Author's Note: This essay was originally presented as a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution. Many thanks to Atom Atkinson and the organizers of the Chautauqua Literary Arts Program.
In the weeks in the run-up to Easter, my nana, Pastora Mendoza, teases for breakfast the raw egg from the pinhole she’s carefully punctured in order to keep the eggshell whole and unbroken. After she has washed and dried it, she’ll save the shell safely back in its carton. With four or five dozen collected, she’ll color the shells—dipping them in dyes, ladling and cradling the empty eggs with a tablespoon. After she paints them, bright pastels for the season, she fills them with paper-punched confetti and seals the eggs again with colored tape and crepe paper.
These false eggs, these illusions, are called in Spanish cascarones. Long before they were broken over the heads of mis primos y primas, they were brought to Mexico from Asia. Chicana scholar Adrianna M. Santos tells us that some believe they arrived as early as the sixteenth century via the Manila galleons, while others cite the Empress Carlotta as a significant importer of the tradition during her husband Emperor Maximilian’s brief imperialist reign in Mexico in the 1860s. The hollowed eggs had been popular in Europe—specifically, Spain and Italy—for centuries since Marco Polo supposedly introduced them after his return from China. Apparently, in the Chinese tradition, the eggshells held not confetti but perfumes, scented powders, and the sweetness of rosewater, for courting one’s beloved.
As a young Chicano and Chinese American, I never knew the cascarones’ longer history. I didn’t know, as I was cracking the eggshells over unsuspecting tíos and tías, that I was wielding an object and craft with a longer, more complex history that drew a connecting line between the two sides of my heritages. It is ironic that the cascarone, for me, serves as both something that both breaks and connects; and in this way, I see it as similar to my own understanding of the poetic line.
With the artful craft of the cascarone in mind—a structure made to be cracked or broken—we might consider the practice of the verse line by looking at the relationship between prose and verse, and turning our attention to poets who have made verse by breaking prose.
In the late 1970s, the Language poet Ron Silliman articulated poetry’s “madeness” in terms of a “gesture” resistant to capitalism’s erasure of the relationship between what is made and the hands of the maker that made it. His writing specifically introduces the poem’s potential to retain the poet’s gesture. Thinking across genres and the standardization of prose texts over time within publishing practices, Silliman notes that poetry “remains . . . the only genre in which spelling may be unconventional without a specific narrative justification” (“Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World,” 17).
It is interesting to extend Silliman’s discussion of gesture to the action of the poetic line. If the narrative prose paragraph treats the printed word as a transparent window into the world of setting, character, and plot—an illusion that Silliman’s chapter title describes as the “disappearance of the word, appearance of the world”— then, in contrast, the verse line literally breaks the figure of the window and draws attention to the fracture, the splitting: the medium itself no longer transparent but a foregrounded text that calls attention to itself as a made thing.
Whether writing a line to fit the expectations of a measured syllabic and/or accentual length or writing in so-called free verse, the verse line, when compared to prose, foregrounds the poet’s choices regarding not simply what is said but how it is presented on the page— and that how carries meaning as well as the poet’s gesture, in some ways the poet’s signature.
In my poetry classes, I often ask my students how they experience, as readers, the difference between verse and prose. Some students say the verse line makes them read more slowly. Others say that it makes them read faster. Others say the line pressures them, gives them anxiety, because the line must be the way it is for a reason—and they feel they need to say something smart about that reasoning.
To my beginning poetry students, the notion of gesture is often a foreign one. Fewer and fewer of them are writing longhand. Most of them haven’t done much thinking about technologies of artistic reproduction. Indeed, many students in their initial poem drafts choose to center their poems—allowing their word processors to dictate the placement of their lines into invariable diamond and hourglass shapes.
I was like them. I loved music and was mystified by lyrics, often searching for their written forms in liner notes. Often these, too, were centered, or presented in a cursive font that was supposed to look like the pen of the songwriter. My attraction to the verse line was no doubt because it seemed like a resistance to what I was supposed to do when I sat down to write anything for school. The line seemed like a gesture of expression that wasn’t the sentence, wasn’t the complete thought, which I rarely thought in or felt compelled to complete. While I wouldn’t have been able to express this at the time, looking back now, I recognize my own feelings of incompleteness, of in-betweenness, the inchoate and fragmentary feelings of a becomingness or an ongoingness. Perhaps poetry and its curious performance of gestural lines—sometimes reticent, sometimes ranting, sometimes pensive— seemed like a site for, not the expression of self, but the construction of the self I longed for and stumbled to find.
