I know, I know: you’re probably thinking, how can there possibly be so much to say about the poetic line?!? why is poetry so complicated?!? @$%^& and I get it, I really do—but the poetic line is seen by many as THE defining feature of poetry. There’s a whole book devoted to its mysteries, and many, many essays have been written in its name. So, really, you’re getting off easy with just 2,000 words on the subject. Consider yourself lucky.
Okay. Last time we talked about enjambed versus end-stopped lines; this time, we’re going to to talk about length. Before we get started, I want to make a disclaimer: different writers have—surprise!—different reasons for choosing to write in a specific form and lines of the same length can be used for different reasons and to create different effects. Which is to say, I’m going to be doing some generalizing about how short and long lines operate. DON’T DO THIS AT HOME. What you can do at home is use a similar strategy to figure out what the line is doing. Okay? Okay.
We’ll begin with the short line; let’s take a look at the first stanzas of “Two Paintings by Gustav Klimt” by Jorie Graham, one of the most celebrated contemporary poets living in the US today. Read the excerpt aloud, pausing at the end of each line.
Although what glitters
on the trees,
row after perfect row,
of the world,
the chips on the bark of each
catching the light, the sum
of these delays
is the beautiful, the human
The short lines slow you down—I mean, yeah, duh, when you read them the way I told you to—but even if you read them through, without pause, you still need to take a minute, collect yourself, remember what the subject of this long sentence that’s broken up into these little pieces actually is (it’s, ah, “what glitters / on the trees”…right??). The slower pace of the short line makes it seem as if it is harder for the poet to speak—as if, perhaps, what she’s saying is difficult for her to say. At the same time, though you might lose sight of the sentence, each line is, as a unit, quite clear and easy to grasp. The short lines are also highly emphatic: they place. More. Pressure. On. Each. Word. And (last thing!) they also create a sense of stillness rather than motion.
But the line isn’t short just for fun. The length of the line is closely related to the content of the poem: the short line enacts “the chips on the bark”—that is, each of these lines is itself like a little chip. What’s more, if you look at the painting she’s describing, you can see that it’s made up of many small dots of color, rather than broader strokes—JUST AS THE POEM IS MADE UP OF SHORT LINES! In short (teehee), the small dots of paint are like the short lines are like the chips on the bark. !!!!!!!!!!!
As you could probably guess, the long line is pretty much the opposite of the short. Still, let’s take a quick look at another excerpt from a different poem by Graham. This one’s called “Fission.”
The real electric lights light upon the full-sized
on which the greater-than-life-size girl appears,
almost nude on the lawn—sprinklers on—
voice-over her mother calling her name out—loud—
camera angle giving her lower lids their full
expanse—a desert—as they rise
out of the shabby annihilation,
out of the possibility of never-having-been-seen,
till the glance is let loose into the auditorium,
and the man who has just stopped in his tracks
for the first
These lines, the longer ones, move quickly and smoothly, they’re expansive and full. The longer line diffuses the emphasis we saw in the shorter lines; the long line can hold more “filler,” more chat (not that it’s doing that in this poem). The long lines are less clear, less immediately comprehensible, as units. They also create a sense of motion—a sense that is compounded, in this poem by the use of the dashes, by the identing of every other line, and by enjambment. This sense of motion fits the content: in the first poem, Graham was describing an almost-Pointillist painting; in this poem, she’s describing a movie (specifically, the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita).
As you can see, like the line break, line length can be used to modulate the speed at which a reader is able to travel through the poem—it can also add or remove emphasis, create or kill motion, make a line more or less clear. Of course, many lines are neither too long nor too short; they are just right. These “just right” lines (think Robert Frost, Shakespeare) can feel very different, depending on whether they’re enjambed or end-stopped, but we’re generally more comfortable reading them because they’re the line length most of us have been taught to expect in a poem. Because of that, the middle-of-the-road line tends to feel more stable and steady; it’s a plodding walk at average pace. I have to admit I’ve grown to prefer the more extreme versions.