The Line
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The Line Thomas Lux The only inarguable difference between prose and poetry: poets write sentences broken up into lines, the basic unit of poetry. Everything that occurs in poetry— metaphor, simile, imagery, rhythms, oxymoron, synesthesia, even meter (usually accidentally)—occurs in prose. So, the line, and therefore the line-break, is a quintessential poetic tool. Roethke says somewhere that one of the tests of a good poem is this: isolate any individual line and that line should stand, by itself, as a poem. Tough standard, but shouldn’t every line of a good poem have something particularly fresh or reverberant in it? Good image, good simile, good dance, good verbs, good word couplings? Shouldn’t each line earn the distinction of being called a line? The line is one of the ways you teach readers to hear the poem exactly as you want them to hear it, which, of course, has as much to do with the line’s (and the poem’s) ulteriority as anything. Tone, attitude, making body language implicit through regular language, saying one thing and meaning another and making that understood—a tough, rip-tooth job. Line-breaks: my ear was taught, somehow, that the last word of each line gets a little more emphasis than other words in the line. Want a little emphasis on a word? Break a line on it. Avoid passive verb line-breaks, conjunctions, prepositions , articles. Avoid too many feminine endings (which make lines trail off). Most lines will be broken—if you’re trying to make the reader hear the poem, out loud, either literally or using the wonderful acoustics inside his/her skull—at places of normal pauses in breath. Maybe you change those normal places a bit, when you have reason to. That’s fine. In fact, those (either normal or notnormal -with-a-reason) almost have to be the dominant kinds of line-breaks. A few others: (1) What I call a “suspense” line-break. Ending a line, for example, with a particularly strong adjective and beginning the next with an unexpected (but right) noun. (2) A kind of double entendre line-break—you read the line 156 | Lux to its end and get one whiff of the poem’s inner life, and then you read on and also get the grammatical meaning. They both have to contribute. This kind of line-break must be used sparingly, I believe, because any tool that calls attention to itself begins to seem gimmicky. Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, Bill Knott, and Heather McHugh all strike me as masters of this kind of line-break. I think Keats was thinking of the line when he offered his injunction to “Load every rift with ore.” I also assume he meant the line should be loaded with gold ore and not, say, lead. ...


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