06
Nov
10

Lineation: An Introduction to the Poetic Line

When I was asked back in late July or early August to do this lecture on the line in poetry, I had a clear idea of what I wanted to talk about and explore. I have since forgotten that clear idea, but I do remember the prompt. A few months earlier in the Just Poets meeting there was a new lady who was interested in poetry. She was a prose writer. Her questions were contentious despite the appearance of wanting to learn about poetry. At that time I had suddenly had new understanding – what distinguishes poetry from prose is the line. Of course there are other elements lending to poetry’s identity, and the line is obvious, but there was something more. I mentioned to the lady the tension between line and syntax and the magic that happens at the line break, but she seemed to tune it out. I think she was looking for reasons that conformed to her ideas, which were to keep writing prose and that prose is better. So that’s what brings me to you. The line.

I can’t possibly cover everything about the line and what it can do, so this will be a brief overview.

So what do we know about the line? What makes a line? What are its characteristics? As a writer, how do you know when to end the line? There’s intuition, of course, and that will work sometimes. There’s syllabics, where you make sure you hit the right number of accents per line. There’s the metrical line, such as the well-known iambic pentameter. But there is also free verse, vers libre. Robert FrostRobert Frost said something like, “Free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” However, Charles Wright is rumored to have responded, “Free Verse is the high wire act without the net.” I’m concerned with the latter for this introduction.

In free verse there are many line measures. There’s the line defined by breath, as Charles OlsonCharles Olson explores in the essay “Projective Verse” and his own poetry. There is the image-thought line, where there is one image or thought per line. There is the haiku leap, or as Ginsberg says in “Howl,” “jumping with sensation.” Those lines are defined by leaps or lightning bolts or perception zaps.

The first snow,
just enough to bend
the leaves of the daffodils.

or

Weathered bones
on my mind,
a wind-pierced body.

or

A bee
staggers out
of the peony.

Matsuo BashoThose are haikus from Basho. (By the way, the plural of “haiku” is “haiku” or “haikus”.) Each poem is a direct perception or thought. Short bursts that leap from line to line. And there’s the magic at each line’s end. The snow is bending something. What is that something? Perhaps it’s the snow. Have faith in this line-break leap as we will see it is the slightest weight of snow bending the slightest thing – a daffodil leaf. Zap zap zap.

That seems pretty effective. Why not just keep writing like that? Why not write:

I saw the best minds
of my generation
destroyed by madness

That’s from the first line of Ginsberg’s “Howl.’

Allen Ginsberg's Howl

Ginsberg was very much into Haiku. He even had the four-volume, 1600-page collection of R. H. Blyth’s translated haikus, the main and maybe the only source of haiku at the time in English. He and Gary Snyder and others called it their Perception Bible. So why not write “Howl” in haiku and give the reader/listener a jumping-with-sensation jolt?

I kinda like how that above haiku moves. But Ginsberg chose:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

What’s the difference between the two? Perhaps we should ask the content.

“Howl” is anger, a rant, a celebration, an anthem for a generation. It’s a loud proclamation that needs to be heard “over the roofs of the world,” as Whitman would say. Can haiku achieve that voice? Maybe. For a short while, but it would sound odd especially after each little pause after each five- or seven-syllable line.

I SAW THE BEST MINDS
OF MY GENERATION
DESTROYED BY MADNESS,
STARVING HYSTERICAL
NAKED,

DRAGGING THEMSELVES
THROUGH THE NEGRO STREETS
AT DAWN LOOKING
FOR AN ANGRY FIX

The short lines slow down the reading. This poems needs to be oracular. Loud. It’s a rant that needs long lines. The shorter lines in this case also become disjointed and not fluid. When we turn those short-lined stanzas into one line, then there is one long breath per line. One outburst. The longer lines speed up the reading. The longer line can also become more inclusive. It can hold more, unlike the discreteness of the short line. Ginsberg also gets one image-thought per line.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the           machinery of night,

After the opening three lines come a whole bunch of anaphoric lines starting with “who.” The anaphora is another way to create lines. By beginning each line with the same word or a few words, you can create a whole new rhythm. Often a rhythm of expectation, but in the case of “Howl,” a further definition or inclusion of who is he talking about. Each “who” is probably a specific person. So now we have each line a reflection of a person and his or her actions.

