for Kenneth Gross
The flow of words in a poem fluctuates,
as does a beck, in speed and steadiness.
Form is the channel into which you pour
your words, line by line defining
the channel’s shape, its containing edge.
Without edge, form would be invisible,
almost inaudible – like muffled shapes and sounds in mist.
Without line, your words would spill
until they met the printer’s margin –
arbitrary limit, solid wall, unyielding ridge.
A beck’s channel is formed by the lie of the land,
the water’s unceasing motion. Your words are water.
Line-length brings shape as to a moving body
and the stream is held in check
by two banks of space.
Words can dally, run, course, glide, pour, roll, fall, speed, rush;
they can trickle, gurgle. babble, ripple, cascade, tumble.
Sometimes they surge and flood the banks, irrepressible.
There are limits to your control. You know by the swirling whorl
resisting the line’s tug that water is wilful.
The beck has its own unruly life, which your rules channel.
In reading, as in writing, line cannot determine
sense, which emerges with the sentence
as you guide your way downstream;
and yet line alters how you navigate
what lies ahead. Be alert to the line’s length;
to the turn as it ends before the sentence
and to the points where, artificially contained,
it meets a sudden stop.
Enjambment gives the subtle flow
of the beck’s onward motion.
A stretch of end-stopped lines
is like a basin penning in the words.
A break mid-line, like a protruding rock,
divides the water – but only for a moment.
The stanza is a natural pool made by a shelf or dip;
here you pause and note the silence
before and after.
First, still yourself on one side of the water
then look to the far bank as you sing each line.
Attend to the sudden inlets, jutting promontories
and let these subtly interrupt your breath.
A listener must hear
in the stream’s flow
and picture in their mind’s eye
what you, the writer, already know:
how the water is so wide and shallow beneath the bridge
you can hear it ripple on the pebbles
which hold the flickering shadows of fish;
how it wanders lazily through open fields
then straightens, steadies, stills;
how it narrows and deepens
to a pool
under the leaning ash
then meets the lip of the fall with a roaring rush.
Listen for the beck’s spirit
in its voice; watch for it
in the dancing line on the page.