The Messy Politics of Line Breaks

plums

You can always tell a poetry expert (notice I didn’t say “snob”). They’re the ones who can go on and on about line breaks. I listen with one ear for a while, then yawn and say, “Pass the peanut butter and enjambment, would you?”

Theories on line breaks in free verse poetry are just that–theories. Here are some of the principles I’ve heard, some of them as “suggestions” and others as “hard and fast rules”:

  • end lines with important words
  • begin lines with important words
  • end lines with nouns and verbs
  • begin lines with nouns and verbs
  • special dispensation: end lines with important modifiers (if any modifier can graduate to such a level)
  • never end a line with an article or a conjunction
  • never begin a line with an article or a conjunction
  • use line breaks to build suspense
  • mix up long lines and short lines for visual appeal
  • mix up lines and sentences
  • use more end-stopped lines than peanut butter and enjambment
  • use Fluff
  • use line breaks as punctuation
  • use line breaks as signals for pauses and silence
  • use line breaks to guide a newbie who’s reading your poem aloud for the first time
  • use line breaks to make your poem more powerful

Charles Simic famously said, “The line is Buddha; the sentence is Socrates.” This is one of those profound lines that could be deep and could be shallow, similar to “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one BIG thing.”

I wonder who’s better at line breaks–the fox or the hedgehog?

This is all by way of saying that no one quite knows what works and what doesn’t when it comes to line breaks. Still, you can listen to many a sage on the topic. Here’s Edward Hirsch from his book A Poet’s Glossary:

“[The line] creates its own visual and verbal impact; it declares its self-sufficiency. Paul Claudel called the fundamental line ‘an idea isolated by blank space.’ I would call it ‘words isolated by blank space,’ because the words can go beyond the idea, they can plunge deeper than thought. Adam Zagajewski says, ‘Tragedy and joy collide in every line…’

“An autonomous line in a poem makes sense on its own, even if it is a fragment or an incomplete sentence. It is end-stopped and completes a thought. An enjambed line carries the meaning over from one line to the next. Whether end-stopped or enjambed, however, the line in a poem moves horizontally, but the rhythm and sense also drive it vertically, and the meaning continues to accrue as the poem develops and unfolds…”

As an example of enjambment’s awesome powers, Hirsch quotes a William Carlos Williams poem, “To a Poor Old Woman,” about a woman taking sensuous delight in eating a plum:

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

Hirsch comments: “Each line break emphasizes something different (that the plums taste good to her; that they taste good; that they taste) and the lineation is a signpost to the meaning.”

Never mind that plums cannot taste anything (at least in a transitive sense). They can only be tasted. Still, this explanation does provide some guidance, as does poet James Tate’s take on the whole deal. Tate said, “When people start talking about enjambment and line endings, I always shut them up. This is not something to talk about, this is a private matter. It’s up to the poet.”

And I hope that clarifies matters. Me? My head hurts. I’m off to eat a plum…

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4 thoughts on “The Messy Politics of Line Breaks

  1. I am suspicious that a couple of those principles were listed for “amusement” rules. Would you like peanut butter with enjambment; creamy or with nuts? It’s sticky. Every word represents a thought so a poem could have one to a line or run on from page to page. I am not giving the title of line expert to anyone. Every poem stands alone to be scrutinized by the old query of “What is a poem?” I’m plumb apathetic.

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