Some Thoughts on the Integrity of the Single Line in Poetry

Written by

Alberto Ríos
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Year

2014

Type

Essay
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The best line in a poem better be the line I'm reading.

This is an almost impossible standard, of course, but there is nothing wrong with that fierce ambition. I am an advocate—or rather, an appreciator—of the long line in poems, though by that I do not at all mean lines with simply more words. I mean instead lines that are long in their moment, that make me linger and give me the effect of having encountered something, something worth stopping for—the antithesis of our times, which seem to be all about getting somewhere else, and fast, and we're late already. The following are some thoughts on what might be your best line. They are not rules, of course, but they do stem from considerations likely important to you as a writer, whatever your decision in these matters.

  1. A line is a moment, and a moment is intrinsically non-narrative. That is, a moment does not move forward, not readily, not right away. A moment stops, and stopping is the friendly nemesis of narrative. A line is a moment that has value right then, and which deserves some of our time. To go past a moment is to lose something. In our lives, fi nally, it is the moments we savor and it is the moments we savor in our reading as well.

  2. The half line, or "poetic" line, goes something like this: I went to the store and / bought some bread. It breaks the line that otherwise would read: I went to the store and bought some bread. Which is more sincere? Is there anything to be gained by the break? Is there news in it, or insight? The break presents a moment of small melodrama, as if whatever follows the "and" is somehow more meaningful presented in this way. Inserting a line-break does not add to the poetic nature of the moment. If anything, this delay keeps us in the commonplace longer, and even exacerbates the problem by giving the line drama that it cannot sustain and does not honestly own. At least the second version does not misrepresent itself.

  3. Longer lines keep us in the moment, and out of the prose or story of the page. The story will take care of itself, and can claim the whole page, after all. The moment has only itself.

  4. The line-break slows us as readers by making us wait until the next line to get whatever information follows. If that information is not something new, then perhaps it should in fact be on that immediate line, and not broken up at all. Think about television newscasts, with sound bites that give you a tantalizing bit—This just in: the end of the world is at hand—and then they say, More at eleven. In that moment, they cheat you. Similarly, a line-break should help, not hinder, the reader. Why wait until 11:00 p.m.? At that moment—withholding news on a news program—we believe the newscast less. It's the same with news in a poem. If it's worthy, say it now, and say it all. Use your words in service to the moment, not in place of it.

  5. Complete lines help you discover your own line, your own intellectual unit, your pace. The length of the line is how long you take to say something. This is the size of your step. With this in mind, you must ask yourself how and if half-steps help you move forward in the ways that you want. Concurrently, you must ask yourself how they move the reader forward, who after all is following your lead.

  6. Enjambment is often offered as the reason—and not simply the definition—for lines that keep moving down the page. Enjambment is cited as the way to keep readers moving forward. But why? Enjambment is a fine classification of what one might be doing, but it is not an explanation. As readers we move forward by default. Where else are we going? So, what is the greater necessity for enjambment? Forward movement needs to say something about the moment, finally.

  7. A good line can find employment in any poem, whereas a good poem cannot employ just any line. The demand is squarely on the line. If every line in a poem is good, chances are that the poem itself has little to worry about in this regard, and can put its shoulder to other things without having to make up for anything that the lines are not doing.

  8. A line is an easy chair as well as a line—not half an easy chair. Another line is a lamp, another is a fi replace—not parts of each. Together they make the room you are describing, then the house, then the street, then the city. Whole lines make the city. Half lines do half the job. In the city, that will give you incomplete directions. In the kitchen, it will get you toast and. Stanza, as a point of information, means "room" in Italian.

  9. Play no tricks on the readers, and exact no requirements. Readers do not have to do anything, which includes reading the next line in order to understand the line they are in. If you have to tell your reader, just keep reading, it'll all get clear in a moment, then you are writing prose, which is dependent on progressive clarifi cation—a device called "plot"—rather than singular and memorable elucidation.

  10. Integrity of the line as I am describing it suggests that the line is itself contained, though not necessarily complete. This is a lyric moment at its best, something on its own terms and part of a greater whole as well. It is the complete moment and part of a poem.

  11. The line—the moment—is not subordinate to anything else. It does not need the other lines in a poem, though it clearly lives in their greater community. Still, a line does its own work. And in this way, it is a contributing member of that society.

  12. A line suggests, for the moment, lateral, rather than linear, movement. It stays with something until the thing is done, or understood, or some understanding is gleaned. A line takes the time to listen to the words it holds, and asks the reader to do the same.

  13. Lines are what distinguish poetry from all other art forms, and therefore they intrinsically mean something. They help us to see what makes a poem a poem. When they become simply part of something else, and not something on their own, they stop being lines of poetry.

  14. A line-break is what defi nes a line. A line-break means something or it doesn't, but it can't sometimes mean one thing and sometimes another. In general, a line-break suggests a pause, however slight. Does what you are saying have a pause in it? If so, then this is the way to go—break your line there.

  15. A preposition, by definition, expresses a relationship—in other words, it tells, rather than shows, breaking a foundational piece of advice in all creative classrooms. This does not mean you should stop using prepositions. But you should try to see if the juxtaposition of the two things you are relating might work just fi ne without the preposition. This is often the case.

There are, absolutely, other ways to think about a line. An argument can be made for the absolute opposite of everything that's said here, with unqualified historical backing. But the point is, every argument invariably suggests thinking about the line, not simply using it to make the writing "look like a poem," or simply to tell a story without regard for what a poem as a form might have to offer. Poems are not stories, after all. Poems are the fire that stories explain.


Reprinted from A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee, by permission of the University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 2011 by Alberto Ríos.

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