The Autistic Line
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there
When quoting this well-known extract from the long poem Asphodel, That Greeny Flower by William Carlos Williams, I didn’t have to look up the words. I’ve been quoting these lines for years, out of my conviction that poetry matters. My old director of studies at Cambridge, Chris Bristow, told me that poetry was important because it is beautiful and it is true. “I don’t know,” he said, “what makes it beautiful and certainly not what makes it true, but I recognize it.” I have carried that belief ever since, from the days before I knew my own autism. Back then, I just thought I was weird.
So I wasn’t surprised the extract’s words were there just now when I wanted to quote them; they were beautiful words and they were true. But what wasn’t as secure was my grasp of the line endings. Oh, I thought I could feel the pressure of where the breaks needed to be, the place of the white space, the force of a word belonging to both its parent and its adoptive line, but I knew that line endings were a site of real creative energy for Williams, something he altered and played with throughout his career, often changing them even after they had been published. As it happens, I’d remembered the breaks correctly: the pressure of the white space after ‘difficult’ (the unasked question sitting in the gap), the answer sitting quietly, unobtrusively, on the next line, the startling statement that follows, forcing the question of why men might die miserably every day, and then, the killer: ‘for lack’ which sits on its own, lacking grammatical or aesthetic completion until the next line. To break the line on ‘day’ and then ‘lack’ is what makes these lines so quotable. It’s what has, I think, given them meaning and it’s why I remembered them correctly after all.
This is not an idle point of interest. My favourite book about poetry is a tiny one from 2008, by poet James Longenbach: The Art of The Poetic Line. In it, he claims that there are ‘three ways of ending the line: annotating lines, parsing lines, and end-stopped lines’ (p48) and has produced what would once have been called a monograph on grammatical pressure. He says that poetry which always parses the syntax is in danger of denying the point of its own lineation, and that purely annotated syntax can appear tricksy. I agree, and a poem made entirely of end-stopped lines can feel leaden. You need, as Longenbach suggests, to play with the tension between the grammar and the line break, and to choose according to internal pressure. I always examine the line endings of poems that take my fancy, and in my own work, it’s the area I return to and change most often. What is it that I want the line to say? This preoccupation is as present in my free verse as in my use of fixed poetic form. In ‘An offer at the Moulin Rouge’, which appears in my 2015 collection Georges Perec is my hero, one stanza is rendered as:
There’s a soft-boiled hen egg, he wanted
to tell her. Avec herbes. And a crispy bread
finger. There’s steamed gilt head sea
bass, swimming in champagne sauce.
But she’d asked for cake. Always
cake. She and her lover had shared cake,
always. That wasn’t included.
I was going for narrative drive, and the pressure of a (fictional) old courtship that didn’t, in the end, go anywhere. I wanted ‘sea / bass’ to contain sea; I wanted ‘Always’ to fall into the next line, finding its meaning heavily, wearily. But I might have chosen differently and indeed did, many times, before settling down while paying attention to internal rhythms and sound values – Eliot’s metrical ‘ghost…behind the arras’ of free verse that he discusses in the 1917 essay ‘Reflections on Vers Libre’. Look how different it might have been:
There’s a soft-boiled hen egg
he wanted to tell her. Avec herbes.
And a crispy bread finger.
There’s steamed gilt head sea bass
swimming in champagne sauce.
But she’d asked for cake.
She and her lover had shared cake, always. That wasn’t included.
It’s interesting how different the pressure is in this version. What he wants to tell her here becomes more important than the way she hears it, and avoids the nervy energy of the relationship which the published version insists on. For me, this kind of decision is crucially important in my own work and fascinating in the work of others. It is the special interest of this autistic poet.
That is not to say that all poets interested in the line break are autists, nor that all autistic poets concern themselves deeply with line breaks. But I do think that certain kinds of poetry find a special place in many autistic hearts. And I think that what this also implies is that many (most?) autistic poets work differently from neurotypical writers. I am a peripheral part of the spoken word scene in Cambridge. I am not a spoken word poet (they sometimes write their poems out in what looks like continuous prose! And do underlining for emphasis! This messes with my head) but I love hearing spoken word and I do perform my own work, fairly regularly. And of course I know many spoken word poets, both autistic and allistic. But one crucial difference between me and many spoken word poets is that I don’t stand up there and slice open my skin, to display the guts and the heart for the audience to chew on. It’s exciting when performers do this, but I never do it. My work is frequently, I am told, sad but it’s seldom unambiguously autobiographical and I seldom claim with any real veracity that this happened and this is why you should listen. That’s not my either my page or performance style. If I enact the self, it is never just myself.
One of the things I do instead in performance sounds a bit feeble here perhaps, a bit of a cop out: I shift into the white space, to perform the internal pressure. If I were to read you the poem I’ve just discussed, my voice would fall into the white space of ‘Always’. And it wouldn’t be me reading it but the persona I’d invented for this particular poem. In a sense, some of my most important influences are the Victorian dramatic monologuists, who work with character and voice and yes, line breaks. Robert Browning is such a genius of the line ending that you can feel the pressure of it but you often can’t hear even his most emphatically full rhymes, as they slip by in the compelled narrative of the line, cohering ideas but not hammering them home. The much-quoted ‘My Last Duchess’ displays this from the first four lines:
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
I love this poem so intensely that I can quote the whole thing but the only reason I can be more certain of the line breaks than I can in the Williams is that the rhymes will allow them only to be in a set place. The pressure he plays with is grammatical, not formal – other than the placing of the caesura, which is very seldom central to his line. I don’t know whether Browning was autistic (we don’t have a secret handshake extending back through centuries) but I do think the pressure of the line was his special interest.
