Lineated time

Some thoughts on the line in poetry

Prague astronomical clock. Photo by Andrew Shiva.

Two problems, first of beginning, then of cohering, beset me as I worried the topic of this talk. Beginning and cohering, obviously, elementary features of typical expository forms, but problematic, more so for a topic that one finds, at the same time, fundamental and elusive, elusive because fundamental, in one’s own practice of reading and writing.

But here are three thoughts to possibly begin with:

First, the poem as a field of perception, with a focus on semiotic-semantic (prosodic-semantic) slippages as opposed to an anthropocentric view that designates the poet’s breath as central to the poem;

Second, the potency of the poem as a space for resisting disinterested modes of perception through a reading of the formal choices made in the poem, and;

Third, an ekphrasis that thinks about attention and modes of attention instead of descriptions of or narrative speculations on the painterly subject matter.

I take the line in poetry, the poetic line, as a potential place of convergence, a topos for elaborating these three fields of concern. In the third thesis of his fascinatingly rigorous polemic, titled Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art, Alain Badiou writes of an art “that is the process of a truth,” a truth “that is always the truth of the sensible or sensual, the sensible as sensible,” and further writes of this artistic truth as neither “a copy of the sensible world nor a static sensible expression.”[1]

An artistic truth, then, “that is a new proposition about a new definition of what is our sensible relation to the world.”[2] The minor project, which I want to explore in today’s talk, is of the line, and the possibilities offered by the line in terms of renewing our sensible relation to the world.

constant change figures

constant change figures
the time we sense
passing on its effect
surpassing things we’ve known before
since memory
of many things is called
but what of what
we call nature’s picture
surpassing things we call
since memory
we call nature’s picture
surpassing things we’ve known before
constant change figures
passing on its effect
but what of what
constant change figures
since memory
of many things is called
the time we sense
called nature’s picture
but what of what
in the time we sense
surpassing things we’ve known before
passing on its effect
is experience[3]

One possible way of reading the Hejinian poem above is to think of it as a poetic demonstration of the Hegelian critique of the Kantian perception of experience. Kant, by relegating all knowledge to the transcendental consciousness, the “I think” (as separate from the “I am”), disallows experience from ever becoming knowledge. Hegel, on the other hand, designates experience as the very essence of the subject. Giorgio Agamben elucidates the point further by quoting from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: “The dialectic movement which consciousness exercises on itself, and which affects both its knowledge and its object is precisely what is called experience [Erfahrung].”[4]

Keeping to this reductive reading, we can go on and conclude that what the poem “constant change figures” merely does is poeticize the Hegelian concept of experience through an unfolding and meshed relationship between change, time, experience, memory, and “nature’s picture.” But what keeps “constant change figures” from being a mere container of poeticized thought is its wonderful wielding of the line. “Wonder” from the Old English “wundrian” meaning to be astonished. Hejinian’s lines transform language itself into experience. Through the minimal shifts in meaning that result from the changing positions of repeating lines, one experiences experience as memory, as déjà vu, as present memory. The sameness of the lines is analogous to our very experience of chronology — that of one durational moment after another. Taken in relation to the book where “constant change figures” belongs, The Book of A Thousand Eyes, Hejinian’s homage to One Thousand and One Nights, and taking “constant change figures” as representative of one night, one can read the said night as an attempt at deferring the ending by extending duration, and extending presentness itself.

A line then which, along with and in relation to other prosodic and syntactic units of composition, configures, apart from describes, our temporal relation to a spatiotemporal peopled world.


A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a
single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All
this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The
difference is spreading.[5]

On one end of the spectrum, the problem with ekphrasis that is content with describing, or narrativizing the figures in its subject matter, is that more often than not the resulting description or story is already implicit in the artwork itself. Interesting stories may result, but the far more wonderful encounter, that with new forms of visuality, with new ways of dealing with visuality, is ignored. On the other end of the spectrum, ekphrasis with the intent of duplicating visual modes of perception in language fails when the transference verges on the literal or the analogical. I quote here Gertrude Stein as a counterexample to both ends of the spectrum, and also to note that while the openness of Steinian texts has generated a variety of wonderful readings, those that focus on her poems as a sort of “verbal cubism” somehow diminish the power of Steinian modes of description by reading them as a replication of visual modes of perception into linguistic modes of representation. (Needless to say “verbal cubism” has already achieved the status of a canned response to Steinian texts, almost already cited along with her relationship with Picasso.) The attempt at simultaneous, multiple perspectives, which cubism deftly executes in the visual space, is an a priori failed attempt in language because one pursues spatial logic in language’s primarily temporal domain.

