The Discrete Line: T.S. Eliot, Robert Herrick, Sappho, Lynn Emanuel

Dorianne Laux


Dorianne Laux delivered the following lecture as part of a 24PearlStreet (Fine Arts Work Center) class on February 12, 2022. A revised version of this talk will be published in Laux’s book on craft, Finger Exercises for Poets, which Norton will publish next year.  

Dorianne Laux

The will of the line, the carefulness of it, the pleasure, the choices and options, the decision. The separate-ness of it, the distinctness, the isolation and detachedness of it. The finite line. Unconnected from all other lines, it has a life of its own, can move backwards or forwards in time. Up or down. It is itself a cell which is complete in itself, but can repeat itself to make another completeness. Like the cell, the line is the basic structural, functional, and biological unit of all known living poems. Or as Robert Hass says in the opening of his latest book of essays, A Little Book on Form, “A single line is a naked thing. It is both light and heavy. It is the basic unit of all lyric forms.” Robert Lowell said “It is much easier to write a good poem than a good line.” And as Galway Kinnell has said more simply, “A line should have something in it.”

So let’s begin, if not at the beginning, in an earlier time than our own with T.S. Eliot’s most famous poem, The Waste Land, a poem published in 1922, almost 100 years ago, though I’m sure many of us could recite it from memory. The first section of that long poem is called “The Burial of the Dead.”

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

We could begin with any word from this poem and start again:

Dull roots with spring rain
Memory and desire
Lilacs out of the dead land
April is the cruellest month.

We could place the gerunds at the end of the line and reverse the final line:

Lilacs out of the dead land, breeding
Memory and desire, mixing
Dull roots with spring rain, stirring
The cruellest month is April.

Here’s another famous old poem by Robert Herrick (1591–1674):

Upon Julia’s Clothes

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes, and see
That brave vibration each way free,
O how that glittering taketh me!

In reverse order, it reads like this:

O how that glittering taketh me!
That brave vibration each way free
Next, when I cast mine eyes, and see

That liquefaction of her clothes
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
Whenas in silks my Julia goes

Now we come to Sappho, the Greek poet whose work has been passed down to us on leaves of fragile papyrus. We have so little, hardly a full poem, and yet what we do have is so wonderful it has remained with us. All we have is a few lines, like the great Greek statues that are missing hands or arms, yet we know from anatomists who study the musculature of a shoulder or forearm, what position they must have held, and can imagine the whole from the fragment….If the few lines randomly left to us are this good, we can imagine the grandeur of the full poem. Here are some of Sappho’s fragments:

                   Love shook my heart,
Like the wind on the mountain
Troubling the oak-trees.

…Again and again…because those
I care for best, do me
Most harm…

Like the mountain hyacinth, the purple flower
That shepherds trample to the ground…

                 The Moon is down,
The Pleiades. Midnight,
The hours flow on,
I lie, alone.

They don’t sound like fragments, but like whole poems. It is from these few lines that we can imagine her genius. 

I’d like now to turn to the contemporary American poet, Lynn Emmanuel….Her first two books, Hotel Fiesta and The Dig, have been reprinted and are now bound together in one volume by The University of Illinois Press. This poem is from Hotel Fiesta.

Frying Trout while Drunk

Mother is drinking to forget a man
who could fill the woods with invitations:   
come with me he whispered and she went   
in his Nash Rambler, its dash
where her knees turned green
in the radium dials of the 50’s.
When I drink it is always 1953,
bacon wilting in the pan on Cook Street   
and mother, wrist deep in red water,   
laying a trail from the sink
to a glass of gin and back.
She is a beautiful, unlucky woman
in love with a man of lechery so solid   
you could build a table on it
and when you did the blues would come to visit.   
I remember all of us awkwardly at dinner,   
the dark slung across the porch,
and then mother’s dress falling to the floor,   
buttons ticking like seeds spit on a plate.   
When I drink I am too much like her—  
the knife in one hand and the trout  
with a belly white as my wrist.   
I have loved you all my life
she told him and it was true
in the same way that all her life
she drank, dedicated to the act itself,   
she stood at this stove
and with the care of the very drunk   
handed him the plate.

There’s a lot to love about this little poem, the narrative, the relationship between mother, daughter and boyfriend, the quickly defined scenes that move from woods, to Rambler, to kitchen where the majority of the poem takes place, the history of these three, the implied future. The poem, in its simplest sense, is a portrait of three people, but more like a triptych, a portrait of a mother and daughter, yes, but also a mother and her lover, and the daughter and the lover, each with their own power.

