The Anxiety of the Line

During the recent writers conference, one of the panel moderators brought up an interesting idea during his panel. He was talking about the thought process that goes into writing poems; specifically, he said, determining how to break lines. He called this process the anxiety of the line, a diagnosis I really like. Does the line inspire anxiety? And if so, how do we, as poets, combat it?

I think many poets would contend that there is no anxiety in the line because they could easily identify their pre-determined measure that solves "the problem of the line." And that's fine—but I'd answer that this pre-determined measure is a succinct counter-agent to the anxiety of the line, with which all poets must at one time or another confront.

There are a lot of theories about lines, and we all know them: the line is a breath, the line is an independent unit, the line is a measurement of speech, etc. These are all counter-agents to anxiety. Anxiety, unlike other variations of "fear," has only a vague object; unlike "fright," whose object is a specific time & place ("he jumped out from behind the door and frightened me"), and "fear," which has a more general object ("I fear snakes"). Anxiety is the fear of an idea, and its control over us is precisely its intangibility: it cannot be confronted and mastered. Fright passes; we can avoid the objects we fear—but anxiety is what will keep us awake at night.

In "Suture," her famous work in film theory, Kaja Silverman posits that movie viewers undergo a cycle of anxiety and mastery in the course of watching a film. Each scene break, which suddenly, traumatically supplants a viewer in an indeterminate time and place in the narrative, creates anxiety. Because she is a post-Freudian Lacanian, Silverman connects this "splicing" effect with the original trauma of castration anxiety (but, you know, figuratively). Like the ambiguity of "cleaving," "splicing" means both to rupture and to connect. In this instance, the separateness of the scene shift and its resulting nervousness/anxiety is only cured by the epiphany of what-it-is: the narrative solution. By identifying the new scene's place in the narrative thread of the film, the movie viewer cures the anxiety: the splicing joins rather than ruptures. And so, the film continues in this cycle of rupture-splicing—or, rupture/suture.

I think the line in poetry is a lot like this.

The line in poetry is a rupture. In fact, I would hazard that nearly any form of writing that involves a line break will be commonly mistaken for poetry in American culture, whether it be poetry proper or a variation, such as song lyrics or greeting card text. The line is poetry's bread and butter. We, as poets, cultivate that anxiety of the line—and use it, often to our advantage, to transfer the line's anxiety to the reader. Masterful use of the line cultivates tension, surprise, humor, irony, melodrama...the line break splices.

I think every time we write a new poem, we are able to re-examine our relationship to the line. The line, to me, is a funny thing because it is not only the words, it includes the line break, the rupture of the message, and the white space beyond it. I'm not sure that as poets we've really come to terms with the line yet. What it really means to us. What it is capable of.

Or, not.

Some poets write in prose and then go back and add line breaks later. For other poets, the line is a series of bars—musical segments—and for others, an equation (I don't think you're alone, Emily). Does breaking the line make me feel anxious when I write? I'm not sure. I might be beyond noticing it, having constantly found solutions for breaking lines (form, rhythm, syllabics, meter, prepositionics, etc). But I'm thinking about it now. Late at night, the line just might be the next thing that wakes me from sound sleep.


  1. Hi. Me again. You always ask interesting quetions, and I always have to fight the urge to tell you to go outside and ride your bike. I have terrible anxiety and fear about writing all the time. Writing. It's fucking awful. But not over particulars, line breaks or rhythm or ordering manuscripts or sonics. Just writing. Living that life. It never gets easier, but it gets easier, you know?

    I really wanted to ask you what you think of Peter Greenaway.


  2. Hey Charles: great post; such an engaging way you bring up the whole idea of the LINE! Something so basic I think we all take it for granted.
    It feels so natural where to break the lines for me, that I'd probably have trouble explaining it to somebody; the line breaks where it breaks because it just FEELS right (unless you are doing form and meter, which is SO yesterday . . . ). But I love the way breaking a line in an unexpected way adds a new meaning to the words on either side of the line break. Like a fault opened up on the earth. You read the fragments together, apart, together, apart. Somehow both. Somehow neither. Somehow somethng completely new.

  3. Rebecca: Of Greenaway's films I've only seen The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover and The Pillow Book. Both of those films are complete mindfucks that changed my life.

    The Cook employs one of the most brilliant uses of color and theatrical staging in recent memory: whereas Baz Luhrmann is a postmoderm buffet of color, The Cook is, to me, much more like an artist's study of color. How color is tied to emotion (love, anger, greed, jealousy) and ideals (cleanliness, intelligence). Helen Mirren owns that film. It's a film I may only need to see one more time in my life because it had such an etching effect on my brain.

