The Melody of Form

Line-Breaks and Structure in Poetry

Ray Harvey
Mar 13 · 12 min read

Answer quickly, yes or no: is the following a poem — and I do mean exactly as it appears in the form I’ve transcribed it below?

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought, I summon up remembrance of things past, I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, and with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste: then can I drown an eye, unused to flow, for precious friends hid in death’s dateless night, and weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe, and moan the expense of many a vanished sight. Then can I grieve at grievances foregone, and heavily from woe to woe tell over the sad account of a fore-bemoaned moan, which I new pay as if not paid before. But if the while I think on you, dear friend, all losses are restored, and sorrows end.

Does the legal-jurisprudence-courtroom metaphor, so skillfully and so subtly developed and deployed, come through in this prose-style rendition?

How about the sounds of the words themselves — apart from their meaning? How about the rhymes all throughout? What about the soft and sibilant alliteration of those first three lines: “sessions of sweet silent thought … summon up remembrances of things past … sigh the lack of things I sought” — does all this in prose form come through for you, as it does for me?

How about the following poem: if it were only read aloud, so that listeners did not see how it appears as it’s printed upon the page in the photo directly below — is it still a poem?

There can be little question, it seems to me, that in many ways the written poem — and I mean in any phase or era or tongue — is quite different from the spoken poem. One is not necessarily more erudite or superior to the other — just different. Yet is the dust of difference fundamentally found not in verbal progression and sound but in where the written lines are broken?

I do sincerely believe that to speak of the written poem is to speak of the line break. And to speak of the line break is by logical elaboration to speak of lineation. The one is a corollary of the other — almost, one might say, a blood-brother.

Please allow me to repeat all that:

There can be
little question, it seems to me,
that in many ways
the written poem — and I mean in any phase
or era or tongue — is quite
different from the spoken
poem. One is not necessarily more erudite
or superior to the other — just
different. Yet is the dust
of difference fundamentally found
not in verbal progression or sound
but in where the written lines are broken?

I do sincerely believe that to speak of
the written poem is to speak of
the line
break.
And to speak of
the line
break
is by logical elaboration
to speak of lineation.
The one is a corollary of the other —
almost, one might say, a blood-brother.

“Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines,” wrote the critic-poet John Longenbach, who, in his book The Art of the Poetic Line, essentially defines poetry as line breaks.

John Longenbach does not stipulate, as I do above, the written poem, nor does he qualify his remarks with words like partially or to some extent or mostly or at best. Rather, he says without equivocation or apparent hesitation, that poetry (not, I repeat, the poem) is line breaks.

Similarly, when Mary Oliver, a competent and, in my opinion, practiced poetess, in her A Poetry Handbook, undertakes this same subject-matter, she appears largely to concur. I, however, intending no disrespect to either of my betters, demur.

Invariably I believe we must begin — and end — by asking this: if poetry is lineation, what does this imply about poems that are not ever written down but only spoken? What is their definitional status and state? Are they not poetry? Where, from a lexical point of view, does this place them? Where are they existentially left?

Are they lexically bereft?

What does it say about the long oral tradition of poetry, which predates written poems by millenia for sure?

Does the poet composing poems exclusively in her head see the line-breaks? Does she view them actually in her mind’s eye, or hear them actually in her inner ear? And does the listener likewise see and hear lineation when the sounds of the poet’s poems wander like a river through the channels of the ear?

Is there even a line break at all if there is no such thing as written thought?

Does lineation exist if language is not put down by means of a systematized alphabet — some codification of syntax and grammar, some literature consisting of scrawled symbols with phonetic sounds attached? An alphabet devised to spell out the flow of human cognition and human introspection? Or, remaining unwritten, is it purely a case of vocal inflection without any such thing as lineation or delineation?

One thing I say for certain: in the realm of the written poem — written, I repeat, as against the purely verbal-poetic aspect of the literary art — line breaks are a definitional part.

They are not, perhaps, the fundamental thing, as I believe the miniature masterpiece above, with its “sessions of sweet silent thought” and “remembrances of things past” illustrates so clearly, so beautifully, so ineffably pure and true even when written in prosey-style lines. But lineation is nonetheless, I think, a definitional aspect of written poems and rime.

It is also true that in matters literary, there exists a vast difference between the sentence and the line. This, in my opinion, is not an insignificant issue to highlight.

Irrespective of how it looks to any one person’s vision and sight, a sentence is that which expresses a complete thought, no matter the number of words it may contain inside, how many or how few, no matter the length of the line or lines required to contain it all, no matter how large its size, no matter how small its scope, no matter sans predicate or subject. Run! is a sentence and so is Where? and Why? as is Stop! and Nope. and Time flies.

Upon the other hand, any given line of any given poem may or may not contain a complete thought, which is to say, a full sentence — i.e. a thought unto itself. Or the line may contain two or even more than two complete thoughts, as in the last line of the stanza below, from the poem “Voltaire at Ferney,” by W.H. Auden:

Perfectly happy now, he looked at his estate.
An exile making watches glanced up as he passed
And went on working. Where a hospital was rising fast,
A joiner touched his cap. An agent came to tell
Some of the trees he’d planted were progressing well.
The white alps glittered. It was summer. He was very great.

In this sense, the primary difference between written prose and written poems is without question lineation. This is an age-old argument, I know, and I can hardly, I’m sure, bring anything new to the table, as it were. And yet, and yet … I am now, at last, definitively prepared to suggest that the solution lies largely in this: line breaks to delineate.

I’ve repeated the word “written” here not to tire you with my broken-record-like refrain, nor to harangue, but because I see this as the crux and distinction, since what I’m saying does not apply to words which are identical with their written counterparts, when and if the words are only spoken, whether they’re prose or poems or a hybridization of the two.

In written verse, as most students of poetry and as most practitioners of prosody know, the line that breaks off before the sentence officially ends is said to enjamb, which in so doing creates a kind of verbal-visual flow.

Enjamb itself is a rather interesting and poetically colorful word — a derivative of a not-very-old French word — enjamber — meaning “to stride over,” which in a literary context holds this same basic meaning: enjambed lines are lines that stride over to the next, one line to the other, one stanza to the other — like Brobdingnagian giants stepping over all rivers and lakes — without syntactical grammatical breaks.

“To run a sentence over to the next line without pause” my OED defines enjambment as, and I think that is pretty darn neat. There’s something in this reminiscent to me of slurred notes in jazz, apart from metrical feet.

Of course, the line break itself acts as a kind of punctuation mark — adding emphasis and force because of the pause the break imparts, emphasis and force to the word whereon it stops, and often this is to startling effect. Often, also, it injects multiple meanings into the ending word and (striding onward to the next) injects deeper meaning still into all the rest of the text — rather like a chain reaction which then takes on a life of its own, once deployed: explosions of meaning which wouldn’t have emerged absent the enjambments the writer has employed.

Here’s an example, in one of the most touching poems I know:

The Beautician

She, a beautician, came to see her friend
Inside the morgue, when she had had her cry.
She found the body dumped there all awry
Not as she thought right for a person’s end
Left sideways like that on one arm and thigh.
In their familiarity with the dead
It was if the men had not been kind
With her old friend, whose hair she was assigned
To fix and shape. She did not speak; instead
She gave her task a concentrated mind.
She did find in it some thin satisfaction
That she could use her tenderness as skill
To make her poor dead friend’s hair beautiful
Still — as if she shaped an epitaph by her action
She thought — being a beautician after all.

— Thom Gunn

Prose means “straightforward.”

Written prose is literature that’s set down within the confines of certain specified margins, whether notebook paper, notecards, post-its, cardboard scraps, computer screen or phone — barreling rightward in a sort of breakneck race, sometimes recklessly fast and truncating its line and linear pace only when the right margin comes to an end at last.

Seen from this perspective, then, we perhaps catch more clearly the specific way in which line breaks, even apart from the poems metrical foot or feet, are a definitional aspect of the written poem. Written, I repeat.

But are they the fundamental thing?

Are line breaks the cognitive common denominator distinguishing printed poems from printed prose? Or is this just a secondary creature, a kind of feature, or indicator? Is a rose a different rose when the word “rose” is spoken aloud, versus printed silently upon the page (in either poetry or prose), in any era or phase or age? Or is a rose in either case, in any era, just another eternal lovely rose?

Is lineation, I ask again, the defining characteristic of poems that are printed upon the page?

The poet and critic Robert Bridges uncovered in Milton’s mystic Paradise Lost countless permutations of poetic line — what some have termed “count of eye.” Bridges disclosed, as well, precisely how by a subtle shift of verbal weight, Milton’s seismic slabs of verse heave up with a thunderous POP-POP-POP, in a sort of terrestrial tectonic clash, or are briefly brought to rest, or entirely stopped: in the plunging downward rush of falling angels; in the relentless thrust of Satan pounding back up through Chaos with spalls of molten matter cascading like clinkers down his back; in the slow steps of doe-like Eve in Eden, the tresses of her hair the color of autumn wheat, her movements soft and sweet — all animated by stress and shift-of-stress, always to the count of ten, and then the count of ten again.

