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6.6: The Line in Poetry

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    Colored pencils drawing lines

    Image from Pixabay

    In poetry, there are three units of architecture, or structure: words, lines, and stanzas. As with all forms of writing, words comprise the most basic level of form. But what makes poetry unique as a genre is verse—lines—which work as both a unit of sensibility and music. Lines assemble into stanzas, or “rooms” in Italian. Sometimes poems can have sections, too, where stanzas are confined yet relate to one another, and sometimes poems can break from line and stanza into what we call prose poems, which we will discuss later.

    The Line: Rows

    Originally, poetry was used as a way to remember stories, which were delivered orally by a speaker or “the poet” to an audience. The units created verse, which in Latin translates to “line,” “row,” or “furrow,” musical measures that were easier to remember. Poetry existed before writing; and even after writing was invented most people could not read. Poetry has been a way throughout human existence for people to pass on history, news, entertainment, and wisdom from one generation to the next. With the spread of literacy, the function of lines began to take on more complexity, increasing auditory and visual impacts. By the twentieth century, typeface allowed poets to place visual form at the center of their art.

    It is apt that “verse” translates to “row” or “furrow,” words we also use when speaking of gardens and farms (and also to the lines on our foreheads when we brood!). Think of each line of poetry you write as a row in your garden that is the poem. Every garden is different and the plants in it do not simply lie atop the surface; roots go deep and flourish from the nutrients in the soil. In a poem, those nutrients are the knowledge and emotions of the poet which, like in a garden, we do not see. Instead we see emotions and ideas transformed linguistically into imagery and music. In this analogy, words are the plants and flowers that the poet/gardener has chosen, and they are rooted into the earth, into history, into what came before. Words cannot detach themselves from their meanings and nuances. Each is a seed fallen from a mother plant. Poetry, the garden in which generations of words may flourish, gives opportunities for words to evolve. It is why the poet is known as the “keeper of language,” giving words to the unspeakable, naming the unnameable.

    In our gardens, the line is a unit of measurement different from that of sentences. A line can ignore syntax and grammar to create interesting effects. For instance, a line can end on a verb and suspend the object onto the next line. This move can increase speed, or the pace, of the poem, as the reader is propelled forward to complete the thought. The line break can also create an image or idea that can transform when the reader reaches the next line. For example, in Bruce Snider’s poem “Epitaph,” the word “alive” creates one meaning that changes with the turn to the next line:

    … I could sense
    him down there, satin-lined,
    curled like the six-toe cat
    we’d found bloated in the creek, alive
    with lice and maggots.

    As reader we think at first that the cat is alive, only to find that it is alive but with “lice and maggots.” The effect comes from the use of an enjambed line, a line that does not end with punctuation. This enjambment is referred to as hard enjambment because it has so much of an effect and impact on the poem’s reading. Enjambed lines can suggest complex meaning, create images or emphasis, and control the music, or prosody of the poem. In contrast, when a line ends with a form of punctuation, or with a complete phrase, we refer to those lines as end-stopped.

    Deciding where to break a line can be determined by a number of things: rhythm, rhyme, emphasis, pace, or the way a poem looks on a page. Classic forms predetermine the form a poem takes, and include rules concerning meter, rhyme, and repetition. Some forms like the Shakespearean sonnet include the element of a turn, or a volta, in which there is a marked change in the speaker in thought, emotion, or rhetoric. Forms are fun to experiment with and assert pressure on the writer in interesting ways that result in surprises that wouldn’t occur otherwise.

    Today, most poetry is written in free verse, or verslibre in Latin, not requiring the poet to follow any prescribed rules of form. Robert Frost famously referred to writing free verse as “playing tennis without a net.” And as you saw in the previous chapter, Billy Collins has noted the way free verse poems have come to rely on tone of voice to hold it together.

    lined sheet of paper

    Image from Pixabay

    End-Stopped Lines and Enjambment

    In the following poem, James Wright keeps his lines syntactically intact and uses almost entirely end-stopped lines. Read the poem via the Poetry Foundation.

