The Mossotti Files

Baggage and Loose Change:

The line thought


by Travis Mossotti



The lines in a poem are the guide wires threading a suspension bridge.


The line is director cueing action.

The line is a pile of rocks.

The line is exactly how much.


Breath inflates the bellows of the line like an accordion.



            Here we have a block of text, a series of sentences that work together in order to communicate some version of insight, with the visual assemblage and nuance of a high school marching band on a football field.  The visual form on the page is similar to a brick, or a windowpane—but never a brick through a windowpane.  The sentences conform to a militaristic order that requires each sentence to stare blithely at the back of the next one’s head—individual expression is tempered by the logical procession of the unbroken line.  Poetry, however, seems to react differently. 

The poetic line can simply be a sentence, but more often it measures out a length of thought within a larger more complex sentence.  The line allows its thought to remain temporarily unaccentuated and unhindered by the rest of the sentence—or any of the other lines or sentences for that matter, with all their baggage and loose change.  There is a moment of solace in the isolation of the line (for both writer and reader), and this solace permits a level of communication or exploration that prose—despite every effort that punctuation affords—cannot achieve.  The universal litmus test for understanding how prose differs in this respect is to take a sentence from a poem that has been broken into lines, and mend them back into prose.  Take, for example, this sentence from the poem “Mismatched Shoes” by Yusef Komunyakaa:


The name Brown fitted him like trouble,

A plantation owner’s breath

Clouding each filigreed letter.




The name Brown fitted him like trouble, a plantation owner’s breath clouding each filigreed letter.


The prose version plods along dutifully as a soldier with orders to commence with the execution—without pause or hesitation, ignoring the brief moment that suggests the possibility of multiple conclusions.  It’s the aspect of the reader’s imagination that wants to revel in the idea that someone’s name (someone particularly more familiar to the reader) could actually fit him or her like trouble, which prose cannot engage (at least not with the same evocative power that poetry can).  In the lightning fast firings of the synapses, the reader is allowed to establish the same connection perhaps to Rowdy down at the liquor store with the lazy eye and the clubfoot, or Jessie with the collection of antique six-shooters and a loathing for people in orange jumpsuits.  Without the line break, and the pause that it provides, the reader is forced to keep his or her imagination stitched to the page. 

In this respect, poetry requires a more dutiful commitment from the reader than prose.  The poetic line permits the reader a longer leash, but it must be observed that there is a leash nonetheless.  A line may exist independent of influence for the moment of the breath, only to be modified or undercut in the next.  When moving from one line to the next, the reader carries the weight of expectation with them, and the most impressive moments in a poem are generally when those expectations are interrupted by something unexpected, yet inevitable.  The novelty (of phrasing or idea) in a line is often how the reader is drawn into the poem, establishing their trust for the moves of the writer.  In a poem like "Instruction Manual" by Lynn Emanuel, the poet articulates (quite self-consciously mind you) how the dynamics of reader's expectation need to be tempered; how the poet's responsibility in the craft is to give the reader something they don't or can't expect, and yet, when it arrives it must seem inevitable. In these first five lines, we see how the poet interrupts and modifies each thought presented in the line before:


How-to on how to read this? Listen.

For one thing, there is no you.

She owns you: you're the dog;

she's the leash you follow


through the plot opening into the dark city.


           The frigid tone congeals around each independent line thought and each subsequent modification.  It’s an unexpected posture for the poet to assume against the reader, but the demeanor and tone of the speaker’s voice is so relentlessly consistent from line to line that the reader is forced to trust that each new amalgamation and modification as inevitable.  The nature of the relationship between writer and reader as a subject matter for poetry is not a revelation.  It has been written about, and each new incarnation dons the cap of gimmick.  It’s in this land of “Been there done that!” that originality and the constant subversion of expectation are absolutely crucial to make each line impact with any kind of resonance. 

            Breath modulates the originality of thought in the poetic line, and subsequently impacts the reader’s expectation for the next.  It seems intuitive that a line comprised of a single word will leave the reader wanting and eager, while the line that bleeds past the margins will leave him satisfied and subdued—as if digesting a large meal.  Continuing with Emanuel’s introductory lines, it is interesting to notice how in the first four lines she compliments the calloused tone with a terse, single syllabic pattern of words that modulates and respects the tone set forth by the speaker.  Then the fifth line swaggers by with two and three syllable words, as if it were a brief respite from each of the preceding lines.  An attention to breath and the parsing of syllables plays a large part in how the subject matter is imbibed by the reader.

            In some ways the line thought remains forever independent of any larger sentence (or poem for that matter) to which it belongs.  In the recitation of the poetic line, the reader is meant to temporarily enjoy each line thought as intentionally unique in the same way someone might sample a bite of steak before drenching it in A-1.  It is this brief moment of isolation that permits a level of communication and internalization of the subject matter that prose cannot provide.  The innovation of each subsequent line thought perpetuates the reader’s interest and establishes the reader’s trust for the writer.  Each line thought takes into account the breath it encapsulates, and how that breath is parsed out, in order to work in concert with the preceding lines in establishing tone.  The finished poem ideally takes in each of these aspects.