Contemporary Poetry Review

Reviewed By:
Annie Finch

Grails and Legacies: Thoughts on the Line  



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The line, the



line—oh holy

grail of the free

verse work-


Now that I write the majority of my poetry in meter, I have a slightly different relation to the line than I did during my first couple of decades when a large part of writing meant fiddling obsessively with line breaks. Now, I tend to put more energy into what comes in the middle of lines. In essence, every foot in a line of metrical poetry has its own little line break at the end—not to mention the longer pause, the caesura, which falls once or twice within most lines of metrical poetry. 

The lines that haunt me most, those that sound in my head literally for years as I try to encompass and fathom their waves, are lines in meter such as the solemnly counted-out beats of Robert Hayden’s famous opening line, ringing with their hollow echo, as if they know ahead of time how their initial trochee will continue to sound with a stubbornly unforgettable shudder through the rest of that iambic poem: 

Sundays too my father got up early . . .

The break at the end of the line is the least of it; the center of gravity of a metrical line can be anywhere, and usually is.

Williams and the other high Modernists were passionately interested in expanding the metrical vocabulary of verse beyond the iambic pentameter (Pound’s dactyls are among his most beautiful free verse effects) but, as Timothy Steele shows in his book Missing Measures, their goal was not to jettison meter altogether. Deeply schooled in meter, these poets handled the line beautifully: 

So much depends


The p’s here are a wonderful sight, and the visual pun (with the second line seeming to “depend”—literally, to “hang”—from its predecessor) memorable. But without the symmetry between two iambs and one iamb, this line break would lack its signature bounce; it’s the rhythmic conversation that lends this iconic bit of free verse such ineffable and iconic energy. 

Poets like to muse about the free verse line—how and whether a particular line has “weight,” a “justification,” an “identity,” or any one of the numerous quasi-mystical terms we use for that indescribable quality of “thisness” that a good line of free verse exudes. But the next time you hear someone in a workshop remarking on how good a particular free-verse line or passage sounds, scan it. The odds are that it will fall into a regular metrical pattern. If free-verse poets were educated about meter again (as the great free verse poets of the early twentieth century always were) and meter became a more conscious part of such discussions, the mysticism would sound less subjective and futile and the quest for the true essence of “the line” would likely become, if not more fun, at least quite a bit less stressful. 

No matter what other factors go into a successful free verse line—imagery, syntax, a center of meaning or wit—rhythmic energy is the sine qua non. Most good free verse passages have a metrical (by which I mean a regularly and predictably rhythmical) subtext. The best free verse is alert and conscious of this energy, able to keep its head above the rhythmical water—a feat which takes a certain amount of ear-training in meter (not only iambic meter). For example, this rhythmically fluent passage by Audre Lorde segues a dactylic rhythm at the opening of the first line into a trochaic rhythm, which continues through the second line and into the third line, which then emerges as a headless iambic pentameter:

Some words are open like a diamond

on glass windows

singing out within the crash of sun 

This kind of tension against other meters is crucial when using iambic pentameter in a free verse poem; iambic pentameter is so hackneyed and familiar-sounding that, inserted into prosy free verse without strong counterbalancing rhythms, its presence (especially in the final line of a poem, where it is most likely to appear) can add a smug, flaccid, or pedestrian quality to otherwise good free verse. 

           So the skillful and conscious wielding of meter is a key aspect of strong free verse lines. Yet still, yet still, there is something else to say. There is stillness as well as bounce in Williams’s line breaks. Just when I feel that the nub of the whole question is the need to apprehend a fluent diversity of meters, I suddenly feel my eyes. Raised as I was on the visual feast of the line break, it is not only my ears I need to feed. 

I distinguish five basic kinds of free verse, the first three essentially oral-based and the other two essentially visual-based. There is the performative long line of the Bible and Ginsberg, which is closely tied to oral performance and to the ear’s pleasure in accentual and in dactylic verse: “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” (Allen Ginsberg, Howl). There is the medium-length, literature-based line of poets such as Robert Hass and Sharon Olds, which plays off of and is always flirting with centuries of metrical verse, mostly iambic pentameter: “All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking” (Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”). And there is the more irregular, jazz-inspired variable-lined free verse of Gwendolyn Brooks and Audre Lorde, which moves between short and long lines with a kinetic, oral drive: “A mistake. / A cliff. / A hymn, a snare, and an exceeding sun.” (Gwendolyn Brooks, “Boy Breaking Glass”). The two main kinds of visual-based free verse are the open field of Robert Duncan and Susan Howe, where the visual energy of the page’s whiteness is an essential and constant partner: “holes in a cloud are minutes passing / which is / which / view odds of images swept rag-tag (Susan Howe, “Pythagorean Silence”); and the contemplative short-lined free verse of Williams and H.D., of “red wheel / barrow” fame. 

This last, of course, really drove free verse to be the central mode of mainstream twentieth-century poetry. And, as Paul Lake points out in his essay “Verse That Print Bred,” it couldn’t have happened without the typewriter opening up the field of the page to poets as a site of visual control. It is true that, as Dana Gioia has pointed out, the red wheel barrow can be scanned as two lines of iambic pentameter (with a few uncommon, but imaginable, metrical variations). But of course that is not the whole story; the wheelbarrow-like sight of the jolting stanzas is still essential to the poem. In the end, the free verse line break holds an irreducible visual power, like that of the Chinese ideograms that attended its birth. This visual identity is, it seems to me, the essential legacy of free verse. 

So there are two basically different motivations for poetic lines: aural and visual (and also the possibility of a counterpoint or dialogue between them). Different in etiology and in effect, in the ways they reach us and perhaps in the parts of us they reach, both are, still, called lines. What is the shared quality that reaches deeper than their significant differences? Simply this, that they repeat. This is part of what James Longenbach means when he writes that, “in the end, line doesn't exist as a principle in itself. Line has a meaningful identity only when we begin to hear its relationship to other elements in the poem.” Lines, in themselves, lend the words of poems a weight, a reality that no other kind of language implies. They do this through repeating—the dignity of that physical structure which precedes and underlies words. They have the ability to weave us ourselves back over and over through their cycling and turning: ourselves hearing or ourselves seeing. They can bring us back over and over to the same place in a different way, and the words we are hearing or reading along with us. This is not a small thing to do. Just as the repetition of breaths or of seasons can create and sustain life, so can the repetition of lines.

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