Of Lines and Sentences in Poems

This week, one of my favorite magazines, Birmingham Poetry Review, accepted two of my poems. They’re not that easy to get into, so I’m very pleased to have two poems selected for their Spring 2024 issue. In proofreading the poems before sending them back, I was reminded that they both have many more lines than they have sentences, which has me thinking about the way lines and sentences interactin in a poem.

In one poem, there are two only sentences and twenty-one lines. The first sentence sets up the poem in the first two lines, and the second sentence continues for nineteen lines. For me, these are relatively short lines — probably four beats per line, maybe five, and lately I’ve been writing longer lines with at least six beats, though I don’t always count. Still, that second sentence is a pretty long one with many dependent clauses, lists, and even a coordinating conjunction or two. I like the feeling of tumult that it causes as the sentence keeps going over line breaks. Since there are quite a few commas in a periodic sentence like this, there are opportunities for enjambment, end-stoppped lines, and ceasurae within the lines. The overlaop of syntax rhythms and the rhythms of the beats within the line can create a polyrhythmic feel.

In a similar way, the second poem has three sentences stretched out over nineteen lines. These lines are a little longer with at least six beats per line, though again, I don’t really count beats or scan for meter. What’s interesting in this poem in contrast to the first is that the initial sentence stretches for nine lines, then the second sentence is only one line, actually a little less. The first word of the third sentence is the last word on that tenth line, and that final sentence stretches for nine more lines, until the end. Instead of a stanza break, the short sentence at the midpoint of the poem is like putting your foot on the brakes, a short stop before the momentum of the poem picks up again.

I don’t always write in long sentences, and I probably need to remind myself not to overdo it (though these poems got accepted at a great magazine, so maybe it’s not a terrible idea). What they remind me of, which is one thing I love about poetry, is to pay attention to the ways that a sentence and the lines of a poem interact. I like layerying the flow of the sentence over the rhythms of the lines. I like finding variety in sentence length, and finding ways to end the sentence within the line at different points. There is no one right way to do it, of course, but there are many options that affect the mood and the pacing of the poem. In these poems, I wanted the sense of momentum that a long sentence can bring, especially as one phrase builds on the previous ones and the sounds and images accumulate without the break that the end of a sentence can give. Other poems call for shorter sentences or more variety in the kinds of sentences. In any case, the ways that the line and the sentence interact continues to grab my attention.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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