Title: The Art of the Poetic Line
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Author: James Longenbach
Price: $14.00 (paperback)
I was very late to discovering poetry. I grew up reading short stories, novels, and comic books. The only poetry I encountered was short excerpts from classics such as The Odyssey in various literature classes. As such, when I finally sat down to attempt to write poetry, I was at something of a loss. I had no idea what I was doing. Thus began my quest to build a personal library of how-to poetry books.
There are a lot of how-to poetry books out there. A lot. I’m sure that some are excellent, some are average, and some are terrible, and individual experiences with these books will vary.
My experience of The Art of the Poetic Line by James Longenbach?
Longenbach lays out the thesis for his text in the opening preface:
Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines. More than meter, more than rhyme, more than images or alliteration or figurative language, line is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry, rather than some other kind of writing. [….] line has no identity except in relation to other elements in the poem, especially the syntax of the poem’s sentences. (xi)
Longenbach spends the remainder of this short, but insightful, book offering examples of poetic lines; how they relate to the other elements of the poem (rhyme, meter, syntax, diction); how changing those elements changes the line; and how changing the line itself can change not only its meaning, but that of the entire work. There were entire sections where I had to stop, process what I had read, relate it to my own work, and then go back and read it again. He moves back and forth in time and across continents, highlighting the works of famous poets — Milton, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Eliot, Frost — but also plenty with whom I was only tangentially familiar, or unfamiliar with completely (Frank, Herrick, Moore, Justice). Thanks to Longenbach, I will be adding even more books to my library wish list.
For me personally, at this stage in my understanding of poetry, the most relevant piece of the discussion was this:
Sometimes it will be necessary for a poet to remember every tool in the kit; at other times it will be equally crucial to forget them, though nothing can be forgotten if it has not first been remembered. (24)
Read. Then write. Then read some more. Read the great poets, read the poets whose works move you. Then write some more. And keep writing.
Before I even finished The Art of the Poetic Line, I purchased two more books in The Art of … series. I can’t wait to read (and learn from, and then write after absorbing) The Art of Description by Mark Doty and The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt.
Highly recommended to poets of every skill and experience level, as well as fans of Writing Metrical Poetry by Baer and Writing Poetry in the Dark edited by Wytovich.
[Reviewed by Rebecca Buchanan.]