+ Poetry: The “Three Systems” of a Poem

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Comes Molly Peacock, in a book I’d forgotten I had, with a beautiful way to understand a poem.

Her book is “How to Read a Poem … and Start a Poetry Circle” from Riverside Books.

Chapter Two is “The Three Systems of a Poem.”

The line, the sentence and the image. 

She begins by saying that just because some things in life are “dense and mysterious and in need of understanding”  doesn’t mean there aren’t simple ways of talking about them.

Poetry is the fusion of the three arts of music, story-telling and painting, she says.

“The line displays the poem’s music, the sentence displays its thoughts, and the image displays the vision of the poet.”

Yet another way to talk about it is as the “body” or anatomy of a poem: the line is like a skeletal system; the sentence is the circulatory system; and the image the central nervous system.

What Molly Peacock says (her words):


Lines make the music of the poem.  They function as a skeleton, holding the poem up.  Lines contain every aspect of sound, from how words sound alike and different to how they reflect emotion — how such sounds, in fact, are emotions themselves.  The line always means rhythm and sometimes means rhyme.  Even a free verse poem that doesn’t seem to have a regular rhythm or an obvious rhyme scheme still has the baseline bones of music.  The line’s music gives us our instinctive understanding of a poem, even when we can’t articulate it.


Sentences open up the thought of the poem.  The mainstay of prose, the storyteller’s tool, sentences circulate through the lines of poems, often flowing past the lines themselves, pumping their meaning down through the poem, even when the poem is in fragments or has no punctuation to let us know where sentences begin and end.  The sentence appeals to our intellectual pleasure, and following a sentence through a poem often enables us to articulate what we’ve understood.


The image is the visual art of the poem.   Functioning as a central nervous system, imagery sends the poet’s vision, fired into word-pictures, throughout its length, the way the nerves inside a spinal cord send electrical charges to muscles.  The body of each poem is wired a bit differently.

If the line is a way a child apprehends, intuitively, and the sentence is the way an adult apprehends, intellectually, then the image functions as a two-way mirror between these states of understanding.  It is both instinctive and constructed.  When you are at a loss to understand a poem, following the images (which means tracking the nouns) will often bring you a clarity you can use to make sense of the rest of the poem.

Peacock thinks of two musics at play: the main musical system: the rhythm of the line, and the music of the sentence which sings the story of the poem.  This double music give poetry its richness and depth.  “Two arts are working on your ear as the sentence wraps around the line.”

And all the while the imagery flares across the sky of the poem as the two musics play.

After Chapter Two, the remaining chapters each discuss one or two “talisman poems” of hers, telling the story of how it came to be so and showing some of the ways to enter a poem.  Chapter 14 describes how one might start a poetry circle with other lovers of poetry.

Not “poetry likers. ”  Poetry Lovers.

“How to Read a Poem… and Start a Poetry Circle” by Molly Peacock was published in 1999 by Riverside Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.  ISBN 1-57322-128-7

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email   aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com  


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