Lynn Emanuel

And on a craft level, the internal rhymes, “Nash” and “dash” is an obvious and pleasing rhyme, but I also love the subtle rhyme of “invitation” and “radium,” the extended rhymes of “drink,” “sink,” “deep,” and “lechery,” as well as the end-word rhymes of “unlucky,” “lechery,” and “awkwardly.” And the images, that radium dial, the sink of red water followed by the invocation of the blues, the dark “slung” across the porch, the seeds ticking, the dress falling, the white-bellied wrist.

And the line breaks—each line preserving its own discrete image, rhythm, idea. Especially where the daughter says, “I have loved you all my life…. ”When we hear that line, after all that’s come before, we imagine the daughter speaking to the mother, but the next line informs us of the true speaker and recipient of the mother’s love, and then that image of the seeds and the dress falling in some ways are now images of the daughter falling, being spit out, shucked, for the sake of a man. And yet the daughter, for all her pain, never really indicts the mother openly, and in fact, allows her a kind of dignity: her mystery, her beauty, ruined as it may be, her honesty, her singular truth, harsh as it is, her carefulness, and as misdirected as it is, her dedication.

And the daughter also implicates herself in the line: “When I drink I am too much like her.“ She’s succumbed, a confession. What do we do with our aspirations our natural inclinations toward the desire to be like our parents? There’s a lot here to unpack, but I want to look at the poem line by line to see what’s there, to see how truly each line is packed with something, and how each line does its work in the building of this piece, discrete increment by increment. One way to do this, to sort of prove the strength of these individual lines, is to play the song backwards. 

Let’s begin reading the poem in reverse, adding the word “She” to the last line. It’s a bit like a card trick, and few poems hold up to this kind of odd scrutiny, but I think it’s worthwhile to see and hear how each line here works its own magic, how reading it backwards gives us an even deeper understanding of the line we focused on earlier: “I have loved you all my life, with a belly white as my wrist.”

This daughter’s love is naked, pure, unassailable, and beneath that, with the image of the wrist, the implication of violence is also there, and in this close reading, not just a violence toward the mother, but a possible violence to the self as well.

This method of reading poems backwards is useful when proof-reading our poems for mistakes or typos, as we tend to fill in missing words or correct misspelled words in our minds.  But when pulled out of context, we can read the lines as individually, freshly.  It’s also a technique that’s useful for revision.  Reading individual lines out of context allows you to see the lines freed of the narrative and ask if each line is doing its important and necessary work as a line and stands firmly on its own. 

This is one more way to help you test the tensile strength of your own poems, line by line. Does each line do its work as a line, and not simply as a claptrap vehicle to get from one place to another, does each image have room to breathe, each rhyme, each comparison? Is every implication and counter-implication being utilized, does one line enlarge the others, become a microcosm of the whole, cells working to create new cells, into a structure that’s well-built, solid? Are the lines themselves, torn away from the poem, which in time they will be, strong enough to stand after everything else has fallen? Are they built to last, like these? 

April is the cruellest month,
whenas in silks my Julia goes,
unheard I breathe, like wind
on the mountain, I have loved you
all my life.


Writing Prompt

Write a poem line by line. Sit for a while and look around you. Write a line or two about something you see, smell, hear, taste, touch. Stop and think about it. Take another look, write another line. If a memory arises, write a line about that. If something around you moves or something inside you shifts, write a line. Pick up a book and read a line or two, write a line or two in response. Write two lines that rhyme. Write a line about your life, a knife, a glass of wine. Write a last line. Write a title. 


Dorianne Laux

Pulitzer Prize finalist Dorianne Laux’s most recent collection is Only As The Day Is Long: New and Selected (W.W. Norton), and her book on craft, Finger Exercises for Poets, will come out next year (Norton). She is also the author of The Book of Men, winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize, and Facts about the Moon, winner of the Oregon Book Award. She is co-author of two new chapbooks: The Mothers, a conversation in poems with Leila Chatti, and Nickel, written during the pandemic with Sharon Olds, Major Jackson and Didi Jackson, Matthew Dickman, Michael McGriff and Joseph Millar. Laux teaches poetry at Pacific University. She is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.