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.”
--Marianne Boruch
“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.”
--Christina Davis
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.”

Originally Published: March 12th, 2009

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...

  1. March 12, 2009
     Annie Finch

    Thanks for bringing up this topic, Camille! It seems as if meter--or, at any rate, metrical subtext--is the elephant in the room that nobody mentions, in so many discussions about the line. I talk about this in my contribution to the issue of Center you mention, published in expanded version in Contemporary Poetry Review:

  2. March 12, 2009

    I’m very pleased to have all these references under one roof, especially for the very latest stuff from Center. J.P. Dancing Bear’s startling comparison of the poetic line to an onramp is fabulous! There’s a lot to check out here. I immediately went fishing around for some of Longenbach work, and came a cross a review of Ashbery’s recent selected prose and one of his later volumes in the Boston Review. This lead me to an essay by Marjorie Perloff, (Normalizing John Ashbery) which I’ve read before, in which she attempts to dismantle Longenbach’s appreciation of Ashbery. It’s a kind of “you can’t have him, he’s mine” screed. But she never really gets down to telling us why, and goes on and on about “breakthrough narratives”.
    You shy away from giving us your own definition of the line. Maybe that wasn’t your intention with this post, which is already doing a lot of work for us by collecting so many valuable links. But I, for one, would like to hear what you think.
    I tend to agree with Annie in her comment about “metrical subtext”. It seems difficult to even get close to a definition, or a working understanding of the line without talking about what it contains. In your first citation of Longenbach he seems to discount all of those things that we definitely need to take into account if we’re going to get anywhere. I don’t buy the “sonic” thing and “effect” is vague. Terms like these can’t substitute terms like “metrical foot”, “caesura”, “slant rhyme”, “alliteration”. etc.
    Why is “free verse” a misnomer”? Why is it not free? This might be a good place to start. That is, after we check out all these places that you’re sending us too.
    Thanks, this is fascinating stuff!

  3. March 12, 2009
     thomas brady

    Great topic!
    Here's my initial take, very quickly:
    I just want to focus on Longenbach's monumental first sentence: "Poetry is the sound of language broken into lines." (The second sentence reaffirms that 'the line' is what "distinguises our experience of poetry as poetry" without adding to the definition articulated in the first sentence re: the line.)
    Note: Longenbach says 'broken into lines' at the end of his book, instead of 'organized in lines' as he says in the beginning. 'broken into' is different than 'organized in,' but for the purposes of argument, and because he does use 'broken' to conclude his work, I use 'broken.' 'Organized' begs the question, just the same as 'broken' does. I prefer 'broken' because it's more to the point.
    Sorry for that digression. Here, again, is my take:
    Why don’t we say, rather, 'poetry is the sound made by words broken into sounds made by groups of words?’
    Isn’t this closer to what Longenbach is actually trying to say? The beauty of putting it this way is that the problem with Longenbach’s statement now becomes manifest. We see now that both sides of the equation, 'sound made by words’ and 'broken into sounds made by groups of words’ are really the same, except one side refers to a whole (language), and the other side, parts of that whole (broken into lines). But a moment’s reflection makes us realize that “language” and “lines” do not refer in Longenbach's definition to a closed system: the “lines” do NOT result from “the breaking of the sound of language into lines,” the way a watermelon is broken into watermelon slices. Longenbach is merely saying 'language (by definition) makes sounds’ and, furthermore, 'lines of language also make sounds.’ And what is the ONLY way we know that 'lines of language make sound?’ There is only one way we know that 'lines of language’ make sounds: it is because we know that language makes sounds. Longenbach has begun where one should never begin: with a tautology.

  4. March 12, 2009
     Camille Dungy

    In defense of Longenbach, I must admit that I mistyped the final sentence. He does, indeed, repeat "Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines..." The change I made reveals some of my own ideas about the line, not Longenbach's.
    And, by quoting only the first and last sentences of the book, I've omitted most of Longenbach's compelling arguments about the lines as well as his articulate support for his stance. He goes on to explain a great deal of what the past three commenters question. He even deals with the question of meter.

  5. March 12, 2009
     thomas brady

    It's kind of you to respond, since I'm being all kinds of unfair to Mr. Longenbach, but I really don't think 'the line' is the essence of poetry. Listen to people talk: the line is the essence of talking. "Hello, how can I help you?" "Hold on, let me transfer you." "I love that sweater?" "If you're going to lunch now, I'll join you." "Is Brad Anderson the one with long hair?" It would be closer to say the essence of poetry is iambic pentameter. That's not true, either, obviously, but defending that claim would not involve nearly as much b.s., I would imagine.
    I have thought this out, well, a little bit. I pounced on Longenbach's brick because I've already had a walk about the house.