    The pauses at the ends of Wright’s lines are natural in speech and adhere to the formation of phrases, the units of sentences. Incorporating enjambment, Wright could’ve altered the music, meaning, and emphasis of this poem if he had started:

    In the Shreve High football stadium, I think

    Of Polacks nursing long beers in Titonsville.

    You can see in this example how the speaker’s thinking is emphasized more than in the original because now the verb, “think,” falls at the end of the line. This formation also sets up a delay for the reader to find out what the speaker is thinking about. If this were the first line of the poem, we’d initially have more of a focus on the speaker and his thinking, his brooding. Instead, the first four lines of the original end with a place—stadium, Titonsville, Benwood, and Wheeling Steel. In addition, the punctuation enforces more of a pause at the end of the line than the break already does. We sense the separation of the places, yet their connectedness through the stanza that joins them, as well as the last line of the stanza which unites the Polacks, Negroes, and watchman through an action: “dreaming of heroes.” The collective action suggests that the speaker, part of this larger community, is also dreaming of heroes.

    The only line not end-stopped with punctuation in the poem happens in the last stanza: “Their sons grow suicidally beautiful,” and this difference, as any change does, makes the line stand out. Even though there’s no punctuation, this line is not forcefully enjambed, as Wright continues to adhere to syntactical units:

    Possessive pronoun (Their)—noun (sons)—verb (grow)—adverb (suicidally)—adjective (beautiful)

    And because he does, there is little if any jarring with the break to “At the beginning of October.”

    Overall, the end-stopped lines and syntactical intactness of the lines moves the poem slowly, one step it seems at a time until it reaches its sum: “Therefore,” at which point the poem loosens its pace and speeds up just for a bit, as if the sons begin to “gallop” or run, as the line itself runs over into the next.

    At the end of another one of Wright’s poems, “A Blessing,” enjambment is used to surprise the reader with an image that changes as the penultimate, or second to last, line gives way to the final line:

    Suddenly I realize
    That if I stepped out of my body I would break
    Into blossom.

    The hard enjambment between “break” and “blossom” creates an initial image of breaking in which the tone is harsh, violent, a loss, a break in need of repair. But the last line changes the tone with the image of a body breaking into blossom rather than simply breaking.

    In contrast to Wright’s poem, the following poem by Aimee Nezhukumatathil employs mostly enjambed lines that ignore syntactically complete units in this poem about the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark:

    Lewis and Clark Disagree

    Because Meriwether ate the last berry
    without consulting William. Because

    the prairie dog only let William feed
    it dried corn. Because the Nez Perce

    gave one a necklace of purple quartz
    and not the other. Because Osage oranges

    gave Meriwether hives. Because a grizzly
    chased William into an oak tree, left him

    high for hours. Because “Someone” tucked
    buffalo chips into Merriwether’s knapsack

    when he wasn’t looking. Because after walking,
    rowing, swimming, climbing, trotting, pulling,

    cutting, all they really wanted was a name
    for a fruit one found sour, the other, so sweet.

    “Lewis and Clark Disagree” from Miracle Fruit, published by Tupelo Press, copyright © 2003 Aimee Nezhukumatahil. Used with permission.

    The form is almost the exact opposite of Wrights’: ten enjambed lines followed by two end-stopped, then an enjambed line, then an end-stopped line. In this poem the lines break sometimes on the first word of the next sentence. If we were to lay out the lines in terms of sentences, we would be left with an almost bullet-pointed list of reasons for why “Lewis and Clark Disagree” and they would look like this:

    Because Meriwether ate the last berry without consulting William.

    Because the prairie dog only let William feed it dried corn.

    Because the Nez Perce gave one a necklace of purple quartz and not the other.

    Because Osage oranges gave Meriwether hives.

