Poetry’s use of the line as a unit of meaning independent of the clause and the sentence is the defining characteristic of poetry. It is also the formal device that more than any other distinguishes poetry from prose.
This explains why poetry is sometimes referred to as verse. For the word verse originally denoted the turning point at the edge of a field, where the plough broke off from cutting one straight line or furrow, was turned around, and then proceeded to carve out the next line or furrow. In the field of poetry, the location of this turning point is determined by the internal logic of the poem itself and may be governed by such things as its metre, its generic or typographic conventions, and/or its aspiration to offer a more dynamic reading experience in which the reader witnesses that poem’s meaning unfolding before their very eyes rather than receiving it already pre-packaged. Both line length and line endings, that is, are intrinsic to what poems say and do. In the field of prose, by contrast, the opposite is the case: the length of each line and where it ends is determined solely by the margins of the page on which it is printed. For this reason, in prose neither line length nor line endings make any difference to the meanings of the words, clauses or sentences the work contains.
What, though, do we mean when we say that ‘poetry uses the line as a unit of meaning independent of the clause and the sentence.’ The following lines from the American poet William Carlos Williams’s poem ‘To A Poor Old Woman’ are often cited to illustrate this point. They present the poor old woman of the title eating plums:
They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her.
Here we encounter the same sentence three times. Had these three sentences been set out in regular prose (i.e. ‘They taste good to her. They taste good to her. They taste good to her.’), they would all have continued to say exactly the same thing. In the poem, by contrast, we respond to each of them in slightly different ways because they are each distributed across the lines in slightly different ways: on each occasion, that is, we pause in a different place, we emphasise different words and thus introduce different nuances and acquire a difference sense of what the statement can mean.
This, then, is an example of how a poem’s use of the line as a distinctive unit of meaning can help draw our attention to a greater range of connotations in the words it contains than would have been the case if these three sentences had been set out as regular prose. In this case, the line could be said to have supplemented the meaning of the sentence by enriching it in a manner that complements its more prosaic interpretation. In other cases, however, the poetic line allows us to become aware of alternative directions a sentence might have taken, and in so doing makes it possible for us to remain cognisant of contradictory voices and opinions that the sentence itself may not formally sanction. Consider, for instance, the opening quatrain (four lines) of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
The ‘break’ between lines 2 and 3 is especially interesting because it demonstrates how reading and interpreting the words of the poem by the line as well as by the sentence makes it possible to hear two quite different statements being made. If Shakespeare had written his thoughts down as prose instead – i.e. ‘Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds’ – there would have been only one such statement, namely that if you really love someone your love for them will not change even if the person you love changes their personality, appearance or behaviour in some way. Because the poem imposes a line break after ‘Love is not love,’ however, after which it is natural for the eye to pause, we are able to read these four words as offering a statement on their own of a quite different kind, namely the paradox that either what we think is love may not really be love or even that there might not in the end actually be such a thing as human love. As it turns out, such a suggestion is by no means irrelevant for the poem as a whole, because by the end the speaker admits he may not know what love is or even if it can truly be experienced by human beings: ‘If this be error and upon me prov’d,’ he concludes, ‘I never writ [i.e. wrote], nor no man ever lov’d.’ The poem’s division of its words into lines as well as clauses and sentences has accordingly prepared us for this conclusion that ‘Love is not love’ in a manner that the full sentence alone could not.
As these two examples from William Carlos Williams and William Shakespeare also demonstrate, in addition to drawing out further nuances, inflections, emphases, connotations and even alternative formulations from the words and sentences a poem contains, poetry’s use of the line as yet another unit of meaning in its own right renders the experience of reading those words and sentences all the more immersive, subjective and dynamic as well. Only the more careful and committed readers, for instance, will perceive that the words ‘Love is not love’ are caused by the poem’s lineation to stand alone as a statement in their own right (hence the immersive element), each of those readers will evaluate the significance of that statement for the poem as a whole in their own way (hence the subjective dimension), and each of those readers will register (again in their own way) the change of meaning and direction that takes place when the next line continues ‘Which alters when it alteration finds’ (hence the dynamic dimension). This is what I meant earlier when I asserted that poetry’s use of the line contributes to its practice of allowing the reader to experience the process of meaning unfolding before them – with all its stops and starts, its progressions, diversions and reversions – rather than expecting them to receive it pre-packaged and pre-given.
On the next page, we will look at some specific devices poetry uses to regulate the transition from one line to the next and we will introduce ourselves to some of the strategies we might use to identify and interpret the effects of those devices on our understanding of the poems to which they belong. We will also consider how such things as line length and line endings can influence the pace and emotional atmosphere of individual poems. We will do all this through a combination of practical advice and concrete exercises.