I turn to the lines of Barbara Guest, in particular the poem “Nebraska,” for examples of lines that exhibit an astute awareness of the limitations of linguistically working with visual modes, yet at the same time are able to create something out of such limitations. Although borrowing from painterly modes of impressionistic perception, one must not read here an attempt at copying visual reality. One must read neither a supplementary “Nebraska” (enhancing representations of an actual one) nor a complementary “Nebraska” (forming an image of an “essential” Nebraska). One can read an invented, a potential “Nebraska,” even, poised at the sensible space where the actual and virtual meet.


Climate succumbing continuously as water gathered
into foam or Nebraska elevated by ships
withholds what is glorious in its climb like
a waiter balancing a waterglass while the tray
slips that was necklace in the arch of bridge
now the island settles linear its paragraph of tree
vibrates the natural cymbal with its other tongue
strikes an attitude we have drawn there on the limb
when icicle against the sail will darken the wind
eftsooning it and the ways lap with spices as
buoyancy once the galloping area where grain
is rinsed and care requires we choose our walk

And the swift nodding becomes delicate
smoke is also a flow the pastoral calm where
each leaf has a shadow fortuitous as word
with its pine and cone its seedling a curl
like smoke when the ashy retrograding slopes
at the station up or down and musically
a notation as when smoke enters sky
The swift nodding becomes delicate
“lifelike” is pastoral an ambrosia where calm
produces a leaf with a shadow fortuitous as word
with its pine and cone its seedling we saw
yesterday with the natural flow in our hand
thought of as sunlight and wisely found rocks
sand that were orisons there a city in
our minds we called silence and bird droppings
where the staircase ended that was only roof

Hallucinated as Nebraska the swift blue
appears formerly hid when approached now it
chides with a tone the prow striking a grim
atmosphere appealing and intimate as if a verse
were to water somewhere and hues emerge
and distance erased a swan concluding bridge
the sky with her neck possibly brightening
the machinery as a leaf arches through its yellow
syllables to Nebraska’s throat[6]

The lines in “Nebraska” push language to its syntactical limit while still keeping to the basic order of reading in English — that of the movement of the reading eye from left to right, top to bottom (this as opposed to, say, examples from visual poetry which make one question or even abandon said typical order of reading). By moving from left to right, then top to bottom, by keeping with the sequential expectations of normative syntax but at the same time relying more on nonsyntactical elements of language for its meaning-making, “Nebraska” complicates our experience of space by looking at possibilities of experiencing space when space is stretched in a temporal domain. A domain where “eftsooning” is a verb, and a swan from the imagined Nebraska shares its neck with the bridge, the sky, and Nebraska itself, allowing Nebraska to sing a yellow syllable from its throat.

Agamben, reading the linguist Gustave Guillaume, notes that our typical representation of time as an infinite line, segmented according to past-present-future, is an inadequate time-image because it is too perfect: “It shows us a time already constructed, but it does not show time in the act of constructing itself in the thought.”[7] As a solution to this, Guillaume defines an operational time, the time it takes the mind to realize the time-image. A fuller representation of time, then, is no longer a simple linear representation but a contiguous representation consisting of: 1.) a representation of chronological time (chronological time being the time where we are, but also which Agamben notes is where we are powerless spectators of ourselves), and 2.) an operational time. This fuller, contiguous representation is what Guillaume refers to as a chronogenetic time, “a time which includes its own genesis,”[8] that shows how time temporalizes itself. Earlier in the same essay, Agamben acknowledges that our simplistic “spatial representation of time — the point, the line, the segment, the circle, etc. — is responsible for a falsification that makes our time experience unthinkable.”[9]

