On the Function of the Line (1979)

by Denise Levertov
Denise Levertov, after a reading

Not only hapless adolescents, but many gifted and justly esteemed poets writing in
contemporary nonmetrical forms, have only the vaguest concept, and the most haphazard
use, of the line. Yet there is at our disposal no tool of the poetic craft more important, none
that yield more subtle and precise effects, than the line-break if it is properly understood.

If I say that its function in the development of modern poetry in English is evolutionary I
do not mean to imply that I consider modern, nonmetrical poetry "better" or "superior" to the
great poetry of the past, which I love and honor. That would obviously be absurd. But I do
feel that there are few poets today whose sensibility naturally expresses itself in the traditional
forms (except for satire or pronounced irony), and that those who do so are somewhat
anachronistic. The closed, contained quality of such forms has less relation to the relativistic
sense of life which unavoidably prevails in the late twentieth century than modes that are
more exploratory, more open-ended. A sonnet may end with a question; but its essential,
underlying structure arrives at conclusion. "Open forms" do not necessarily terminate
inconclusively, but their degree of conclusion is--structurally, and thereby expressively--less
pronounced, and partakes of the open quality of the whole. They do not, typically, imply a
dogmatic certitude; whereas, under a surface, perhaps, of individual doubts, in the structure
of the sonnet or the heroic couplet bears witness to the certitudes of these forms' respective
epochs of origin. The forms more apt to express thesensibility of our age are the exploratory,
open ones.

In what way is contemporary, non-metrical poetry exploratory? What I mean by that word
is that such poetry, more than most poetry of the past, incorporates and reveals the process
of thinking/feeling,feeling/thinking, rather than focusing more exclusively on its results; and
in so doing it explores (or can explore) human experience in a way that is not wholly new
but is (or can be) valuable in its subtle difference of approach: valuable both as human
testimony and as aesthetic experience. And the crucial precision tool for creating this
exploratory mode is the line-break. The most obvious function of the line-break is rhythmic:
it can record the slight (but meaningful) hesitations between word and word that are
characteristic of the mind's dance among perceptions but which are not noted by grammatical
punctuation. Regular punctuation is a part of regular sentence structure, that is, of the
expression of completed thoughts; and this expression is typical of prose, even though prose
is not at all times bound by its logic. But in poems one has the opportunity not only, as in
expressive prose, to depart from the syntactic norm, but to make manifest, by an intrinsic
structural means, the interplay or counterpoint of process and completion--in other words, to
present the dynamics of perception along with its arrival at full expression. The line-break is
a form of punctuation additional to the punctuation that forms part of the logic of completed
thoughts. Line-breaks together with intelligent use of indentation and other devices of scoring
represent a peculiarly poetic, a-logical, parallel (not competitive) punctuation.

What is the nature of the a-logical pauses the line-break records? If readers will think of
their own speech, or their silent inner monologue, when describing thoughts, feelings,
perceptions, scenes or events, they will, I think, recognize that they frequently hesitate--albeit
very briefly--as if with an unspoken question-- a"what?" or a"who?" or a"how?"--before
nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, none of which require to be preceded by a comma or
other regular punctuation in the course of syntactic logic. To incorporate these pauses in the
rhythmic structure of the poem can do several things: for example, it allows the reader to
share more intimately the experience that is being articulated; and by introducing an a-logical
counter-rhythm into the logical rhythm of syntax it causes, as they interact, an effect closer to
song than to statement, closer to dance than to walking. Thus the emotional experience of
empathy or identification plus the sonic complexity of the language structure synthesize in an
intense aesthetic order that is different from that which is received from a poetry in which
metric forms are combined with logical syntax alone. (Of course, the management of the line
in metrical forms may also permit the recording of such a-logical pauses; Gerard Manley
Hopkins provides an abundance of evidence for that. But Hopkins, in this as in other
matters, seems to be "the exception that proves the rule"; and the alliance of metric forms and
the similarly "closed" or "complete" character of logical syntax seems natural and appropriate,
inversions notwithstanding. Inversions of normal prose word order were, after all, a stylistic
convention, adopted from choice, not technical ineptitude, for centuries; although if utilized
after a certain date they strike one as admissions of lack of skill, and indeed are the first signs
of the waning of a tradition's viability.) It is not that the dance of a-logical thinking/feeling in
process cannot be registered in metric forms, but rather that to do so seems to go against the
natural grain of such forms, to be a forcing of an intractable medium into inappropriate use
whereas the potential for such use is implicit in the constantly evolving nature of open forms.