    Because a grizzly chased William into an oak tree, left him high for hours.

    Because “Someone” tucked buffalo chips into Meriwether’s knapsack when he wasn’t looking.

    Because after walking, rowing, swimming, climbing, trotting, pulling, cutting, all they really wanted was a name for a fruit one found sour, the other, so sweet.

    Because, because, because, because, because. Instead, verse allows Nezhukumatathil to tone down the repetition of “Because” while also allowing her to manipulate rhythm and layer meaning. Take, for instance, the following lines:

    … Because a grizzly
    chased William into an oak tree, left him

    high for hours. Because “Someone” tucked
    buffalo chips into Merriwether’s knapsack

    when he wasn’t looking. Because after walking,

    The break after “left him” allows the image and idea of abandonment to linger before its meaning evolves into the complete thought “left him high for hours.” The next two lines use the break to emphasize the alliteration of “tuck” and “-sack,” which even continues beyond that couplet to the next with “walk.” “Walk” and “Tuck” also being verbs, we are propelled forward to the next line by action. As for meaning, we come to “tuck” and think: tucked what?

    With lines, generally the first and last words will take on extra emphasis, and in “Lewis and Clark Disagree” they have multiple effects. Some lines begin and end where they do to emphasize meaning: “left him” and “when he wasn’t looking” suggest tension that feeds back to the relationship between Lewis and Clark; abandonment and sneakiness aren’t marks of kindness. We read “left him” and think how terrible! We turn to “when he wasn’t looking” and think, oooooh sneaky.

    Like Wright’s poem, this poem changes its pattern, moving from enjambed lines to end-stopped lines. The last sentence of the poem is strung out over four lines and arranged in a way so that the acoustics develop the feel of a burden or a long list:

    … Because after walking,
    rowing, swimming, climbing, trotting, pulling,

    cutting, all they really wanted was a name
    for a fruit one found sour, the other, so sweet.

    Listen to how the rising pitch in the first line gives way to a list of actions that propels us into the penultimate line:

    . . . walking, [↑]

    [→] rowing, swimming, climbing, trotting, pulling, [a big pause]


    There is a long pause between “pulling” and “cutting” produced from the break of momentum in the list of actions. Nezhukumatathil could’ve placed all the verbs on one line to create an entirely different feel:

    walking, rowing, swimming, climbing, trotting, pulling, cutting

    But instead, in order to keep the inflection and pitch varied, she rearranges words on a line differently, regardless of their syntactical relationships.

    Exercise 6.6.1

    Read the following prose extract taken from Walter Pater’s discussion of the Mona Lisa, written in 1893, and then complete the activity:

    She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants: and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands

    When W.B. Yeats was asked to edit The Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892–1935 (1936), he chose to begin with this passage from Pater, but he set it out quite differently on the page. Before you read his version, write out the extract as a poem yourself. The exercise is designed to make you think about line lengths, where to start a new line and where to end it when there is no rhyme to give you a clue. There is no regular rhythm either, though I’m sure you will discover rhythms in the words, as well as repeated patterns. How can you best bring out these poetic features?


    Of course, there is no right answer to this exercise, but you should compare your version to Yeats’s, printed below, to see if you made similar decisions.

    She is older than the rocks among which she sits;
    Like the Vampire,
    She has been dead many times,
    And learned the secrets of the grave;
    And has been a diver in deep seas,
    And keeps their fallen day about her;
    And trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants;
    And, as Leda,
    Was the mother of Helen of Troy,
    And, as St Anne,
    Was the mother of Mary;
    And all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes,
    And lives
    Only in the delicacy
    With which it has moulded the changing lineaments,

    And tinged the eyelids and the hands.