  6. March 12, 2009
     K. Silem Mohammad

    Saying that poetry is the sound of language organized in lines is like saying that office buildings are the shapes of workspaces organized in stories. Except that the second statement is more often true.

  7. March 12, 2009

    The elephant in the room? Maybe Annie Finch should read a review published in Poetry Magazine--any review. Please. This whine is like that great comment about Stallings manifesto cum whine on rhyme: it's like the war on Xmas.

  8. March 12, 2009
     Michael Gushue

    I would also recommend A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics edited by Stuart Friebert and David Young, which has a section called The Poetic Line: A Symposium. It came out in 1980, so should make a good contrast. Perhaps.
    Also, I heard Longenbach give a talk on this subject this past Fall at the Library of Congress. I was predisposed to disagree, but I found him pretty non-dogmatic and witty. And he was critical of Logan and his ilk.

  9. March 13, 2009
     thomas brady

    If we're recommending guides to poetics, the best one has to be mentioned, only because it's so overlooked: The Rationale of Verse, by Edgar Poe. There's a great Poe website, too, run by the Poe Society of Baltimore, where all of his works are accessible...Happy 200th, Edgar...
    As far as Poe goes, Michael Robbins will rue the day for his Griswold tactics when he, Michael Robbins, is forgotten, and Poe is read and celebrated and influences writer after writer in every country around the world...
    oh, wait a minute...

  10. March 13, 2009
     Glenn Ingersoll

    Oh yes. What poetry is! Poetry is a summer's day. Poetry is a pile of poo! Poetry is a harvest of vegetables cut into julienne strips and arranged in a colorful series of stripes.
    It doesn't seem useful to me to say what poetry is. What seems to me most useful is discussing, describing, contrasting, and exploring what strategies poetry uses. One of those strategies -- and certainly one of the most recognizable -- is the line.
    Writing a book about how poets have used the line and exploring its ways & means seems eminently reasonable, even exciting (whee!). Declaring the line the single most important -- indeed the defining -- feature of Poem doesn't seem useful, just pompous and kinda boring.
    I want a line to have some reason for being, that the line do something that gives excuse for being a separated unit. That's what I want. Many's the poet who doesn't seem to share the notion, far's I can tell. So what?

  11. March 14, 2009
     James Hoch

    Thanks for posting on this issue and thanks for being Camille.
    There is a lot of talking to be done regarding the "nature/essence/isness" of the line.
    I haven't read the entirety of Longenbach's book, but have read a few essays therein as printed in other venues. I found Longenbach to be a writer of clarity and precision.
    But the problem with most writers of clarity and percision is that they tend to simplify the case.
    Art expands. What Art is can only expand. One's judgement on Art can be finite, but the way Art works is that it only gets to grow. Therefore, defining what is or is not Art is only another way of saying this is what art has or has not been.
    Since the line is one of historically important and integral aspects of Poetry, to define it seems to be a good idea. Thing is, one's attempt to define the line is another way of defining Poetry.
    Once that occurs, you are back in the shit... (excuse me while I change a diaper)...
    Ok, so what I am saying is that any definition for the lien would have to answer the breadth of what Poetry has been, from Alcaeus to Flarf. That's some undertaking.
    In order to avoid, the whole shoulder shrugging gesture that usually goes on when one describes the platform on which we get to say legitimate things, I want to offer the following definition for the blog to perforate with their nail gunny heads....
    A line is an enactment of an analogy....

  12. March 15, 2009
     thomas brady

    Hey Let's Not Forget
    Hey, let's not forget
    the stanza.
    Lines are clay
    in the hands of the stanza.
    All hail stanza!
    Line, you
    are a slave,
    and stanza is your heaven.
    Hey, let's not forget
    the mother.
    Lines are clay
    in the hands of the mother.
    All hail mother!
    Line, you
    are a cave,
    and you must wait for mother.
    Mom, you can't forget
    the camera!
    Lines today
    are blocking the piazza!
    I'm a failure!
    Oh, please, mother!
    Fine! Didn't I
    tell you my far-reaching intention?

  13. March 31, 2009

    what does he make of prose poems?