Like the circle, the line is everywhere: an element of geometry, a feature of earth’s topography, a description of time as we might experience it. We wait on lines, take up a line of work, build roads from here to there. The ancients even drew lines between the stars. Lines are also fundamental components of visual art and poetry. As a practitioner of both art forms, I enjoy looking for overlaps between them. How does the line work in poetry and art? Is there any relationship in function?
In the arts, a line moves, and moves us, as well. In visual art, a line may carry the eye from one place on the canvas to another. But a drawn line also carries information by virtue of its appearance—soft, bold, solid, wavering; straight, broken, meandering—and in that way moves us emotionally, too. In poetry, a line of words can transport us between and through ideas, images, and feelings. It carries information, too, in its length, meter, sound, diction, and of course, sense—counterparts to the visual elements of length, rhythm, pressure, color, descriptive or narrative intent.
Poetic lines and gestural strokes can also stand alone, islands of meaning distinct but inseparable from the whole. The poetic line, strapped into the poem’s syntax, is a passenger. But in becoming a line, that fragment of words is also a driver, liberated from its constraints within the whole to do its own subtle work. The same words can be read as a unit to suggest one meaning and read as part of its full context to suggest something else. A poetic line can taxi us to a cliff, a u-turn, or roll us along on a smooth paved road. It can set speed limits, high or low, or bump us onto a road less taken. Punctuation is as much a part of this as words. Dashes, commas, ellipses, periods are little marks that give the line particular character and purpose.(1)
Lines in art do similar work. Here also, the line is a mark that connects and divides, emotes and states, expresses and describes. It sets boundaries or reveals the terrain itself. Here is the figure, here is the ground, a line might say. In Kathe Kollwitz’s “Self Portrait,”(2) a bold zig-zag of charcoal takes the viewer’s eye from her hand to her center and out again, revealing the motion and energy of her body at work—and perhaps something of what she experiences as she makes her art. Lines in both disciplines are cartographic: they convey cuts, striations, disturbances, eddies that enspirit the field of a page or canvas.
A poetic line follows the pulsing of thought and feeling that is happening as it is written. Similarly a drawn line will carry the seismic underpinnings of the hand that holds the tool used to inscribe it. “A pencil is a little wonder-wand: a stick of wood that traces the tiniest motions of your hand as it moves across a surface.”(3) And here is a key place where the poetic line and the art line not only correspond but overlap. Our handwriting is a form of drawing. The way we form our letters, their size and degree of boldness record the inner excitement or the ponderous hesitation of our deliberations as we search for words. Our own hand-made lines of letters and words running down the page coexist as drawings and as poetry, each aspect contributing to the whole. Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts are a prime example; the idiosyncratic arrangements of her handwritten text (on paper and scraps of envelopes), and her use of varying types of dashes, are pored over by scholars and readers for the way they amplify meaning. Not the printed versions, but “Dickinson’s manuscripts themselves…are the most authentic register of her intentions.”(4)
In type, much of that is lost, but not all. Type, though uniform and mechanized, is still visual, a conglomeration of lines and marks retaining lineation and the especially descriptive flourishes of punctuation and spacing.
L to R: A Dickinson manuscript, Wild Nights; an untitled Rune drawing by Susan Hartung; type from this blog entry turned upside down
But the line as a mere element of writing or drawing is incomplete without the recognition that it is essentially a representation of an aspect of human experience. We inhabit this world, as though it were a canvas or page, scratching our lives into its containment, and we live in time, on a line from birth to death. Our lives, like a geometric line, are in a sense infinite. We enter at a point in history, a place with antecedents and influences. And after we arrive at our personal point B, the line drawn by our lives continues in unknown ways to affect the future. As we inhabit our time, we string up memories and impressions from here and there, bringing disparate things together.
For a line also joins things—not only literally, as in connecting a spatial or literary point A to B, but also metaphorically. A line functions as a simile. Once two things are put together via the bridge of a line, we are asserting (or simply revealing) an underlying similarity that may not have been apparent before. Sometimes, in any artistic practice, we set our ends and then work to discover the path of connection. We may have an idea or point we are aiming for, but for authenticity’s sake, we have to be alert for and welcoming of the detour and the unexpected joineries we stumble upon. Other times we pay attention to the line itself (the process) rather than its points of origin and destination. Stafford: “The authentic is a line from one thing / along to the next; it interests us.”(5) (And note how Stafford’s lineation breaks right as the sentence joins one thing to the next! The authentic becomes more complex than we may first assume.)
Eventually we discover the things that have become joined through our meandering and we learn what the connection between them is. If, as Zen philosophy asserts, “everything is connected,”(6) then making a good line is one of the tools artists and poets have to reveal that astonishing fact. In so doing, we heal “the split inherent in duality.”(7)
As a joining force, a line can also be seen as a thread, a theme that stitches its way through an artist’s work across long periods of time. Such a line can tie a knot at a place of assertion, or double back to secure a meaning, or cross- stitch itself to change direction. This thread can be sewn in by the artist’s hand as conscious choice, but often we follow a pattern we are provided, working our own swath of “the heavens’ embroidered cloths.”(8) Paradoxically, our stitching-lines both follow the pattern and shape the garment anew. Right before our eyes, over a lifetime, the thing we are actually making gets revealed, possibly to our great surprise. It’s a thread stitched by a seamstress that Virginia Woolf called “capricious,” a muse who inspires our unique personal ordering principle deeper than chronology. The thread-line of art may be dashed, loopy—rarely direct—but it is always available for examination, consultation—in the form of what we’ve already made, or been interested in. Eudora Welty referred to this line as “the continuous thread of revelation.”(9)
1. See, for instance, The Art of the Poetic Line, by James Longenbach, Graywolf Press, 2008, for examples of the work a poetic line can do.
2. See Kathe Kollwitz Wikipedia entry: “Her silent lines penetrate the marrow like a cry of pain.”
3. From “Inside One of America’s Last Pencil Factories,” The New York Times, January 12, 2018
4. Jan Bervin, “Studies in Scale: An Intro, The Gorgeous Nothings,” Christine Burgin/New Directions, 2013. See reprint of same at Poetry Foundation.
5. From “An Introduction to Some Poems,” by William Stafford.
6. “Everything is connected,” part of Jane Hirshfield’s seven-word definition of Zen.
7. Robert Johnson, in Owning Your Own Shadow, Harper Collins, 1991, p. 105.
8. From “The Cloths of Heaven,” by William Butler Yeats.
9. “Capricious,” from Virginia Woolf in Orlando. “Thread of revelation” quote from Eudora Welty in One Writer’s Beginnings. I found both of these references in a recent stroll through Maria Popova’s “Brain Pickings.”
The title, “Following a Line,” is lovingly repeated from the title of artist Susan Hartung’s posthumous retrospective at The Teaching Gallery, Hudson Valley Community College, Troy, NY, Sept.–Oct. 2014. See here and here for more about her work.