Poetry Terms: The Three Lines
For this Poetry Terms, we’d like to dig into an ever present issue with emerging poets: how do you break a line? Every poet makes a home of the poetic line, and a deliberate approach through well-wrought linecraft ultimately serves to make your voice more fully your own.
James Logenbach and the Art of the Poetic Line
Graywolf Press has a tremendous series of craft books called the Art of series. The Art of Attention by Donald Revell, The Art of Daring, of Death, of Recklessness, etc.—but if a poet is looking to sharpen their linecraft, a good place to start is one of the very first in the series: The Art of the Poetic Line by James Logenbach. Poetry Dailey has an excerpt of the book up as well.
In the book, which is dense and well populated with brilliant ideas, Logenbach strikes at the foundation of this journey: “The line exists because it has a relationship to syntax.” Syntax—the worship of it, the destruction of it—is the canvas on which the poet paints an experience for the reader. There is no line without a relationship to syntax, and so Logenbach argues that there are three basic relationships that can help us categorize and see-clear our lines: the line that parses syntax, the line that annotates syntax, and the line that end-stops.
And it’s how those three forms of the line interact with each other and with other elements of a poem that produces a “dynamic force” for the reader: “The line is no arbitrary unit, no ruler, but a dynamic force that works in conjunction with other elements of the poem: the syntax of the sentences, the rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables, and the resonance of similar sounds.”
A line that parses the syntax follows the general coherence of syntax:
in the chest.
—from “Closer” by Ahston Wesner
Each of these lines is a generally coherent unit, even though the sentence itself is a fragment. With parsed lines, the reader tends to feel an easy rhythm because their experience of the line is predictable. Our inner lungs know when to take a breath, a pause, before the end of the line even comes. All of the stressed syllables of parsed lines feel quite normal, not far from our everyday speech.
I hate saying friend when I mean acquaintance or colleague
or man I once fucked but have not seen since I left that town.
— from “Questions” by Amanda Bales
These lines can read close to prose—our emphasis is guided by shape of the sentence, more than the shape of the visual line. As a poet, parsing the syntax in your line endings can be an effective way to seduce the reader, to build a subtle rhythm and comfort that summons the reader into the poem before they even notice.
However, only parsing the syntax can very quickly lead to boredom for the reader—the seduction is dry, too plain. Logenbach calls forth William Carlos Williams’ early work “Pastoral” as an example:
The old man who goes about
Gathering dog lime
Walks in the gutter
Without looking up
And his tread
Is more majestic than
That of the Episcopal minister
Approaching the pulpit
Of a Sunday.
Astonish me beyond words.
The final line weakly grabs for an emphasis dulled by the repetitive lineation—WCW’s later work more deftly mixes parsed and annotated lines and thus doesn’t reach awkwardly for a sentimental closer.
Where parsed lines follow the syntax at their breaks, the annotated line cuts against the syntax, as Wesner does here in the 5th, 6th, and 7th lines:
in the chest.
In my foot
The reader is forced into emphasizing mother and and, a disruption as the verbs cries and swells are pushed out of their place. This break from the conventional syntax—established in the earlier three lines—layers the rhythm of reading with more complexity, richer depths for the inner ear. We’re forced to put the mother into the receding roll taken on by her cries and swells—the meaning of the mother is both foreground and background because of how Wesner has chosen to break her lines.
Bales accomplishes something similar as well:
I hate the phrase, as if he dropped life off at the dry cleaners, will get it back
in a week. To where? I want to ask, To where did he take his own life? But I know
this question is not the question to ask, the question is how could he? By which
people mean why, which comforts because each answer spins a perpetual response—
The first three lines all annotate the syntax (though the second only softly), while the fourth parses—the poem is emphasizing here the ambivalent experience of existential questioning that suicide leaves in its wake. Instead of declaring, after his suicide, I am “Astonished”, Bales performs the astonishment by carefully playing the syntax for unusual emphasis.
Yet, the same warning: too much annotation and a poem can feel nonsensical and may repulse more than attract.
A mimosa grows out of my grandmother.
Every spring, I weed her.
—from “Alzheimer’s, Where My Grandmother is a Blueberry Bush” by Meg Eden
I climb inside her chest and cut
the poison ivy, honeysuckle, grape
vines that try to grow around her arms.
“The drama of lineation lies in the simultaneous making and breaking of our expectations of pattern,” Logenbach says. If a poet doesn’t think they’re writing with a pattern, or against a pattern, then that poet isn’t thinking hard enough about their poetry. Every poem will likely employ a combination of these line breaks, the pattern of which rises according to the sounds and meanings within the lines themselves.
Examine poetry with this focus on the dynamic movements of syntax against the lines whenever you read. Always beg, steal, and borrow from your favorite poets—because, as Dean Young says, when you copy your heroes, “your genius is your error.”
Some further resources: