Whether we attend to the fact or not, poetry has deep roots in song. Beyond their meanings, words are sounds, notes if you will. A line—full of assonance or simply conversational—is, therefore, necessarily a kind of musical construct. For me, this means we poets have a good bit in common with singers. When vocalists phrase the sentences of song lyrics, it's clear that they are using lines—some enjambed, some end-stopped—to add emotional dimension to the tune. Of course, music allows a singer to bend and stretch words in ways that are not quite possible in conventional speech, but developing a sense of mood through pacing (to draw listeners into the lyrical spell) is essentially the same for poets and crooners. If we think of lineation as one of the engines that drives tone, it's easy to make yet another connection between poems and songs.
I realize that melody is an importantly distinct feature of musical expression. However, even melody resembles speech—with both sustained and short notes inflected in precise relation to silence—especially if we allow ourselves to see a note as a word that lives outside the realm of semantics. This is even more apparent if we consider the vocal gestures of, say, a saxophone solo. Isn't a poem a spoken solo, a musical composition built line by line for the express purpose of creating an emotional/intellectual experience for the audience?
Given this, I try to approach the line as both a singer and a reader. When I read a poem aloud or quietly to myself, I trust that the lines are made to offer me a particular set of intended eff ects: an exact rhythm of speech, a carefully considered pace for the intake of ideas, feelings, and other sensations. It strikes me that the sonic and semantic impacts of words can be nuanced in a hundred ways, depending upon their positions within a line and their connections to the lines and words that precede and follow. In reworking my own poems, these are the things that shape my sense of what should turn where.
Reprinted from A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee, by permission of the University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 2011 by Tim Seibles.