No Strings

We keep finding on our doorstep Rattles too big for the post box. They arrive with offers from a company No parent can refuse, clean diapers Being next to God. The Ivory Snow mother

Thinks so in baby magazines on trial Subscription. And if we don't want The bedtime books, we still get to keep The Disney mobile. It hangs above the crib Littered with coupons for free formula,

Gerber, Johnson's "no more tears" shampoo. We send for everything. They don't know that After the stillborn, somebody forgot To pull our name from the mailing lists. We'll write, if at anytime we're unhappy.


That year, that awful year I'll remember in the next century When somebody's striking daughter rings up $19.81 For whatever I'll be drinking then, I want you to remind me The snow was whiter than we'd ever seen it in Oklahoma And that for one chill day toward sunset, we stopped Crying as a baby would stop, suddenly, to play In it and roll in the back yard one huge bellyAche of a snowball, layer on layer until stripes Of dead grass showed below the bedroom window; How hour by hour the form we never planned took shape, From bulbous head to lump-bottom, arm to outstretched arm Welcoming us as if just arrived, as if to say: I am still With you: beckoning the moon that night to cast those arms And head on our pale bedspread that seemed a continuum of snow Covering our bodies, not touching, until you reached Over me for the curtain, missed it, and by accident, found me.

Read each poem aloud. The short lines of "Invocation" were meant to provide dramatic tension; the medium lines of "No Strings," to focus on an idea without muddling it with drama or emotion; and the long lines of "Snowhead, After the Accident," to convey emotional release.

Now take a scratch pad and cast "Snowhead, After the Accident" in short lines; "Invocation," in long lines; and "No Strings," in short and long lines.

Read them again and you'll see each flounder. Building Block #4: The last line should be as powerful as the first line. But it shouldn't simply restate the same idea, image or thing. Ideally, it should leave the audience feeling satisfied or startled, resolving a problem or situation or tantalizing readers with an ending image or outburst.

To illustrate, I'll repeat some of the powerful opening lines mentioned earlier in this chapter . . . and juxtapose them with ending lines of the same poems:

— O how that glittering taketh me!

A heart whose love is innocent!

• An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king— . . .

Burst, to illuminate our tempestuous day.

• Well hast thou spoken, and yet, not taught. . . .

Evince my gratitude!

• When the dead in their cold graves are lying. . . .

The soul lives in glory and light.

Like stone.

• He hears with gladdened heart the thunder. . . .

Expectant of the certain end.

• Something there is that doesn't love a wall. . . .

He says again, "Good fences make good neighbours."

After I complete a poem, I make sure to juxtapose my first and last lines to see if I can improve either of them. If the first line is much stronger than the last, I'll revise. I'll do the same if the last line is better than the first. Then I evaluate each line of the poem to see if it works as a unit to convey an idea or image or suggests other meanings. Finally, I determine whether the length of the line is appropriate for the subject matter.

To assess the importance of the line in contemporary poetry, try these exercises:

1. Determine the length of lines (mostly short, medium or long) in each poem appearing in at least three literary magazines. Now assess whether the line length blends with the subject matter, helping to produce a dramatic-, focus- or emotional-based work. This will give you an idea of the myriad ways lines are used by poets publishing in different magazines.

2. Analyze the line according to the above methods as it is used in at least three new collections of poetry. This will give you an idea of the myriad ways that individual authors call upon the line to enhance poems.

3. Analyze the line again in poems appearing in The Norton Anthology of Poetry. This will give you an idea of how important the line is in works by various authors from different backgrounds and eras.

To emphasize these lessons, let's preview poems in the mini anthology by past masters of the line, focusing on their uses and/or innovations that are still being practiced today:

• "Lines From a Dream" by Walter Savage Landor. A two-line work, this shows how the first and last lines should startle the reader. Also note that the first contains two levels of meaning and that the second one begins and ends with vivid words.

• "Unfolded Out of the Folds" by Whitman. This, of course, illustrates the long line as emotional outburst. Despite the length, however, each line is crisp as a unit; moreover, the first and last lines brilliantly counterbalance each other.

• "Portrait of a Lady" by Williams. The short line adds tension and controls how we read the work, so that images piece together slowly, as they do when an artist paints on canvas. Only this is a portrait in verse, illustrating the power of the line.

If you master the line as these poets did, your work will stand out from that of others because of craft. You'll also strike a chord within readers who will hear —and remember —the music of your verse.

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