What is a poetic line, exactly? What difference does it make where the line “breaks?” When we look at words on a page we can instantly identify a poem because a poem is lineated. Lines (or their conspicuous absence) are a large part of what makes a poem a poem. How does a poet decide where the line begins and ends? Why bother with lines at all?
munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand
They taste good to her They taste good to her.
They taste good
to her. They taste
You can see it by
the way she gives herself
sucked out in her hand Comforted
a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her
We can hear how the sentence, “They taste good to her,” changes with each lineation. The first iteration of it is self-contained, the next two each emphasize different words in the sentence and therefore make different music: “They taste good to her,” and, “They taste good to her.” Each of these lines are complete, and in their completion they give us an experience of savoring fruit. That a sentence is repeated three times with different lineation and emphasis helps us linger on the woman as the she lingers on her plums. Further, it is through the sentence’s peculiar repetition and permutation that we may taste the plums as if they are our own.
To speak of a poetic line being “broken” rather than “completed” also mistakenly elevates the sense-making or sentence-making of the line above its sonic qualities. A line is more a unit of sound and rhythm than it is a packet of information, or a visual device. Through sound and the line’s relationship to syntax, it creates an experience for the reader which is embedded in the larger experience of the poem it participates in. Lines use syntax to sculpt sound.
This larger experience of the poem is much more than a description of something or an articulation of an idea. Longenbach argues that a great poem “does not simply describe a movement of thought; it embodies and complicates that movement through the relationship of syntax and line.” The poetic line’s relationship to syntax and sentence is not fixed—an iambic line, for instance, is not a tool which only does one thing. The same lineation strategy—the iamb—can do vastly different things in a poem, depending on the poem’s syntax and subject. The music of one poet’s thinking is never the same as another’s.
I hope you’ll join me for a discussion of—and experimentation with—the poetic line on Saturday, January 30th in Juneau (Learn more and register here). Walking the Line
is a hands-on 3-hour workshop for poets, prose writers, and readers of all stripes. See you there!