But there are more to lines than direct perception, rants, slow, and fast. I mean, so much depends upon the line.

There is the line of everyday speech. Wordsworth and Frost and others tried to keep their language as close as possible to everyday speech, which we all know. However, what they didn’t do is use the line as a measure of everyday speech. Maybe back in Wordsworth and Frost’s time, people spoke and thought in 10 syllable lines. Maybe, it was because of location. The world moved more slowly and allowed for such thinking. But closer to home is William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, and Robert Creeley. Now their lines seem close to how we actually think and talk when we are at the grocery store talking to friends, when we are at the playground watching our kids while talking to other grown-up adults, when we are at the bar drinking and talking. Then we tend to speak and utter in three, four, six, or eight syllable bursts. Oh sure, if it’s five minutes to last call we may have a sudden burst of energy and announce some certain alcohol-induced profundity that will save the world, and that burst may last 10-12 syllables. But that comes after considerable thought and liquid courage. And the next sentence most likely is, “Yeah.” It balances out.

William Carlos WilliamsThe line as measure. William Carlos Williams in his essay “A New Line is New Measure” talks about how Louis Zukofsky reinvented the line. In the essay Williams says:

There is actually no “free verse.” All verse is measure. We may not be able to measure it, we may not know how but, finally, it is measured.

The new line is a new measure.

This essay, which I just read, got me thinking about the line as a measure of common speech, as noted above. Let each line be a thought/speech burst. Let it reflect how you would speak. And since utterances vary in length, you will get movement and variance in your lines. The lines will add to the meaning. They will imitate breath and thought. These are similar conclusions Cid Corman also came to when he first started to explore improvised poems into a wire recorder, which was like a tape recorder. Let’s look at the middle lines of one of Zukofsky’s shorter poems, “25 (for Zadkine)” from Anew:

Louis Zukofsky' 25 for Zadkine

So you can see hear how there is a burst of energy in the first line of this excerpt. You can see/hear the variances in length paralleling thought. But what do these lines have in common with the haiku we saw before:

The first snow,
just enough to bend
the leaves of the daffodils.

Breath.

Back in the fifties, when they were trying to make haiku work in English, they thought to use the 5-7-5 syllabic form. That was one way to do it, but it is not much practiced anymore. (Robert Kelly probably got the best English syllabic equivalent to the haiku in his form The Lune – 5-3-5.) They also thought a good measure for haiku was the breath. One breath per haiku. The idea of breath can also be applied to the line. For a full overview of that, read Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” and then his poems, as well as Robert Duncan’s poems. One of the many things we can get from reading Olson’s essay and Olson’s and Duncan’s and other’s poetry is one breath equals one line. Or as Olson says in “Projective Verse”:

the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE
the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE

The breath is the line. The breath makes the poem physical. So maybe we can read “Howl” that way, too?

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the           machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of    cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on    tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy    among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the    skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and    listening to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New        York,
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos    night after night

Breathing Robert DuncanThose are some big-breath lines there. It’s almost difficult to do. But the long-breathed lines also add to the poem’s anxiousness and speed and chaos. But it stables out with the anaphoric “who.” It keeps you from going dizzy from lack of breath. The “who” teaches you how to breathe for this poem. The breath becomes more regular. It’s more like regular breath. Because the “who” dictates a long, deep inhale. It’s anticipated. The anxiousness dissipates. The breathing becomes more regular. That’s what these lines and this poem needs.

But what of poems with line lengths of 8-14 syllables? Despite how we speak in shorter sentences, or how Ginsberg speaks in ginormous sentences, there are still some poems with line lengths in between. Let’s look at Robert Duncan’s poem “The Torso, Passages 18” from Bending the Bow.

The Torso

Archaic Torso of ApolloThat’s about half of this beautiful poem. Each line is a breath. It’s almost more like a gasp. A gasp of awe and surprise. With that and the extra space between most of the lines, you hear a contemplative man. You hear a hesitant man. A man observing beauty. The breathing lines create a tone of awe. (In fact, on an aside, the tonal awe of this poem reminds me a lot of Hopkins awe in “The Windhover.”) You will also notice there are spaces within the lines. Those are pausing spots, but the pauses are still part of the same breath. You should read these lines out loud to hear a fuller effect and to see what you hear and feel. You can read the whole poem here: http://home.insightbb.com/~gardner.j/torso.html.

