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This review is taken from PN Review 194, Volume 36 Number 6, July - August 2010.

END OF THE LINE JAMES LONGENBACH, The Art of the Poetic Line (Graywolf Press) $12.00

Through his close reading of the different ways poets might choose to end their lines, James Longenbach gets to the core of how meaning and feeling are conveyed within poetry. His reflections are most effective where he is able to compare different versions of the same text and demonstrate what great differences of sense and significance can be made by subtle changes. He manages this in examples from three great poets whose works have been presented differently over time: a passage from Shakespeare’s Lear that appears as prose in one of the earliest versions of the Folio, and in verse lines in another; Marianne Moore’s ‘When I Buy Pictures’ as it was first published and then subsequently edited by the author; and lines by Emily Dickinson before and after the editors stepped in to normalise her eccentricities of line and punctuation.

The book’s most interesting aspect is its distinction between what Longenbach calls ‘annotating’ and ‘parsing’ line ends. Where a ‘parsing’ line would ‘generally follow the normative turns of the syntax’, the ‘annotating’ ‘cuts against them, annotating […] with emphasis that the syntax itself would not otherwise provide.’ So where a ‘parsing’ line-break straightforwardly advances the poem, an ‘annotating’ one might subvert or complicate both the grammar and the feeling of its progress. The first break in these lines Longenbach quotes from Milton is ‘parsing’, the second ‘annotating’: ‘[Conscience] wakes the bitter memory / Of what he was, what is, and what must be / Worse.’ It’s ...


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