The poet Joshua Clover cites the French theorist Jacques Lacan and his observation that readers of a sentence do not find out that sentence’s complete meaning until they have reached its closing period. Because of the line break’s partial, period-like pauses, the verse line, as Clover points out, can offer, then, multiple partial meanings. Here, we might think of the frame rate of film or its technological precursor the flip book. With each discrete line break the integrity, the meaning and intention, of a line might change, might surprise, but ultimately accrues its effect and affect while maintaining its multiplicity of meaning, its diversity of possibilities.
What does it mean to attend to verse as, in the words of a recent title for an anthology of essays on the line, “a broken thing”? The etymology of “prose” suggests that it is “straightforward,” while the etymology of “verse” is agrarian in nature and suggests “a turn of the plow.” Turns of phrase, like turning a corner, casually around the bend or perilously on a dime, are about surprise: the possibility of not seeing what is coming, and the abrupt changing of a moment and its meaning. Attending to the break is to focus on the site of rupture. Here, then, we might see the traditional importance placed on the end and the start of verse lines as attending to that fault line, the eruption, the location where things stopped being straightforward.
In her peripatetic book of poetics, Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil, the poet C. D. Wright discusses how it was the poet Keith Waldrop who shared with her the fact that W. B. Yeats began the Oxford Book of Modern Verse —the edition he edited in 1936—with a prose passage by the nineteenth-century English critic, Walter Pater, that Yeats had reorganized and retyped into discrete verse lines. Wright reflects:
I became once-and-for-all-time suspicious of line laws. If the Irish bard can open the quintessential English anthology of verse with an example of the precise, refined, and subtle prose of Pater . . . the only thing that seems clear to me about the line, is that the melody of the language can be made visible if it falls under the right eye. (Cooling Time, 92)
What might we discern from Yeats’s eye and sense of melody? What might we discern by tracing the breaks at the site of their split and rupture—the ends and starts of the lines? Here’s Yeats’s breaking of Pater’s prose:
She is older than the rocks among which she sits;
Like the vampire,
She has been dead many times,
And learned the secrets of the grave;
And has been a diver in deep seas,
And keeps their fallen day about her;
And trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants:
And, as Leda,
Was the mother of Helen of Troy,
And, as Saint Anne,
Was the mother of Mary;
And all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and
Only in the delicacy
With which it has moulded the changing lineaments,
And tinged the eyelids and hands.
My ear detects the repetition of sounds at the ends of the lines. For example, I hear patterns of echo in “she sits,” “merchants,” “flutes,” and “lineaments”; or in “vampire” and “about her”; or those e sounds in “seas,” “Leda,” “Troy,” “Mary,” and “delicacy.”
Turning to the start of the lines, Yeats has organized all those ands together, creating anaphora—a beginning refrain that is instrumental to memorization, rhetoric, and speech. Indeed, we might say that Yeats has located and pulled those subordinated phrases from the prose in order to emphasize the rhetoric, to underscore the text as a spoken act, and to emphasize the gesture of performed speech.
Finally, it’s important to remember that Yeats is placing this at the start—the first poem, in fact—of his selection of examples of modern verse. Those ands then speak to continuity while reinforcing the sentence’s initial claim that the Mona Lisa is also connected to a longer tradition—“older than the rocks.” Yeats seems to suggest that “modern poetry” is less a break from the past than a conscious connecting and rearranging of what has come before, much like how the poet has “moulded the changing lineaments.”
Moving ahead some twenty years, we find another example of molding verse from published prose. The poet José García Villa was born in the Philippines, studied at University of New Mexico, eventually became part of the artist scene in New York’s West Village of the 1950s, and ran writing workshops in his apartment. One of the exercises he gave his students was to “adapt” prose into verse. It was a practice that he himself had engaged in for years, and in his Selected Poems and New, published in 1958, Villa included a portfolio of these poems, which he then called “Adaptations.” In the book, Villa provides a note on the poems and their curious composition. Here’s what he says:
The Adaptations are poems: from prose.
They are experiments in the conversion of prose, through technical
manipulation, into poems with line movement, focus and shape, as against
The work, apart from the choice of material, has consisted mainly in constructing
in verse what originally exists as prose.
. . . In connection with this experiment of converting prose into
poetry, William Carlos Williams has something pertinent to say in his
Selected Letters. “Prose can be a laboratory for metrics.”
