The Art of Craft: Some notes on thoughts on the line

Wednesday night, in the final Art of Craft fall session, we’ll be exploring the line, considering what functions lines serve in poems, and ways poets use the line. A few ideas we’ll be considering:

line is a function of rhyme

line is a function of formal structure

line in blank verse is function of meter

the function of the line is sonic; line is a sonic rather than visual element of poetry (except in concrete poetry and a few other forms/trends)

the line exists because it has a relationship to syntax

line in free verse is the companion and disruptor of syntax, working together to create the poem; line and syntax cannot exist without each other (except in some poems, where line and syntax are always and only companions, and reading the poem feels exactly like reading prose)

the aural pleasure we take in the poem is due to the way lines marshal the language into patterns of assonance and alliteration

line endings can perform the work of punctuation

each line ending is a place where a poem can bend; in poems using rhyme the necessity of getting to a rhyming word by the end of the next line can steer the poem into another direction or another point of view, and in unrhymed poems the end of each line is a potential jumping off place where the poem can continue forward or, as your eyes sweep to the left, reverse, turn, spin.


Deciding where the line should end in a free-verse poem might seem mysterious, but in fact it is not

Deciding where the line should end in a free-verse poem might initially seem more mysterious than in a metered or syllabic poem, but in fact it is not: whether or not the line ending is determined by an arbitrary constraint, the line ending won’t have a powerful function unless we hear it playing off the syntax in relationship to other line endings.
James Longenbach, The Art of the Poetic Line

Tonight in the Art of Craft: Measuring Meter

Tonight in the Art of Craft workshop at Big Blue Marble Bookstore we’ll be exploring meter and rhythm in poetry, centering on these questions:

How does meter construct the sonic richness or density of poem?
How do poets use meter to create deep emotions, such as incantations or elegies?
How do poets use varieties of “feet” to pace the poem and to make the rhythm serve the poem’s purpose?

These are the poems we’ll be investigating:

Terrance Hayes, “Sonnet”
Gerald Stern “The Dancing”
Theodore Roethke “My Papa’s Waltz”
Joan Larkin “Inventory”
Etheridge Knight “Feeling Fucked Up”
Patrick Rosal “Despedida Ardiente”
Elizabeth Bishop “One Art”
Jane Mead, “Lack, the memory”

and some Mother Goose – where the metrics are so much more complicated than the sing-song-iness we remember!

The magic of vestigial metrical features in unmetered poetry

Alfred Corn on stanzas in contemporary poetry:

If we look at unmetered poetry being published now, the last vestige, apparently, of traditional prosody to be given up is regular stanzaic division. It’s often true that contemporary poems with no iambic feet to speak of and lines of varying lengths will nevertheless divide the text into distichs, tercets, or quatrains. It’s as though the poet were suggesting that some basic principle of quantification had been applied to the poem, even in an inaudible one. Without meter we have trouble hearing stanzaic divisions, especially when stanzas have been enjambed. If a poem keeps this vestigial metrical feature, it probably does so in order to invoke the mysterious power of number, which inspires unconscious respect in both poets and their audience. When poems are divided in uniform stanzas, spontaneous utterance is being made to encounter an abstract numerical principle, which lends something like magic or impersonal authority to the text.

A Few Sunday Love Letters

Dear Toyota,

The traction control on my 2009 Scion XB 5-speed is amazing! Kept me safe all the hilly way home!


Dear Crackle of Birds Feasting Greedily on the Berries on the Tree in Front of the Bookstore Window First Thing in the Morning,

Thanks for your weather forecast, much more accurate than my computer. The reminder to fill my belly and settle in somewhere warm until the storm blows over is deeply appreciated.


Dear Book Lovers Who Braved the Weather, Entered the Store, Pushed Back Your Hoods, and Smiled Broadly Because We Were Still Open,

Because of you I go home happy every day, even holiday rush days with no time to rest or to sit to eat, cranky credit card machines, people needing both wrapping and book advice in the same time slot, B&T software that keeps signing me out, and even the lovely old building’s wooden floor that today installed a splinter under my fingernail. You, and the books, and the staff, are a stunning symbiosis that make me grateful for having accidentally arrived in Philadelphia years ago.


Dear Staff at Toto’s Pizza,

Thanks for coming in to work in the snow so I could get a delicious South Philly Style pizza on my way home from work in the same snow. Walking from the dark and cold and slippery world into your warm and steamy and bright shop was such a gift.


Dear Critters of 6369 McCallum St,

Thanks for curling up with me to watch Star Trek, even though my work day meant your dinners were 2 hours late. I hope the pizza crusts and chin scratches conveyed my apologies and my deep gratitude for your steady affection.


Poetry’s task

Poetry’s task is to increase the available stock of reality, R.P. Blackmur said. It does this by reflecting for us our many human faces, our animal faces, our face of insect wings, our face of ocean and cliff. The world is large and, like Caiban’s island, full of noises; a true poem reflects this, whether in the original or in translation. To try to encompass such knowledge, to be willing to fail, to prepare as fully as possible for the work of poetry, to make the attempt in the recognition that any understanding is one among many – this is all we can do, as translators or as readers.


Jane Hirshfield, from “The World is Large and Full of Noises”



and THIS is how poetry is done: “In the Reading Room” by David Ferry

In the Reading Room
David Ferry

Alone in the library room, even when others
Are there in the room, alone, except for themselves,
There is the illusion of peace; the air in the room

Is stilled; there are reading lights on the tables,
Looking as if they’re reading, looking as if
They’re studying the text, and understanding,

Shedding light on what the words are saying;
But under their steady imbecile gaze the page
Is blank, patiently waiting not to be blank.

The page is blank until the mind that reads
Crosses the black river, seeking the Queen
Of the Underworld, Persephone, where she sits

By the side of the one who brought her there from Enna,
Hades, the mute, the deaf, king of the dead letter;
She is clothed in the beautiful garment of our thousand

Misunderstandings of the sacred text.

from Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations, University of Chicago Press

That this should finally happen in my life time

Count My Heart
Kathleen Hannan

Mandela on the day he was released

Mandela on the day he was released

That this should finally happen in my lifetime
I am filled with joy like a dreaming child
We only know what has gone before
Who can say what is coming now?

But this has finally happened in our lifetimes
We are filled with joy like the mountain side
And so we stand in line, a thousand at a time,
to be counted.

Count my heart which is beating
Count my eyes which are open
Count my children, my sisters, my brothers
Whose hearts were once beating
Their voices once sang with us
Their spirits will always sing:
Freedom is coming
Freedom is coming
Freedom is coming, we paid with our lives
because no one gives freedom away
Freedom is coming, we’re coming to take it
cause no one gives freedom away.

Thanks, Kathleen, for this song, whose lyrics came in part from an NPR interview with a South African woman in an endless line to vote. This song is vital to the soundtrack of my life. You can buy the CD “Count My Heart” at CDBaby

poetry has never fully disengaged itself from its associations with shamanism

… poetry has never fully disengaged itself from its associations with shamanism; the poet,  like the shaman,  has mastered certain techniques – rhythmic, performative,  imagistic,  metaphoric – that summon the unconscious part of the mind, so that,  in this dreamlike state between waking and sleeping,  we  may discover more about our thoughts and feelings than we would otherwise be able to do.


Alfred Corn “The Poem’s Heartbeat”