The Line Break: Making and Breaking the Poet’s Element

The line break is both the most fundamental and the most mysterious tool in the poet’s kit. It’s what makes a poem a poem, and yet, so often we can’t pinpoint how we go about choosing where to put them. Of course, some of the time it is intuitive, but it is definitely not arbitrary.

The Poet’s Punctuation

In her essay, “On the Function of the Line Break,” Denise Levertov writes, “The line break is a form of punctuation additional to the punctuation that forms part of the logic of completed thoughts.” As readers, we have certain expectations when we read a sentence. The rules of grammar provide a stable foundation for the thoughts, emotions, and information contained within it. While we can use punctuation with a certain level of flexibility, omitting commas for pacing, throwing in a fragment for urgency, line breaks throw a wildcard into the mix.

Let’s examine, for example, a well-known poem by William Carlos Williams:

TO A POOR OLD WOMAN

munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand

Comforted
a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her

In a poem with one single piece of punctuation, the line breaks are the only pauses provided. Williams provides four very stable-looking stanzas of four lines each, but within them the line breaks are jarring and uneven, forcing the reader to pause unnaturally and see his words in an unexpected way. It has a counter-rhythm, unbalanced and uncomfortable, which enhances the meaning of the poem describing an often-overlooked old woman.

The second stanza of this poem repeats the same sentence three times in a row, breaking the line differently each time. James Longenbach, author of The Art of the Poetic Line, says about this stanza: “The sentence has not changed, but the relationship of its syntax to the line has adjusted the way we hear the sentence’s pattern of intonation and stress…” This sentence uses no remarkable words; no great lesson or metaphor is contained within. With his choice to build the stanza in this way, Williams forces us to examine every word in this small moment.

Compare this to “Midnight” by Spencer Reece, whose lines are long, ending almost every time on a piece of punctuation or natural pause. In this poem, the long lines mirror not only the long walk, but also the contemplative and fragile nature of the speaker. No sudden moves disturb this poem, which is what the speaker needs in order to say his piece.

So, let’s make ourselves a neat little list to quantify the multitude of dimensions that line breaks make possible.

In a poem, line breaks create:
  • Lines: To begin with the most elemental rule: without line breaks, you’d be writing prose (or a prose poem).
  • Breath: What happens when you pause? You breathe. Grammar places these in natural, correct places, but line breaks have the ability to cause your reader to inhale unexpectedly, which, I must admit, is very cool.
  • Emphasis on particular words: The beginning of a new line gives its first word a little extra weight.
  • Mood and Tension: Whether or not a poem’s lines fall in natural or unnatural places, or both in combination, sets up a web of anticipation and surprise. In The Art of the Poetic Line, James Longenbach states, “The drama of lineation lies in the simultaneous making and breaking of our expectation for pattern.” If a poem is written in couplets, this can do two things: create stability, or create a false sense of stability, depending on the poem’s content.
  • Meter and Pace: Iambic pentameter is only pentameter because the line ends after five beats.
  • Units of meaning: If a line contains a small piece of a sentence, or two small pieces of two separate sentences, a small pocket is created in which that cross-section stands alone in space. For example, in “Years” by Jon Anderson, a very potent line adds a punch to the poem as a whole. Can you find which line I mean?

Sometimes in weariness I stop.
Because I’ve been lucky
I think the future must be plain.
Over the trees the stars are quite small.

My friends talk quietly
& we have all come to the same things.
Now if I die, I will
Inherit awhile their similar bodies.

Now if I listen
Someone is telling a story.
The characters met.
They enchanted each other by speech.

Though the stories they lived
Were not the same,
Many were distracted into love,
Slept, & woke alone, awhile serene.

Did you see the line I’m referring to? Only once in this poem, Anderson breaks in a jarring place in the sentence. It’s this line that contains a concentration of meaning: “Now if I die. I will /” The speaker’s certainty of his own mortality is distilled in that little crossroads of sentences.

  • A relationship between line and syntax, and new aural and visual understandings of syntax. Those little units of meaning, and a poem’s spacial appearance on the page, stretch the possibilities of meaning that the order of words can achieve.

Well, I could do this all day. What would you add to the list?

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