Some Thoughts on the Integrity of the Single Line in Poetry
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Some Thoughts on the Integrity of the Single Line in Poetry Alberto Ríos 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, finally, 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 208 | Ríos 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. Enjambmentisoftenofferedasthereason—andnotsimplythedefinition—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 Ríos | 209 in a poem is good, chances are that the poem itself...