Henri Cole’s Best of Both Worlds

Although many of the poems in Henri Cole's Middle Earth are single-stanza free-verse sonnets, some of the moments I found most technically interesting involved indented lines. Take, for example, the opening poem, "Self-Portrait In A Gold Kimono:"

Born, I was born.

Tears represent how much my mother loves me,

shivering and steaming like a horse in rain.

My heart as innocent as Buddha's,

my name a Parisian bandleader's.

I am trying to stand.

Father is holding me and blowing in my ear,

like a glassblower on a flame.

First of all, I must note that it is difficult to reproduce indented lines accurately, owing to the discrepancy in letter sizes and kerning for all but fixed-width fonts (which are almost never used in poetry, for obvious reasons). Overall, the rule that seems to govern the indented lines in the original, printed version of this poem is that the indented line should run all the way to the margin, except in cases where doing so would create a horizontal gap between the previous line and the indented line. For the most part, this creates some degree of overlap between indented line and the previous line. One way to understand what this does to the rhythm of the poem is to consider how the lines would read without indentation:

Born, I was born.
Tears represent how much my mother loves me,
shivering and steaming like a horse in rain.
My heart as innocent as Buddha's,
my name a Parisian bandleader's.
I am trying to stand.
Father is holding me and blowing in my ear,
like a glassblower on a flame.

And also to consider how the poem would read if the indented lines were appended to the previous lines, to form long, continuous lines:

Born, I was born. Tears represent how much my mother loves me,
shivering and steaming like a horse in rain. My heart as innocent as Buddha's,
my name a Parisian bandleader's. I am trying to stand.
Father is holding me and blowing in my ear, like a glassblower on a flame.

The technique of indentation falls somewhere between these two effects, making the distance the eye travels from the previous line to the indented line not quite as great as in the case where the indented line were instead justified to the left margin, but creating some distance none the less, whereas in the long lines there is none. In this sense, the relationship between the last word of the previous line and the first word of the indented line is heightened, and the emphasis on the first word of the indented line is lessened--it is a kind of "half-line-break" or, at least, contains half of the overall effects of a full line break.

What occurs to me about how Cole employs this tactic is that he gains the effect of isolating certain ideas and images as half-broken (that is, indented) lines without the negative effects of drawing so much attention to the start of those lines. That is, he minimizes the rhythmic intensity of the break in "born. / Tears" yet swings the full weight of a line break's effect behind the break in "me, / shivering" playing on the unclear referent, momentarily presenting the possibility of the young Cole "me" shivering when, in fact, it is the tears. Likewise, Cole minimizes the rhythmic weight that falls on "rain. / My" yet still achieves singular focus on the idea of "My heart as innocent as Buddha's."

Once Cole has introduced the otherwise uninteresting word "my," he can give it weight through repetition, in keeping with the rhythm of repetition he set up in the beginning (and employs throughout this poem) with "Born, I was born." He therefore gives full weight to the break in "Buddha's / my" but only partial weight to the break in "bandleader's. / I" since "I" is not a repetition. None the less, Cole again isolates the line, "I am trying to stand" without all the inconvenience of drawing so much attention to the "I."

The most remarkable isolation, of course, is of the line "like a glassblower on a flame." Here the metaphor simultaneously retains a degree of continuity with what it describes--father blowing in young Cole's ear--but also draws attention to itself as a kind of pure metaphor, standing apart. It does so, however, by using the technique of an indented line to minimize the attention drawn to the somewhat weaker word "like."

In this sense, Cole's use of indented lines as lines which both retain continuity with the previous line and also isolate themselves as pure images or ideas represents a kind of best-of-both-worlds scenario--all the power of a line break, used appropriately, with a softened impact for the opening word of that line. Cole uses this technique masterfully in this poem to propel it into transcending the narrative into the lyric and even mythic dimensions of the poem.

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