    I wonder whether you used upper case letters for the first word of each line, as Yeats did? You may have changed the punctuation, or perhaps have left it out altogether. Like Yeats, you may have used "And" at the beginnings of lines to draw attention to the repetitions: nine of the lines begin in this way, emphasising the way the clauses pile up, defining and redefining the mysterious Mona Lisa. Two lines begin with "She": while there was no choice about the first, beginning the third in the same way focuses attention on her right at the start of the poem. Yeats has used Pater’s punctuation to guide his line endings in all but two places: lines 13 and 14 run on – a stylistic device known as enjambment. The effect is an interesting interaction between eyes and ears. While we may be tempted to read on without pausing to find the sense, the line endings and white space of the page impose pauses on our reading, less than the commas and semicolons that mark off the other lines, but significant nevertheless.

    Yeats’s arrangement of the words makes the structure and movement of Pater’s long sentence clearer than it appears when written as prose. The poem begins with age–she is "older than the rocks"– and refers to "Vampire", death, and "grave" in the first lines. The decision to single out the two words "And lives" in a line by themselves towards the end of the poem sets them in direct opposition to the opening; we have moved from great age and living death to life. The arrangement of lines 8-11 highlights her links with both pagan and Christian religions: the Mona Lisa was the mother of Helen of Troy and the Virgin Mary. The wisdom and knowledge she has acquired is worn lightly, nothing more than "the sound of lyres and flutes", apparent only in the "delicacy" of colour on "eyelids and hands."

    The aim of the preceding exercise was to encourage you to think about form and structure even when a poem does not appear to follow a conventional pattern. Because you have now "written" a poem and had the opportunity to compare it with someone else’s version of the same words, you should begin to realize the importance of decisions about where exactly to place a word for maximum effect, and how patterns can emerge which will control our reading when, for example, successive lines begin with repetitions. It should have made you think about the importance of the beginnings of lines, as well as line endings. What has been achieved by using a short line here, a longer one there? How do these decisions relate to what is being said? These are questions that can usefully be asked of any poem.

    Earlier, discussing the extract from Pope’s An Essay on Criticism, I asked you to concentrate on the sound qualities of the poetry. Here, I want you to consider the visual impact of the poem on the page. It is a good thing to be aware of what a complex task reading is, and to be alive to the visual as well as the aural qualities of the verse.

    Length of a Line

    wooden ruler

    Image from Pixabay

    If you simply browse the poems included in any anthology, you will see all types of shapes on the page. The length of the line is one of the most important decisions a poet makes about a poem, and the decision usually comes to define a poet’s style. Robert Creeley’s poems use short lines. C. K. Williams, long. Most poets write somewhere in between. The decision of how long to make lines can be driven by a number of factors, but mostly it is chosen by prosody, the musical component of the language that projects the speaker’s voice and breath. As we’ve seen in the last chapter, where we choose to break lines also has a tremendous effect on the poem’s tone and meaning.

    One of the elements that determine line length is the character of the language in which you write. English contains many iambic patterns that often sound most right on a line between four and five feet long. Lines one foot long are barely poems at all; it is difficult to create tension or musical phrases with only two beats per line. Lines with four feet are frequently used to tell stories as is the case often with Robert Frost’s poems. Longer lines lend themselves well to conversational tones, like that of Denise Duhamel’s, or in lyric poems like Larry Levis.

    Some poets like Allen Ginsberg and Charles Olson, who wrote about it in his essay “Projective Verse,” considered a line to be a unit of breath. Olson writes:

    And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination.

    There can be no denial of the essential relationship between the poetic line and breath. Or between any carefully constructed writing and the pace at which it’s read. Just look at Olson’s passage and his use of commas, which causes us to stagger through the sentence.

    Poetry is an oral art which comes fully to life when read aloud. Lines are instructions for how often and how long to pause. Like sheet music, the lines guide our pace, emphasis, and silence. If you were to read short-lined poems, however, taking a new breath at each line’s start, you’d sound like a panting dog. So, there is some room for interpretation on Olson’s assertion. Nonetheless, breath and line are intertwined, as you will see from the following examples.

