The Subversive Power of the Line Break
Marilyn L. Taylor
Fellow poets, here’s a quick question for you. Have you ever noticed that the minute someone finds out that you write poetry, you’re likely to hear what I call one of those famous TCRs, (Totally Clueless Remarks), which drive most of us straight up the wall? They usually go something like this: “The trouble with reading poetry nowadays is that you can’t even tell if it’s a poem or not. Doesn’t even rhyme!” Or (my favorite): “I personally think that modern poems are just a bunch of cut-up sentences, don’t you?”
My own first response is to politely refrain from wringing the person’s neck. With that challenge accomplished I might say, as calmly as I can, “Well, no,”—and try to speak to how a carefully placed line break can have an extraordinary effect on any poem, whether it rhymes or not. And then I’d point out (if the person is still within earshot) all the potential subtlety, nuance, and rhythms lurking quietly within the free verse line. Tiny details like that. But you know and I know how hard it is to convince somebody who firmly believes that if it don’t rhyme it ain’t a poem. And it should probably have a regular beat, too.
Still, the battle can be won, if you’re up to it. You might begin by quoting the former U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic, who once put it this way: “For me,” he said, “the sense of the line is the most instinctive aspect of the entire process of writing [a poem]. I want the line to stop in such a way that its break, and the accompanying pause, brings out the image and the resonance of the words to the fullest.” Now that is a statement we should all commit to memory, bring to mind every single time we sit down to write a new poem, and quote loudly the next time someone utters a TCR.
“For me, the sense of the line is the most instinctive aspect of the entire process of writing [a poem]. I want the line to stop in such a way that its break, and the accompanying pause, brings out the image and the resonance of the words to the fullest.”
-- Charles Simic, former U.S. Poet Laureate
Why all this fervor on my part, you ask? Well, for me there are at least three good reasons behind my crankiness, and they are as follows:
1. I’ve learned that line breaks can do amazing things to a poem by stealthily foregrounding important words and images. And I shall demonstrate with a very nice piece of descriptive prose:
The great blue heron sleeps like a bag of laundry on a limb of an old elm, high above the damp ravine still covered with night chill. Slivers of ice hem the Winnebago shore. Far away on the edge of Dickie’s Cay, hot sun and jelly-green water wrap around me like wings, and inside a slumbering bird stirs, opens one blue eye.
But note how it almost literally blossoms when it’s presented as a poem, complete with artful line breaks—which is, of course, the way Wisconsin poet Rusty McKenzie wrote it:
The great blue heron sleeps
like a bag of laundry
on a limb of an old elm
high above the damp ravine
still covered with night chill.
Slivers of ice
hem the Winnebago shore.
Far away on the edge
of Dickie’s Cay, hot sun
and jelly-green water
wrap around me like wings
a slumbering bird stirs,
opens one blue eye.
2. Line breaks can be fun to jockey around with for purposes of setting the poem’s pace and tempo. Some poems are meant to be meditative and want to take their time, right? Others suggest action, often by dashing down the page with impressive velocity—like this one, titled “Bobolink,” by another fine Wisconsin poet, Judy Kolosso:
and brome grass
half twist burbling
of a field
as yet untouched
by assassin mower. . .
But what if Kolosso had broken the lines less frequently, like this?
High on timothy and brome grass, you dive, pull up, circle, half twist
burbling in celebration of a field as yet untouched by assassin mower. . .
I think you’ll agree that the overall tempo of the poem would have been drastically diminished— along with a whole lot of its verve, energy, and certainly its bobolink-ness.
On the other hand, for certain poems, sometimes speed is the last thing in the world it needs. Take a look at the opening to Kevin Prufer’s “Poem for My Mother at Her Age”:
Stars are one thing we never run out of,
The way they fill the black air with
a million little breaths.
Don’t you sense that breaking these graceful, sinuous lines more frequently would result in a jerky, far less successful effect? I do, because here’s what could happen:
run out of ...
The damage I’m doing here speaks for itself.
3. Tinkering with line breaks lets us conjure up implications that wouldn’t exist in ordinary prose. So here’s a perfectly innocent sentence, taken from Michael Meyer’s excellent textbook, Poetry: An Introduction: “At a poetry slam, poets perform their own work and are judged by the audience.” The sentence becomes a little less ingenuous, though, when it’s broken into lines this way:
At a poetry slam, poets
their own work and are
by the audience.
