Axon: Creative Explorations
‘Like a Japanese Christmas Card’
Line in Poetry and Art
Louise Bourgeois: The Arch of Hysteria (1993)
Breaks and Harmonies
there’s no such
or a word
This is the opening section of a poem – ‘Like a Japanese Christmas Card’ – which I wrote in 1998. The idea was to juxtapose the undoubted truth that what we call ‘lines’ in nature are simply optical illusions caused by the overlap of different fields of colour and shade, with the notion that what we refer to as a ‘word’ might be similarly defined in terms of the silences that bookend it, rather than by any presumed essence that might lie within.
I suspect that I must also have been thinking of Jacques Derrida’s definition – in his essay ‘Ulysses Gramophone: Hear Say Yes in Joyce’ – of a ringing telephone as only succeeding in conveying information when it stops ringing: ‘In the beginning, there must indeed have been some phone call’ (1992, p.270). An everlasting ring-tone, in other words, would be as meaningless as eternal silence.
But do these analogies between sight and sound enable us to think more clearly about the significance of the poetic, as well as the artistic line? In both cases, I would argue, a line can be seen in two ways: as a break, a violent disjunction between contradictory points of view; or as a harmony, a tapestry-like interweaving of intricate colours and shapes which combine to give the appearance of depth as well as extent.
The first (like a heroic couplet: two pentameters closed off by a rhyme) definitely constitutes a stop, a boundary to be crossed before one can go on to further thinking. The second (like a passage of blank verse full of enjambments), compels us to continue, even – in some cases – against our will: to trip or topple forward. This idea that the alternate cessation and breathless continuance of an activity may bring us as close as we’re ever going to get to its true meaning came up interestingly in an interview I conducted – also in 1998 – with New Zealand poet Graham Lindsay:
The effort towards lineation is to sing the song
I asked Graham what were the principles that determined the lineation and line-breaks in his own work. I should, however, stress that the question was made in response to a comment of his about the desirability of ‘putting behind you your habitual ways of thinking’ in order ‘for new combinations to arise that may be more interesting because there has been a cessation [my emphasis] of your habitual ways of thinking and of brain-chatter’:
[JR]: Is what you were saying earlier about having got tired of worrying about line divisions and precise arrangements on the page related to that? They are a way of gesturing towards silence, aren’t they? – stopping and breaking line-noise.
[GL]: The effort towards lineation primarily is to sing the song, or have the tune sound the way you want it to, given all the things you have to think about at the same time: the semantics of the words, the logical patterning of the groups of words, that whole sort of juggling act. But silence I think of as being something quite other.
I think of silence in a very literal way, where you get this utter cessation of thinking, of thoughts, and – harping back to what we were talking about earlier – where you may get moments of presence. There is this utter cessation that enables this new thing to arise, and it’s the shedding of anxieties, of worries, of thoughts, of the whole sort of cacophony of thinking. And it’s this refreshment (that wellspring notion), in those very minor, very small moments of not thinking where you are perhaps able to achieve this kind of relationship with things, you are able perhaps more clearly to get that insight. So, having allowed that moment of silence to occur, inevitably of course you’ll have a thought come along, but in all likelihood that thought may be a good deal more interesting than it would otherwise have been had you not had that silence, that non-thinking. (Ross, 2001, 51-52)
‘The effort towards lineation primarily is to sing the song, or have the tune sound the way you want it to.’ The choice of places to break, then – for Lindsay, at any rate – is based more on aural than visual considerations. Perhaps that’s another way to think about the line or (for that matter) the page-layout as a whole: as a musical score, designed to pause and speed you at a carefully calculated rate. Of course, as he stressed at the time, there are many other things you have to think about at the same time: ‘the semantics of the words, the logical patterning of the groups of words, that whole sort of juggling act.’
The musical score analogy seems a good way of understanding this patterning of silences and sounds, breaks and harmonies, mentioned above. Lindsay’s further comments about the nature of silence – which he said he thought of ‘in a very literal way, where you get this utter cessation of thinking, of thoughts, and … where you may get moments of presence’ – certainly seem to be connected to this. Interestingly, there was a literal embodiment of this in the two poems which Lindsay sent to accompany the publication of the interview. In their original form, these were laid out as prose poems. In their printed form, however, they had acquired careful stanza and line-breaks. The change must have been necessary to sing the song correctly.
