We asked. And you answered.
In plain speech and jargon, verse, and collage. With splendor, candor, and romance and absolute acuity. Generously.
When we first imagined an installation focused on the line, we hoped to further contemplate and celebrate what some aptly regard as the architectural essence of every poem, lined or line-less though it may be. Ladder and lattice. Atom or avenue. Where might your distinct and multifaceted musings on the topic take us all? Here, we too detoured from our typical format to step aside and simply asked: What is the line? What are your nearest and dearest thoughts on the poetic line?
Your thoughts here (thank you!) were (and are) greatly appreciated. Brave and bold, humble and humbling, exquisite lanterns to navigate the vast terrain before us all.
We welcome further insights on the line in our comments section below.
The poetic line is all about breath, whether that’s in reading or constructing a poem. It’s what gives the poem life, what differentiates verse from prose, and what teaches how to experience the poem. It’s rhythm, but also more than rhythm: the line can dictate a fast, anxious breath or a slow, contemplative breath. It can be a soft, seductive breath or a long, patient breath. Each line holds (or changes) the emotional resonance of the poem in part through that breath work. I don’t mean that we breathe at the end of each line (the reader would hyperventilate in most poems), but that the pause at the end of the line is suggestive of breath, of the point at which we exhale what we have just read and prepare to inhale what’s to come. Like meditation, the poetic line is a form of internalizing, of letting be, and of letting go.
Christopher Henry Smith
I don’t imagine I’ll arrive at any greater definition of line than Andrew Weatherhead’s now famous tweet, “The best way to read a poem is to pretend each line is the name of a horse; so the poem is just a list of horses” (shoutout Elissa Gabbert), nor can I improve much on the notion from a workshop with Justin Jannise that the line is the poem-within-the-poem, the burst of lyric thinking that defies the breath, tension, and guidance of the sentence for the mythic effect that makes poems, poems; however, for my own, today’s at least, linear beliefs, I rely heavily on the exuberance of line-making sensed in a recent typesetting workshop with Karen Holmberg. The construction of the line in physical space, the modularity of its resonance, the weight of its intent. All inky and sharp and spectacular. Most stirring, though, the compression of line against line and the shims and spacers. Everything is touching in a block of type, and the energy, the sonic or connotative relation, is moving up and down and sideways. Each line is considered by its relation to the others, as Jos Charles notes on repetition so wonderfully: “In the place of non-equivalence, I hope, something else emerges: A relationship begs the question of what the relationship is between the two. That asking is where I find joy in reading poetry.” And it is that question that sparks so much bliss. Against the backdrop of all linguistic and visual opportunity, why ask these markings and implied sounds to communicate with one another. Why the duration? Why the pulse? Why the terror or ardor or blessing or curse? This curation of micro-poems against all others, this array of horses in the daily racing form. How exciting to go bananas weighing the possible exchanges between these constructions. Who cares about content when form and relationship are there in your tray, awaiting the weight of the press.
I wonder, often, at the potential comparisons one could make between the Poetic Line—words or fragments of words unfurling, for however long, toward the right margin—and the drawn or painted or photographed line one might think of as a foundational element of visual art.
A line begins and, with few exceptions, ends.
Actually, I find it nearly impossible to consider a written or typed line of poetry without taking into consideration the smaller drawn or typed lines of which each letter and word are composed. Of course the assemblage of these lines—these poetic lines and the ink-drawn lines of which they’re comprised—can, in the poem’s final configuration, create a piece of art that is, without reading the words or taking it to consideration that they even are words, visually engaging or moving.
The sonnet, for example, that near-square, comforting in its self-containment, its density—a sort of phalanx of verse—is a form to which I and many, many others I’ve been with in workshop are drawn.
The poetic line for certain, and maybe the drawn line too, is defined by how or if it ends.
Even the Whitman line, striving as it does to “hold all,” disregarding the material constraints of the right margin, the page, does eventually end.
Is there room in poetry for Wassily Kandinsky? his Study for “Circles in the Circle”? The many finite lines contained inside the never ending lines (the circles) makes me question, briefly, my earlier statement. At the same time it makes me think that there might be room inside of prose (never-ending lines) for poetry, for poetic verse—the infinite containing the finite.
See Ben Lerner’s fiction—the penultimate section of The Topeka School especially—wherein Lerner composes within / his paragraphs lines of / verse denoted, set / apart with virgules (themselves drawn lines within a greater linguistic whole).
Harvey L. Hix
Jos Charles renews my thinking about the line.
Clock time would impose uniform periods.
Calendric time, too, would standardize units.
The periodicities in poetry, though—
line, breath, performance—resist uniformity,
substitute self-similarity at all scales.
Their slow, weighted gravitational velocity
sinks me into, syncs me with, geological time.
What Catherine Malabou calls plasticity,
the line has: capacity to take and give form.
What Don McKay calls a deliberate
chastening of noetic hubris, the line is.
What Jos Charles calls measuring the proportion
of growth and decay, the line does. With the line,
in the line, I move through grief and alienation.
Let my following Jos Charles in this movement
prove also our accompanying one another.
Let my lines parallel hers. Let our lines converge.
