I didn’t realize what I was getting into when I decided to write a post about line breaks. It was a topic that often stumped me. When I began this post I realized I had never fully appreciated its depth.
My first experiments with line breaks focused on my own poetry and analyzing my break use. I began to pay attention to particularly successful line breaks in others’ poetry. Terance Hayes’ particularly impressed me, but didn’t help me articulate what constituted a “good” line break.
I began searching online for information. For most subjects, this yields enough for a fully fleshed blog post, and buoys my confidence in my own understanding, but the internet was not forthcoming. I found three or four engrossing, thought-out posts by established poets (Denise Levertov, Dana Goia) and organizations (Warning: Linked Article Is Irritating – Poetry magazine), but beyond that it was mostly lesson plans for middle school intro to poetry units. There was also a wealth of opinionated amateur blog posts* that often contradicted each other and sometimes the opinions of the more established poets whose opinions I’d perused.
I traipsed to a real ink-and-mortar library, at my local university. A search yielded four potentially useful books. Of these, one was somewhat helpful and one more relevant than I could have hoped. I discarded the other books, after review.
A lot can be said about line breaks. I do not present this first post as a complete discussion of the line. I’d prefer to approach this as the beginning of a series. I can’t speak to how frequently this series will appear, but as I explore line breaks, I’ll share what I learn. I hope you don’t object to being my partner in this, my extended exploration of the poetic line.
So begins Line Breaks, Part I.
Line breaks create certain types of lines. The type of line created can then be used to typify the mechanism at work behind a poet’s choice in breaks.
I sought to divide line breaks into “most basic type.” Doing so, I identified three major categories. This is based on my observations, but echoes (with different verbiage) Dana Goia’s article “13 Ways of Looking At Line Breaks.” These categories, listed from most to least restrictive, are breaks that create either:
“formed” lines, or
Goia would refer to these as “metrical,” “visual,” and “syntactic” breaks. I prefer “closed” as it allows more leeway – I *think.* That may just be semantics.
“Closed” lines are those whose length, typically measured in meter or syllable, is predetermined by the poem’s form, or structure. Form is usually chosen before or at poem creation, so it is also predetermined. Examples of such forms include sonnets (line determined by meter), haiku (line determined by syllables), villanelles, sestinas, tanka, etc. Blank verse also uses closed lines, as blank verse consists of iambic pentameter, as opposed to free verse, with no such restriction.
“Formed” lines are shaped per the poet’s vision when they create a poem. Here, meter may not determine line length, but physical appearance on the page does. “Shape” poems, such as “Easter Wings,” belong in this category. These are less restrictive than closed lines because, while each line must be a proscribed length, that length can vary and is established at the whim of the poet, as opposed to by the rules of an outside form. I include black-out poems in this category, as the poet chooses and can alter the layout of the base text use to create a black-out poem, which ultimately creates a visual impact.
“Open” lines are the least restrictive line type. Guidance which applies to this type does not apply to the others, as the latter’s described restrictions override these general principles. However, leveraging these principles when writing more restrictive verse would not weaken it.
The basic guidelines for open lines seem to be:
- the words at the start and end of each line develop paramount importance due to their placement. Break lines with this consideration in mind. Particularly weak words on which to break lines include most “helper” words – a, to, of, and, if, or, on, etc. (This becomes a difficult guideline to practice – how often do you use two “strong, important” words immediately after each other in a sentence? But is a good theory and makes a very important point about how words are visually perceived in a poem or line.)
- contrary to everything your english teacher told you in middle school, the line break is a form of punctuation and does cause line rhythm and pitch to alter, in addition to creating a small pause in and of itself (this mainly comes from Levertov, but Goia acknowledges it). Your teacher just didn’t want you to think you could ditch commas or periods in hot pursuit of the merry line break.
- line breaks play a large impact on the speed and flow of a poem. Shorter line breaks slow a poem. Long lines speed it up. This becomes interesting to consider when comparing poets who generally write in shorter lines (Kay Ryan springs to mind) to those who write longer lines or even prose poems, whose lines run margin to margin and therefore are very long indeed.
- the key to a “good” or “effective” line break lies in its consideration. There should be some reason, for the line to break where it does. Line breaks placed “just because” and for no other reason miss out on the opportunity to capitalize on one of the important nuances of poetry. if you do not attempt to use line breaks to convey meaning/emotion/speed/etc, you are missing out on an opportunity.
These represent the very basic types of line and break. They are difficult and slippery in definition and mastery. I look forward to exploring them with you, dear Reader.
*There is nothing wrong with opinionated amateur blog posts. This is an amateur blog chock-full of such. They are simply not my preferred source – they are the same caliber as this blog post, and I think it is better to strive upwards when providing sources for a given type of written product.