Many And No Breaks

The more stanzas you use, the greater their pull on lines, as if white space is a force of poetic gravity. Some poems require that force to hold the structure together. Other poems seem weightless, fragile, unable to withstand any breaks. Let's consider the two types and their effects.

This is the ending of "An Abandoned Farm in the West," a poem in unrhymed couplets from Lower-Class Heresy (University of Illinois, 1987) by T.R. Hummer, who has edited The Kenyon Review and New England Review:

She mumbles Heresy, heresy and does not hear. Anyone might have been born here, might have named

The light-jagged mountains thrown down in June sun, Anyone among us might have scattered these small stones

In the oblivious story of our play while the woman sings Her mother-song from the bedroom window

And the man drags his crippled foot in sheets Of what he would have sworn would soon be snow:

Anyone might have loved anyone, anyone might have married The first body come whistling down the slow-dusked road,

Anyone might be your brother, lifting the blue flowers Of your dress in the corncrib's innocent dark:

And you love him as long as you can, hold on to the hard Life he makes while he shivers in the heat

This shadow means, not knowing it is you, torn

To the shape of a man in the field of your own failed season.

The second sentence of this excerpt is more than 140 words, a passionate outburst. But it succeeds solely on the merits of Hummer's stanza-making. He knows that a many-stanzaed work parcels images and ideas of a long poetic phrase into units. The units, or couplets here, make the poem understandable. Otherwise, it would be hopelessly complex.

Let's consider the opposite now, a poem by Louise Gl├╝ck from her book The House on Marshland (Ecco, 1976):

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