    Pillow Book caught me by surprise, came into my life without any warning, and it split me right up the middle. It is one of the most phenomenal narrative games. In this film, Greenaway is asking questions about the frame itself, inserting those little squares across the top with alternative angles and action. It is relentless: and perfect and beautiful. I love the bizarre, Electra-ish storyline and the intensity, how every action in the film carries so much burden. I saw it again with my boyfriend a year ago, and sadly, much of its power had faded for me. But I remember the topsy-turvyness of the first time I saw it. That I can't forget.

    What do you think of him?

  4. Charles,

    Your distinction between different types of fear is well-delineated, and so caught my attention. It was particularly interesting for me, as much of the work that I do is concerned with the interplay of critical thought and feeling -- of logic and emotion.

    I'm reminded of something Paz said in The Double Flame:

    "To live is also to think, and sometimes to cross that boundary that separates thought and feeling: poetry."

    It would seem, then, that the line-break is a device that allows the poet to evoke feeling via fear (perhaps specifically through anxiety) and thus cross the boundary Paz is referring to -- ironically, by 'bounding' his thought via said line-breaks.

    Interesting stuff. And good to meet you, too.

  5. By the way -- who was the moderator that spoke of this 'anxiety'? I'd love to read his work, if there is any, on this subject.

  6. Oh lord, he's my favorite. Well, next to Lynch and um, well crap, the list is too long. He is, a painter, you know, classically trained, all that, that's why the scenes in Cook were so brilliant, like classical English paintings, mid century, that opening shot with the truck full of food and the dogs lolling about, breathtaking, and yes the colors, the reds and the shifts between the bathroom scenes and the dinner scenes, but wait! YOU MUST RENT DROWNING BY NUMBERS IMMEDIATELY!!!! My favorite of his, and see if you can keep part of your brain apart enough to count all the way through, numbers, counting, games, stunning, really. Then get really stoned and watch Prospero's Books, which is really a mind fuck. We'll talk after.

  7. p.s. Zed and two Naughts is also gorgeous but very disturbing, wonderful, featuring the creepiest song ever written The Teddy Bear's Picnic.

  8. I'm a huge BL fan, too, Strictly Ballroom is on my list of top 10 movies. Thought his Verona was splendid.

  9. Zed and Two Naughts is surprising in its oddity, even for Greenaway. The Cook is just hands down overwhelming. Nice comments about the LINE. I used to feel much more "anxiety" over line breaks. Now, I don't think of them really. Weird.

  10. Rebecca, I've added them to my list.

    A. J., the moderator was Jorn Ake. He has two books: Asleep in the Lightning Fields and The Circle Line, which is forthcoming from (I believe) Red Hen.

  11. I think anxiety or "being anxious" also carries some anticipation in it. I love anticipating line breaks--the end of the line is coming up and I can just...feel...it. Or not, and I go back and feel it the next day. An undergrad prof once gave my class a good exercise--he typed up a poem (Galway Kinnell's that ends in "to be the flames") as a paragraph and had us all break the lines where we thought best. I'd use this exercise if I taught poetry writing.

    Breaks inside lines are also worth a mention. Though I'm ultimately not wild about it, I admit I'm fond of a lot of the breaks in my poem Brave Haircut--I had a helluva fun time making them and would like to try more in that kind of format.

    I'm also a big Greenaway fan. I had to buy The Cook, The Thief soundtrack just for that young boy's solo "Have mercy uPON me...WaAHahash me...til I am whiter than snow." Another director who uses color stunningly is Julie Taymor--her Titus is very intense (I think some don't like it just because they don't like the wacky play)...color-saturated and, I think, visually thrilling--worth it, really, just for the opening few scenes. She also did Frida.


    PS--Xander! I love a boy with sweet taste.

  12. Emily --

    Robert Pinsky does this in his book, The Sounds of Poetry, with a William Carlos Williams poem. (The poem is from the last (?) section of Pictures from Brueghel.) It's illuminating and fun to see Pinsky weave through a poem as he does. It might help for those future teaching duties to have a text of some sort, so I thought I'd mention it. : )

  13. Very interesting post and conversation. I don't have anxiety about the line per se, but I do sort of obsess over the container in which the line sits -- by this I mean alternating from couplets to tercets to block to stanzas and how this impacts my perception of line. After three or four variations I begin to get a sense of several lines that absolutely must have certain end words. It is this surety that then drives the revision and drafting process further.

    Rebecca, I saw The Cook several times in the theater about fifteen years ago and remember, at both shows, half the audience getting up and walking out, which seemed both absurd and funny that a work of art could affect them like that. I recently rented the movie and watched it again and was really taken by color. The movie is a sort of grotesque, over-the-top in every sense of the word, but it is a brilliant movie. One of my all-time favorite movies is Fellini's 8 1/2.