Introducing: The Poneme, or the Unit of Poetry

What is the unit of poetry? If the basic unit of prose is the sentence, the analog for poetry would seem to be the line. Sentences constitute paragraphs, and lines constitute stanzas. The only problem is that it doesn’t work for prose poetry, visual poetry, and conceptual forms that don’t have easily identifiable “lines.” (The foot causes even more problems, since so much of poetry is not metrical in a traditionally scannable way.)

I’ve talked a lot in the past about “moves” – identifiable stylistic tricks that poets use for flair, often as personal calling cards. The concept is borrowed from chess or dancing. You can abstract certain patterns away from the game, the flow of movement, or the poem as a whole (the Queen’s gambit, the electric slide). In poetry, as in dancing, a writer can create an original or put her own spin on a classic move. Some poets are especially drawn to certain “moves,” and they become signatures at best, tics at worst. Moves come into fashion, get overused and then fall out of favor. Moves are recycled, and new or newish moves are born.

It’s a useful concept, but it has its shortcomings. For one, it sounds slangy and unserious compared to “line” or “stanza.” Secondly, it’s not specialized; it’s not specific to the practice of poetry. Many disciplines, in both art and science, have their own specialized units. So why not poetry? In linguistics, the smallest unit of sound is called a phoneme – for example, the k sound – while a morpheme is the smallest unit of semantically meaningful language (the word “dog,” the plural “s”). Richard Dawkins defines the gene as the unit of natural selection – a bit of DNA that translates into some potentially useful or harmful trait (such as blue eyes or sharp teeth), and which is therefore more or less likely to be replicated and passed on to other organisms.

These concepts are especially applicable to the problem of units in poetry – the gene is not defined by size or shape but instead by meaning and use value. This is the type of flexible unit that is needed in poetry. And so I propose the poneme: the unit of poetic meaning. The poneme is the smallest unit able to trigger delight, surprise, recognition, or whatever intellectual frisson is the reason that we go to a poem. It could be as small as a symbol or a sequence of letters – Aram Saroyan’s triple-humped “m” or the “ghgh” in “lighght” – or a cluster of words, or it could extend over multiple lines. But whatever its size, it’s the extractable thing that draws us in and brings us back to the poem. A line may be a poneme, but (have you noticed?) what we quote from a poem is rarely a single “line.”

I love zooming in on some small element of a poem – a dazzlingly polysemous phrase, an unusually felicitous line break, a shocking ending – to examine how it helps make the whole machine tick. So that’s what I’m going to be doing here at Lemon Hound from time to time: finding “ponemes” and talking about how they work. Meanwhile, feel free to use the term in writing or speech, attributed to me of course. (History can consider this my “projective verse.”)

Elisa Gabbert

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