I teach writing poetry at university level, and my students leave with a perhaps skewed conviction of the importance of the line break. Many of ‘my’ poets go out into the world obsessed with the pressure of the line ending. Harry Dell is a neurodivergent poet I taught but with whom I now perform and write, devising shows that often deal with an autistic way of seeing the world. This, from a recent poem of his:
A brain that goes in the direction it wants.
If you want a less wanky translation
it means autistic but as yet
just as well, if they’d seen it earlier
I could have cost my school thousands
and they needed the money to stop
the science block from sinking
into a mineshaft.
The mine shaft was two hundred yards away
but the building was sinking –
they spent the money on repairing the roof
The poem insists on the cracking of the definition in the annotated syntax of ‘as yet’ and the abrupt refusal of ‘to stop’ where the sense enjambs, and the white space that surrounds the line on its own refuses to allow us to read over its (unpoetic) importance. I don’t know whether Dell would have discovered this on his own, but I do know we’ve spent hours, in class and out of it, talking about line breaks. What happens, I ask my students, if we break the line here or here or here? What happens to the internal pressure of the poem? To its sound? To its meaning? To its poetic self.
So this is where I place my creative energy. I think it’s hard to be an autistic writer as for many of us, we can’t easily publicize our work. I had two novels published early on by a mainstream publisher, Abacus, and more recently had a brief return to prose fiction in my autistic novel Presenting…the Fabulous O’Learys, published by the small press Holland House. I have a poetry collection out with the indie Circaidy Gregory Press and I am fairly often published in journals and magazines. But I am a source of frustration to publishers as I can make any change required without fuss, produce anything they want almost to order, but I don’t know how to tell the world I’m here. I perform and am constructing a few longer shows but the risk then is will I actually be able to publicize them or will hide behind, get lost in, the detail of a line ending, of whether it is better that a particular character is expressed in annotated syntax or if s/he should parse the line. In my blank verse It’s a pity she’s a whore, loosely based on Ford’s play, Vinnie has just killed his lover/sister; his feelings about this shocking act are enacted mainly through the position of the line breaks. If you look at just the final word of each line here and its grammatical status, you will see that it’s the tension that makes us know Vinnie remains obsessed to the end:
She’s dead. And the baby that we made
because we shared a womb has in her womb
its cradle and its grave. I had to prevent
the marriage going on. I had to make her
triumph over everyone who’d hate.
My eyes can’t stand this pain to see her death – I swear I will avenge this bloody crime.
I killed you, lovely Annabella,
to save us both and so preserve our love
and yet I hate the one who took my love.
Steel my hand, and bravely stand my heart – for my lady, act the greatest part.
The extract insists on love, on the tensions present in this love, in this act, in this play. It is breathless and unhinged, but leads to a strong rhyming couplet to confirm the precedence of the love that is repeated in the two lines before it. This is a play that has been about love, even as it’s about incest and power. It enacts its own contradictions. And that is what interests me here, when would I should care about is raising funding.
However, it’s no more difficult actually to write for the autistic than it is for anyone. Our poetry too can be beautiful and true. Some commentators would no doubt tell you here that my poetry must be enfeebled because I am autistic. That I concentrate so hard on the line ending because I can’t go beyond it. That I can’t respond to other poetry. As recently as 2008, academic Mark Osteen edited a book called Autism and Representation (written entirely by non-autists) in which he suggested that autists write only about ourselves and largely in formulaic ways because we are incapable of a wider-ranging response and very often have read very little poetry by others. That we can’t therefore have the same level of talent as the neurotypical poet. That is not only ableist but stupid: line endings interest me because of their moral and emotional and poetic power. I know how they work because I’ve read, and been affected by, so much poetry. I don’t believe I am unique in this. My focus is of course autistic and that might well make it peculiarly intense but it doesn’t automatically have less value than it does when an allistic poet like Longenbach insists we should value it. It might, instead, have a special quality of focus. A complementary one. Any faults my poetry has (and I’m sure it has many) are not exclusive to my condition yet any merits might well be the result of that condition.
I am a poet obsessed with the line. I am an autistic poet, so it might be that the autistic focus drives this obsession. I think of it neither as a strength nor a weakness but a big part of the joy I have in my work. I hope that any pleasure others might find in it is also in part driven by my obsession and what is found there.
Caron Freeborn is autistic, perseverating on details others discard. A novelist until gradually she became a poet, her poems have been published in magazines and journals, both with and without her collaborator, photographer Steve Armitage. As part of winning the Earlyworks competition, her first full poetry collection, Georges Perec is my hero, appeared in 2015. She regularly does spoken word gigs and in 2017, was commissioned to produce an hour-long performance piece in response to the Phantom exhibition at the Ruskin Gallery in Cambridge, curated by artist Jane Boyer. With Presenting…the Fabulous O’Learys, she has also recently returned to prose fiction. Full-length books: Novels:Three Blind Mice (Abacus, 2001)Prohibitions (Abacus, 2004)Presenting…the Fabulous O’Learys (Holland House, 2017)Poetry:Georges Perec is my hero (Circaidy Gregory Press, 2015)