So we just learned three effects of the breath-driven line. There’s the wham-bam-thank-you-poet of the haiku of direct perception, where the one-breath poem heightens the wham-bam. There’s the anxiousness in “Howl.” And there’s breath-induced awe. All of these, as we noticed, affected the emotions and the body. There are more ways to use the breath, and I hope you explore them.

Of course, you can also have multiple breaths in one line. Let’s look at Larry Levis’ poem “Shiloh” from Elegy.

Shiloh

When my friends found me after I’d been blown
Into the limbs of a tree, my arms were wide open.
It must have looked as if I were welcoming something,

Awakening to it. They left my arms like that,
Not because of the triumphant, mocking shape they took
In death, & not because the withheld breath

Of death surprised my arms, made them believe,
For a split second, that they were really wings.
Instead of arms, & had always been wings. No, it was

Because, by the time the others found me, I had been
Sitting there for hours with my arms spread wide,
And when they tried, they couldn’t bend them back,

Couldn’t cross them over my chest as was the custom,
So that the corpses that kept lining the tracks
Might look like sleeping choir boys. They were

No choir, although in death they were restored
To all they had been once. They were just boys
Fading back into the woods & the ravines again.

I could see that much in the stingy, alternating light
And shade they train threw out as it began to slow,
And the rest of us grazed out from what seemed to me

One endless, empty window on what had to be.
What had to be came nearer in a sudden hiss of brakes,
The glass clouding with our reflections as we stood.

Arms & wings. They’ll mock you one way or the other.

The Battle of Shiloh

The Battle of Shiloh

Larry LevisIn this poem about a soldier dying in the Civil War battle of Shiloh, Levis suspends sentences, as he often does in Elegy. The first sentence extends two lines, and the main clause and the subject, “arms,” aren’t known until the end of line 2. “Arms” is a subject of the poem, too. You’ll also notice there is a breath before the main clause. One breath for one-and-a-half lines but with an end pause at the end of line 1, another breath for half a line, and then one breath for line 3. But what you will notice in this poem is that the breath is aligning with the natural pauses of syntax. In this poem, Levis dismisses projective verse. For him, the body is connected through the images. For him, the tension and tone arise from the breathing syntax’s tension with the line and the suspension of the subject.

In this poem, Levis uses the line and the poem to suspend the arrival of the subject and the predicate. It adds to the dizziness that is going through the speaker’s mind. Or maybe it parallels it. He’s telling his story from the other side of life, death. He is in shock. He’s so unsure of what happened, he delays that he is the subject for one-and-a-half lines. This delay happens again at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth stanzas. It again takes one-and-a-half lines to introduce the real subject of “I” (not the dummy subject “it”), and the second line of the fourth stanza ends like the second line of the first stanza with arms wide open. But this sentence that starts at the end of the third stanza has two independent clauses. The first clause delays the arrival of the real subject, “I,” and the second begins with an adverbial clause, “And when they tried,” which also delays the arrival of the subject.

And there are the interrupters – the grammatical and the line-break interrupters.

But more on the sentence suspension. Let’s look at the fifth sentence that begins at the end of the fifth stanza, and a little of what precedes it.

Might look like sleeping choir boys. They were

No choir, although in death they were restored
To all they had been once. They were just boys
Fading back into the woods & the ravines again.

The sentence begins “They were” and then there is a line and stanza break. With the last image before “They were” being “choir boys,” the mind will make the connection that “They were” relates to the “choir boys.” It does. But at this point the mind is thinking “They were choir boys.” And the mind holds on to that image for the long pause until the beginning of the next stanza that begins, “No choir.” This is really good action. This is tension between line and syntax, or associative syntax. The association gives us the choir boys, and after the line break which interrupts the syntax and image, the choir boys are taken away. Just like that. You have choir boys as an image, and then they get taken way. Now if the line were more like:

Sleeping choir boys. They were no choir

Well then the effect would be different. The qualifier of “no choir” comes too quick. The image does not get to build and sustain itself. The line break causes the image of choir boys to build and grow, the rest of the sentence enacts that they were not “choir boys” or a “choir.” And then, and then he takes that away with “although in death they were restored.” In the same line that he taketh away, he giveth. This is what I mean by suspension and interruption.