When she was in art school all her teachers drew that way
In his ‘Not About Julian Schnabel,’ [Rene] Ricard wrote about a kind of line that ‘just gets tuckered out after a while,’ adding ‘The beautiful charcoal smudges and style we can follow from Matisse through de Kooning to Rivers, Serra, and, in its ultimate decadence, to Susan Rothenberg are perfect illustrations.’ He went on, ‘Judy Rifka told me that when she was in art school all her teachers drew that way. That was the way you were taught, and no matter how lousy the drawing was it always looked pretty good, like “art.”’ (Malcolm, 1996, 292-93)
The traditional appearance of a page of verse in most – though by no means all – languages and cultures is a straight left margin of line openings flanked by a ragged right margin of irregular line endings. Of course, the lines can be painstakingly justified to make each margin equally straight (as in some of the concrete poems in George Herbert’s The Temple – echoing the form of Ancient Greek tomb epitaphs). Such occasional tours-de-force do not materially alter the fact that – like the left brain – the left margin is straight and justified, and – like the right brain – the right margin is jagged and curved in a more ‘natural’ manner.
Of course, the modern word-processor has altered this. As an editor, I’m sorry to say that spotting the first-time poet has become much easier since it became so simple to centre your work. What once – on the typewriter or the printing press – required careful and painstaking measurement, can now be accomplished at the stroke of a key. Nor is it very much harder to concoct a perfect straight-sided rectangle of words if you so desire. It’s not that the facile is always meretricious: centred poems certainly have their place. But when a poet chooses to continue capitalising the first letter of each line (or allows Microsoft Word to make the decision for them), it’s hard to see that any real advantage is being taken of these new technical conveniences.
A line of poetry should, presumably, aim to be both aesthetically pleasing and ideologically cogent. The flight from the left margin should be conducted whole-heartedly or not at all. And here the word-processor can be more of an enemy than a friend: the exact placing of a word or line in a concrete poem requires software more sensitive than the average word-processing programme. With their pre-programmed instincts for rounding off and enforcing the linear logic of conventional text, they are the enemy of imaginative page-works and text-designs.
Take, for instance, this ‘Verso’ (illustrated) page from my novel-in-eccentric-typography Nights with Giordano Bruno (2000) [p. 198], reprinted above.
What may seem, at first sight, a mere scattering of random letters in arbitrary spacings across the page resolves itself – to the attentive reader, at any rate – to a series of repetitions of the English word ‘phoenix’ and the Italian word ‘fenice’ – though with only one letter ‘x’ in the very centre of the page. This glimmer of something conceptual here is emphasised a few pages further down [p. 202], where the following table can be found:
Here we can begin to posit a connection between the phoenix – the bird of immortality through continual rebirth – and the title of Giordano Bruno’s esoteric dialogue La Cena de le ceneri [The Ash-Wednesday Supper]: dedicated (as it is) ‘al mal contento’ [to the discontented one].
As far as the form of the scattered letters above goes, however, as a partial clue to its nature I reproduce, on [p. 190], the famous illustration of Orion’s Belt from Galileo Galilei’s Sidereus Nuncius [Starry Messenger] (1610):
And finally, on p.220, the penultimate page of the book, we see the following:
Upon which it should become clear – to the esoterically minded, at any rate – that the precise positioning of each letter in this Phoenix / fenice alternation comes from a careful elimination of excess letters in the original Italian text of Bruno’s Ash-Wednesday Supper dialogue.
Does all this obfuscation and deflection add up to anything more than the clichéd ‘charcoal smudges and style’ that can be manipulated by any halfway competent draughtsman to create a drawing that looks ‘pretty good, like ‘art’’ no matter how ‘lousy’ it is? I hope so. The one or two readers who actually worked out what I had in mind appear to have thought so, at any rate.
I don’t (of course) propose it so much as a model of some imaginary ‘correct’ practice as an example of some of the things one can do with a liberated line: a line which no longer clings to the left margin, or the right, or indeed to any standard layout associated with poetry at all. Mind you, we all know that there’s a statute of limitations on typographical gimmicks: there’s nothing wrong with them per se, nothing wrong with channelling your inspiration into such experiments, but – past a certain point – repetition of such tricks will turn you into a one-trick pony. To quote Rene Rickard yet again, it ‘just gets tuckered out after a while.’ Or, in Freudian terms, it has moved ‘beyond the pleasure principle’ (to quote the title of one of his most famous books) to manifesting the obsessive-compulsive patterns of the death drive: from libido to Thanatos.
I’m sure we’ve all encountered such cases. I had a writer friend who formed a sad addiction for ending his poems with a single word, standing on its own: effective, poignant, but – when used repetitively – increasingly ineffective whenever substantial samplings of his work were collected together. I too have a set of tricks of lineation and spacing I try hard to break myself of the moment I start noticing them. Sometimes one can go back to them again after some time has elapsed. Mostly, though, they must be renounced as soon as they become a ‘feature.’ The trouble with lineation in poetry, as in the visual arts, is that the inevitable familiarity one forms with the tricks of the trade make it increasingly easy to forge something ‘pretty good, like “art’’’ whenever you need to.
On Beginning the Treatment
And what do you then? Well, picking up on that mention of Freud a couple of paragraphs back, I think there is much to be gleaned from his description of the psychoanalytical ‘talking cure’ in his 1913 essay ‘On Beginning the Treatment’:
What you tell me must differ in one respect from an ordinary conversation. Ordinarily, you rightly try to keep a connecting thread running through your remarks, and you exclude any intrusive ideas that may occur to you ... But in this case you must proceed differently. You will notice that as you relate things, various thoughts will occur to you which you would like to put aside, on the ground of certain criticisms and objections ... You must never give into these criticisms, but must say it in spite of them – indeed you must say it precisely because you feel an aversion to doing so … Act as though, for instance, you were a traveller sitting next to the window of a railway carriage and describing to someone inside the carriage the changing view which you see outside. (Malcolm, 1996, pp. 35-36)
First, as he suggests, you must say things ‘precisely because you feel an aversion to doing so.’ Look for the places you are most reluctant to go, and, rather than ‘putting them aside’ for all those excellent reasons which will immediately start to occur to you, try to follow up on those. A line – whether in poetry or art – cannot be allowed simply to shade off, it must, at some point, be broken. There’s a certain amount of pain inseparable from that.
Secondly, ‘Act as though … you were a traveller sitting next to the window of a railway carriage and describing to someone inside the carriage the changing view which you see outside.’ The world outside you must remain your best guide. The more attention you give to that, and the less to your own intentions and techniques (read: tricks), the more likely you are to avoid that mise en abîme of self-repetition and self-plagiarism.
À propos of this idea of the enforced continuance of a line (or a train of thought), I remember that film-maker Gabriel White once told me that when he had a job teaching first-year drawing at the Auckland University Art School, ELAM, he used to take the students out for a ride on an inner-city bus and ask them to draw a continuous line from the beginning to the end of their journey: a literal embodiment of the city-scape, the passengers, and all the other incidents of the wayside.
Another interesting analogy would be with William Hogarth’s famous definition of the serpentine ‘line of beauty’ from his 1753 treatise The Analysis of Beauty. Hogarth quotes the 16th-century Italian painter and art theorist Gian Paolo Lomazzo to the effect that:
the greatest grace and life that a picture can have, is, that it expresse Motion: which the Painters call the Spirite of a picture: Nowe there is no forme so fitte to expresse this motion, as that of the flame of fire … for it hath a Conus or sharpe pointe wherewith with it seemeth to divide the aire ... So that a picture having this forme will bee most beautifull. (Hogarth, 1772, p. vi)
Hogarth goes on to acknowledge that: ‘There are also strong prejudices in favour of straight lines, as constituting true beauty in the human form, where they never should appear’:
A middling connoisseur thinks no profile has beauty without a very straight nose, and if the forehead be continued straight with it, he thinks it is still more sublime … The common notion that a person should be straight as an arrow, and perfectly erect, is of this kind. (p. viii)
For Hogarth, then, while his curved lines represent motion, life and beauty, straight lines, which ‘any one might do … with the eyes shut’, are mere ‘miserable scratches’ denoting stiffness, stasis and (in the final analysis) death:
If a dancing-master were to see his scholar in the easy and gracefully-tuned attitude of the Antinous … he would cry shame on him, and tell him he looked as crooked as a ram’s horn (p. viii).
The Arch of Hysteria
Thinking further about the contrast Hogarth draws between the artificial, lifeless stasis of straight lines and the fiery, dangerous coiling of his serpentine lines of beauty, it might be interesting here to mention French sculptor and textile artist Louise Bourgeois’ fascinating work ‘The Arch of Hysteria’ (1993), accessible online here.
