Thoughts on “King of the River” – Part 3

This post continues my discussion/analysis in the previous two posts about line breaks in Stanley Kunitz’s poem, “King of the River“.

Stanza 4 contains only one fewer line than the first three stanzas combined and continues the first two stanzas habit of having unpunctuated lines end in a grammatical unit, such as a phrase, the grammatical unit serving as a substitute for punctuation. The pause in such cases is less than that of either a comma or period. If a period’s pause is like a stop at a red light and a comma’s pause is like the hesitation at a yield sign, the grammatical unit’s unpunctuated pause is like approaching an intersection with neither a light nor a traffic sign, one where the absence of either is part of the warning.

For the fourth stanza’s first sentence (nine lines), Kunitz replicates the end-stopping ways used in the first two stanzas, but then, as he does in Stanza 3, he deviates — noticeably, ending Stanza 4’s next four lines with periods, following that with an unpunctuated line (“The great clock of your life”) — its prepositional phrase (“of your life”) serving as its “pause” notice, a comma-ended line, and then two more lines, one ending with a period.

If you read that stanza aloud, the effect of the punctation shift in the eight lines after its first sentence should be obvious. It is like a teacher rambling along in a lecture laced with long sentences who, suddenly, unexpectedly, hits those listening with short ones. At a minimum, it should awaken those whose minds were drifting elsewhere.

Then, in the final eight lines of Stanza 4, Kunitz varies his approach, his sentence length mixing punctuation with grammatical unit pauses, and adding new punctuation marks, the colon (twice) — its pause even briefer than a grammatical unit’s, and an exclamation point — both an attention-getter and a line slower. Finally, he inserts quotation marks (twice), both end-quotation marks slowing the pace, especially the second quotation’s final mark that ends the stanza. Coupled with the white space after it and the message its last two lines carry (“The only music is time, / the only dance is love”), a reader may pause longer to reflect upon what was just read.

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