On the Matter of the Line

"I cannot say too many times how powerful the techniques of line
length and line breaks are. You cannot swing the lines around, or fling
strong-sounding words, or scatter soft ones, to no purpose."
~Mary Oliver (on lines in poetry)



James Longenback, “The Art Of The Poetic Line”  -- published by Graywolf  Press

Kim Addonizio and Dirianne Laux, “The Poet’s Companion: A Guide To the Pleasures Of Writing Poetry.”

Here is what Longenback has to say:
But while the line is central to our experience of poetry, it is notoriously difficult to talk about—much more difficult than meter, rhyme, or syntax, even though our experience of all these poetic elements is bound up with our experience of line. What’s more, line has no identity except in relation to other elements in the poem, especially the syntax of the poem’s sentences. It is not an abstract concept, and its qualities cannot be described generally or schematically.  It 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, and only by listening to the effect of a particular line in the context of a particular poem can we come to understand how line works.

Addonizio and Laux say: 
There are no real rules for line breaks. Give the same paragraph of prose to five poets, and each might break it into interesting lines; but their versions probably won’t be identical. There’s often no single correct way to do it. Instead, think of line breaks as effects; learn the different effects you can achieve, and then decide which you want. At first you’ll feel very much at sea, but gradually, by experimenting and listening, and by noticing how line works for other writers, you’ll begin to gain a sense of control.

An enjambed line does not have a punctuation mark at the end of the line.

An end-stopped line has a mark of punctuation at the end of the line – a comma, a period, a semicolon, etc.

Some lines are arranged according to syllables – i.e. syllabics (as in haiku) – traditionally 5 / 7 / 5 syllables.  OR  Alan Ginsberg’s “The American Sentence” in which he added the 5+ 7+ 5 – and wrote single sentences with 17 syllables.

Sonnets have particular lines called iambic pentameter – an unstressed word / syllable followed by a stressed word / syllable. 

The initial line of a poem or a story may not be the best line.  Sometimes, a writer can take the last line of a poem – and make it the first line.  Or grab a striking line in the middle of a free-verse poem and open the poem – or close the poem with that line.

But first let’s look at some lines that may serve as prompts for you to write a poem.  Then you can find, perhaps, your own best line. 


Fred Bassett submitted this.  "From my mother's sleep I fell into the State, / And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. / Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life, " Randal Jarrell "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." See:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Death_of_the_Ball_Turret_Gunner

My mother never forgave my father (Stanley Kunitz – “The Portrait”)

If we must die, let it not be like hogs (Claude McKay – “If We Must Die”)

The art of losing isn’t hard to master (Elizabeth Bishop – “One Art”)

Abortions will not let you forget (Gwendolyn Brooks – “The Mother)

My friend says I was not a good son.  (W.S. Merwin – “Yesterday” )

Should I get married? Should I be good? (Gregory Corso – “Marriage”)

Poems are bullshit unless they are . . . (Amiri Baraka – “Black Art)

these hips are big hips (Lucille Clifton – “homage to my hips”)

When I was about eight, I once stabbed somebody, another kid, a little girl (C.K. Williams – “Blades”)

A man was dancing with the wrong woman (Stephen Dunn – “Tucson”)  

My sister rubs the dolls face in the mud,  (Ai – “The Kid”)

Listen: there was a goat’s head hanging by ropes in a tree.  (Bright Pegreen Kelly – “Song”)

You do look a little ill. (Franz Wright – “Alcohol)

Some folks will tell you the blues is a woman, (Cornelius Eady – “I’m a Fool to Love You”)

Don’t tap your chopsticks against your bowl. (Marilyn Chin – “The Survivor”)

I dreamed I was digging your grave (Sherman Alexie – “What the Orphan Inherits”)


Go back and look at some of your poems.  Is there a better first line? Last line?


This is a poem from the first issue of “Negative Capability” by the late Margaret Key Biggs. I have written it out as prose.  Where would you break the lines?

In small towns, gossipers gather as fast as storm clouds when a scandal emerges like Grendel’s mother from the depths of a pool, a monster seeking flesh; not until they have cleaned each victim’s bones with piranha skill do they return to their homes where they hid sins as black as obsidian stones in spotless white cupboards.

(I will post Biggs’ version on Negative Capability’s Facebook page tomorrow.)