The most accurate way for me to describe how I think about & work with the poetic line (in something I’m trying to write) must come in the humbled posture of passive voice: I don’t do lines; lines do me. Sometimes, I’m almost wise enough to let them.
I think of the poetic line as a stretch of logic, ripe for cadence and trust. I’ve also written of it as “a vex of space” that “delivers as navigations, settling in filaments of vision.” If I’m being entirely truthful, I breathe harder into the line after I reach the break. It is then that I know how complete or limited my understanding is. If the line has carried me (sonically and imagistically) to a stop or pause, I will exist calmly within it. On the other hand, if the meaning leans—unfinished and expectant, I’ll be eager to reach that cliff, realizing the next line may just subvert what the former seemed to promise.
The better you understand the shape of the sentence, the more you’re able to use it in concert with the shape of the line. Sometimes you’ll see it’s not just a question of where to break the line; it’s also a question of the length and order of the sentence you’re decanting into your lines.
I think poets now generally know the importance of considering where the line break goes (I know at least one poet who lineates their emails, which are delightful to receive), but it’s still instructive to look at how and why you deploy what Denise Levertov calls its “peculiarly poetic, a-logical, parallel (not competitive) punctuation.”
I also feel compelled to point out that it’s also possible not to focus so much on the showy moment of the line break! Sometimes I think poets don’t pay enough attention to the sentence. But most poems are made up of sentences as well as lines, and the sentence has its own structure and tension. (In fact, in order to make a line, you’re probably breaking something that resembles a sentence, or letting the sentence and the line end at the same time.)
My lines are often composed in series of phrases, revised for clarity of image and/or sound. I’m big on texture and that word poets love, energy of language and line. That means I edit (again and again) to make sure the line is not slowed by language that is filler, repetitive, or dull. These dense accumulations of images carry the subject content; it’s the line or lines that I labor over, not narrative, except to the extent narrative is created by connections among images. My test of a completed line starts with noting any place my attention lessens while reading. That calls for either deletion or rearranged syntax.
Sound and rhythm:
Sound patterning in and among the lines and stanzas (by this I mean internal rhyming or echoing) seems to occur without too much effort, because I so often say the lines aloud. Rhythm itself is a beast. I’ve never composed in metrical pattern, but I DO take a lesson from unrhymed (roughly iambic) pentameter. That is, whether composing prose stanzas or lineated stanzas, I favor a loosely qualitative meter, looking for regular numbers of stresses line to line with what I hope are crucial variations. A 5-stress line is a kind of benchmark, the length varied as feels right.
This quest for sayability is probably the best editing trick I know. I really have to look and listen hard. The end result is concision, and clarity of images.
Like good unrhymed, enjambed, caesura-laden iambic pentameter, the sense of rhythm isn’t conspicuous but you do know the line has a compact feel. I “feel” this rhythm and let it build or diminish line to line or stanza to stanza as seems appropriate to the content and the emotional build. The lines are unpunctuated is I’m looking for speed, but longer lines in general are punctuated. My question is how does the speed and fluidity of the line, or its converse, contribute to the poem’s intention. I’ve learned through many generations of revision that a preconceived idea of how I treat the lines usually results in congestion and lack of focus.
When I say “feels right,” usually I mean the line is textured and tense. Doesn’t sag in how it moves or what it conveys.
I don’t always compose in lines, sometimes in prose stanzas, whether a couple of lines or short paragraphs. I’m afraid of artifice that points to itself—the artful line break, for example, or the lovingly displayed phrase for emphasis. I am wary of emphasis, though I do adhere to the idea that the places of emphasis in a line are the beginnings and ends. At the same time I want the images, often present in a series of phrases, to be visible because they create the poem’s content. However I think the choice of prose or a lineated line, whether long or short, has to do with emotion conveyed. Prose or the feel of prose absorbs emotion in a way that lineation can tend to showcase. So a prose paragraph/stanza can serve to contain an agitated “voice.” But I also sometimes really want the high-wire risk of letting short lines carry the images. Because the images are relatively exposed in these lines, the poems feel lean, even restrained, in contrast to the more vigorously accumulated images that the longer lines contain.
I think, after you’ve been writing poetry for a while, the breaking of lines feels intuitive. I mean, in terms of line length, for example, and whether one is working with couplets or quatrains. However, with the actual break and move to the next line, I know I utilize a kind of “waiting for the other shoe to drop” tension. I break where a reader needs to see what’s going to happen by moving to that next line. That breathlessness of “oh shit now what.” But not in the large context; in the granularity of language and how meaning between words is made. So I break where a reader must drop to the next line to realize intention. My favorite and, I think funniest, line break in my own work is as follows (title runs into the first line):
It’s Not That I Dislike Men, It’s Just That
I never pegged them
as trustworthy. Even that time I traveled into
the kind of green that puckers the eyes…
Thank you for the question. It’s been on my mind because in a poem I’m writing the lines keep shrinking against my will. I try to lengthen them and they refuse. The material in this particular poem is raw and painful and I realize that lines allow for the silences that drew me to poetry in the first place. The line evokes silence. The unsaid exists on both ends of the line, but also above and below. The containment of it allows for what language can’t do alone.
