Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Line Breaks

Here is a good poem.

The Right of Way
William Carlos Williams

In passing with my mind
on nothing in the world

but the right of way
I enjoy on the road by

virtue of the law—
I saw

an elderly man who
smiled and looked away

to the north past a house—
a woman in blue

who was laughing and
leaning forward to look up

into the man’s half
averted face

and a boy of eight who was
looking at the middle of

the man’s belly
at a watchchain—

The supreme importance
of this nameless spectacle

sped me by them
without a word—

Why bother where I went?
for I went spinning on the

four wheels of my car
along the wet road until

I saw a girl with one leg
over the rail of a balcony


It's great because of its line breaks. William Carlos Williams (to whom, in RSI-avoiding fashion, I'll henceforth refer as WCW) is writing from the perspective of one driving a car – probably, I think, at some speed.

Poets often use line-breaks rhythmically: with a view to marking out and enhancing the 'music' of the poetry. This 'unit' – the line – is the basis of all poetry. And poets typically exploit the interplay between the line and the sentence (often split across several lines or even stanzas).

WCW is clever. He uses the line as a device directly to imitate the experience he describes:
and a boy of eight who was
looking at the middle of

the man’s belly
at a watchchain—
Imagine yourself driving quickly past a scene. You're looking at the road, perhaps also keeping one eye on the rear-view mirror. Your attention is constantly having to switch.

And WCW uses his line-breaks brilliantly to convey this sense of repeated flicks of the eye – each time 'zooming in' on the interesting detail. Refining. The boy isn't looking at the man's belly: a further glance tells the speaker that he's looking at the watchchain hanging over the belly. A finer detail he at first missed.

The final stanza does the same thing, to even greater effect:
I saw a girl with one leg
over the rail of a balcony
The line-break is superbly comic. Thanks to his perspective and diverted attention, the speaker's initial impression – of a one-legged girl – is mistaken. He can only see one of her legs, as she's climbing over the balcony rail. The second line (his second glance) swiftly reveals the truth – but for that split second between lines, we (the reader) shared the speaker's slightly horrified misperception.

Clever.

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