Rookeries and Red Wheelbarrows: Some Thoughts on the Poetic Line

by Gerry LaFemina

 What makes a poem a poem?  Well, we all accept that a poem is written in lines, rather than sentences, but what does that mean for us as poets?  Where do lines “break” and who breaks them?  The phrase makes it so accidental, when really line is one of the most deliberate of our choices.  Before the advent of free verse, lines were often decided by meter and rhyme; in the contemporary era, poets often need to decide what drives their line, poem by poem.  Writing in lines allows a poet to manipulate the pacing of the poem, the meaning of the poem, and the rhythm of the poem.

Here’s a poem that we’ve seen plenty of times by William Carlos Williams:

So much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

If we were to just write this out as a sentence, “So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens,” we would have a pretty unimpressive sentence.  But we’re not writing sentences, we’re writing poems.  So perhaps we would make it look like a poem.  Here it is as a quatrain:

So much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens.

Perhaps this is more interesting, but not overly so.  The question is, why?  Why does the poem as Williams published it work in ways that it doesn’t work as a sentence or a quatrain?

The simple answer: the line and stanza.

The line in this Williams poem brings a syncopated jazz beat into the dull farm implement:

So much depends
            upon

a red wheel
barrow

            glazed with rain
            water

beside the white
                        chickens.

In the poem as published, the two stressed syllables in the first line of each stanza and the single stressed syllable of each second line, gives the poem a jazzy rhythm which works against the pastoral, farm imagery of the scene.  Since the two beats in the opening lines never occur in the same place, they have a less metronomic sensibility than we associate with metrical poetry.

But also consider what a wheelbarrow looks like.  It has a bucket and a two handles, with a wheel at the center of it.  Notice how each stanza kind of looks like a wheel barrow.

Line then becomes defining for the poem, can be transformational.  How poets use the line and stanza creates and manipulates the reader’s experience of the language.  Take, for example, this exercise I did with students in which I asked them for four lines.  Students volunteered the lines one at a time:

I like penguins.
They are so cute
in their tiny tuxedos
like a thousand James Bonds.

Like the Williams poems, these lines are pretty dull as far as their phrasing is concerned.  What are they really?  A declarative sentence, a declarative sentence, a prepositional phrase and a simile.  The diction doesn’t do much for the poem, except in the second line in which the “so” makes this poem sound as if written by a middle school student:  “they are so cute.”  But look what happens if we alter the syntax of the second line:

I like penguins.
So cute they are
in their tiny tuxedos
like a thousand James Bonds.

By changing the word order, the second line now sounds like it is using some “high” diction (one of my students called it “Yoda” talk), giving the poem a seriousness that isn’t conveyed with the subject matter.

Of course, in the current order, we know exactly what the poet is talking about.  What happens though, if we swap the order of the first and last lines so that we begin with the simile:

Like a thousand James Bonds
they are so cute
In their tiny tuxedos.
I like penguins.

In this version the poem begins with mystery.  By beginning with the pop-cultural reference of James Bonds, we begin with questions for the reader: what are like a thousand James Bonds?   And how are they like a thousand James Bonds? We don’t get the answer. The writer may have piqued our curiosity enough that we continue downward, as opposed to the first version where, if we don’t like penguins, or we think penguins have been overdone, we may not have continued.

Furthermore, consider what happens were we to reverse the syntax of that new last line:

Like a thousand James Bonds
they are so cute
In their tiny tuxedos.
Penguins I like.

Now we end on the speaker’s liking as opposed to the vision of the penguins that ends the previous version.

We can swap the order another way:

They are so cute,
like a thousand James Bonds–
I like penguins
in their tiny tuxedos.

Again, we delay the object of the speaker’s affection–what is so cute?  What is like a thousand James Bonds?  The third line–the declarative line–answers those questions and then is followed up with the expository final line. The connotation of tuxedos is dramatically different than that of the other endings of this poem: as tuxedos makes us think of formal occasions. Although James Bond sometimes wears a tux, ending on Bond surely doesn’t only bring that connotation into the poem.

By only reversing line order and word order, we create a variety of possible options for this poem that change how the reader experiences penguins and the speaker’s sense of the bird.  Now consider what happens if we change the length of the lines.