    As we read through these, note the different line lengths and their effects:

    Here from this mountain shore, headland beyond stormy headland plunging

    like dolphins through the blue sea-smoke

    Into pale sea—look west at the hill of water: it is half the planet: this dome, this half globe, this bulging

    Eyeball of water, arched over to Asia,

    Australia and white Antarctica: those are the eyelids that never close; this is the staring unsleeping

    Eye of the earth; and what it watches is not our wars.

    (Robinson Jeffers, from “The Eye”)

    In this excerpt from Robinson Jeffers’ poem “The Eye” we see the different effects long and short lines have on the breath. The first lengthy line full of images beyond the human—the headlands, the mountain, the shore, the dolphin, the smoke—in a long line like this we are given a sense of being overwhelmed as the images keep building and drawing out the breath until we are breathless. Compare this line to what follows two lines below: “Eyeball of water, arched over to Asia.” If you read both out loud you can feel how the length changes the way you use your lungs: long breath, short breath. The effect of the shorter line is like a quick glance—the eye open from the Pacific coast to Asia.

    Exercise 6.6.1

    Click on the following link to take a look at the first four lines of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.”

    Knowing that Ginsberg considered a line to be a unit of breath, it is easy for us to read the lines the way they were intended. In Ginsberg’s long lines we sense overwhelming frustration, exasperation, and urgency. There is the sense that the speaker has so much to say that he cannot contain himself, that he cannot take a breath deep enough to capture all of his thoughts. What happens when you read the last line here out loud? Try it if you haven’t. What happens is that you need to speak quickly, and this creates a voice of desperation—perfectly appropriate given the subject matter of Ginsberg’s great generational poem “Howl.” The title itself, taken from a line in Walt Whitman’s great poem “Song of Myself,” reflects the tone that Ginsberg’s lines create.

    In the strange house
    In the strange town
    Going barefoot past the parents’ empty room
    I hear the horses the fire the wheel bone wings
    Your voice

    (Jean Valentine, from “The Messenger”)

    Rather than breaking the line after words or phrases to create a pause, many poets incorporate white space into the line itself. Here, the spaces in line four visually mimic the footsteps referred to in line three, as well as create the pacing — as though the steps being taken are slow. Notice that the phrase “Your voice,” which is part of the list in line four, is moved to line five. That means there must be some difference between the effect created between the phrases with white space and those created by line breaks. It seems that the pauses between the list in line four are slightly shorter, more staccato, than the pause created between “bone wings” and “Your voice.” The more poetry you read, and the more poetry you write, the more you will begin to identify the subtleties of these techniques.

    open pen next to wooden ruler

    Image from Pixabay

    “Lines”, from The Star-Spangled Banner by Denise Duhamel

    On our first date, instead of holding my hand, my future-husband looked

    at my palm. Here’s your fame line your heart line the lucky M

    he said you were in danger but you are coming out of it now.

    He said it like he meant it, the way the old women in the Philippines

    had taught him. Now make a fist these two little lines under your pinky

    these are the two kids you’ll have.

    My sister keeps waiting

    for her third baby. She has three lines. Three kids, that’s what the palm reader

    at Rocky Point told her. You’ll get married next year

    and you’ll have three beautiful daughters. My sister laughed and said

    I‘ll get a second opinion because she was just a junior in high school

    and sure she was going to college.

    On our first date my future-husband


    the lines on my palm with his finger and I closed my hand around his

    because it tickled. If the pad near your thumb is fleshy, he said,

    it means you’re very passionate. His own palms were chubby and pink,

    his brown fingers tapered and elegant. He wore a silver and turquoise ring.

    He said, You’ll get married only once

    but later there’ll be an affair.

    Now that we’re married, he can’t find that wrinkle of infidelity.

    Our palms change, he tells me, especially our right palms

    that mutate through our behavior. He examines the bunch of tiny xs

    that look like windshield frost, the wishbones, the spider webs,

    the triangle dragon teeth.