The particular “Adaptation” I like to share with my students is Villa’s versification of prose found in the diary of the French philosopher Simone Weil. Villa titles his poem “To Become an Archer”:
To become an archer,
You should be for two
Years under a loom and not blink Y
our eyes when the shuttle
Shoots back and forth:—
Then for three years
With your face turned
To the light, make a louse climb
Up a silk thread: When the
Louse appears to be
Larger than a wheel,
Than a mountain; when
It hides the sun: you may then
Shoot. You will hit it right
In the middle of the heart.
The passage itself is a how-to, a practice, or a regimen reminiscent of kung-fu training sequences. While Villa’s title states the subject as archery, we might read the poem, especially with respect to Villa’s own compositional practice, as being about line-making and versification.
Indeed, physical lines here are multiple and resonant: bowstring, arrow, loom, thread, and sightlines all converge in the poem. The indentions shuttle the verse lines back and forth, while directing our attention and asking our eyes to make a movement like the physical shuttle on a loom.
In a Paris Review interview, poet Eileen Myles speaks about her own approach to line breaks, suggesting that the line is a “scoring of attention.” Here, Myles refers to and augments the teachings of twentieth-century poets like Charles Olson and Denise Levertov, both of whom wrote on the line as a score for breath and sound. I read Villa’s versification practice as also centered on attention and the ways that line-work can fine-tune as well as direct our attention.
Indeed, we experience in the poem a kind of parallax, a trick of perception, that occurs as the louse, the object of focus, grows larger in perspective, grows to be the center of attention. I love this. I think this is the experience—the perspective and way of knowing of the poet as tinkerer, weaver, or watchmaker—of one who works with fine things, who is lost among the seductions of the small and necessary details.
Recopying a prose passage into verse lines falls under a larger umbrella of textual practices that augment a previously published text. These include techniques such as erasure, writing through, collage, and various other process- and constraint-based methods of composition. With this in mind, I want to consider the work of the contemporary poet Layli Long Soldier and her book of poems Whereas. Long Soldier is a citizen of the Ogala Lakota Nation. Her book Whereas won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. The book’s title refers to the legal and legislative jargon used in the 2009 Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans, an official apology signed by President Barack Obama. I want to look specifically at Long Soldier’s working with and rewriting of the prose text of the apology. Her practice helps further our thinking about the difference between prose and verse, and how a poet might utilize that difference as a form of critique—one that foregrounds gesture while redirecting our attention.
Appropriating and mimicking the Congressional Apology, Long Soldier uses “whereas” as anaphora and directly addresses the gesture of apologies. She writes:
WHEREAS when offered an apology I watch each movement the shoulders
high or folding, tilt of the head both eyes down or straight through
me. I listen for cracks in knuckles or in the word choice, what is it
that I want? To feel and mind you I feel from the senses—I read
each muscle, I ask the strength of the gesture to move like a poem.
Expectation’s a terse arm-fold, a failing noun-thing
I scold myself in the mirror for holding.
As Long Soldier notes elsewhere, President Obama never read the apology publicly, and so never offered an apology in a way that might demonstrate—in Long Soldier’s words—“the strength of the gesture.” What I find striking in this passage is how Long Soldier’s line breaks work through enjambment, distributing the sentences over the lines in such a way that we must linger over the ends of the lines, reading and rereading as we adjust our own expectations. Look at the end of the opening line: “I watch each movement the shoulders.” I am expecting a verb here, perhaps “make.” I watch each movement the shoulders make. Instead, we get adjectives describing shoulders as “high or folding.” The lines ask us to read and reread with the kind of care and meticulous attention that the speaker suggests is necessary for both making and accepting an apology—that engagement, that dialogue, is what Long Soldier’s line-work enacts.
With this sense of line and gesture introduced, Long Soldier then sets about rewriting and reworking the prose of the actual apology. In one section, we see Long Soldier recopying passages and removing text, not as an act of erasure, but as an act of protection.
Long Soldier explains, “I place / a black bracket / on either side of / an [idea] I cordon it / to safety” (Whereas, 82). Long Soldier shares the passages with empty spaces bracketed off in the syntax—disrupting the prose while questioning the transparency of its apologetic gesture:
On a subsequent page, we find the removed text: each word in its protective bracket, and each in its original place, but without the prose text. What we see is a free-verse poem utilizing movement and the open space of the page:
The act of removal and the need for protection direct our attention and collective memory to the unjust removal of Indigenous peoples from their land, as well as the removal of children forced to attend Indian boarding schools. In addition to these violent historical acts of dispossession, Long Soldier also presents us with the ongoing and everyday violence of sequestering funds. Between the two pages reproduced here, the poet recounts the debilitating funding cuts to reservation programs. She goes on to detail how the cuts impact vital services like heath care, and how, in Long Soldier’s specific case, they led to extraction of a tooth that simply needed repair. “Under pliers, masks, and clinical lights,” she writes, “a tooth that could’ve been saved was placed in my palm to hold after sequestration” (Whereas, 84).
