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.
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.