Wayfaring: On the Poetic Line as a Generative Space

Molly Spencer

Molly Spencer

“Poetry makes nothing happen,” Auden famously writes; “…it survives / in the valley of its making”; it is, he says, “a way of happening.”[1] But what, exactly, makes poetry happen? What carves the valley, finding a way down and through, pushing aside earth and stone, veering around obstacles it can’t move, carrying with it what it can until it can no more, then dropping it, flowing one way, improvising to reverse course, gaining momentum and then slowing to spread across wider ground, until whatever it is has left a path on the page or the reader’s mind, a slight or deep depression that the poem flows into and through? I would like to think it is the line, as it comes into being, that carves the valley of a poem’s emergence, and, as such, I’ve been thinking about the line not so much as a formal feature of a poem or a distinguishing trait of poetry, but as a generative space in which and through which poets can locate our unique way of knowing.

Since the untethering of the poetic line in English from iambic pentameter, poets and critics have disagreed about how to define the line. Helen Vendler argues that line remains tied to our “trust in … the physiologically regulated order of the breath.”[2] Charles Olson’s famous dictum would agree: “the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE / the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE.”[3] But rather than give the line such physiological grounding, Ed Hirsch defines it as both “a unit of meaning” and “a measure of attention.”[4] Meanwhile, James Longenbach, in his The Art of the Poetic Line argues instead that the line “cannot be associated reliably with the way we speak or breathe. Nor can its function be understood merely from its visual appearance on the page. The line’s function is sonic, a way of organizing the sound of language.”[5] Still, Longenbach argues, “line is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry, rather than some other kind of writing.”[6]

I’m not sure I agree with any of these definitions whole-cloth—they all seem useful to a point, just not capacious enough—but what does seem true is that the significance of the line for poets is deep and deeply felt. Dana Levin, on Twitter, suggests that line, and line breaks in particular, help “the unendurable feeling-body divide into endurable parts.”[7] “Each line should be a station of the cross,” says Charles Wright—no pressure! [8] And Dionne Brand in her The Blue Clerk, a collection, ironically, of prose poems, captures the poet’s real and tenuous need to make her art from something so provisional and insubstantial as the line: “I depend on something so thin,… so thin.”[9]

But what if we set aside the definition and the import of the line, and focus instead on the line’s generative possibilities? Timothy Ingold’s anthropological study of lines proposes that there are two types of lines: those that “thread one’s way through the world” and those that move across it; [10] those for which movement is a way of life, and those that are destination-oriented; those that move with what another scholar calls “‘a progressional ordering of reality’,” and those that move from point to point on a predetermined route.[11] The former type of line, in each case, allows for what Ingold calls wayfaring: an act that involves not just motion, but motion joined to perception. When one is wayfaring, Ingold explains, one is “responsive to [the] perceptual monitoring of the environment that is revealed along the way.”[12]

Because Ingold’s concept of wayfaring couples motion with perception, I find in it a helpful way to think about line, and even a method for generating lines. Wayfaring suggests that if, as we are writing, we set aside our ideas of the “aboutness” of a draft and instead allow the terrain we are moving through (in this case, language), to suggest what comes next—if we detect our lines as we might detect a path through a dense forest—we are likely to end up with lines we would not have written if we were merely trying to parcel out breath or perception or sound or meaning as the definitions above would have it. Wayfaring allows for all such definitions to work together.

Some methods of wayfaring along a line of poetry seem obvious enough. To witness wayfaring via sound and rhythm—i.e., letting the sound of a word suggest the next sound or letting the rhythm of a unit of language suggest the next rhythm—we need look no farther than Gerard Manley Hopkins. In his “The Windhover,” as with other of his poems, sounds and rhythms seem to tumble out of one another into the next in quick succession across

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylights dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy, then off, off forth on swing […][13]

These sonic and rhythmic steps and half-steps, surges and reversals, are so emphatic and tightly connected that one seems to lead to the next.  Hopkins is helped along by his use of iambic pentameter, of course—that propulsive rhythm of our beating hearts—but notice, too, how he uses repeated sounds, both consonance (“morning morning’s minion” and “daylights dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon”) and assonance (that string of short /i/ sounds in the first line, and the dipthongs of the second, for example) as propulsive forces that one can imagine suggested itself to Hopkins as he wrote. Note, too, how thrilling Hopkins’s breaking of those repeated sound patterns (in “king-/dom” and “Falcon,” for example) and how comforting the returns to pattern are (all those –ings at line ends throughout the excerpt echoing the first line), and how those breaks and returns are in conversation with one another such that they feel, to the reader, nearly fated.