    My sister will most likely have that third baby.

    My husband sees those three lines though my sister groans,

    Two are enough. Her oldest is already fourteen, and my sister

    is finally able to start taking classes at the community college.

    My husband says to make everyone feel better: I was only kidding

    I don’t really know that much about predictions.

    That night we all go

    to Rocky Point which isn’t as fun as it used to be, which is going bankrupt,

    my sister says, like everything else in Rhode Island. The rollercoaster

    is broken down, the cars off the tracks, lying on their sides

    like cows. And hanging from the booths’ roofs, giant Tweety Birds and Pink Panthers,

    the cuddly neon elusive ones that hardly anyone ever wins.

    Copyright © 1999 by Denise Duhamel. Reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press.

    One of the most conversational of contemporary poets, Duhamel speaks to us like we are a long-time friend. Her voice is energetic though the lines are long. And in this poem she varies line lengths drastically but keeps to an overall pattern so it still looks uniform on the page. Once again, like other poems we’ve looked at, the form reflects and enhances the subject: the lines on our hands that palm readers use to predict our future. As we read the poem, we read the lines as though we are scanning a palm. Ironically, poems are made of lines too! In addition to the visual echo, the spaces also create pauses that mimic the way a fortune teller speaks: slowly, interpreting, considering — “He said, You’ll get married once / [space] But later there’ll be an affair.” The space also creates suspense and drama. In this excerpt, there is one line on which only one word sits: “trace.” It is the only line in the poem that contains one word. What is the effect? Why this word?

    Exercise 6.6.1

    Follow the link to Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool.” This short poem accomplishes a lot with its short lines and enjambment. Reflecting the theme of rebellion, each line ignores standards of syntax and ends on a word that actually starts the next sentence. The enjambment places a stress on the word “We” and therefore emphasizes the will of the speaker to identify the group. What else do you think this poem accomplishes with its lines?

    If the poem is laid out so that each sentence falls on its own line, what happens to the poem’s energy? Music? Tone? Or what if you place one-and-a-half sentences on each line? Try rearranging the lines differently again and see what the effect is.

    Alternatively, try another excerpt from above. Break “Howl” up into short lines, Duhamel’s poem into medium lines. Experiment with how line affects music and emphasis in meaning. Try it in one of your own poems.

    brightly colored striped paper with tear down middle

    Image from Pixabay

    What Stanzas Do

    There is no way around the fact that stanzas, which dictate the way space is used on the page, create unity and separation. Even if the motive is to break a poem into stanzas to make the poem easier to read on the page—a huge chunk of text can be intimidating and heavy—or even if the motive is to control the music of the language by adding longer pauses—breaking a poem into stanzas invites the ideas of division and unification into the poem.

    Just like the rooms of houses, walls say “This is the den (let’s relax!),” or “This is the dining room (no clutter allowed!).” Rooms help us create space and define the tone of that space. When I was young, my sister and I shared a doorway with no door. Our bedrooms flowed into and out of each other, but the walls still defined our own individual space. We were connected as siblings, could see into each other’s rooms, but still had control over what we wanted in our private space. Like my childhood bedroom, stanzas in poems can suggest connection, or confine ideas, images, and sounds to their own space while still sharing the same roof. Punctuation and other devices in the last and first lines of a stanza suggest whether the doorway is open like mine and my sister’s bedrooms, or whether it contains a titanium door.

    There are endless ways to organize stanzas and infinite decisions that can be made in the process of doing so. Usually stanzas are built on more than one idea, for more than one reason (like all aspects of a poem). Lines are part of stanzas, and words are part of lines. These three elements—words, lines, and stanzas—work together to cause all sorts of effects from creating music to drawing parallels between ideas and images. There is no way to provide a comprehensive review of what stanzas do, but the following examples will offer a small sampling of what stanzas can do.