But the most particular, precise, and exciting function of the line-break, and the least
understood, is its effect on the melos of the poem. It is in this, and not only in rhythmic
effects, that its greatest potential lies, both in the exploration of areas of human
consciousness and in creating new aesthetic experiences. How do the line-breaks affect the
melodic element of a poem? So simply that it seems amazing that this aspect of their function
is disregarded_--yet not only student poetry workshops but any magazine or anthology of
contemporary poetry provides evidence of a general lack of understanding of this factor; and
even when individual poets manifest an intuitive sense of how to break their lines it seems
rarely to be accompanied by any theoretical comprehension of what they've done right. Yet it
is not hard to demonstrate to students that--given that the deployment of the poem on the
page is regarded as a score, that is, as the visual instructions for auditory effects--the way the
lines are broken affects not only rhythm but pitch patterns.

Rhythm can be sounded on a monotone, a single pitch; melody is the result of pitch
patterns combined with rhythmic patterns. The way in which line-breaks, observed,
respectfully, as a part of a score (and regarded as, say, roughly a half-comma in duration),
determine the pitch pattern of a sentence, can clearly be seen if a poem, or a few lines of it, is
written out in a variety of ways (changing the line-breaks but nothing else) and read aloud.
Take, for instance, these lines of my own (picked at random):

Crippled with desire, he questioned it.

Evening upon the heights, juice of the pomegranate:

who could connect it with sunlight?

From "4 Embroideries: II, Red Snow"

Read them aloud. Now try reading the same words aloud from this score:

Crippled with desire, he

questioned it. Evening

upon the heights,

juice of the pomegranate:


could connect it with sunlight?



with desire, he questioned

it. Evening

upon the heights, juice

of the pomegranate:

who could

connect it with sunlight?

The intonation, the ups and downs of the voice, involuntarily change as the rhythm (altered
by the place where the tiny pause or musical "rest" takes place) changes. These changes
could be recorded in graph form by some instrument, as heartbeats or brain waves are
graphed. The point is not whether the lines, as I wrote them, are divided in the best possible
way; as to that, readers must judge for themselves. I am simply pointing out that, read
naturally but with respect for the line-break's fractional pause, a pitch pattern change does
occur with each variation of lineation. A beautiful example of expressive lineation is William
Carlos Williams's well known poem about the old woman eating plums.

They taste good to her.

They taste good

to her. They taste

good to her.

"To a poor old woman"

First the statement is made; then the word good is (without the clumsy overemphasis a change
of typeface would give) brought to the center of our (and her) attention for an instant; then
the word taste is given similar momentary prominence, with "good" sounding on a new note,
reaffirmed_so that we have first the general recognition of well-being, then the intensification
of that sensation, then its voluptuous location in the sense of taste. And all this is presented
through indicated pitches, that is, by melody, not by rhythm alone.

I have always been thrilled by the way in which the musicality of a poem could arise from
what I called "fidelity to experience," but it took me some time to realize what the mechanics
of such precision were as they related to this matter of pitch pattern. The point is that, just as
vowels and consonants affect the music of poetry not by mere euphony but by expressive,
significant interrelationship, so the nuances of meaning apprehended in variations of pitch
create significant, expressive melody, not just a pretty "tune" in the close tone range of speech.

One of the ways in which many poets reveal their lack of awareness about the function of
the line-break is the way in which they will begin a line with the word "it," for instance, even
when it is clear from the context that they don't want the extra emphasis--relating to both
rhythm and pitch--this gives it. Thus, if one writes,

He did not know

it, but at his very moment

his house was burning,

The word "it" is given undue importance. Another example is given in my second variant of
the lines from "Red Snow." The "it" in the third line is given a prominence entirely without
significance--obtrusive and absurd. When a poet places a word meaninglessly from the sonic
point of view it seems clear that he or she doesn't understand the effect of doing so--or is
confusedly tied to the idea of "enjambment." Enjambment is useful in preventing the
monotony of too many end-stopped lines in a metrical poem, but the desired variety can be
attained by various other means in contemporary open forms; and to take away from the
contemporary line its fractional pause (which, as I've said, represents, or rather manifests, a
comparable minuscule but affective hesitation in the thinking/feeling process) is to rob a
precision tool of its principal use. Often the poet unsure of any principle according to which
to end a line will write as if the real break comes after the first word of the next line, e.g.,

As children in their night

gowns go upstairs. . .