Still this continuing give and take between the syntax dictating the image and the line dictating the image continues. Let’s just look at the whole stanza.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . They were

No choir, although in death they were restored
To all they had been once. They were just boys
Fading back into the woods & the ravines again.

I just told you about those first few lines, but let’s look at the end of the second line, “They were just boys.” Here the line break creates two meanings because the line break suspends the qualifier of what types of boys there were. First, because “just” is ambiguous at this point, it hasn’t been qualified by the next line, “they were just boys” sounds like “they were righteous boys.” And aren’t all boys righteous in war, and because of the context of this poem. The “just” also takes more of a hit, a bigger accent or stress. Then on the next line we get context for “just.” On the next line we realize “just” means “nothing more than” boys, young boys. And the “just,” in a Zen-syllabic moment, loses some of its accent. Its accent is more equal with “boys” than being stronger. The line break creates that double meaning and the Zen-syllabic-stress moment. The line in tension with the syntax creates the double meaning. So on the line turn we can hear/feel/see young, righteous boys “Fading back into the woods & the ravines.” The tone is passive, so reflective, so somber.

This makes me think of “were.”

The verb of the poem is “were.” It occurs six times. Because of “were” and “had been,” the final lines work.  The past tense formation sets up the possibility the “what had to be.”  And even in that same sentence of future possibility, the poem slides back into past tense with “as we stood.” Then the free floating image, “Arms & wings.” Of course it’s in the now. It’s an image. So we have “were” and “had been” in the early part of the poem jamming up with the existential “to be” followed by an image of the present, and concluded with the imperative. The tone of the poem, especially with all its interrupters, feels passive, which gives the last line such an impact.

If you want to hear and see and see how best to use syntax and the line, read W. S. Merwin. He uses the line as punctuation because he uses no punctuation. He doesn’t use punctuation because he believes the mind doesn’t think in punctuation.  He uses the line as an image-thought. The line reflects the thinking.

Robert CreeleyWe can also look to Rober Creeley’s “The Turn” for syntax-line tension.

The Turn

Each way the turn
twists, to be apprehended:
now, she is
there, now she

is not, goes, but
did she, having gone,
went before
the eye saw

nothing. The tree
cannot walk, all its
going must
be violence. They listen

to the saw cut, the
roots scream. And in eating
even a stalk of celery
there will be pathetic screaming.

But what we want
is not what we get.
What we saw, we think
we will see again?

We will not. Moving,
we will
move, and then
stop.

On the line stanza break at the end of the first stanza, he kinda does the same thing we just saw Levis do with “They were / No choir.” This poem, in fact, by the way its sentences twist and turn within the lines, might be an ars poetica about the line-syntax tension. I mean, look at those commas. They are there in large part to cause stammering. To add to the magical act of being and nothing and violence and peace.

be violence. They listen

to the saw cut, the
roots scream. And in eating
even a stalk of celery
there will be pathetic screaming.

But here is a point I want to get to as well. The line break. The line defines the poem, and the line break is where all the magic happens. I believe that almost always you should end a line with a good image or action. Some solid word. Usually, if you end with “the” or “of” or a word that doesn’t evoke something in the mind, you are losing magic. What do I mean by magic? I guess I mean a leap of faith. If you are religious, you can only believe in a god or gods if you make a leap of faith. A leap between here and there with nothing connecting the two. Like Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Without faith, without belief, without any rational explanation, without any visible evidence of a bridge existing and crossing over the bottomless pit between him and the cave with the grail, he closes his eyes, takes a step, and hopes/believes a bridge will be there. And there it is.

The line break manifested in The Last Crusade.

A bridge. And he walks across. (However, he doesn’t have that much faith because he sprinkles some gravel on the other end of the bridge so he can find it again. The leap of faith took that much out of him.) And that’s the magic that happens on the line break. Something that doesn’t exists materializes. You reach the end of the line with a hopeful image, you go through the line turn hoping for something, and during that line turn your mind is actively involved in creating something, just like with the “just boys.” The mind is being imaginative. The mind is involved in magic. It creates something out of nothing, which is why the beginning of the next line is so important because it restores hope. Your leap becomes successful. And if there is good magic, and if there is jumping-with-sensation magic, a new imagination is created on the next line. One you hadn’t imagined. And this creative imaginative force should happen at the end of every line. This is why it so important to end the line with something solid. You need to give the reader hope. You need to give the reader’s imagination a stimulant. The poem needs to give and take.

