A Line Apart
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A Line Apart J. P. Dancing Bear Over the several years that I have been hosting a radio show dedicated to poetry, I’ve had numerous poets sit down before the microphone and read their poems. In interviewing the hundreds of poets that I have been honored to have as guests, one of the things that has struck me most is the process by which some of the poets attempt to make audible the line-breaks. When I ask them about it, they almost always give an answer that lets me know, and everyone else listening, that every word, every breath is accounted for and is not accidental. This answer cuts across all schools and aesthetics. But I’ve also encountered other poets with a different philosophy regarding poetry. Some poets do not believe the line-break should be audible. They also disagree with importance placed on individual lines. For some, the line is a means to an end—nothing else. Much the same way that a word is to a line, they see a line is to a poem. I have had the fortunate opportunity of workshopping my poems with C. J. Sage over the last ten years and one thing (among many) that she has taught me to look at is the importance and relevance of the individual line. Her attention to detail and sound will oftentimes lead to lengthy discussion of a single line and its “weight” to the overall poem. It is a focus not easily lost when it comes to reading poems by other writers, published or unpublished. I find myself marking a line for further rumination as I am reading a poem. Then I go back and consider the line on its own. I read it several times. When a line is perfect, it has the completeness of a highway on-ramp—it has its own structure, its own intelligence, and it transports the reader to something larger. While jotting down lines as I was reading so many poems, I began to wonder what the heck I would do with all of these lines. I felt a little like a guy who had collected snapshots of his favorite on-ramps. Then I thought about it in a different way: what if the on-ramp was a launch ramp; what if the individual line 70 | Dancing Bear could send you somewhere else should you apply imagination and a little aim? So I spent the better part of a year writing a collection of poems that start with a single line from someone else’s poem. I set some additional rules for myself: the poet had to be living (although, sadly, one has died since I started), and it could not be a beginning or ending line to a poem. This caused me to focus on the middle lines, those lines that some see as a means to the end of the poem and little else. My attempt was to praise and exalt the line. The project became a celebration of the line itself. And with that examination of individual lines, I have learned that a line has a life of its own. That instead of a line being an I-beam or a femur, it could be part of synergy—something that, taken away from its original surroundings, could grow new ones—the salamander’s tail growing a new body. For me, the best lines have a complete thought in them. It may not be the complete thought of the sentence they are found in, but a completeness nonetheless . For example, “The air is limned with secrets, and we are painted tenderly / and awkward” (151) is a sentence from Ralph Angel’s poem, “Like Animals.” I begin my poem with Angel’s line: The air is limned with secrets, and we are painted tenderly upon the cave walls, where our Monet dedicates his fragile brushes to the least rough surface he can feel with his pale palm and failing eyes. I borrowed another line from Jason Bredle’s poem, “The Idiot’s Guide to Faking Your Own Death and Moving to Mexico.” Here is its original context: According to Hercules, if we make an angel out of ourselves, that is what we are; if we make a devil out of ourselves, that too is what we are. Bredle strategically places the line-break so that the reader can think about “if we make an angel” first, before following up with “out of ourselves.” I began...