For now, however, I’d prefer to consider its major source of inspiration, the various illustrations of the contortions of female ‘hysterical’ patients from the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, overseen by nineteenth-century neurologist Jean Martin Charcot.
The most fascinating thing about the picture above is, I think, the fact that it is the patient’s approximation to an arch (Romanesque rather than Gothic), rather than the painful rictus itself, which appears to fascinate the illustrator most. The act of hiding her face with a pillow might, of course, be attributed to delicacy on his part, but it does have the effect of dehumanising or – if you prefer – architecturalising her.
The extreme state of psychological distress manifested by so many of Charcot’s patients was certainly seen at the time to be at least partially redeemed by its entertainment value: hence the large number of visitors, some merely curious, others more professional (like the young Sigmund Freud) who flocked to attend his demonstrations.
All of this Louise Bourgeois has echoed, in this, her umpteenth attempt to exorcise the trauma caused by her father’s decision to employ his mistress as his children’s governess, under the eyes – and in the full knowledge – of their own mother. Interestingly, the arch depicted in her sculpture seems to be on the verge of closing into a complete rectangle, the hands about to link up with the feet (naturally, there is no head). Bourgeois’s particular ‘family drama’ may not sound like a lot to inspire a life’s work, but of course Freud would tell us that the apparent triviality of a cause of trauma is no real clue to its actual nature. Rather than the talking cure, Bourgeois has chosen a visual cure: an ever-expanding body of works which grew in size as she grew more confident in expressing the sheer dimensions of her distress.
Bourgeois’ pain – or rather, her art, if they can be separated – manifests in two ways: in the compulsive repetition of essentially the same forms over and over again, in different media and on different scales (from the tiny to the gigantesque); but also in the static, end-stopped nature of each of these works taken individually. The intensity of distress caused by such extreme mental state, manifesting in literally ‘over-the-top’ reactions like the fixed arch of hysteria, might remind us, also, of Lomazzo’s choice of the tip of a flame as his central metaphor for life and motion in painting. Fire is, by definition, unpredictable and uncontrollable. It is also destructive and devouring: not an element which can ever be commanded at will or without risk.
Du beau Phénix
mon amour à la semblance
Du beau Phénix s'il meurt un soir
Le matin voit sa renaissance
(Apollinaire, 1966, p. 46)
These opening lines from Apollinaire’s “‘Chanson du Mal-aimé’ [Song of the Ill-loved] translate roughly as “my love, after the semblance of the beautiful phoenix, if it dies one day, is reborn the next.” What, after all, is the end each of us hopes to attain with our writing? Surely, to glorify and extend the possibilities of life, movement, hope – and (while acknowledging its omnipresence and inevitable triumph) accepting the full stop: stasis, death.
The straight lines so beloved of the ‘middling connoisseurs’ and ‘dancing-masters’ of the French school, as opposed to the ‘flame of fire’ lines characteristic of Rubens, Raphael and Michelangelo (according to Hogarth, at any rate), can be assimilated easily enough to the traditional restrictions around a poetic line: the laws of metre and prosody which dictate that it should be of a certain length, and that length only.
While a line, like the allotted life-cycle of a Phoenix – 500 years, if we are to believe Herodotus – must always be an arbitrary division, without this agreed-upon convention we can have no pause to reflect – no silence to admit (in Graham Lindsay’s words) moments of ‘presence.’ By the same token, though, if we start to think of it as a thing in itself, allow it to dictate our practice and the boundaries of what we have to say, then it has lost its essential function.
We need them, yet we mustn’t valorise them. We must remember, always, their role as dividers-up of what cannot, in the end, be divided: the cosmos, life. Apollinaire, Louise Bourgeois, Hogarth, are all (regrettably) dead. But their works and ideas are not. In a final sense, then, a break is always part of the harmony – never the other way around. Fire, the self-immolating flames of the phoenix, remains our best analogy: while it can be hedged in, it can never be definitively contained. To be sure, it leaves ashes behind, but it contributes in its progress both light and warmth.
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Axon: Creative Explorations
Axon: Creative Explorations, Vol. 8, No. 1: "Materiality, creativity, material poetics" (May 2018). Special Section: "The Poetic Line", ed. Owen Bullock. (University of Canberra: The Centre for Creative & Cultural Research, 2018). [available at: http://www.axonjournal.com.au/issue-14/%E2%80%98-japanese-christmas-card%E2%80%99]