Walt Whitman, too, uses sound to seed the next sound, word, or phrase, but also makes use of accumulation and heterogeneity. Section two of “Song of Myself”—in which Whitman’s speaker describes the atmosphere and his abiding unity with it—is an example of lines whose own words and phrases seem to ask, What next? What next? What next?:

The smoke of my own breath
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind […][14]

In this passage, we sense the line building off itself, urged on by rhythm and assonance, rhyme and repetition. As with Hopkins, the lines’ own sonic qualities, when paired with the poet’s sensibilities, provide forward momentum, but in Whitman, so does the accumulation and variation of things—actual nouns— in the lists and series the poet builds: “Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine”; two kinds of leaves; shore, rocks, then, of all things, hay. One imagines, in the moment of this poem’s inception, an unreasoned and eager trust in what occurs to the poet next, as if Whitman had anticipated Richard Hugo’s counsel to “assume the next thing belongs because you put it there.”[15]

Ross Gay

Ross Gay’s poem “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian” is another study in accumulation and heterogeneity, in which, unlike Whitman’s long lines unspooling, short lines stack up, one after another, so that line length itself—and not just the line’s content or sonic properties—contributes to a sense of accumulation. Along with the motion of the short lines accruing, we wander with the poet’s perceptions: what the speaker knows or notices or learns as the poem proceeds. In this excerpt, the speaker describes reaching up into the tree to pick a fig for his neighbor:

and I am tall and so
good for these things
and a bald man even
told me so
when I grabbed three
or four for
him reaching into the
giddy throngs of
yellow-jackets sugar
stoned which he only
pointed to smiling and
rubbing his stomach
I mean he was really rubbing his stomach
like there was a baby
in there
it was hot his
head shone while he
offered recipes to the
group using words which
I couldn’t understand and besides
I was a little
tipsy on the dance
of the velvety heart rolling
in my mouth
pulling me down and
down into the
oldest countries of my
body where I ate my first fig
from the hand of a man who escaped his country
by swimming through the night […][16]

Another method of wayfaring is to make associative leaps along and across the lines of a poem. Carl Phillips’s poetry is known for its associative leaps, which can travel vast distances in the matter of a few lines, as we see in his poem “Something to Believe In.” The first associative leap is from the title and its abstraction (belief) to the particular fact of the speaker’s hunting dogs, who “have names, but I rarely use them.”[17] The poem then makes its way from physical descriptions of the dogs, to the abstractions of hope and ambition, and then to the story of the Iliad, and back again, to an intimate scene with the dogs: “At night, when it’s time for bed, / we sleep together, the three of us: muscled animal, muscled animal, muscled animal.”[18] As the poem ends, it returns to abstraction: “Our breathing / ripples the way oblivion does—routinely, across history’s face.”[19] Even in such a small space as that last phrase, we leap from the everyday to the infinite: from routine to all of history. This type of wayfaring follows the motions of the poet’s mind, as Phillips juxtaposes ideals and some of the most enduring literature in history with the sleeping bodies of his speaker and the speaker’s dogs. There is, of course, something ineffable in Phillips’ (or any poet’s) ability to combine such disparate parts into a compelling and beautiful whole, and yet we see Phillips’s wayfaring mind go here and there, from idea to idea, without logic or apology.

There are two wayfaring methods I’d like to examine that are less common, or perhaps more difficult to detect, because they are less physiologically based than sound and rhythm, and less obvious than accumulation and associative leaps: letting words themselves suggest subsequent words; and syntactical tactics that enact the pathways of consciousness.