    Organize space and time

    1) To label the past, present, and future:

    In Lee’s poem below, the first stanza is delivered in the present tense and the second brings us to the future with “lives far ahead.”

    A Story

    by Li Young Li

    In a room full of books in a world
    of stories, he can recall
    not one, and soon, he thinks, the boy
    will give up on his father.

    Already the man lives far ahead, he sees
    the day this boy will go. Don’t go!
    Hear the alligator story! The angel story once more!
    You love the spider story. You laugh at the spider.
    Let me tell it!

    2) To illustrate differences in location:

    Read Chad Sweeny's poem below to see how stanza breaks affect location:

    The Mile

    by Chad Sweeny

    My grandmother crowns the hill,
    her headlights lathing the dark,
    a farm route

    through rye then cotton
    then the red and gold of wheat,
    the scrub oak crowding

    a little nameless river
    where fog holds to low places.
    Who would have seen the tractor

    aimed down the highway by a boy
    his first summer behind the wheel
    with no lights but the holy

    somnolence of a cowboy radio?
    The next car over the rise
    is my father

    blind into the fog.
    There is so much to talk about
    at this moment,

    so many lines of cause and effect
    trembling taut into that gully.
    How does my father choose,

    with his mother’s ribs broken,
    his new wife moaning from the ditch,
    to carry the limp body

    of someone else’s child
    a mile over night fields
    toward the insinuation of a roof?

    Everyone is bleeding and starlight
    drizzles over the summer wheat.
    The poem holds them there

    long enough to trace the flight
    of an owl
    from a cedar’s black minaret

    its wings underlit by brake-lights.
    Which of you, dear reader,
    is in the next Oldsmobile

    to clatter over the bluff
    shouting help into your CB radio?
    Which of you opens the front door

    to wrap your unconscious boy
    in quilts? Do you kill

    the man
    who carries him?
    In most endings I am never

    born. In most,
    you buy my family’s farm cheap
    at auction. Who among you

    is rushing the ambulance
    past the county line at mile 67
    when the tire blows? The story

    moves through telephone wires
    at the pitiless speed of rumor:
    when my father reaches the house

    with the boy expiring in his arms,
    a white rectangle of light
    and grief

    seers his eyes forever.
    In the cave of my mother’s

    I listen to the first fire.

    Copyright © Chad Sweeney. “The Mile” is licensed CC-BY-NA-SA.

    Here, Sweeney’s stanzas bring us on a journey. We move with the grandmother over the hill, then through the grain fields, then beside a river. The lack of punctuation between the stanzas unifies the locations and makes the transitions feel like one journey. Had punctuation such as periods been used at the end of each stanza, there would be a stronger sense of isolation:

    My grandmother crowns the hill,
    her headlights lathing the dark.

    A farm route
    through rye then cotton
    then the red and gold of wheat.

    Then, the scrub oak crowding
    a little nameless river
    where fog holds to low places.

    3) Indicate shifts in a poem’s mode or voice

    Stanzas can mark transitions between narrative and lyrical modes, descriptions and questions, and shifts in tone or perspective. Look for the shifts in voice or address in the stanzas below:

    Dinner Out

    by Christopher Howell

    We went to either the Canton Grill
    or the Chinese Village, both of them
    on 82nd among the car lots
    and discount stores and small nests
    of people waiting hopelessly
    for the bus. I preferred the Canton
    for its black and bright red sign
    with the dragon leaping out of it
    sneezing little pillows of smoke.
    And inside, the beautiful green
    half-shell booths, glittery brass encrusted
    lamps swinging above them.

    What would I have?
    Sweet and sour?
    Chow mein with little wagon wheel shaped
    slices of okra and those crinkly noodles
    my father called deep fried worms?
    Fried rice?

    Among such succulence, what did it matter?
    We could eat till we were glad and full, the whole
    family sighing with the pleasure of it.
    And then the tea!
    All of this for about six bucks, total,
    my father, for that once-in-awhile, feeling
    flush in the glow of our happy faces
    and asking me, “How you doing, son?”

