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Violet Nesdoly PhotoHandcraft Those Lines
Copyright©2009 by Violet Nesdoly

This is our thirteenth column in the "Poet's Classroom" series.

If there is one thing that sets poetry apart from prose, it's the use of lines. "Poetry has one characteristic on which all its other elements must rely: the line," Michael Bugeja, tells us in The Art and Craft of Poetry.1 "The poet's two basic tools—or are they materials? forces?—are the line and the sentence," says John Drury in Creating Poetry.2 "Poems are written in lines. The length of the line and where it breaks help establish the poem's rhythm." says Frances Mayes in The Discovery of Poetry.3

In formal poems (the kind with rhythm, rhyme and sometimes a prescribed pattern), it's usually obvious where one line should end and the next begin. But in free verse, where there's no rule that says the last word in the first line must rhyme with the last word in the third, or it's time to go on to the next line because you have enough rhythmic feet, how do you know where to break (or turn) the lines?

Though I've never come across a list of rules about how to do this, poets and poetry instructors agree on the importance of doing it well. "I cannot say too many times how powerful the techniques of line length and line breaks are," says Mary Oliver.4

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser says, "A line ending is a force in a poem, much like a punctuation mark. That white space out there on the right is an opportunity, and you ought to take advantage of it."5

Michael Bugeja promises, "If you truly master line, something magical will occur within you; you will discover that poetry is as close to music as it is to writing."6

What are the principles of line breaks?

Keeping in mind the power of line I have been on the hunt for, if not rules, at least principles to apply when I make line breaks.

To illustrate, let's start with a piece of prose to develop into a poem. This is the text of a published poem with the line breaks removed to make it look like prose:

The day Daddy died I found myself alone in the farmhouse and I was like Samson when he awoke to Delilah's, "The Philistines are on you." Then the ropes of new habits—weighing 3 oz. of tuna, 2 oz. of cheese, apportioning rice or potatoes or pasta in meager 1/2 cup servings, eating my 1 oz. slice of toast with a precise teaspoon of butter and honey, washed down with 1/2 cup of blue milk—snapped and I clawed through cupboards for prunes and baking chocolate and raisins and nuts, dug in the freezer for old cake and ice-cream and blueberries hard as marbles, checked in every opened box and package, ravaged every tin, until the waistband of my new size 12s cut into my skin and there was room for no more but still I was hollow inside.

Break for punctuation or breath

The first thing you can do when faced with a chunk of words like this is to make line breaks where the punctuation would fall or where you would, in normal speech, take a breath.

For example, you might break up the prose above like this:

The day Daddy died
I found myself alone in the farmhouse
and I was like Samson
when he awoke
to Delilah's
"The Philistines are on you" etc.

Break for units of speech and thought

Next, look at your lines to see if each works as a unit of speech. That is, does each contain an idea or image? The thought, however, may be complete or incomplete.

If your line ends after a complete thought, it is called end-stopped. The last word in such a line may be followed with punctuation. It makes the reader feel content. He pauses and takes a mental breath. An example of an end-stopped line in the lines above is: "The Philistines are on you."

Or you may want to make divisions so the thought is incomplete and spills over to the next line. This is called enjambment. It has the effect of making the reader feel exhilarated, breathless and like he is being pulled along. If you decide to divide some of the piece's later lines like this:

until the waistband of my new
size 12s cut into my skin

you achieve enjambment.

Break for length

Length of lines is another important thing to think about when making divisions. When you do this, be aware of the different effects lines of different lengths have.

A short line slows the reading and increases the drama. A long line speeds the reading and augments feeling. Medium-length lines (6–8 words) tend to be more neutral and are useful when neither drama nor feeling are the main effect you're after. Thus lengthening or shortening the lines gives the poet a way to establish a poem's emotional ambience and affect the speed and manner in which it is read.

Of course the line lengths also affect the look of your poem on the paper or monitor. Mary Oliver instructs: "Turning the line, in free verse … also has much to do with the visual presentation on the page. Free verse came into fashion just as the availability of books was becoming widespread, and the practice of reading poems with one's eyes and listening to them silently was taking precedence over the oral tradition."7

Disparate line lengths tend to draw the reader's attention to the physical shape of the poem and away from its meaning. That's why greatly varying the line lengths within a poem may end up being a distraction and not a great idea unless you have a good reason for doing it.

Try recasting the poem, above, into short, medium and long lines. Note the differences in speed of reading and overall effect.

Break with "hot spots" in mind

Just like retail stores are laid out to take advantage of the psychology of shopping, with some items on high shelves, some on low and some at eye level, there is also a psychology of reading. There are some places in your poem that pack a lot more punch just by reason of where they sit.

Michael Bugeja believes the first and last lines are the most important of a poem. He suggests that sometime in the editing process, you compare the first and last lines to make sure they are equally strong.8

Mary Oliver states: "The most important point in the line is the end of the line. The second most important point is the beginning of it"9 (emphasis hers).

Yet another analysis of a poem's hot spots suggests that the following words and lines have the strongest impact on the reader:

1. The first word
2. The first line break (last word of the first line).
3. The first line.
4. The last word of the poem.
5. The first stanza break.
6. All subsequent line breaks.
7. All subsequent first lines of each successive stanza.
8. The last line of the poem.10

As you can see, an effective choice of words for the beginnings and ends of lines is another way to give your poem punch. Try not to begin or end lines with weak words like articles (the, a, an), prepositions (of, in, by) or conjunctions (but, and, or).

If, for example, you had broken the poem above this way:

The day Daddy died I found myself
alone in the farmhouse and
I was like Samson...

you’d probably want to reconsider the ‘and’ at the end of Line 2.

Of course, right about now, you’re probably ready to throw at me any number of poems by great poets that violate some or all of my precious “principles” above. I know, I know… in the end, line break decisions are personal and yours to make. So experiment. Rework a line until it feels right. Never forget, though, the different effects you can achieve with line. With these in mind, handcraft your poems, making line break decisions as consciously and deliberately as you make every other decision about your masterpiece.

(See the published version of "The Day Daddy Died” with the line breaks I chose.)

For a few more brief tips on the use of line breaks, be sure to read Jan Wood's "15 Minute Adjustment."

Did you find this article helpful? Please let us know.

Copyright ©2009 by Violet Nesdoly


Endnotes:

[1] Michael J. Bugeja, The Art and Craft of Poetry (Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, 1994), 151.
[2] John Drury, Creating Poetry (Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, 1991), 85.
[3] Frances Mayes, The Discovery of Poetry (Harcourt Inc., New York, 2001), 7.
[4] Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook (Harcourt, Inc., New York, 1994), 56.
[5] Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln Nebraska, 2005), 117.
[6] Bugeja, 151.
[7] Oliver, 55-56.
[8] Bugeja, 158.
[9] Oliver, 52.
[10] Jough Dempsey, “Not with a Bang But a Whimper,” ©2002, Plagiarist.com (last accessed 07/16/09).