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, April 8th in Anchorage! Learn more and register here. Walking the Line is a hands-on four hour workshop for poets, prose writers, and readers of all stripes. See you there!

Note: This post originally appeared in January 2016 in advance of Susanna’s well-attended and well-received Walking the Line class in Juneau. We’re pleased to now off this 49 Writers class in Anchorage, too. – JP 

Susanna J. Mishler’s poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Iowa Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Mid-American Review, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. Her first collection of poems, Termination Dust, was published by Red Hen Press/Boreal Books in 2014. Susanna holds an MFA in Poetry from The University of Arizona in Tucson, where she served as a poetry editor for Sonora Review. She’s the recipient of a Peter Taylor Fellowship in Poetry from the Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop, and the Bill Waller Writing Award from the University of Arizona.

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