However, sometimes, and I hate that I’m undermining that passion explosion, but sometimes ending on “the” or “of” can be successful. Look at Sharon Olds’ poetry. That’s her shtick. Whether it’s successful or not is up to you. But in the above Creeley poem, he ends on “the.”

to the saw cut, the
roots scream. And in eating
even a stalk of celery
there will be pathetic screaming.

It’s a clever line break because it mimics the cutting. It’s a cutus interruptus. (Yes, I punned.) The line and the expected words to follow get cut off in an unexpected place. In fact, the cutting starts with the out-of-place comma. That’s where the saw makes contact with the roots. Then it cuts on the line break. But I see these line breaks being more for the head and less for heart. But if done well, it can create a jarring effect that disturbs the heart, as it did here.

The Precarious Rhetoric of AngelsOr what about these line examples from George Looney’s The Precarious Rhetoric of Angels (White Pines Press, 2005), a book where the poems’ meanings revolve around loss, or as he says, “Meaning alludes to something lost.”

Let’s look at these lines from “Faced with a Mosque in a Field of Wheat”:

. . . . . . . . . Not even sex
can disguise the flatness of place
topographical maps turn gray
and the sky blurs, anonymous.

Note how the pauses (the line breaks) cause a tension against the movement of the syntax. Note how that tension forces the reader to slow down to pay attention so as to not overlook, to not anticipate, and to not lose the meaning of what is going on. See and hear how a line makes sense and then is redefined by the next line and the next.

Or consider the opening lines from “A Vague Memory of Fish and Sun”:

Some rivers bend from sight or burn down
to nothing but fossils and dust.

Now some of us may have written:

Some rivers bend from sight
or burn down to nothing
but fossils and dust.

But with Looney’s poem, a different tension arises with the syntactical pause after “nothing,” which seems to complete the thought (which is why I made my line break after “nothing”) and seems to complete the line above. In fact, it sounds like it almost is part of the first line, but that’s just what the grammar ear wants. The first line is doing two things. First, it is saying “Some rivers bend from sight,” that is, they disappear. Then we read the “or”, which seems to indicate something contrary will happen. So we anticipate, when we read “or burn down,” that something will remain. This is where the second thing happens, the line has countered the reader’s expectations. So instead of burning down into a pile of ashes, or something, it “burns down / to nothing”. Now here’s the big pause where syntax and line have finally come to agreement — it’s a mental sigh of relief as we get what is going on in the lines, we get our bearings. But now it’s the syntax’s turn to have its way. And it has its way with “but”. Here “but” is acting similar to the “or” except it is also working against what the lines have already done. The “but” doesn’t slow down the movement of the poem but rather propels it forward. Now what was lost when we read “nothing” is now recovered with “fossils and dust.” These lines mimic a vague memory (as the title suggests), and they play with the theme of loss.

Here’s another example of the line-syntax tension from “The History of Signification”:

nothing. Loss is
elitist and forgetting is best
done in layers.

You see/hear how each line can create its own independent meaning with “nothing” and “loss” balancing and reinforcing each other, and the line almost reads like a definition (if Yoda were reading it). The next line behaves similar with “elitist” and “best” balancing each other, and there is a definition of sorts in there with “forgetting is best.” But here, as is often the case in the poems in this collection, the line is working a tension against syntax. The status of “forgetting is best” becomes a how-to on the line break. “How best to forget?” and the third line responds, “Forgetting is best done in layers.”

The Precarious Rhetoric of Angels is a contemporary book of poetry that one should read if one wants to learn more about the line action and the decisions that can be made for line breaks.

As I said earlier, “In free verse there are many line measures.” And I have covered very briefly only a few. But I want to mention the poem that has no line measure – the prose poem. In prose poetry there are no lines. Prose poetry is like poetry where line breaks can’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t help the text. The tension in a prose poem is elsewhere and it’s not with meter, breath, rhythm, image-thought, or something other rubbing up against the line. I’m still not sure what makes the prose poem a prose poem, but I assume what I just I said – it’s a poem without line breaks.

