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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, July 9, 2006; BW12

What is a line? In screenwriting, IT IS something someone says. In poetry, too; but a line is also a unit of rhythm, represented on a page by a return to the left margin, somewhat the way sheet music represents measures with vertical lines.

Maybe it's easier to show examples of the poetic line than to define it. As with measures in music, all lines are not alike. Some are slow and some are fast, and in some the sound of the sentence stops at the end, and in some it blithely keeps going right over the line, just as this little poem by Robert Frost says:

In a Poem

The sentencing goes blithely on its way,

And takes the playfully objected rhyme

As surely as it takes the stroke and time

In having its undeviable say.

Frost is partly showing off by giving a brilliant example of how what he describes should be done. All four of his lines follow the same pattern, and no two of them follow it in the same way. Like a jazz solo, the poem combines striking variations in movement with a rhythm that is "undeviable." The poem offers good advice about how to hear poetry, and it also enjoys its own virtuosity.

Similarly, the much earlier master Ben Jonson (1572-1637) shows what he can do, flamboyantly -- like a dancer leaping -- in order to chide a woman who has disrespected his picture. Poor Jonson sounded better than he looked. Cupid, the god of love, is supposed to be blind -- but in this case:

My Picture Left in Scotland

I now think love is rather deaf, than blind,

For else it could not be,

That she,

Whom I adore so much, should so slight me,

And cast my love behind:

I'm sure my language was as sweet,

And every close did meet

In sentence of as subtle feet

As hath the youngest he,

That sits in shadow of Apollo's tree.

Oh, but my conscious fears,

That fly my thoughts between,

Tell me that she hath seen

My hundreds of gray hairs,

Told seven and forty years,

Read so much waist, as she cannot embrace

My mountain belly and my rocky face,

And all these, through her eyes, have stopt her ears.

The varying line lengths let Jonson demonstrate how gracefully he can move the "subtle feet" of his verses through such an attractive dance.

The lady he addresses apparently was better at appraising Jonson's build and complexion than at appreciating the sweetness of his verses.

(Robert Frost's poem "In a Poem" is from "The Poetry of Robert Frost," edited by Edward Connery Lethem. Copyright ? 1916 by Henry Holt. Ben Jonson's poem "My Picture Left in Scotland" can be found in "English Renaissance Poetry," edited by John Williams. Univ. of Arkansas. Copyright ? 1963, 1990 by John Williams.)

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