where if one observes the score an awkward and inexpressive "rest" occurs between two
words that the poet, reading aloud, links naturally as "nightgowns." X. J. Kennedy's
definition of a run-on line is that "it does not end in punctuation and therefore is read with
only a slight pause after it," whereas "if it ends in a full pause--usually indicated by some
mark of punctuation--we call it end-stopped" (my italics on "slight pause"). Poets who write
nonmetrical poems but treat the line-break as nonexistent are not even respecting the
traditional "slight pause" of the end-stopped line. The fact is, they are confused about what
the line is at all, and consequently some of our best and most influential poets have
increasingly turned to the prose paragraph for what I feel are the wrong reasons--less from a
sense of the peculiar virtues of the prose poem than from a despair of making sense of the

One of the important virtues of comprehending the function of the line- break, that is, of
the line itself, is that such comprehension by no means causes poets to write like one
another. It is a tool, not a style. As a tool, its use can be incorporated into any style. Students
in a workshop who grasp the idea of accurate scoring do not begin to all sound alike.
Instead, each one's individual voice sounds more clearly, because each one has gained a
degree of control over how they want a poem to sound. Sometimes a student scores a poem
one way on paper, but reads it aloud differently. My concern--and that of his or her fellow
students once they have understood the problem--is to determine which way the author
wants the poem to sound. Someone will read it back to him or her as written and someone
else will point out the ways in which the text, the score, was ignored in the reading. "Here
you ran on," "Here you paused, but it's in the middle of a line and there's no indication for a
'rest' there." Then the student poet can decide, or feel out,whether he or she wrote it down
wrong but read it right, o r vice versa. That decision is a very personal one and has quite as
much to do with the individual sensibility of the writer and the unique character of the
experience embodied in the words of the poem, as with universally recognizable rationality,
though that may play a part, too. The outcome, in any case, is rather to define and clarify
individual voices than to homogenize them; because reasons for halts and checks, emphases
and expressive pitch changes, will be as various as the persons writing. Comprehension of
the function of the line-break gives to each unique creator the power to be more precise, and
thereby more, not less, individuated. The voice thus revealed will be not necessarily the
recognizable "outer" one heard in poets who have taken 01son's "breath" theory all too
literally, but rather the inner voice, the voice of each one's solitude made audible and singing
to the multitude of other solitudes.

Excess of subjectivity (and hence incommunicability) in the making of structural
decisions in open forms is a problem only when the writer has an inadequate form sense.
When the written score precisely notates perceptions, a whole--an inscape or gestalt--begins
to emerge; and the gifted writer is not so submerged in the parts that the sum goes unseen.
The sum is objective--relatively, at least; it has presence, character, and--as it develops--
needs. The parts of the poem are instinctively adjusted in some degree to serve the needs of
the whole. And as this adjustment takes place, excess subjectivity is avoided. Details of a
private, as distinct from personal, nature may be deleted, for example, in the interests of a
fuller, clearer, more communicable whole. (By private I mean those which have associations
for the writer that are inaccessible to readers without a special explanation from the writer
which does not form part of the poem; whereas the personal, though it may incorporate the
private, has an energy derived from associations that are shareable with the reader and are so
shared within the poem itself.)

Another way to approach the problem of subjective/ objective is to say that while
traditional modes provide certain standards for objective comparison and evaluation of poems
as effective structures, (technically, at any rate) open forms, used with comprehension of
their technical opportunities, build unique contexts which likewise provide for such
evaluation. In other words, though the "rightness" of its lines can't be judged by a
preconceived method of scans ion, each such poem, if well written, presents a composed
whole in which false lines (or other lapses) can be heard by any attentive ear--not as failing to
conform to an external rule, but as failures to contribute to the grace or strength implicit in a
system peculiar to that poem, and stemming from the inscape of which it is the verbal

The melos of metrical poetry was not easy of attainment, but there were guidelines and
models, even if in the last resort nothing could substitute for the gifted "ear." The melos of
open forms is even harder to study if we look for models; its secret lies not in models but in
that "fidelity to experience" of which I have written elsewhere; and, in turn, that fidelity
demands a delicate and precise comprehension of the technical means at our disposal. A
general recognition of the primary importance of the line and of the way in which rhythm
relates to melody would be useful to the state of the art of poetry in the way general
acceptance of the bar line and other musical notations were useful to the art of music. A fully
adequate latitude in the matter of interpretation of a musical score was retained (as anyone
listening to different pianists playing the same sonata, for instance, can hear) but at the same
time the composer acquired a finer degree of control. Only if writers agree about the nature
and function of this tool can readers fully cooperate, so that the poem shall have the fullest
degree of autonomous life.



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