In 2022, the journal Mentor and Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets asked poets for reflections on the poetic line. Excerpts from my response appeared in the resulting feature, “Cataloging the Line.” The full text is below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
What I think about the line is surely a jumble of what other people have said to me about it and things I have realized myself, or had pointed out to me, while reading and writing and revising. I’m certainly grateful to Arthur Sze for directing my attention, years ago, to Denise Levertov’s essay “On the Function of the Line.” First published in Chicago Review in 1979, the essay describes how poets’ turning away from received poetic forms laid new emphasis on the line break as a “crucial precision tool” for creating the impression of the speaker of the poem as someone in the midst of discovery and change. Nonmetrical, open-form poetry, Levertov says, is “exploratory”; it “incorporates and reveals the process of thinking/feeling, feeling/thinking, rather than focusing more exclusively on its results,” and the line break is an agent of this impression.
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 Levertov calls its “peculiarly poetic, a-logical, parallel (not competitive) punctuation.” For example, look at the third of these lines, drawn from Arthur’s own “Winter Stars,” the first section of the long sequence “Sprang,” which I find close to hand in Best American Poetry 2020, edited by Paisley Rekdal:
…yesterday you met
a body-shop owner whose father was arrested,
imprisoned, and tortured in Chile, heard
how men were scalded to death in boiling water;
and, as the angle of sunlight shifts, you feel
a seasonal tilt into winter with its expanse
There’s a natural syntactic break, of course, at the comma after “Chile.” To break the line there would be logical; it would insert a pause. In that pause, both writer and reader might purse their lips with concern—that’s why a writer might make that choice, wishing not to speed past the arrest, imprisonment, and torture of the body-shop owner’s father. But that pursed-lips concern would be ultimately less disruptive, because the syntax would be reinforced, civilized, journalistic. (Type it out yourself and see.)
Instead, the line ends on “heard”—not a syntactic break, but as one in a series of many verbs (ten, I think) that emphasize the experience of the “you.” In this passage, met, heard, feel are all end-words, creating a series of “you” actions. And then, in the following line, a more conventional line-break drags us back to that cruel reality: “how men were scalded to death in boiling water.” A specific horror, but only briefly, as the interior world of the “you” takes over again. The line break choices help make the poem’s subject more complex, more about the complications of seeing and remembering, not only what was seen and remembered.
Levertov suggests that the line break evokes those moments when, either speaking aloud or thinking to ourselves, we “hesitate—albeit very briefly—as if with an unspoken question,—a ‘what?’ or a ‘who?’ or a ‘how?’—before nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, none of which require to be preceded by a comma or other regular punctuation in the course of syntactic logic.” She also observes their contribution to the music of a poem (she uses the word melos, which I love. Let’s bring back melos). Try reading “Winter Stars” with attention to the line break as the marker of the interior pause she describes. Then try reading it with attention to the line break as an agent of the pitch and cadence of the speaking voice. You can learn a lot about the potential energy of the line break by isolating each of these two functions—the thinking and the music.
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.) Another example from The Best American Poetry 2020: Shara Lessley’s poem “On Faith” begins, “There is no map for how the apples fall.” It ends, “The apples fall. There is no map for how.” Same words, different syntax, different meaning. Of course, everything that happens between those two lines has a lot to do with how we read that change of meaning, but isn’t there already a lot to say about the difference between these two lines?
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. If you, too, have a copy of The Best American Poetry 2020 at hand, you might look at the cumulative sentences of Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ “Good Mother” for one way of working with the tension of the sentence against the line, and the long periodic sentence of Ama Codjoe’s “Becoming a Forest” for another. But you can look at almost any poem as a collection of sentences (or sentence-like organizations of words and perhaps punctuation) and a series of choices about how the unit of the line alters the orchestration of the sentences. Or, depending on how you write, perhaps it’s a series of choices about how something related to sentences accumulates from the arrangement of the lines.
Codjoe, Ama. “Becoming a Forest.” The Adroit Journal, Issue 29. Rpt. in The Best American Poetry 2020, ed. Paisley Rekdal, p. 28.
Griffiths, Rachel Eliza. “Good Mother.” Tin House, Issue 79, 2019. Rpt. in The Best American Poetry 2020, ed. Paisley Rekdal, pp. 66-67.
Levertov, Denise. “On the Function of the Line.” Chicago Review 30:3, Winter 1979, pp. 30-36. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25303862. Accessed 18 June 18 2022.
Lessley, Shara. “On Faith.” The Gettysburg Review, Spring 2019, p. 80. Rpt. in The Best American Poetry 2020, ed. Paisley Rekdal, p. 101.
Sze, Arthur. “Sprang.” Mānoa, 31:1, 2019, pp. 111-116. Rpt. in The Best American Poetry 2020, ed. Paisley Rekdal, pp. 168-176.