On the Line

by Jennifer Jean | March 2017

Inspired by a 2016 Dodge Poetry Festival panel on THE POETIC LINE.

For the past seven years I’ve noticed an overall drop off in attention to the line in free-verse poetry. I’ve noticed this in lit journals, at poetry readings, and in my advanced students’ work. There seems to be an overall blasé approach to making every line count—to considering how each line is related to immediate, and to prolonged content; and, how each line is related to layered connotations, to sentence structures, to syntax, and to cadence. Attention has shifted to the atonal phrase, or to merely prolonged content that usually contains a single volta, or contextual turn. This work does not satisfy me when I’m expecting the kind of layers found in a symphony.

As a poetry journal editor, and lover of free verse, when I read a poem that’s not working, the first thing I consider is how and why the poet breaks her lines. I know I’m not the only editor thinking about this.

I was taught, and still believe, a free-verse poem teaches its readers how it would like to be read. And even with these lessons, room is left for mystery, subconscious intent, and accidental “fruit.” A free-verse poem has an individual physics addressing silence, spacing, cadence, and the line—all of which add to the poem’s meaning.

The line is a key tool that keeps free-verse from being merely chopped-up prose.

One exercise I do with students is to take my own poem and devolve it into a paragraph. Then I have the students use backslashes to indicate where they think I’ve broken the line. I use my own poem in order to answer questions about my conscious intent. I point out unexpected but welcome meanings that emerge after my conscious intent packs up to go. If it’s still in the draft phase, I’ve sometimes revised a poem according to student suggestions. Occasionally, I give students a break (bad pun) or hint by reading the poem aloud once—and, I try not to land very hard on the breaks if I know them well. For advanced classes, I make a point not to read the poem aloud. I want to challenge students to practice their sight-reading, their “mind’s ear.”

Readers, try this exercise with my poem “Bird”. Lineate it and then check your lineation against my final version, which was originally published in Rattle Magazine, Issue 50. Include stanza breaks if you’d like. Email me (the woman behind the curtain!) if you have any questions about the final version’s line breaks. Here’s the poem

Rock Wren, Godwit, Bobolink? What are we looking at? What’s beaked & broken free from a classic, iron bell cage? With a blownout hole opposite a latched door? No thickened keratin could peck that well. No claw-turned-fist busted up that joint. Inside, she was key, she was cheep, she was:  a flipped bad finger. Now—this bird wings as every bird stepping out of “the life.” With no credit, no reference, & a little self love. What are we looking at? A second wind. The flight inside the creature that is the holy, eternal verb. Is:  who bent the metal. Is:  the mother of a lighter bone. The kind that Terror cannot allow.

When I used this exercise at a Free2Write poetry class, I had students who’d never studied poetry, and others who’d never written anything other than center-justified rhymes. In my class evaluation for the day, many of them said the exercise had gone a long way towards helping them understand the purpose of line breaks. “So—they’re not made randomly!” wrote one student in surprise.

W.S. Merwin’s poems present a unique challenge when it comes to this exercise. Not only is he (invariably) not in the room to answer questions, he does not use punctuation. Try breaking these unlineated lines from his poem “In the Winter of My Thirty-Eighth Year” [[]] (NOTE: I cheated a little bit and excised his capitalizations so that you, dear reader, could not cheat):

like a thing I kept putting off as I did my youth there is nothing the matter with speech just because it lent itself to my uses

Any poet who heavily enjambs their lines would also be a great candidate for this exercise. I took to Facebook recently and asked folks for names of poets who utilize enjambment and here is what came over the transom:  Robert Creeley, Thomas Lux, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Sonia Sanchez, Natasha Moni, Patricia Spears Jones, Eileen Myles, Matt Miller, L.E. Sissman, C.K. Williams, Mignon Ariel King, and Marylyn Hacker. My go-to, enjambing poets have been:  e.e. cummings, and Lucille Clifton.

Recently, I gave a presentation about Clifton at the Poets on Poetry series at The Hartford Public Library, and one focus of my talk was that Clifton preferred her work be called “clearly complex” instead of “deceptively simple.” Her utilization of enjambed lines, that is to say her attention to where and how her lines were broken, is a large part of this complexity.

Of course enjambment is only one tool used to heighten the integrity of the line. Other tools include:  giving attention to the parts of speech that end each line; identifying whether the line is a particular poem’s essential unit—and if not, why not; considering how the line is a unit of breath and therefore emotion; and, identifying how each line’s length—the line as a unit of time—adds to, or takes away from, the content of the poem.

However, as Denise Levertov says in her groundbreaking essay “On the Function of the Line”: “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.”


Jennifer Jean’s debut collection is The Fool (Big Table 2013). She’s the winner of the 2016 Good Bones Prize; and, her poetry has appeared in:  Rattle, Waxwing, Tidal Basin, Denver Quarterly, Crab Creek Review, Mud City Journal, Green Mountains Review, and more. She is Poetry Editor for The Mom Egg Review, Managing Editor of Talking Writing Magazine, and Co-director of Morning Garden Artist Retreats. Jennifer teaches Free2Write poetry workshops to sex-trafficking survivors. For more info about Jennifer, visit: www.fishwifetales.com or follow her on Twitter at: @fishwifetales