The Invisible Tether: Some Thoughts on the Line
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The Invisible Tether: Some Thoughts on the Line Sarah Kennedy Leaving the grocery store one recent afternoon, I was making my way through the lot when I saw, several lanes over, a large glossy hound standing in the back of a pickup. The truck was empty and the dog was untied, but the day was sunny and cool and all seemed tranquil. That is, it did until another customer strolled by with his cart, closer than I was to the animal’s territory. The dog growled, howled, and clawed, her huge paws on, almost over, the tailgate. The hair mountain-ranged on her thick neck and her jaws foamed. We humans both recoiled, sure that an attack was coming, but the dog, which seemed savage, delirious with the prospect of blood, remained in the bed. The other shopper stopped, stared, and then slipped on past, looking over his shoulder now and then to make sure the dog was staying where she belonged. She was, though her barking continued to sound across the lanes of parked cars. When I have fears that I may cease to be The poetic line: a big dog in a truck. The image of that animal haunted me for the rest of the day, an instantly memorable visual and auditory refrain. A line in a poem has always seemed to me a string of words in conversation—or perhaps in a flyting match—with the sentence. Perhaps, I was thinking, it’s also a unit of language trained into control. Most poets I know—and I realize that the exceptions to this are many and complex—usually write in sentences, if the sentence can be defined to include sensible and frequent violations, such as the fragment. We try to vary our structure (count how many recent poems do not contain either a question or an exclamation), but we still tend to rely on recognizable grammar: subject, verb, and surrounding modifiers and subordinates. And that dog can be fenced in. Passersby can relax a little, fairly sure that they’re safe. Kennedy | 143 After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now The line, however, lowers the railing, and whatever principle governs lineation—meter, phrase, syllable count—the images and tropes speed to the end, with all that white space tempting a leap into . . . what? Chaos? Possibly, but, no, the words lean into the void, then they stop, and the poem demands that the reader make a turn, move toward the bottom of the page. The margin helps to set the words off. Their potential for multiple meanings, including frenzy and violence, is unleashed by the approach of a reader but is kept in check by training (the poet’s skill in choice) and confined space. When lineation is working, it brings image and metaphor right up to the edge of each margin, where they can snarl and snap and make that reader move on down. —Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture So the eye drops to the next line, with a moment of lingering if the ending word is a concrete noun or verb (especially monosyllables or final-syllable accents), with a screeching turn if the line stops on a preposition, article, or hyphenation. If the line also ends a stanza, that choice is even more crucial, as a reader may assume a temporary closure is coming and find herself dangling dangerously, without semantic or syntactic footing. Leaping that white space, the reader will speed to the next word, making a link, somehow, between the previous line/stanza and what follows. To make sure that the animal is a dog, is domestic, is restrained. Or maybe to recognize the possibility that even the most well-trained beast can get away from its owner. She had decided he should have left the doves their beloved sky, for she would not be won. Now, I like a lazy, lie-by-the-fire pet as much as the next dog lover. But what got my attention in the parking lot that day was the adrenaline rush of sudden danger and its equally sudden—and almost simultaneous—relief. Lines of poetry are musical in their rhythmic cadences, yes, and they make meaning(s), yes, and they are often beautiful, yes, but what makes a line of words a poetic line, for me, rather than just part of a sentence broken halfway across the page is that tensive moment at the last word, when the entire animal rushes to the boundary...