Lawrence FerlinghettiSo how can I leave you with only one mimetic line device? How can I leave you hovering about and wanting another example? How can I close this lecture that began with playing tennis with a dropped net and high-wire act with no net without including this Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem, “Constantly Risking Absurdity” from A Coney Island of the Mind: Poems (New Directions, 1958), of which I have a first edition, thank you?

Constantly Risking Absurdity

So what you may see in this poem are the lines just starting here and there on the page. However, they move backwards and forwards across the page just like a tightrope walker who steps forward and then kind of steps back to get his balance then steps forward a little bit and a little bit more and then a step back to gain balance and over and over until he gets to the other side, or the end of the poem that uses the line most uniquely. That uses “sleight-of-foot tricks.” (There’s a pun there, too.) That uses line breaks and “empty air” to enhance the poem’s existence.

Thank you for listening to this lecture. For anyone who wants to attend, I will be leading a mini workshop on lineation and the line break.

Thank you again for your attention.

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And now for the exercises.

Exercise 1.

Here’s a poem with no line breaks. It’s up to you to insert them. Then we will compare what you did with the way the poet laid out the poem.

In a Jam

Driving one hour through rush hour traffic to bring you a spare set of keys, reminds me of what I would and would not do for you. The moon, weightless lure, stumbles across the road. I have been banished from your sight for lesser sins, lonely and sorry, believing lightning would not rift the same bark twice. In spring, sap pushes upward in a body until it flowers to become nothing more than wet bark, green buds. What is the probability of softening and changing?  The river is a miracle of attentiveness, eyes and blood, wandering through a passage so labyrinthine grief is released, unlike the place we inhabit which stands so certain with a door to lock and a key to fit inside it. And if this is the purpose of all favors, the one requesting the other to relinquish that which arms do not yield then release may, in good turn, be received.

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Don’t look until you’ve put in your line breaks. The final poems is below.

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Here’s how Harriet Levin laid out her poem (http://poems.com/poem.php?date=14870), and it’s below.

In a Jam

Driving one hour through rush
hour traffic to bring you a spare
set of keys, reminds me of what
I would and would not do
for you. The moon,
weightless lure, stumbles
across the road.
I have been banished
from your sight for lesser sins,
lonely and sorry,
believing lightning would not rift
the same bark twice.
In spring, sap pushes upward
in a body until it flowers
to become nothing more
than wet bark, green buds.
What is the probability
of softening and changing?
The river is a miracle of attentiveness,
eyes and blood, wandering
through a passage so labyrinthine
grief is released,
unlike the place we inhabit
which stands so certain
with a door to lock
and a key to fit inside it.
And if this is the purpose
of all favors, the one requesting
the other to relinquish
that which arms do not yield
then release may,
in good turn, be received.

Harriet Levin's Girl in the Cap and GownBefore I say anything. This poem appears in Girl in Cap and Gown from MAMMOTH Books.

I mainly want to focus on the first part. In the beginning of this poem, the speaker is in a traffic jam, so what better way to mimic the feel of traffic jam than by imitating the sudden stops and starts. The phrase “rush hour” is almost like a word, and here she splits it up. She disrupts the normal flow of how it is worded. The same is true of “spare set of keys”. That’s a common phrase that you wouldn’t interrupt when speaking, but here it’s broken up on a line break, again, to mimic the jarring stops and starts. The third line break is similar, but not as harsh. Perhaps we were in a rubber necker, and now we are at the accident watching it as we slowly speed up. The same feel is at the end of the fourth line. Then we get the romantic line “for you. The moon.” It flows smooth. It has a natural pause at the end of the line. The line is paralleled with two syllables on either side of the period. There is an iamb on either side of the period. It reminded me of Anglo-Saxon verse, which could be another fine study. In Anglo-Saxon verse, like Beowulf, a line has two halves, or hemistichs, and there is a caesura in the middle. In either half are two stressed syllables that are also long in quantity and an alliterated letter. On the other side of the caesura are two more stressed syllables and another alliterated letter. (There are some other considerations, but what I just mentioned are the main ones.) This type of writing is fun practice, as are all syllabics and metrics.

Then the poem moves forward with a good flow. The syntax and line work in unison. The end words, the words at the end of the line, work well. And then she pulls a Larry Levis at the end by suspending the subject and the predicate. The subject of “release” in the penultimate line, and the verb “may be received” is broken doubly with the line break and the interrupter “in good turn.” There’s a certain tension there. It recalls the juts and jukes of the first line, but whereas those jerked the neck, these interrupters and suspensions still flow smoothly. However, isn’t there a juke in the passive voice of the independent clause, “then release may, in good turn, be received”? The subject really being you? “You may receive release” or “release may be received by you.” “You” which may also be “grief” from a few lines before, “grief is released.” “You and grief may receive release.” Anyway. A harsh poem for sure.

And what a way to end a poem with another fulcrum – “in good turn, be received.”

There are good turns in this poem and all poems should have good turns.

Exercise 2.

Bonus example if there is time.

Morton Marcus' The Dark Figure in the DoorwayThis poem is by Morton Marcus. It appears in The Dark Figure in the Doorway (White Pines Press, 2010).


All We Can Do

All we can do on this earth is step into the future with a sense of the many people behind us, the living and the dead, as if we carried our bodies like amphorae filled with sunbeams into each new day, continually reaching inside ourselves to scatter golden butterflies over the land before us, or to fling them against the night, not like tears, but like stars that will guide those who follow across the darkness.

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Some helpful definitions

amphora (am-fer-uh) – a large two-handled storage jar having an oval body, usually tapering to a point at the base, with a pair of handles extending from immediately below the lip to the shoulder: used chiefly for oil, wine, etc., and, set on a foot, as a commemorative vase awarded the victors in contests such as the Panathenaic games.

amphorae (am-fuh-ree) – more than one amphora.

Amphorae

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Don’t look until you’ve put in your line breaks. The final poems is below.

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All We Can Do

All we can do on this earth is step into the future
with a sense of the many people behind us,
the living and the dead, as if we carried our bodies
like amphorae filled with sunbeams into each new day,
continually reaching inside ourselves
to scatter golden butterflies over the land before us,
or to fling them against the night, not like tears, but like stars
that will guide those who follow across the darkness.

I like how the first line keeps moving as if into the future. One could break the line on “step.” That seems natural. It leaves us with a good image-action, but it works better with the extension as the line keeps stepping into the future. Plus ending on “future” means we can imagine the future on the line turn. The future is unknown and so is the line turn. And then the next line ends on “behind us.” Now we are spiraling. Forward at one line break, and backward at the next. That’s good line movement. It mimics how we move in everyday life. It mimics how we write. We write for the future and the past and because of the past. And then the next line has a pivot. The first half defines who those people are, which is a good thing for me because I only thought of the dead, but all people in the past are alive and some of the people in the past are still living today. Then the pause and the return to the sentence. Then the next line is good break, too, because we imagine carrying bodies. I imagined carrying a dead body, even though it is mine. But carrying a body somehow. And then the simile kicks in “like amphorae filled with sunbeams into each new day,” with the natural pause at the line’s end.  I like how the next line is the shortest. Somehow, to me, it mimics the depth of the vase. My hand goes in, but only so far. Certainly not very far compared to the temporal distances we have travelled. Plus, the short line helps the next line scatter. The scattering is mimicked in the longer line length. The line scatters out in length, and then grows longer on the next line that goes into the night and the stars – a distance comparable to the temporal distance we have travelled and then some. Also, if you watch these lines move, they go from a void with the abstract future and past, to the color of sunbeams, then into the darker night with stars and then into the darkness. And all of this happens in one sentence, but there is no anxiety in these lines. The tone keeps the anxiousness at bay. We actually don’t want the period to come. But it comes like death.

What a beautiful one-sentence poem.

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Bibliography (or a list of books and essays some of which I have read and some I plan to read when I make this a more in-depth detailed study)

Corn, Alfred. The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon P, 2008.

Longenbach, James. The Art of the Poetic Line. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf P, 2008.

Oliver, Mary. Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse. New York: Mariner B,    1998.

Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.”

Pinsky, Robert. The Sounds of Poetry. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Preminger, Alex, ed. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University    Press, 1974. (I’m sure there are more recent editions.)

