The Line

File:First Folio, Shakespeare - 0010.jpg

“Verse–from the Latin versus, which means a line or a furrow drawn by a plow–is the name given to an assemblage of words so placed together as to produce a metrical effect.” (from the Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition).

Regardless of the language, the line is the basic unit of poetic composition. In other words, the line is the most basic tool at the disposal of the poet to help him or her structure the sound of a poem. Let’s think about this a bit.



1) In the first place, a line can be created by deciding to break a sentence in prose writing at a certain point and place the second half of the sentence on the next line. As in:


In the first place, a line can be

created by deciding to break a sentence…

Why, the reader will ask, should this sentence be broken after be? The short answer is: because this line break creates two sentences of equal metrical length: each of the two new lines has five stresses:

In the first place, a line can be

created by deciding to break a sentence…

where each syllable in bold face is stressed.

2) The line is the clearest unit of meaning and sound in a poem, one which repeats a pattern of sound and emphasis that underlies the action and meaning of the text. In English, the line is divided into metrical feet; a foot is a grouping of syllables that follows a fixed pattern of stresses. The most common foot in English poetry is the iamb.

We tell of him–the man who saw the Deep. (from RT’s version of Gilgamesh)

3) The line’s equivalent in fiction is the scene, which combines action, dialogue, and narrative technique to create tension and convey the story’s meaning. Though a narrative poem may use all these things to tell its story, underneath them is a pattern of reoccurring sound that produces emotion separately from the plot built on top of it. The poet can use this emotion to create tension in a scene and shape a reader’s response to the story’s action. And the line can create a dream-like atmosphere in which the story’s action fades into the background while the reader is entranced by the poem’s music.

4) Here is another way of thinking about a line of poetry:

A line of poetry can be invisible, obstructive, or sublime, the difference being the poet’s state of mind at the time of composition.

Invisible can be a waiter effortlessly delivering the required items to a diner–or customers waiting for their cup of coffee. Is the poet on track in his or her writing, knowing the goal the poem is working towards, the effect and emphasis the line must deliver, the quality of word, rhythm, implication? Where is the excitement?

Obstructive can mean a pothole, false directions, or a dead elephant sprawled across the thoroughfare. Potholes can be filled, false directions amended at the gas station, elephants shoved to the side of the road. How much time and energy do you have at your disposal? Is the destination worth the effort? How did the elephant get there? And who gave you the bad directions?

Sublime is really tough. Do you remember how your best writing got so good? Was it a gift or did you work for it? How long did you have to wait for it? Time is an important element in the writing of any poetry; as a rule, the more, the better.


Photo: Page from Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies or The First Folio. WikiCmns. Public Domain.

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  1. June 14, 2013 at 6:48 pm

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