In contrast to Bridges, Sidney Lanier, in his scholastic The Science of English Verse, measures the poetic line by count of ear, not eye, and argues (going to great lengths in explaining why) that the written line of poetry is best described musically. Thus in standard texts of prosody, Lanier injects all manner of musical notation: rests and clefs, minims, measures, quarters, half notes, eights-of-sounds, like a half-crazed conductor of some confabulated orchestral band. Lanier, understand, maintained that the words of the poem — the metric of the thing, its count and cadence, its lilting mellifluous flow — conform more to the throb and rhythmic beat of song than to the dry count of syllable and eye. Therefore, thought he, units short and units long change quantity to better suit the sounded measure, and written poems are themselves imbued with a definite time-signature and stamp: the arpeggio, the slur, the rise, the fall, the syncopated shift — all of it more purely related to consonance and melody than to linguistic etymology.

Driving down deeper still, Sidney Lanier comes next upon the notion that the length of lines and stanzas in any given era are ultimately somewhat capricious and arbitrary, which even for us now, in this postmodern day-and-age, strikes me as a radical doctrine to espouse. Still more astonishing, however, and more revolutionary than this is Lanier’s prediction that rime will one day absolutely intertwine with prose — fusing each to the other in a continuous coupling with double-helical shape, until, purifying both poetry and prose, in a sort of sacred songful act, they give birth, at last, to a yet-unthought-of, undreamed-of measure and metrical bar for the art of literature and verse. While I admire deeply Mr. Lanier’s passion and his scholarship, I think this goes too far.

My thesis here is that at every flow of word and whirling eddy that slows into the deeps of pause and the swirl of poetic-rhythmic beat, the poet must check and recheck the current of the line, as much for its metrical as its melodic flow — as much for its song as for its sense.

The form must in some measure justify its use.

The form must in some way equal the entire poem, if not the muse.

My thesis is that sense should always be the prime mover, the gravitational pull: whether the pace of the poem is rapid, somewhat rapid, somewhat slow — sense, in every instance, in any case, should be the Coriolis-like director of all poetic flow. Sense should form its base.

The rules and grammar of any given era or phase of poetic form are general at first, conditional to the specific language of the time and place. But the meaning that language conveys in any given place or era transcends the laws and rules of any given phase.

The appearance of the written line on the page, the form and the medium, the poem’s physical look-and-dance — none of these things are unimportant, and this is not my stance.

My stance is simply that the proper functions of the poem, whether written or spoken or both combined, as determined by the drives and needs that strike at the human heart and which the poetic art fulfills inside the mind (for both creator and audience alike), as well as in the pleasure that poetry produces within us all as human beings — these functions, these needs and criteria, are not fundamentally different from one era to the next, one phase to another, one generation to the other, not mutable, not drastically shifted or changed. By the very nature of what poetry is, the fundamental components of the poem are immutable, as they are also hierarchically arranged.

The most fundamental thing of all — the component, I mean, from which the rest proceed — is intelligibility and meaning (sense, I say again), which is an essential human need, without which mental disintegration may very well occur. All the rest, including line breaks and lineation and the structured count that’s catapulted forth like a biological kinesis, flow from this.

Typographical designs, however novel in the art — such as those constructed by the fierce and fiery brilliance of the great May Swenson, whom I love with all my soul and heart, in her sunrise poem above — they are, I fear, however novel at one time, however striking to the eye at first, however jarring to human thought, invariably stamped with an expiration date. Her meaning, however, like all meaning, is not. Is her sunrise poem that I reprinted above primarily about a certain typographical look? Or is it primarily about the sun boiling up over sea and earth? Or is it, rather, about a woman and a premature birth?

Meaning, sense, the rhythmic lilt-and-flow of language itself, written or purely verbal — Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Slavic, and all the other sixty-five-hundred earthen tongues, and glimpsed as well in the pure power of Ms. May Swenson’s sunrise language alone, her red-hot hydrocephalic solar head soaring from the sea like some seething thing coughed up from deep terrestrial lungs, her images, her words, their cognitive scope and epistemic weight, these, like the words directly below, even if lost or forgotten, will never ever go out of date.

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight;
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell over
The sad account of a fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on you, dear friend,
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.

— William Shakespeare, Sonnet 30

Lit Up

Welcome to Lit Up -The Land of Little Tales.

Lit Up

Welcome to Lit Up -The Land of Little Tales. Here you can read and submit short stories, flash fiction, poetry - in brief, your own legend. We're starting little. But that's how all big stories begin.

Ray Harvey

Written by

Creative director of all things delightful.

Lit Up

Welcome to Lit Up -The Land of Little Tales. Here you can read and submit short stories, flash fiction, poetry - in brief, your own legend. We're starting little. But that's how all big stories begin.

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