free verse

2 posts

The Messy Politics of Line Breaks


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…

Talking with the Buddha of Poetry (Part 2)


Q: Do you see any return in popularity to form poetry?

A: It’s impossible to say. Certainly there are proponents and practitioners. Some poets are of a mathematical mind, which surprises many readers but shouldn’t. Meter and rhyme bring different skills to the table. Read the masters who fill poetry anthologies. While you may find variations on a theme (Shakespearean vs. Petrarchan sonnets, for example), it’s nothing like now where any 14-line poem is knighted as “sonnet.” It takes a free-verse imagination to call every orange an apple. (Laughs) Why can’t a 14-line poem just be a 14-line poem? Must it be a “sonnet” no matter what? Can we not love it by any other name, to coin Shakespeare?

Q: Wait. Was that an answer?

A: Not really. I must be running for higher office.

Q: Speaking of, what do you think of political poetry?

A: Again, we come to semantics. What do you mean by political? If it’s to change a reader’s view, even on the simplest concept, it can said to be political. Definitions of argument writing or persuasive writing are also problematic. It can be said that writing designed to inform or to entertain is at the same time making an argument, because knowledge from information has the power to change the reader’s perception. Ditto humor. It can be a form of ethos, finding humor in unexpected places, inspiring respect and appreciation. So yes, both overtly and covertly, politics has a place in poetry, but it need not be as obvious and painful as an “Ode to Donald Trump’s Hippocampus.”

Q: Are there any out-of-bounds topics for poetry, then?

A: I hope not, though there might be topics in poor taste or ill-advised topics. The non-poetry reading public has this notion that poetry chiefly concerns itself with love and nature. It is essential, then, that poems be written about most everything and anything (including love and nature, of course). As the prophet says in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun anyway, so we might as well look for variations on a theme of everything. There’s no choice but…

Q: Do you read the Bible?

A: The King James Version is poetry, no? How many titles and allusions have come from this great book? It’s a shame some public schools avoid it in the name of church and state boundaries. The Bible can be taught as literature, too. In fact, it is essential if readers are to understand the many allusions made to it in their reading of literature. Unfamiliarity with the Bible and Greek mythology, to name two, has hurt modern readers’ ability to fully understand what they’re reading. The shift to quick and passive entertainment in general (TV, Internet, video games, et.) has hurt reading, vocabulary acquisition, and therefore comprehension in general. As citizens of the world, we suffer a great loss because of this. But now I’m answering questions I wasn’t asked.

Q: Do you support the Poet Laureate movement, wherein you have Poet Laureates to individual states, towns, etc.?

A: (Laughs) Oh, yes. Every marketing gambit you can make, by all means. Poetry on subways, on sidewalks, on walls, in newspapers and magazines, on NASCAR racers’ helmets, etc. It has a place as much as America’s much-beloved advertisements for goods. Get poetry out of the margins, the shadows. It is a sun-loving organism. Only at high noon in full sun will it shed the stereotypes that have grown like moss upon it.

Q: Which are?

A: That it is frighteningly esoteric. That it is an insiders’ game. That it is for a highbrow club of snobs in smoking jackets. That it is only good if people are left scratching their heads, going, “Huh?”

Q: So what can poetry do to help itself?

A: Be. Laugh. Breathe. And if there be pretenders in love with the concept of old stereotypes, let them have their private country clubs. Open your poetry to the public and find like-minded poets. There are plenty out there and, like anything else, numbers will only make them stronger.

Q: Thank you!