Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Word Play -- "Of Time and the Line"

Charles Bernstein, poet and teacher,  experiments with poetry  and prefers "opaque" and "impermeable" writing -- to awaken readers "from the hypnosis of absorption."  In the poem below he does, as mathematicians also do, multiplies ideas by playing with them -- here using "line."

     Of Time and the Line     by Charles Bernstein

     George Burns likes to insist that he always
     takes the straight lines; the cigar in his mouth
     is a way of leaving space between the
     lines for a laugh.  He weaves lines together
     by means of a picaresque narrative;
     not so Hennie Youngman, whose lines are strict-
     ly paratactic.  My father pushed a
     line of ladies' dresses -- not down the street
     in a pushcart but upstairs in a fact'ry
     office.  My mother has been more concerned 
     with her hemline.  Chairman Mao put forward
     Maoist lines, but that's been abandoned (most-
     ly) for the East-West line of malarkey
     so popular in these parts.  The prestige
     of the iambic line has recently
     suffered decline, since it's no longer so
     clear who "I" am, much less who you are.  When
     making a line, better be double sure
     what your lining in & what you're lining
     out & which side of the line you're on; the
     world is made up so (Adam didn't so much
     name as delineate).  Every poem's got
     a prosodic lining, some of which will 
     unzip for summer wear.  The lines of an
     imaginary are inscribed on the
     social flesh by the knifepoint of history.
     Nowadays, you can often spot a work
     of poetry by whether it's in lines
     or no; if it's in prose, there's a good chance
     it's a poem.  While there is no lesson in
     the line more useful than that of the pick-
     et line, the line that has caused the most ad-
     versity is the bloodline.  In Russia
     everyone is worried about long lines;
     back in the USA, it's strictly soup-
     lines.  "Take a chisel to write," but for an
     actor a line's got to be cued.  Or, as
     they say in math, it takes two lines to make
     an angle but only one lime to make
     a Margarita.

© Charles Bernstein. Used by permission of the author, reprinted from All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010). For more information, visit the Electronic Poetry Center.  
I first found this Bernstein poem (dated 1991) in the collection Postmodern American Poetry, edited by Paul Hoover (Norton, 1994).  The terms quoted above, prior to the poem, are selected from Hoover's introduction to Bernstein's work.  
See this 12 September 2012 posting for a poem by Martha Collins that also plays with meanings of "line."

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