The Line

Poetry is the highest and most complex form of human speech. It includes terms as difficult to pronounce as medical ones: amphibrach, dactyl, onomatopoeia —to name a few. Suffice it to say that encyclopedias of poetry often number one thousand pages or more, chock full of words like these, with examples and definitions. And yet poetry has one characteristic on which all its other elements must rely: the line. Eliminate rhyme, and you still have free verse. Eliminate simile, and you still have symbol. Eliminate line, and you have prose.

The line is the jugular vein of poetry. What you will learn about it in this chapter applies to free and formal verse, making free verse less free . . . and formal verse more difficult. Moreover, if you truly master the line, something magical will occur within you: You will discover that poetry is as close to music as it is to writing.

For the time being, let's look at these building blocks to see how you can structure your verse via the line:

Building Block #1: The first line should be a zinger. Too often poets back into their work, composing throwaway first lines to get going and then neglecting to revise them later. Read the front page of your daily newspaper, especially the wire reports, and you'll see how reporters pack as much information as possible into the first sentence of their stories, to keep the reader's interest.

Shouldn't a poet do the same?

Consider some of these opening lines:

• Dear Chloe, how blubbered is that pretty face! from "Answer to Chloe Jealous" by Matthew Prior.

• An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king— from "England in 1819" by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

• My pictures blacken in their frames from "Death of the Day" by Walter Savage Landor.

• She walks in beauty, like the night from "She Walks in Beauty" by Lord Byron.

• When the dead in their cold graves are lying from "Memory" by Charlotte Bronte.

• Well hast thou spoken, and yet, not taught from "My Comforter" by Emily Bronte.

• The Soul selects her own Society from "303" by Emily Dickinson.

• Bald heads forgetful of their sins, from "The Scholars" by W.B. Yeats.

• Something there is that doesn't love a wall from "Mending Wall" by Robert Frost.

Reading these examples, you can see why people often quote first lines of poems at parties to impress each other. The opening lines of immortal works are strong and we tend to remember them as often as we remember their titles. To show how a good first line can improve a poem, consider the first and second drafts of a verse titled "Realism":

(First draft)

I posed for a portrait.

"Make me look like that," I said,

And you stepped back, hmmm-ed.

(Second draft)

We began to lose our love because I wanted yours

Before it changed as a portrait often does

In the first draft, the second and third lines are interesting; but the opener is a dud. It simply describes the topic of the poem, and that could have been done with a good title. In the second version, however, the new first line is improved, setting the mood and generating stronger lines than in the original.

Every first line ought to encourage the audience to read on. If readers become bored by the second or third line, chances are they will abandon the poem. The opening lines, if strong enough, imply that the poem will build in intensity as it continues.

Building Block #2: A line should work as a unit of speech. It also should contain an idea or image that melds with the idea or image in the next line. Often it will convey one meaning when read across and another when read down, in tandem with the next line. Ideally, it should begin and end with strong words — vivid nouns or verbs, for example — or unanticipated ones —unusual adjectives or adverbs, for example. Avoid too many pronouns (I, we) or definite and indefinite articles (the, a) at the ends of lines because they seem to dangle and call attention to themselves.

Let's study excerpts from poems to illustrate these points:

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,

Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows

That liquefaction of her clothes!

— from "Upon Julia's Clothes" by Robert Herrick

Note how each line conveys one image or idea and how meanings of each line blend. The second line, for instance, not only depicts the woman's silks but also implies the sweetly flowing thoughts of the poet. Then, in the third line, Julia's clothes become fluid. Now that's poetry in motion!

When the dead in their cold graves are lying Asleep, to wake never again;

When past are their smiles and their sighing, Oh! why should their memories remain?

— from "Memory" by Charlotte Bronte

Consider the double meaning generated by the ending word: lying. Are the dead telling untruths ... or merely reclining in the ground? The answer to that question is both: the first line means one thing when read across and something else when read with the next line: "Asleep, . . ." Remaining lines work as units using strong words: "again," "sighing," "Oh!" and "remain."

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,

The holy time is quiet as a Nun

Breathless with adoration; the broad sun

Is sinking down in its tranquility; . . .

— from "It Is a Beauteous Evening" by Wordsworth

Note how the first and fourth lines of the excerpt convey a clear image or an idea and how, again, the meanings of the second and third lines harmonize. Also, each line ends with a strong word, and the third line begins with one.

He hears with gladdened heart the thunder Peal, and loves the falling dew;

He knows the earth above and under— Sits and is content to view.

— from "He Hears with Gladdened Heart the Thunder" by Robert Louis Stevenson

Once more the first and second lines play off each other, conveying multiple meanings: the thunder of a heart and of the sky. Each line acts as a unit to convey an image or idea and all end or begin with strong words.

Building Block #3: The length of a line can help you express feelings or evoke moods. In general, the shorter the line, the greater the drama. The longer the line, the greater the emotion. (Medium-length lines of about seven or eight words suit poems in which drama or emotion is not a factor.)

Let's illustrate drama by using a William Carlos Williams poem to prove that even kitchen memos can convey tension in taut, slim, suggestive lines:

0 0

Post a comment