Wednesday, November 21, 2012

William Carpenter: Breaking Down The Line To Build The Poem

I discovered William Carpenter in the anthology, Poetspeak, circa the mid-eighties, thumbing through it, after reading a poem there by my old professor, Keith Wilson. I was immediately taken with Carpenter's poem, "Fire," not because of its poetic devices, but because of its story and theme--what in school we used to call content. Some have challenged a portion of Carpenter's work being called "poetry"--being so narrative, highly enjambed, and without stanzas. Why, indeed, is this piece considered a "poem," rather than "micro-fiction," or a "short short?"


This morning, on the opposite shore of the river
I watch a man burning his own house.
It is a cold day, and the man wears thick gloves
and a fur hat that gives him a Russian look.
I envy his energy, since I am still on the veranda
in my robe, with morning coffee, my day not
even begun, while my neighbor has already piled
spruce boughs against his house and poured
flammable liquids over them to send a finger
of black smoke into the air, a column surrounded
by herring gulls, who think he's having a barbecue
or has founded a new dump. I hadn't known what labor
it took to burn something. Now the man is working
at such speed, he's like the criminal in a silent
movie, as if he had a deadline, as if he had
to get his house burned by a certain time, or it
would be all over. I see his kids helping, bringing
him matches and kindling, and I'd like to help out
myself, I'd like to bring him coffee and a bagel,
but the Penobscot river separates us, icebergs
the size of small ships drifting down the tide.
Moreover, why should I help him when I have a house
myself, which needs burning as much as anyone's?
It has begun to leak. I think it has carpenter ants.
I hear them making sounds at night like writing, only
they aren't writing, they are building small tubular
cities inside the walls. I start burning in the study,
working from within so it will go faster, so I can
catch up, and soon there's a smoke column on either
shore, like a couple of Algonquins having a dialogue
on how much harder it is to destroy than to create.
I shovel books and poems into the growing fire. If
I burn everything, I can start over, with a future
like a white rectangle of paper. Then I notice
my neighbor has a hose, that he's spraying his house
with water, the coward, he has bailed out, but I
keep throwing things into the fire: my stamps,
my Berlioz collection, my photos of nude people,
my correspondence dating back to grade school.
Over there, the fire engines are reaching his home.
His wife is crying with relief, his fire's extinguished.
He has walked down to the shore to see the ruins
of the house across the river, the open cellar,
the charred timbers, the man laughing and dancing
in the snow, who has been finally freed from his
possessions, who has no clothes, no library, who has
gone back to the beginning, when we lived in nature:
no refuge from the elements, no fixed address.

My answer to why is "Fire" a poem? is because of the way its creator treats "the line." Unlike the genre known as "prose-poetry," which leaves the line breaks mainly to the whim of the typewriter carriage (that dates me), or to the margin settings of the word document, in the above, each line is crafted to end precisely where the poet chooses, in order to maximize the rhythm, to heighten the language, or to deepen the theme(s). In other words, language is "forwarded" ahead of all else--even ahead of story--and the line, rather than the sentence, becomes the basic syntactical unit. That's why "Fire" is a poem, rather than a piece of prose!

Notice the difference between the following two ways of breaking lines 6 and 7:

"I am still on the veranda in my robe, with morning coffee, my day not even begun..."

"in my robe, with morning coffee, my day not
even begun..."

The first is a complete thought, with emphasis on "the thought, the action, the objects that comprise it--the veranda, his robe, coffee, the day barely starting..."

But in the second, because the line breaks at "not," our brains connect the three words, "my day not" and make the phrase mean something, even though it does not conform to a syntactical norm. "My day is not what? A day? Anything? My day is nothing? Like all other days, this day has come to not? To naught?" All of these possibilities (and more) flash across synaptic gaps quicker than we can move our eyes to the beginning of the next line. And, even though we may not consciously acknowledge all (or any) of these flashes of insight, they color the next (and every subsequent) line in the poem, enriching them, slanting them, nudging them forwards (and backwards) to amplify meaning (and sound, and visual effects).

Check out some of the other terrific line breaks in this poem:

"my neighbor....has already poured flammable liquids over them to send a finger/
of black smoke into the air" (break between lines 9 and 10). "To send a finger" immediately brings to mind "flipping the bird," and colors the tone of the entire poem, foreshadowing the speaker's own defiant gesture of setting his own house on fire."

"I start burning in the study,/working from within so it will go faster, so I can/
catch up, and soon there's a smoke column on either/shore..." (breaks between lines 27, 28 and 29). Breaking the line after "study" gives us reason to pause and reflect for a moment on how "study" might mean more than the physical room--and we find we are correct in the next line with "working from within"--within the house and within the self, the part of us that studies on things. Reflecting upon things (more difficult when weighed down with "things") ignites a fire within that moves as fast as the physical fire without ("it will go faster, so I can"). These layers of meaning would be very difficult to tap into without the particular line breaks that Carpenter chose.

Three lines down, is the line "I shovel books and poems into the growing fire. If"
followed by "I burn everything, I can start over, with a future..."

What a beautiful statement about language and poetry: that the writings of authors and poets are burned (metabolized) and the result is an open-ended If, standing at the edge of the white-page cliff of possibility. This idea would never have come through with such power if the genre used to express it had been prose, if the form had been the following two sentences:

"I shovel books and poems into the growing fire."
"If I burn everything, I can start over."

There is something else quite apparent that the enjambed lines do for this poem: they move the insistent energy forward, mirroring the fire and the accelerating response of the man setting it, who started

"...working from within, so [the fire] will go faster, so [he] can...."

These are just a few examples of the precise control of his lines that Carpenter has used in order to regulate the emotional temperature in "Fire," carefully measuring their lengths, breaking them at just the right words. The process he surely went through to do so--breaking down each line into its constituent parts, piecing them back together, building them into a structure much stronger than the original words or ideas taken by themselves--enacts the theme of the piece itself.

But then I expect nothing less from a poem. Or from William Carpenter. Just another poet doing his job. Breaking down the line to build the poem. Burning down his house to start all over again.

1 comment:

granddaddy said...

I used to tell my students that the one and only reliable way to tell poetry from prose is this: the poet purposefully uses the arrangement of words on the line, on the page. Whatever else we want to attribute to poetry alone is also present in good prose. (I hate the way the word "good" seems to slip its complications so easily into the discussion of writing and literature. Alas.)