I like
penguins.  They are
so cute in their tiny tuxedos
like a thousand
James Bonds.

By breaking the first line on “like” we hold a pause on the word, emphasizing the emotion of “liking.”  The next line is an affirmation of the beingness of penguins.  Look how the middle line is the longest line, and it’s “book-ended” by the s-o/o-s sound combination.  The fourth line makes us wonder a thousand what?  A thousand bucks?  James Bonds is surely not what we’re expecting.

This version of the poem is doing something interesting in terms of rhythm, too.  The first and last lines are both two-syllable lines.  The second and fourth lines are both four syllable lines, so that the poem mirrors itself.

Some slight shifts change how we read it even more:

I
like penguins
in their tiny tuxedoes.
Like a thousand
James Bonds.  They are
so cute.

The pauses inherent in the line breaks make the second line like penguins seem like a simile. It isn’t, but it changes how we experience everything that follows.  By using a bit of counter point in the penultimate line: James Bonds they are, our eye reads that they are James Bonds because our eyes are trained to work independently of our ears–so even though our ears hear the sentences as they are punctuated, our eyes see the patterns of words that each line is independently as well as a whole.

Change it up just a bit more and you get, what is to me, perhaps the most interesting of these poems:

I
like penguins–
like a thousand James Bonds
they are
so cute in their tiny tuxedos.

The second and third lines seem to create a pattern of similes: I’m like penguins, I’m like a thousand James Bonds… that force us to consider how these things are similar, how they might be similar to the speaker, and establish an anaphoratic pattern that is instantly broken by line four they are (the simile of course remains accurate–we all “are”), but the sentence and line are doing different things–the way they ought to.

So far such line alterations have resulted in a “longer” poem because the number of lines is longer, so consider the second version in only three lines:

I like penguins.  So cute
they are in their tiny tuxedoes
like a thousand James Bonds.

In this variation of the poem, line one isn’t just a declarative line of taste–instead so cute answers the natural why/ the reader might ask.  Furthermore line two forces us to see the penguins by pointing them out in a full independent clause.  The last line, of course, is a pure simile, and adds, as it always has, a bit of humor in the pop cultural reference.  Are these the Sean Connery James Bonds or the Timothy Dalton James Bonds or the terrible aging Roger Moore James Bonds?  There are a thousand of them–like the end scene of the original Casino Royale.

Realize, I’m working only with the same original set of sixteen words.  Imagine the possibilities of repeating just one word:

I like penguins.
They are so cute.  Penguins
in their tiny tuxedos
like a thousand James Bonds.

The addition of the word penguins–both times at the end of a line–emphasizes the presence of the penguins.  Don’t forget there are “thousands” of them.

Or consider one of the variations above with the additional “penguins.”

They are so cute,
like a thousand James Bonds–
penguins.  I like penguins
in their tiny tuxedos.

By changing I like penguins to penguins.  I like penguins we reinforce the liking of penguins in the line, even though the first “penguins” belongs to the previous sentence.  And if you end with that line:

Like a thousand James Bonds
in their tiny tuxedos
they are so cute.
Penguins.  I like penguins.

The last line repeats penguins.  Once as a fragment.  Then as a declarative sentence.  How does the fragment change the tone of the declarative sentence at the end?  The first use of Penguins answers all our questions, but with a dumbfounded bluntness, thus giving the final sentence  a kind of wistfulness as if the speaker knows it’s silly to like penguins so much.

If this is what can be done with four lines–four fairly mundane and ultimately uninteresting lines–then imagine what can be done with your own lines should you actually choose to spend time considering the limitless possibilities of line length and diction, tone and sound.  The line, we’re reminded, is the core of poetry–not the sentence.  We make and manipulate meaning through how we make and manipulate line.  And by looking once more at “The Red Wheelbarrow” we see the further possibilities stanza might afford us.

Ultimately, creating rules for our line is the one way we make meaning in the poem, one way we create the rules for a tennis court without the net.  Line might be dictated by meaning or sentence or rhythm or rhyme.  I like to think of the line as a series of rubber bands.  How far can they stretch out before they snap us back to the left margin?  The poem’s energy is in the motion back, the slight hesitancy of whatever lingers at the end of one line and the jarring point we return to.


 

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