    Fine, Dad. Great, really, in the light
    of that place, almost tasting
    the salt and bean paste and molasses, nearly
    hearing the sound of the car door
    opening before we climbed in together
    and drove and drove,
    though we hadn’t far to go.

    From Gaze by Christopher Howell (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions). Copyright © 2012 by Christopher Howell. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.

    In each stanza we hear a shift in voice. The first opens in a narrative mode as we are given a place and time, a description of the street on which the restaurant the speaker and his dad go to eat. In the second stanza, the voice shifts into an interrogative mode, asking questions about what will be ordered. Though the third stanza also begins with a question, this is a different type of question than what is posed in the second stanza. Here, the voice becomes lyrical and introspective: “Among such succulence, what did it matter?” In the last stanza the voice shifts to answer the question posed by the dad in the end of the third stanza and in this way, the first line of the last stanza directly addresses the dad. In Howell’s poem each stanza is used to mark a slight shift in voice.

    4) A shift in thought or a resolution:

    You are the bread and the knife,
    the crystal goblet and the wine.
    You are the dew on the morning grass
    and the burning wheel of the sun.
    You are the white apron of the baker,
    and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

    However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
    the plums on the counter,
    or the house of cards.
    And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
    There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

    It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
    maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head,
    but you are not even close
    to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

    (Billy Collins, from “Litany”)

    As in Howell’s poem, in Collins’ poem there is a shift in the voice’s pitch. But in “Litany,” the stanzas emphasize moves in the thought process that build upon the ideas established in the preceding stanza. You can follow these turns of thought by the transition words that begin them: “You are”…“However, you are not…” “It is possible that you are…”

    5) Create emphasis on individual images:

    Passover: The Injections

    Clouds pass over, endless,
    black fruit dripping
    sap from the branches
    of lightning.

    We lie down in the field,
    thousands of us,
    never mind the rain.

    Soldiers come toward us,
    groups of three or four.
    The wind opens their long coats.
    Underneath, their uniforms are black.

    They bend over to the babies.
    The babies cry,
    for a little while.

    “We are living in Biblical times,”
    a woman says.

    “Passover: The Injections”, from The Candle: Poems of Our Twentieth Century Holocausts by William Heyen. Copyright © 2016 by William Heyen. Used by permission of Etruscan Press.

    Rarely is there one reason for the way stanzas are arranged. In the above excerpt, the stanzas isolate images, but they also organize space and actions. Each stanza is end-stopped, further emphasizing the divide between the fields, the prisoners, the soldiers.

    On Enjambment

    Even the tumbleweed

    is a stowaway sneaked in

    with the grass seed, given

    an easier-to-say name. It became

    American. We are lonely

    when it stumbles by, but it’s just

    a weed. We made it

    a thing sadder than itself,

    like a nursing home lunch.

    (Bethany Schultz Hurst, from “Settler”)

    The stanzas used by Hurst accentuate the way the enjambment affects images and sounds. Each stanza break makes the line break even harder. When we end the first stanza, we are left with the idea of sharing or giving something away. There is connection: “Even the tumbleweed / is a stowaway sneaked in / with the grass seed, given.” It sounds thoughtful. It sounds like we are receiving—“given.” But moving to the second stanza, the meaning changes: “given // an easier-to-say name.” This happens again in the transition from the second to third stanzas with the meaning of “just” changing from the idea of justice or fairness—“but it’s just”—to something different: “but it’s just // a weed.” The beginning of both the second and third stanzas undercut the sentiment we are left with at the end of the preceding stanza and the way the stanzas are formed emphasize this change.

    6) Create an image with the words on the page

    Poem composed on x-ray

    Contributors and Attributions

    This page titled 6.6: The Line in Poetry is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Heather Ringo & Athena Kashyap (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .

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