If we considered the poem to be a car, lineation would be its engine.
The line is modular—a scaling of breath, a temporary shelter unhoused by its next moment, or the hinge on which a world turns.
Though the poetic line is often thought of in contrast to the sentence (—the extent to which one thinks about it as a sentence being a decisive one stylistically), more and more, I find myself thinking about them in conjunction with each other, insofar as the act of writing is the act of figuring out the coordinates of a landscape for which there is no pre-determined map.
The line determines the landscape of seeing. Formally, it makes space for the poem itself through the differentiation it provides. And perhaps, through that space, it is also a way of remembering the body—that we are part of time, of apprehending time.
When I’m writing in meter I think about the line as visibly constrained. For instance, there’s no mystery when I’m working in pentameter why the line breaks where it does. The da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum of the meter determines the line length before I even begin typing. When I’m working in free verse, the constraint is invisible. I start drafting and search for a line in the new poem that–I think of it as my Goldilocks line—isn’t too long or too short but is just right. “Just right” means sound as well as sense. That ideal line then becomes the measuring stick for the poem as a whole, all the other lines in the poem attempting to reach its length or, if not length, then its integrity of music and meaning. Even when I write a prose poem, I like to break the draft back into lineated verse as I’m revising so that I can determine if the piece still has that same tautness, that feeling of constraint.
I think of each line as its own unit—but a unit that is determined as it unfurls—that is to say each line individually invents or intends its own parameters. I think a fair comparison is the sentence. Sentences can be long or short—waterfalling with multiple clauses or terse and pointed with just one word.
Each sentence conveys meaning and also sets its own parameters. Ideally, the form of the sentence conveys or reflects the meaning intended, helping to carry sense forward through rhythm, sonic effect, and, when possible, the pleasure of language working well. I would say the same of the line—it should function as a unit—carrying information, sense, sensation in service of the poem’s overall purpose.
A last note: I see the line as a place to also embed silence in a poem. It can do so through visual spacing or use of the internal caesura and create a blank that establishes the presence of absence through lack of words or the physical truncation of a line (in contrast to others above and below it) to show a mediated space.
In writing and revising the poems in As She Appears, I read them out loud and looked at them on a page. I sought to enact a range of breath, breathlessness, and in that way, urgencies. I insist on the she being in the world as she is; when she appears, we begin.
The Line Break in Terms of Rupture and Closure
To begin with, I think of the line break as an extra unit of punctuation that we get to use as poets (in addition to the standard commas and periods) to control the ebb and flow of the poem. I also would argue that line breaks can be categorized in terms of creating rupture or closure. When we have an enjambed line break, particularly what James Longenbach refers to as an “annotating” line break (one that goes against natural syntax), it creates a rupture, a breakage not just within the syntax, but within the thoughts being expressed. Within that rupture, is a moment of pause and possibility. The moment of rupture gives us the opportunity to reflect on the individual line as a unit, on its incompleteness, on the significance of that fragment, that sliver of a thought. In contrast, end-stopped lines have a feeling of closure and wholeness and present a completed thought. The end-stopped line can be especially powerful for underscoring epiphanic revelations or simply spoken difficult truths about the world, especially anything aphoristic. The end-stopped line is assertive and tells us the speaker’s rumination has arrived at its inevitable end, at its thesis, as opposed to the more pensive enjambed line, which is filled with questions over where the speaker’s train of thought may lead and how they will traverse the rupture to get there.
I think of poetry as the creation of worlds in which we may live by different rules and motivations. The possibilities seem endless to me because the poem can have so many minute units of existence, the line being one of them. The line seems special to me because of how brazen it is in asserting its possibility: that our voice and eye are given permission and an option to choose how we want our lyrical world shaped.
The line comes before the word. That’s one idea. The poet and orchardist, Harold Rhenisch, experimented with this on the rocky shores of Iceland in 2010.
Rhenisch, who lived in those days on a large island off the western shores of Canada, was in Iceland for a writer-in-residence gig, but he couldn’t write.
He emailed his friend, the sculptor, Ken Blackburn. Rhenisch complained that he had no words. Blackburn told Rhenisch that he had it all wrong, that the line comes before the word. Go outside and make a line, Blackburn wrote back.
In one version of this story, Rhenisch unspooled a long line of red yarn across the rocks, then emailed Blackburn a photo. Blackburn told him to make more. In another version, Rhenisch made lines of ice that became circles that became lines of circles of ice. From these lines came the words Rhenisch needed to write his next three books.
Later, Rhenisch understood that the fruit tree branches in the orchards where he’d worked since boyhood were also lines drawing on water tension and reaching for the sun. From the branches rained apples, a kind of pome, les pommes, the line coming before the words.
Poetic lines are 3-4 seconds long to read in every language in every culture throughout history. They are the length of a human temporal moment, the size of our working memory, in which we are able to most easily memorize a string of information (10 numbers in a phone number and ten syllables in iambic pentameter is no coincidence). Slower-spoken poems have shorter line lengths and faster-spoken poems (languages) have longer ones. It’sa temporal phenomenon to allow for easier memorization.