Guest Post by Susanna J. Mishler: Line, Please!

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?

We speak of a poetic line as being “broken,” but to me this seems inaccurate. If the line is one of the trademarks of prosody—one of the things that makes a poem—then shouldn’t we say instead that a line is “completed?” What’s actually “broken” isn’t the line; the poetic line itself—if it serves the rest of the poem—is always intact. What’s broken is often the syntax, or the sentence, or the sense-making that the line is part of. The line itself may be complete without making complete sense. That is, a line may be exactly what it needs to be in a poem without being grammatically self- contained. James Longenbach, in his book, The Art of the Poetic Line, considers William Carlos Williams’ poem, “To A Poor Old Woman”

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 

good to her

You can see it by
the way she gives herself

to the one half
sucked out in her hand

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!

SUSANNA J. MISHLER’s collection of poems, Termination Dust (Boreal Books/Red Hen Press), was a finalist for a 2015 Lambda Literary Award. Her poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review Online, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She’s the recipient of a Peter Taylor Fellowship from the Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop and an Alaska Literary Award from The Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation. She lives in Anchorage and earns her living as an electrician. You can find her online at

1 thought on “Guest Post by Susanna J. Mishler: Line, Please!”

  1. Lineation also has an aesthetic dimension. Lines are simply easier to read than paragraphs and are more relaxing to the eye. We feel emotionally and mentally freed by all the extra white space.

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