Careful readers (like us) might sense an undercurrent here. The word “perform,” for instance— alone on the line and therefore attention-getting— can be understood to mean that the poets referred to in this poem are infused with earnest effort. “Judged,” also alone on the line, could be read as a word that’s loaded with negative energy. Incidentally, please note that I understand how these interpretations might involve something of a stretch, but the question remains: can line breaks open the door to innuendos that ordinary grammatical breaks usually prevent?
I think the answer is yes—which the following stanza by Moira Egan clearly demonstrates.
Written out as an ordinary prose sentence, it’s pretty straightforward: “Three women sit in a café, walls the brownish red of baked apples that smell of cinnamon and smoke.” But when it’s presented with Egan’s line breaks, it suddenly acquires—for me, at least— a sensuality that is almost sexual:
Three women sit in a café,
walls the brownish red
of baked apples that smell
of cinnamon and smoke.
The transformation is pretty amazing—another stellar example of a free verse poet capitalizing on her deft manipulation of line breaks.
Some general guidelines meant for us all:
I think I’m safe in saying that in poetry as well as in politics, the liberties we enjoy have to be handled respectfully. Like it or not, certain time-tested conventions are and always will be with us, even in the freest of free-verse poems. No rule says we absolutely must follow those conventions all the time—there are no poetry cops out there—but we ought to have good reasons for deciding not to. So here are a few suggestions that have worked for me, and I try to keep them in mind when I’m writing in free verse. I hope you might find them helpful.
a. End-stopping every line is almost always a terrible idea. An end-stopped line, as you know, is one that consists in its entirety of a complete grammatical unit—often an entire clause or sentence—and it ends with a comma, a semicolon, or a period. No enjambment, no “spillover” to the next line. There are exceptions, of course (e.g. for a list poem), but I know from experience that end-stopping throughout will likely lead to a very choppy read.
b. Breaking up prepositional phrases, especially short ones, is dangerous. These versatile little grammatical units are usually much more readable when they’re presented as one happy lexical family, all on the same line (although Kevin Prufer’s poem above is a rare exception). But if you want to break them up its best to have a really good reason, and I honestly can’t think of one at the moment.
c. A line break immediately following an article like “a” or “the” causes hiccups. Unless the poem is long and skinny and is for some reason in a terrible hurry, a post-article line break almost always comes across as awkward. Phonetically, anyway. Try reading it out loud, and you’ll see what I’m saying.
d. If possible, every line should end with an important word, or at least a relevant one. I look for nouns and verbs—words that will nudge the reader down to the line that follows. Function-words and wordy phrases like seemed as though it could have been, or there probably weren’t quite so many simply don’t carry the semantic horsepower of words like kneecap, frenzy or pelican. Why should we bury all that terrific etymological energy deep in the middle of a line?
e. Resisting the temptation to center the poem on the page is a wise, wise move. No matter how cute it looks, how much resembles a Christmas tree or a football or a caterpillar, a centered poem is usually a lousy idea, and most editors will agree. So unless you’ve consciously set out to write a “concrete poem” in which the shape is part-and-parcel of the meaning, we’re all far better off leaving the text left-aligned.
f. On the other hand, we shouldn’t feel chained to the left margin. A moderate amount of indentation—even a lot of it, if used deftly— can add rhythm and contribute to a more graceful, less blocky look on the page. (Disclaimer: I personally go this way with trepidation; many poets are much better at it than I am.) But haphazard line placement, which might seem edgy and subversive, can often baffle our readers and exasperate our editors.
I sincerely hope that this brief discussion of the free-verse line will prove useful to you, or interesting at the very least. It’s such an enormous subject—I haven’t even scratched the surface here—but if it intrigues you, my final suggestion is that you run to the independent bookstore of your choice, and pick up a copy of Best Words, Best Order, a terrific volume by the poet Stephen Dobyns. It contains a detailed chapter on the free-verse line that I’ve found hugely rewarding.
Marilyn L. Taylor, former Wisconsin Poet Laureate, is a recent winner of the international Margaret Reid Award for formal poetry, and a finalist for the 2018 Lascaux Prize. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where she facilitates independent poetry workshops and presentations in communities throughout the state and elsewhere.