Perhaps we can turn to the line in poetry as a means to make manifest, if not to represent, the incongruencies of our thinking of time with our experience of it. In Hejinian’s “constant change figures,” we are poised at the meaning-making that happens as the syntactical units of word and phrase brush up against the line and the repetition of the same lines; in Guest’s “Nebraska” the visual-representational mode finds itself in a syntactic-temporal domain. But what is missing thus far from these examples is the person. In both examples, the person is outside the motion of these lines. Though there is a we in both the Hejinian and Guest examples, and a waiter, even, in the poem “Nebraska,” these are not actively feeling persons but rather figures — exempt from the anxieties, frustrations, wonder, the various affective states generated as a person experiences a time that is thinkable but nonrepresentable and vice versa. I turn to Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s long lines as experiencing these complex affective states:


The sky and movement of clouds figure in the issue of the frame of the spring, just as
a freeze fifty years ago figures in the tension of vegetation regarding its boundaries, now.
Touching the body, its waste and involuntary movements figure in tensions regarding her
relating planets to moon in a strip above the spring. She talks of contained space,
as if frame were sometime made in the body, that might be stepped on, not tripped over,
slippage between her family existence and establishing imprecise area. She walks by.
The spring reflects her looking and space around her. Then space is rejected for internal
shifts of weight and balance, highly charged as sky next to the left side of his face.
His body is a response I get from somewhere else, as if things began telling my thoughts,
rocks, red crows, while she stays on the periphery of what I see and hear.
Everything’s in the field to designate and stabilize, plants evenly spaced by water.
A pellet of sand rolls down, leaving a trail behind. In-depth seriality takes time, blur,
static and transient ecological interference into a memory with the frame built in.[10]

In Berssenbrugge’s “Pollen,” we encounter the person actively feeling their way at the site of a spatiotemporal unfolding and creation. The long lines in their various enjambments, excursions, and digressions tenuously hold together temporal and spatial precepts as they are actively felt through various referential frames — the frame of the spring, the frame of the body, the frame of memory — such that a moment of order, both recognized and felt, happens as we encounter the only end-stopped line in this initial section of the poem, when sound coincides with sense, in the line/sentence: “Everything’s in the field to designate and stabilize, plants evenly spaced by water.”

“In-depth seriality takes time,” the person in “Pollen” says, and also takes this time with “blur, static and transient ecological interference into a memory with the frame built in” — acknowledging that representations of perception not only take some time to find a form, but also that in the time that this coming into form happens, representations lose the noisy properties that come with perception-as-perception, the newness found in the duration between the initial encounter with landscape and the fuller/stabilized reception of it, as the landscape is committed to memory and fitted into a memory with a comfortable configuration, i.e. with “the frame built in.”

Poems are “gifted only with a feeble outer power,” Stephane Mallarme writes in his essay “Limited Action.” “I have nothing to do with the poet,” he declares: “perjure your verse.”[11] Yet despite the Mallarmean injunction, poets continue to write and read poems. Perhaps it is because we have come to accept that the poem’s power is indeed feeble if one looks at it from the point of causing mass action and bringing about wider social change. Poetry, I think, is not a service. But it is, as Badiou says, an art, and therefore a process of truth. By exploring the minimal power of the line in reconfiguring our relationship to time and hence to the sensible world, I hope that we regain confidence in this minimal power. Such reconfigurations, to me, are becoming more and more urgent and necessary, a necessity whose surface I can only scratch here, for now, as I come to the concluding remarks of today’s talk. Here and elsewhere, our experience of time is mediated by empire: as monetized data through various social media and platform-think business models, or as outsourced time with follow-the-sun models that “follow the sun” of global capital. I hope that in turning to the line, we are reminded that we must pursue and generate choices, a relationship with time, outside our given chronologies.

1. Alain Badiou, “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary ArtLacanian Ink 22 (December 2003).

2. Badiou.

3. Lyn Hejinian, The Book of a Thousand Eyes (Richmond, CA: Omnidawn Publishing, 2012), 177.

4. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, qtd. in Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron (London and New York: Verso, 2007), 33. 

5. Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2014), 11.

6. Barbara Guest, ed. Hadley Guest, Collected Poems of Barbara Guest (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), 101–102.

7. Giorgio Agamben, “The Time That Is Left,” Epoché 7, no. 1 (2002): 4.

8. Agamben, “The Time That Is Left,” 5.

9. Agamben, “The Time That Is Left,” 4.

10. Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Four Year Old Girl (Berkeley, CA: Kelsey St. Press, 1998), 41.

11. Stephane Mallarme, Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Mary Ann Caws (New York: New Directions, 1982), 108.