Fanny Howe

In her essay, “Bewilderment,” Fanny Howe describes her writing process as “an experience of pure language, glimpses of actions, emotions and weathers.”[20] She then “let[s] the words write the words” by following what word associations and sounds “prove” about the poem-in-progress.[21] We can get a glimpse of this process in her poem “Unday,” the first two lines of which read, “From no nowhere not near the sea / on blue field flax […].”[22] In “nowhere” we find the seeds of “not near,” “no” suggesting “not” and “where” suggesting “near,” through both semantic and sonic qualities. Departing from sound and the mechanical properties of the words themselves, “sea” suggests “blue field,” and these seedings and reseedings continue throughout the brief poem, which ends “if on this unday—one / undoing would be undone.”[23]

We detect similar wayfaring methods in Sara Lupita Olivares’s work, in her debut collection, Migratory Sound. The poem “Implied Surroundings” begins as follows:

two dogs appear out of the snow
if the body, the wallpaper repeating

if the mind, fruit in grass and opening
the landscape is an opaqueness[24]

Here, in addition to echoing sounds, we have echoing concepts and images. “If the body” finds what Denise Levertov calls its “thought-rhyme”[25] in “if the mind.” And what is “wallpaper repeating” if not an opaque landscape? As the poem goes on, words continue to suggest words: “opaqueness” leads to “blankness”; the sonic properties of “grass,” “less,” “sense,” and “presses” evolve and echo as lines unfold. In the final stanza, in which light “opposes gravity and describes / without,” we have, in the word “without,” an echo of the dogs appearing “out of the snow” in the first line (emphasis mine). This method of wayfaring allows words, through sound and semantics, image and association, to suggest one another.

Jorie Graham

And finally, some of the wayfaringest lines I know of are Jorie Graham’s in The End of Beauty, after her abandonment of the short lines of Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts and Erosion. In The End of Beauty and beyond, Graham spills long lines across the page, lines that enact the process of wondering itself. As Helen Vendler describes it, these poems are “an assent… to uncertainty and unpredictability” and create “a poetry of middleness, of suspension.”[26]

To pursue this kind of wayfaring—a wayfaring interested primarily in the motions of perception: how thought leads to next thought, question to next question—Graham employs syntactical tools Vendler describes as “grammatical techniques of prolongation,” like the use of present participles, appositives, relative clauses, negations, reversals, comparisons, questions, repetitions, qualifications, and “nominal simultaneities.”[27] We detect this in her poem “What the End is For,” which begins as a scene of a couple observing “the five hundred B-52’s on alert on the runway.”[28] Even here, in the deployment of two prepositional phrases in a row (“on alert on the runway”) we begin to feel the suspension the poet creates. As the poem continues we encounter description, revisions to previous statements, and non-sequiturs: “The huge hum soaks up the dusk. / The minutes spring open. Six is too many.”[29] (Six what? Too many for what?). Later in the poem, it’s similes and questions that suspend things:

That’s when the lights on all the extremities, like an outline, like a dress,
      become loud in the story,
and a dark I have not seen before
      sinks in to hold them one   
by one.
      Strange plot made to hold so many inexhaustible
      Have you ever heard in a crowd mutterings of

that will not modulate that will not rise?[30]

These gestures continue, repeat, and evolve in a form of wayfaring that gives itself over to the motions of uncertainty itself by delaying resolution for as long as possible—in this case, for 101 lines—throughout the poem. The line, then, becomes nearly a dowsing rod, through which extended attempts at seeking become the only found thing.

Although I have treated these methods of wayfaring individually, it would be artificial to suggest they couldn’t all be at work at once. A rhythm can beckon words; a series of objects or images be imbued with chromatic sounds; a path of consciousness lead to an image. And, of course, there is no way to know how the lines and poems I cite came into being at the time of their composition and revision, but what I am suggesting is that it could be a worthwhile exercise to be what Wallace Stevens calls “a man lured on by a syllable without any meaning.”[31]

Or lured on by a sound, a rhythm, a question, a leap, a juxtaposition, a word or a series of words, a reversal or suspension or contradiction—without any conscious meaning, at least at first. Because as Ingold points out, when wayfaring, we don’t start out knowing things, but instead we come to know them by treading across and through our terrain[32]; terrain, which for poets is simply this: language. And this, too, suggests an approach to line and to poetry: let the meaning make itself by being attentive to language, by bringing your body (motion) and mind (perception) along to locate and inhabit the line as it unfolds.

