EDITOR’S NOTE: No discussion of WCW’s approach to poetic line would be complete without mention of his notion of the variable foot, or triadic line. While this essay touches upon it, I recommend the following further reading:
- Asphodel, that Greeny Flower
- The Poem as a Field of Action (by WCW himself)
- William Carlos Williams’s Triadic-Line Verse: An Analysis of its Prosody
- William Carlos Williams’s Rhythm of Ideas
The poet Robert Hass says “the metrical poem begins with an assumption of human life which takes place in a pattern of orderly recurrence with which the poet must come to terms, the free verse poem with an assumption of openness or chaos in which an order must be discovered.” This fundamental shift in the craft of poetry coincides with – and some would say arises out of – fundamental upheavals in Western civilization, most notably the erosion of traditional, rigid class systems that followed the World Wars.
If a poet abandons both rhyme and meter, how does she give a poem shape or music? What elements of craft remain, and what new tools must we create? Without meter, poetic line becomes one of the primary means of affecting a poem’s trajectory.
In her essay “On the Function of the Line,” Denise Levertov notes that many poets – even the good ones – “have only the vaguest concept, and the most haphazard use, of the line.” While I tend to spend a great deal of time thinking about where to break lines and how to structure a free-verse poem, I haven’t had the language or technical knowledge to describe what I was trying to accomplish. Frances Mayes’s chapter on free verse in The Discovery of Poetry offers some useful thinking points about the use of poetic line. She notes that lines are a unit of time rather than meaning. A poem can rush forward with enjambed lines, long lines, and long stanzas, or it can move at a more sedate pace, with end-stops, short lines, short stanzas, or descending, stepped lines. Use of white space is another free verse tool that influences timing.
Poets using both free verse and traditional forms must vary pacing. Breaking the pattern is important for two reasons: first, it keeps the reader alert and interested. Unbroken regular meter lulls us to sleep the same way that stead rocking lulls a baby to sleep. Second, it imparts special emphasis on a word or phrase. Breaking meter creates emphasis in metered poetry. Breaking lines creates emphasis and syncopation in free verse.
While poetic line may primarily influence a poem’s timing, it does also affect its meaning. Just as breaking meter in traditional forms adds emphasis, so too does the way a line breaks.
William Carlos Williams uses free verse line for both purposes in his poem “To Daphne and Virginia.” The poem contains rather problematic statements about gender, but for the purpose of this essay I will to concentrate on Williams’s use of triadic line (aka stepped line):
Staying here in the country on an old farm we eat our breakfasts on a balcony under an elm. The shrubs below us are neglected. And there, penned in, or he would eat the garden, lives a pet goose who tilts his head sidewise and looks up at us, a very quiet old fellow who writes no poems.
The form of these stanzas emerges slowly. At first reading, the line lengths and indentations, indeed the stanzas themselves, appear irregular. But upon closer inspection, a pattern of sorts emerges. Stanzas use triadic line. Line length varies and includes both enjambment and end stops. Left-flush short lines create a slower pace in a poem, but the extra white space around the indented lines slows down the poem even more. It also introduces an extra dimension to the poem, an extra direction in which the words can move. Williams also uses enjambment and line length to influence both timing and connotation. For instance, the line “are neglected. And” intensifies the quiet, meditative ambiance of old farm in the country. There’s a pause not only at the beginning and end of the line but also in the middle, where one sentence starts and another picks up. Starting the line with “are neglected” also calls attention to this particular detail. It’s easy to extend that neglect to images of an old farm in the country: peeling paint, uncut grass, weedy paths. But he doesn’t use these images. He uses one that’s more surprising.
One of his lines contains a single word – always a risky move, since the word itself must stand up to the extra attention the reader must pay to it. “Sidewise” is very precise, describing exactly the motion of an animal with a long neck regarding something. The shortness of the line creates additional white space.
Poetic line implies a parallel between the goose and the speaker. The line “lives a pet goose who” elides over the subject’s goosiness, placing the emphasis on “who,” a word that applies to both humans and animals. Later, the speaker describes the goose as “a very quiet old fellow / who writes no poems,” an obvious reference to the speaker himself. Later in the same poem, Williams strengthens the comparison:
...Men against their reason speak of love, sometimes, when they are old. It is all they can do or watch a heavy goose who waddles, slopping noisily in the mud of his pool.
- Mayes, Frances, ed. The Discovery of Poetry. New York: Harcourt, 2001.
- Williams, William Carlos. Tomlinson, Charles, ed. Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1985.
- Levertov, Denise. “On the Function of the Line.” Multiple sources, including The Poetry Website, University of Arkansas Little Rock. Accessed 15 August 2016. http://ualr.edu/rmburns/RB/levlinet.html
- “Triadic-line Poetry.” Accessed 20 August 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triadic-line_poetry
- Gerber, Natalie. “Structural Surprise in the Triadic-Line Poems.” edu. Accessed 20 August 20, 2016. https://www.academia.edu/1216328/Structural_Surprise_in_the_Triadic-Line_Poems
 Quoted in The Discovery of Poetry, p. 272. See Works Cited.
 Although it’s also possible for long lines to lose the momentum of the poem.
 Multiple sources cite Williams as the creator of triadic line, which he called his “solution to the problem of modern verse.” See Works Cited. That being said, Williams is certainly not the first poet to use line indentation as a tool of poetic form.
Goose photo credit: Mayank Sharma via Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0.