added tension through forms that seem to go both directions at once.

The form I used in a recent project titled Gravesend takes from prose the fully justified right and left margins, while it takes from poetry the traditional form of the couplet:

Ghost: gast, as in soul-sprite, breath-life, sliced wreath   of a waning break   it rears

from all over  has been called the back-comer  the night-child  the guest

This form also observes other prose conventions, such as beginning with a capital letter and using the sentence as the base unit, but it also makes use of the fragmentation and dominant sound play more often associated with poetry. But the determining feature of the form is the blank spaces within the lines, which, while sometimes seen in poetry, are a standard feature of neither. But the subject matter of the book, ghosts, seemed to demand both inner absence and internal pressure—and the pressure of absence. The blanks within the lines grow until they press up against the limits of the margins on both sides, creating what I hope is a pressured prose full of sudden emptinesses.

I’ve been using a different kind of mixed form in another recent project titled Landscapes on a Train. It replicates prose in its long line; in fact, I think of them as one-line paragraphs:

A window opens a train. Now on whiter air. Other measures drift. Quick, hasp

And fast the green comes back, innumerably strong. Swung the sky off light. Light

The one comes down. To a single ray in a single field. Divides and buries on. A

Train across open land opens night. (A train lands all night across an open field.)

And yet at the same time, because the lines all end at approximately the same place at the right margin, the whole also has the visual effect of a paragraph with an unjustified right margin; on the other hand, it has visual aspects of a stanza, except the blank line-space between each line prevents that—so in this case, instead of its being both poetry and prose, the form is not quite prose and not quite poetry. It’s always heading toward something, but never gets beyond the not-quite, which seemed to me to echo traveling by train. Of course, a train does, necessarily, eventually, end up somewhere, which is a shame; that’s not the part I’m interested in. I’m interested in the indeterminacy of location that travel occasions, so an indeterminate form seemed appropriate.

There’s an additional visual element in this series that I hope further destabilizes and sets in motion its relationship to form—the series contains lines of photographs taken from the windows of high-speed trains, so they thematically echo the verbal snapshots and formally echo the emphasis on line. Their arrangement in lines raises the issue of syntax, putting pressure on the relationship between and among the images, while it also implicates the visual realm in the temporal demands of sequence that language cannot escape, but that visual art usually can. The project’s main agenda is seriality and representation, and it seemed to me that contrasting the possibilities and limitations of visual art with those of verbal art could address these issues in concrete terms.

My main interest in mixing forms, hybridizing them, etc., is to get to writing. If one is writing a poem or a prose-poem or a play or a novel or whatever, one is not just writing, and it’s that form-free, non-preconceived event that I’m always trying to get to—in short, I don’t want to write anything; I just want to write, which is impossible, of course, but I think there’s a productive kind of suspension that offers a greater openness if one can, even if just for a moment, forget what one is writing and simply write.