What appeals to me about the methods of wayfaring for building lines and poems is that these methods distance us from the semantics of words and open us to the semantics of sound, rhythm, language, and consciousness itself. They distance us from our usual gestures, our default and conscious tendencies, and plumb for something deeper. This is not to say, however, that wayfaring pulls the poet away from his/her/their sources: their lived experiences and interior lives. In fact, intentional wayfaring may help us find our sources in a way that conscious “drafting” cannot. Wayfaring makes the line itself a generative tool, each element suggesting the next through some mode(s) of motion or perception: sound, rhythm, syntax, diction, image, rhyme and thought-rhyme, association, reversal, comparison, negation, suspension, consciousness itself. This coupling of motion and perception, this wayfaring, Ingold argues, “is the most fundamental mode by which living beings, both human and non-human, inhabit the earth,” and the wayfarer is “one who participates from within in the very process of the world’s continual coming into being.”[33] If that is not a description of what line can do, and what a poet is and does, I don’t know what is.


So that after, there was a new kind of quiet.

Not the quiet of winter but the quiet of wind

Swallowing lesser sounds, quiet of glass seen through. So that we could see the ship crossing the horizon

And know its engine churned but not hear the churning.

So that we knew the swallows, as if ash, sang, but did not hear their song

And the tapering of daylight was not lost on us.

Not lost on us: the curtain’s shush along the floor.

So that when our bodies’ borders blurred there was a name for it     estuary     plucked string     bridge or bridge of glass.

Not the floor beneath you now but the floor you crossed to touch me.

And the swallows swung and swooped as if songless and not site-faithful.

And the site of this new quiet was inland and hovering, blue and blue through a window.

Not the window where I’m standing now but the window in the room inside the body

Where all along the ship that had crossed was the ship that was crossing.

The inmost room called the keep.

A spill of light that says at last, come in.[34]



Writing Prompt

Look through your notebook for a line you’ve jotted down but haven’t yet developed into a poem (you can also take a line from a draft in process, if you prefer). Write the line across the top of a page of your notebook.

Notice whatever you notice about the sonic and rhythmic properties of the line and jot those things down: what kinds of sound does it use? what is its rhythm (here you can use marks to indicate stressed and unstressed syllables, or just describe what the rhythm feels like to you: steady, jazzy, irregular, subtle, strong)?

Explore how your line might accumulate: What’s next? What’s next? What’s next? Write lists and series that riff on this line. Watch for what  and how it can build.

Now think about sights, sounds, smells, objects, images, memories, stories, facts, etc., that you associate with one or more of the words or phrases in your line. Write them down.

Now do some work with the words of the line. For all the important nouns and verbs make lists of words that are like them in some way: alike in sound, perhaps, or alike in meaning; words that echo one another in some way. Branch off from those words, writing words you simply associate with the words in your line, then proceed to branch off from those.

Next, ask yourself where your mind—your thinking—goes from this line? What questions, certainties, or uncertainties does this line, its properties, and its words cause you to have? What syntaxes can you use to continue, add to, suspend, and revise the process of thinking this line inspires? Write them down in a list as well.

Throughout this prompt, work quickly. Let your mind, let language, go where it will, until you’ve captured what you feel like you can about the line you’ve chosen to work with.

Now begin drafting a poem from this line using its “suggestions”—of sound, of words, of meaning or association or wondering or thinking, as you write. One option is to extend the line into a longer line based on what the properties of the initial line suggest. Another is to break the line, but to let its sounds, meanings, associations, wonderings, etc., suggest the next line. In each line, let something from the first portion of the line suggest something in the second, and/or let something from one line suggest something in the next line. Don’t think too much about it. Like Fanny Howe, let the words write the words (or the sounds make the sounds, or the statement answer the question, or not).

