The Line: Here
Three of the grand mysteries: What makes a poem? What makes a stanza? What makes a poetic line?
James Longenbach opens his most recent book on the craft of writing with this quote from George Oppen: “The meaning of a poem is in the cadences and the shape of the lines and the pulse of the thought which is given by those lines.” For the next 120-odd pages Longenbach details his opinions on The Art of the Poetic Line.
The first two sentences of the book read thus: “Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines. More than meter, more than rhyme, more than images or alliteration or figurative language, line is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry, rather than some other kind of writing.” He goes on to say (though I am still quoting only the preface): “The line’s function is sonic, a way of organizing the sound of language, and only by listening to the effect of a particular line in the context of a particular poem can we come to understand how lines work.”
Longenbach’s chapters include: “Line and Syntax” (one intriguing statement in this chapter: “Rather than thinking about what often gets called ‘line breaks,’ it’s more helpful to think about ‘line endings’: syntax may or may not break at the point where the line ends”); “Ending the Line” (“By holding us back, [William Carlos Williams’] lines keep us racing forward”); and “Poem and Prose.” He’s even got a helpful section on “Further Reading” (suggestions include: Mary Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, Ellen Bryant Voigt’s “Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song” and Charles Olson's “Projective Verse.”) There is plenty to discover about The Art of the Poetic Line in Longenbach’s book.
And, while you’re considering the line, be sure to read Denise Levertov’s 1979 essay, “On the Function of the Line." “Not only hapless adolescents, but many gifted and justly esteemed poets writing in contemporary nonmetrical forms, have only the vaguest concept, and the most haphazard use, of the line,” says Levertov. “Yet there is at our disposal no tool of the poetic craft more important, none that yield more subtle and precise effects, than the line-break if it is properly understood.”
Have no use for what Levertov had to say about the line in 1979 or what Olson wrote in 1950? Consider reading Center: A Journal for the Literary Arts. Their 2008 issue features a Symposium on the Line. Some quotes from this issue:
“When a line is perfect, it has the completeness of a highway onramp—it has its own structure, its own intelligence, and it transports the reader to something larger.”
--J. P. Dancing Bear
“For starters, line is an architectural device that suggests what is profoundly interior, bringing up pause, hesitation, the heard and the visual sense—oh, I get it—of something coming into being, right now. That interiority works directly against the bright light, rational feel of the sentence—the very public sentence threaded down the page to make those lines.”
“I’ve come to respect that the line-break can be a kind of litmus to test the intentional dimensions of the whole…It samples and resamples the acoustical contours of the line, varies the line’s visual and architectural blueprint, reconfigures the poem’s vertical and horizontal landscape, interrupts or reestablishes the underlying meter/stress/breaths of the line, and, of course, confirms or alters the line’s semantic life. Even if we revert to the original line, each time we break a line during revision, we get a better understanding of the manifold potential of the poem.”
I’ll close this post with the final words of Longenbach’s book, hoping you’ll follow the trail to some of the reading I’ve suggested herein: “Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines, I said it at the beginning of the book. If that statement once seemed provocative, I hope it now seems like old news. Only a great poem could make it interesting again.”
Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...