By Chantel Lavoie and tom pynn

The poetic line is a sight line.

In the novel titled Witch Week by fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones we meet an angry, unpopular boy who hates most of his life, including what he must read in school; however, “Charles liked poetry because the lines were so short. . . You could think your own thoughts in the spaces round the print” (45).  This sentence doesn’t mean that Charles isn’t reading the words that are there—quite the contrary. It means poetry gives him space to breathe ‘round the print’, and think with the words he reads. Like Charles, one of our friends here in Kingston, Ontario, who is steeped in poetry, Bruce Kaufmann, recently told us he finds himself increasingly drawn to the white spaces in a poem. This is a reminder that the poetic line is a sight line. We see it, we see around it. It is its own statement, carrying us on to its sister line whether enjambed or end-stopping its thought there. At the same time, the words in the poetic line carry weight. They demand attention in ways beyond what words of a sentence in prose might do.

How does a line of poetry demand attention?  For Charles, even though the narrator tells us he “liked poetry because the lines were so short”, a deeper reason is that a line of poetry in its compression, brevity, and allusiveness opens up a space in his mind allowing his own creativity to play with interpreting the language.  A line of poetry provokes us into interpretation not because we are ambitious but because we want to play and thereby create meaning.  For a line to provoke, however, it must evoke.  Sam Hamill refers to traditional Japanese poetry, in which the brief and compressed line may also contain wordplay, plurisignation, figural language, and/or stock phrases having to do with nature and the specific season, as infinite evocation.  This is one way we might understand how such deceptively simple lines can suggest so much. Japanese poetry “distills life’s elemental truths” (William Neill, 2002).

Poetry, like language in general, can be both frustrating and illuminating because whichever diction and syntax the poet uses simultaneously conceals and reveals.  What a good line conceals and reveals is the depth of what it is to be a human being; however, there are times in our lives when the gravity of the moment vastly surpasses our language’s facility to respond.  This then is where poetry happens: saying the unsayable. To say the unsayable is not to say but to show.  A poetic line, at its best, shows us something—e.g. an object, image, feeling—thereby allowing for that free play of imagination.  Emily Dickinson’s sage advice to poets, whether we are talking about a poem or a line of poetry, indicates the poem’s/line’s indirect language and the voice of silence: “Tell the truth / but tell it slant”.

So, thinking about why Charles likes poetry, then, suggests something more than short lines: the poetic line’s minimal use of language, its compression and brevity, its use of the power of a single image creates a density of silence which one might experience as amazement and/or wonder, or which may lead us into reflection, meditation, or contemplation, in short, to provoke us into an experience of the nature of nature. As Clark Strand asks in his book about haiku as a spiritual practice Seeds from a Birch Tree, “how many people really notice nature and take what they notice to heart?”

The poetic line is a line of sound.

When Dylan Thomas would perform his poetry he would often begin by telling the audience not to try and figure out what the poem means but to listen to the way the poem sounds.

The Academy of American Poets calls the poetic line “one of the most emphasized elements of form, the structural division of verse that can indicate patterns in meter, rhythm, and rhyme and influence the aesthetics and emphases of the poem.”

Well, isn’t that everything?

One much favoured line is iambic pentameter—the ten syllables of feet (penta / meter, five feet) in the iambic soft/hard pattern, as with the clip CLOP of horses’ hooves. It’s a line beloved by those who write sonnets, those who think in iambic pentameter counting on their ten fingers, tapping against desktops and doors the syllables of a sentence overheard, or a thought or image that pops into the mind as a line. The sonnet is a western form (beginning in Italy with Francesco Petrarca and moving to England with Thomas Wyatt, Shakespeare, and Edmund Spenser). But the poetic line encompasses everything from the four-line ballad stanza with its alternating four and three metrical feet, to the traditional 5-7-5 syllable lines of haiku, Dante Allighieri’s terza rima, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sprung rhythm, or William Carlos William’s triadic line.  For Williams, the line must be measured but not necessarily by formal meter.  Furthermore, measure, he proposed in his essay “On Measure—Statement for Cid Corman” would be based on a form of life, a contemporary form of life which would necessarily preclude the older forms of poetic line.

The poetic line is breath.

One of the oldest views of the poetic line is its association with the breath.  This received renewed attention with Robert Creeley and Charles Olson’s poetics of projective verse in which form is an extension of content:

The HEAD by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE

The HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE.

This oft-cited couplet from the influential essay “Projective Verse” suggests not only grammatical alterations by which the open form poet performs language but also a deep awareness of being part of a universal life force, and a sensitivity to life’s spiritual (from spiritus: “breath”, “spirit”) qualities and mystery: vision, beauty, and prophecy, as one finds in the poetry and engravings of William Blake or the exuberant cataloguing of life by Walt Whitman, as well as in the ecstatic poetry of Jellaluddin al-Rumi. 

Allen Ginsberg took this one step further expanding the line to the proportions of a stanza and connecting it to the practice of pranayama (“disciplined, controlled, restrained breath”).  In a poem such as “Sunflower Sutra” one reads the stanzaic line in a single breath:

I walked on the banks of the tincan banana dock and

            sat down under the huge shade of a Southern

            Pacific locomotive to look at the sunset over the

            box house hills and cry.

Reciting the poem by controlling the breath suggests that the poem becomes much more than an aesthetic object: it becomes transformative, a vehicle by which to expand one’s consciousness.

In this brief essay, we have not exhausted the myriad ways by which a poet constructs and conceptualizes the poetic line; what all of this suggests about poetry and the poetic line, therefore, is something the Chinese poets and literary critics have understood over the last 1,500 years or so: Poetry is a dragon, and there are many ways to capture a dragon.

Chantel Lavoie, originally from Saskatchewan, is an associate professor in the Department of English, Culture, and Communication at the Royal Military College. Her first book of verse was Where the Terror Lies (Quattro, 2012), and her second This is about Angels, Women, and Men (Mansfield, 2021). She lives with her two sons, two cats, two dogs, and her poetry-loving (and long-suffering) husband. She finds Kingston to be a nurturing community for poetry and the arts. The most important part of her writing practice is reading. The other, of late, has become observing—and listening—with gratitude. 

tom pynn is grateful to be living in Kingston, Ontario where he is married to the poet, Chantel Lavoie.  From time to time he publishes a poem in a publication with which he feels some connection.  He is influenced by traditional Chinese and Japanese poetry as well as post World War II North American poetry.