It might be useful to develop separate drafts for each mode of wayfaring. It might work better for you to use all modes together. Either way, go wayfaring: Use motion and perception to discover what this line, and its companions in whatever draft you end up with, really knows.



[1] Auden, Wystan Hugh. “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” from Another Time, Random House, 1940. Accessed at https://poets.org/poem/memory-w-b-yeats, May 3, 2022.

[2] Vendler, Helen. “Jorie Graham: The Moment of Excess,” from The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar,” Harvard University Press, 2015, pp. 304 – 321.

[3] Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse,” accessed at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69406/projective-verse, May 3, 2022.

[4] “Line.” A Poet’s Glossary. Edward Hirsch, ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, p. 348.

[5] Longenbach, James. The Art of the Poetic Line. Graywolf, 2008, p. xii.

[6] Ibid, p. xi.

[7] Levin, Dana [@danalevinpoet]. “Line-breaks helping the unendurable feeling-body divide into endurable parts—Poetry being the way of a length of line, a method of parceling out experience—,” May 22, 2018, https://twitter.com/danalevinpoet/status/999049001021444101.

[8] Lehman, David. “Foreword,” The Best American Poetry 2008, Charles Wright, ed., Scribner-Simon and Schuster, 2008. p. 5.

[9] Brand, Dionne. “Verso 34.1,” The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos, Duke University Press, 2018, p. 128.

[10] Ingold, Timothy. Lines: A Brief History, Routledge, 2007, p. 79.

[11] Ingold, p. 88.

[12] Ingold, p. 78.

[13] Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “The Windhover,” from Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose, Penguin, 1985, accessed at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44402/the-windhover, May 11, 2022.

[14] Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself,” Section 2, from Leaves of Grass, WhitmanWeb, University of Iowa, https://iwp.uiowa.edu/whitmanweb/en/writings/song-of-myself/section-2, accessed May 20, 2022.

[15] Hugo, Richard. “Nuts and Bolts,” The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, W.W. Norton & Company, 1979, pp. 37 – 51. 

[16] Gay, Ross. “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian.” Originally published in American Poetry Review, 2013. Accessed at https://poets.org/poem/fig-tree-9th-and-christian, May 29, 2022.

[17] Phillips, Carl. “Something to Believe In.” Poem-a-Day, July 31, 2019 by the Academy of American Poets, accessed at https://poets.org/poem/something-believe, May 29, 2022.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Howe, Fanny. “Bewilderment.” How2, Vol. I, No. 3, February 2000, ASU Piper Creative Writing Center, accessed at https://www.asu.edu/pipercwcenter/how2journal/archive/online_archive/v1_3_2000/current/index.html, May 25, 2022.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Olivarez, Sara Lupita. “Implied Surroundings.” Migratory Sound, University of Arkansas Press, 2020, p. 37.

[25] Levertov, Denise. New and Selected Essays, New Directions, 1973, accessed at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69392/some-notes-on-organic-form-56d249032078f, May 30, 2022.

[26] Vendler, pp. 309 and 311.

[27] Vendler, p. 319.

[28] Graham, Jorie. “What the End is For.” The End of Beauty, Ecco, 1987, p. 26, accessed at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47186/what-the-end-is-for, May 27, 2022.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Stevens, Wallace. “Prologues to What is Possible.” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, Vintage, 2015, pp. 544 – 546.

[32] Ingold, p. 88. His words for this phenomenon are: “the integration of knowledge along a path.”

[33] Ingold, p. 81.

[34] “from The Uses of Distance” by Molly Spencer printed with permission of the author.

Molly Spencer

Molly Spencer is a poet, critic, and editor. Her debut collection, If the House (2019), won the Brittingham Prize judged by Carl Phillips. A second collection, Hinge​ (2020) won the Crab Orchard Open Competition judged by Allison Joseph. Molly’s poetry has appeared in Blackbird, FIELDNew England ReviewPloughshares, and Prairie Schooner. Her critical writing has appeared at Colorado ReviewThe Georgia ReviewKenyon ReviewThe Writer’s Chronicle, and The Rumpus, where she is a senior poetry editor. She teaches writing at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.