Williams, William Carlos. “A New Line is a New Measure: Louis Zukofsky’s Anew.” Something to Say:      William Carlos on Younger Poets. New York: New Directions, 1985. P 161-169.

—. “On Measure – Statement for Cid Corman.” Something to Say: William Carlos on Younger Poets. New    York: New Directions, 1985. P 202-208.

—. “The Poem as a Field of Action.” Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions,    1954. P 280-291.

—. “The Speed of Poetry: James Schevill’s Right to Greet. Something to Say: William Carlos on Younger      Poets. New York: New Directions, 1985. P 217-218.

//


13 Responses to “Lineation: An Introduction to the Poetic Line”


  1. December 6, 2010 at 10:26 am

    My friend is teaching C K. Williams’ newest collection, WAIT. She and her students noticed some discrepancies between the line breaks in the hardcover and paperback versions of the book. She wrote the publisher to see what was up. Here’s the reply from Jesse Coleman at Farrar, Strauss and Giroux:

    “I worked with Mr. Williams on his last book, WAIT, and can tell you that the line breaks in his poems are completely arbitrary, even in the hardcover editions of his books. He writes incredibly long lines that he knows will not fit onto one line and will, thus, have to be broken. The lines are broken solely according to layout needs, and this is how Mr. Williams wants it. The discrepancies between the hardcover and paperback editions that you noticed are, at least in the opinion of the author, not important to reading or appreciating the work.”

    I find that very bizarre, and worthy of long thought.

    • 2 kitty Jospe
      December 6, 2010 at 10:56 pm

      WAIT is only in hard cover — but some of the line breaks feel arbitrary.
      The discrepancy my students saw was in the hard cover and paper back of “Collected Poems” —
      not all the poems have very long lines, but in a poem like ‘On the Metro’ —
      why break notice as no-/tice
      perception as per-/ception
      aserts as as-/serts
      descends as de-/scends

      It is hard to ignore such breaks — and they happen in WAIT as well.

      The students were comparing the poem “Light” on p. 391 of the paperback and noticed a difference in the hardback and the way poetry foundation reproduces the line. At least poetry foundation keeps the integrity of words like re-/lation; al-lowed; alterna-/tive
      subju-/gation; over-/whelmed; sur-/render; ex-haustion; be-/hold.
      Also, there is no indentation so the line spills nicely like an overflow.
      http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=182357

    • December 6, 2013 at 9:57 am

      Interference of the medium with long lines happens to anthologized copies of Whitman or Ginsberg, but there’s a standard way of demonstrating a line is not yet done (indentation and, for Whitman, the lack of capitals). Are you saying the publisher/editor/and poet do not care to follow even this convention?

  2. December 6, 2010 at 11:48 am

    Does that mean that ideally, for Williams, the poem would just be one long line? Something like David Hinton’s “Fossil Sky”?

    • December 6, 2010 at 3:57 pm

      The weird thing is, why not break the line at the edge of the page instead of the wrap around line. At least make the line look clean. The line has to mean or do something, else what’s the point of the line.

      But yes, why not have one long line. Plus, if he isn’t concerned with the line breaks, then where’s the tension coming from? Why is it poetry? Is this proverbial chopped up lines of prose?

      I’ll have too look into “Fossil Sky”.

      • 6 kitty Jospe
        December 6, 2010 at 11:04 pm

        Fossil sky is art, calligraphy, and the form is integral to the poem.
        I don’t think Williams falls into the category of someone who chops up prose into arbitrary lines — but it’s a shame that the presentation of the poems to the EYE do not match what I heard when he read. I can only guess that he feels his “line phrases” will be read as one continuous line, with attention paid to the punctuation — no matter how a line falls onto two lines like this:

        so xyz xyz xyz xyz yz xyz
        etcetetc
        so xyz xyz xyz xyz xyz xyz
        etcetetc

        is the same as

        so xyz xyz xyz xyz yz x-
        yz etcetetc

  3. March 22, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    I thought this essay/lecture was quite extraordinary–real, vibrant, fresh criticism found in “the wilds” of the internet. I wish I could have been there for the live discussion. Even though the tone is conversational, the material is really quite detailed.

    My workshop students have been hungering for a look at the strategies behind linebreaks, and I look forward to sharing this with them. Thanks so much!

    Cheers,
    Sandra Beasley
    Washington, DC


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