Removal, cuts, sequestration, extraction—the colonial violence of these acts is met with Long Soldier’s careful sequestering of words. The violence of the US government’s prose is met with the poet’s gestural line. Long Soldier’s removal of text asks us to consider the government policy of dispossession that the official apology refers to and for which it seeks to apologize. But with the poet’s craft—the craft of the verse line—we are made to feel the limitations of that apology, made to see the emptiness of the gesture.
Later in the book, Long Soldier employs a similar strategy. Rewriting and reworking the prose from the apology’s statements of resolutions, Long Soldier crafts lineated verse lines that speak in the first person singular rather than the original document’s third person plural. Long Soldier thus finds an I-speaking voice from within the text, demonstrating the ways in which a colonized people are forced to write and speak their personhood within the colonizer’s language. Reducing and laying bare the rhetoric of the Congressional Apology, Long Soldier’s first person inhabits, indeed haunts, the original text while speaking truth to its claims of power and authority:
Here, Long Soldier’s innovative craft is in many ways the traditional craft of the poetic line—its breaking and turning of and through the speech parts of a sentence. It is important to remember how a sentence works largely by hierarchy. Consider the notion of a subordinated phrase, and how the subject of the sentence is at once an expression of agency (I do this; I do that) and an expression of subordination—as in to be a subject of or under a king, to be subjected to and within orders of power. The verse line, in its breaking, turning, pausing, disrupting of the sentence can work to critique these conventions of power; at the very least, the verse line can draw our attention to that power’s linguistic construction.
It is important for us to reckon with the fact that these writers crafting verse from prose were born within colonized geographies and were forced to negotiate the specific violence against native, heritage languages by colonizing languages. For a colonized people, language—even in prose—is never straightforward. The twists and turns of the verse line, for the colonized poet, can be the tool to finding and reclaiming language and history that have been erased. The breaks and disruption might be a way to draw our attention to the violence of colonialism. The line’s movement, its enjambment (that word’s etymology referring to the physical, bodily leg), might be a dance, but it might, too, be a kind of fugitivity, a kind of escape or running toward, or a returning and gathering gesture—the recollecting of peoples, traditions, and practices disrupted because of dislocation and diaspora.
As the poet Carl Phillips observes, “At best, when the line is in meaningful tension with the sentence, meaning itself gets endowed with a physicality that I feel at once in the head and in the gut.” I conclude by echoing Phillips, but in terms of our discussion of verse and prose. To return to Villa’s citation from Williams, what the “laboratory of prose” offers us as students (scientists, experimenters) of the line is a chance to return to the physical gesture, the bodily presence and attention that are essential to meaning-making and that can get lost in the standard box of prose. Keeping that tension—between prose and verse—in mind as we make our lines can help us keep our lines exploratory, critical, and rich in meaning. Too, understanding that tension can help us see how breaking something can lead to reconnection, can be an act of preservation and survival.
Clover, Joshua. “Notes on the Point de Capital.” In A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, ed. Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. 58–61.
Levertov, Denise. “On the Function of the Line.” In New and Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992. 78–87.
Long Soldier, Layli. Whereas. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2017.
Myles, Eileen. “The Art of Poetry No. 99.” Paris Review 214 (Fall 2015).
Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.” In Collected Prose, ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander. Berkeley: University of California Press. 239–49.
Philips, Carl. “Some of What’s in a Line.” In A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, ed. Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. 187–89.
Santos, Adrianna M. “Cascarones.” In Celebrating Latino Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Cultural Traditions, ed. Maria Herrera-Sobek. ABC-CLIO, 2012.
Silliman, Ron. “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World.” In New Sentence. New York: Roof Books, 1977. 7–18.
Villa, José García. The Anchored Angel: Selected Writings by José Garcia Villa, ed. Eileen Tabios. New York: Kaya Press, 1999.
Wright, C. D. Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005.
Yeats, W. B., ed. The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935. New York: Oxford University Press, 1936.