James Tate on line breaks

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Tips From the Pros on Line Breaks: Part One

Diane Lockward wrote a book called The Crafty Poet, a title that should be my biography (Get it? Ken Craft, the Crafty Poet?) but instead is a how-to manual subtitled “A Portable Workshop.” I like to be-bop around the book for prompts sometimes and for “Craft Tips” even more times.

Today we discuss “Craft Tip #21,” which comes of age on p. 187 of Lockward’s book. That’s where the poet Wesley McNair weighs in on one of my favorite bugaboos, line breaks.

I’ve talked about line breaks before. I’ve also cited my favorite quote about line breaks, James Tate’s wise observation: “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.”

Alas, Tate is no longer here to shut me up, so here I go again, but at least his spirit can take this small comfort—his quote goes first, because a man can fully hide behind it. It’s a redwood tree of a quote! Thank you, James. More often than not, my lines have been breaking wherever-the-hell in your good name. Like rogue states declaring their independence. Like recalcitrant teenagers acting up. Like mules in the dictionary defining “stubborn.”

But back to McNair. He offers not one, not two, but TEN tips on breaking lines. See? I warned you. Like reading the Geneva Convention by-laws, there are so many rules. For today, though, let’s focus on the first five:

#1: “Break your lines to suggest the mind at work shaping the poem, because every poem is a process of thought.”

#2. “The poem is also about things that happen. Break to increase your reader’s anticipation about what will happen next.”

#3. “Break to suggest your poem’s mood. For an openness of expression, try a long, end-stopped line. To create uncertainty or suspense, combine short lines with a long sentence, revealing and concealing as you go. For a mood of agitation or excitement, try a variable line length with a jagged margin.”

#4: “Break to create a tension between the line and the sentence, remembering that the interplay of the two is the central drama of free verse, each having a different purpose. Consider the words of Charles Simic: The line is Buddha; the sentence is Socrates.”

#5 “Think of your poem as a musical score, in the way Denise Levertov recommended, using lines to emphasize vocal rhythm and the pitch of intonation, and line breaks as short intervals of silence or rests.”

I love that Simic line because it makes zero sense to me. Want to fascinate a guy of limited understanding? Say some intriguing nonsense. Why is Buddha a line and Socrates a sentence, for instance? Because Socrates was sentenced? And, if that were the logic, wouldn’t the Buddha have been lined?

Or maybe it has something to do with being cryptic and succinct (Buddha talk) vs. being elaborative and verbose (Socrates talk).

Anyway, I thought I’d find a Wesley McNair poem to see how his lines break. On-line I found this one—quite nice, I think, but I tend not to notice the line breaks in it (or in 89.6% of the poems I read). That doesn’t mean the line breaks aren’t working on me like commercials on TV do. The subconscious… subliminal messages and all that psychological gobbledegook.

But where was I? Ah. Wesley McNair’s poem, from his book, Fire.


How I Became a Poet
by Wesley McNair

“Wanted” was the word I chose
for him at age eight, drawing the face
of a bad guy with comic-book whiskers,
then showing it to my mother. This was how,

after my father left us, I made her smile
at the same time I told her I missed him,
and how I managed to keep him close by
in that house of perpetual anger,

becoming his accuser and his devoted
accomplice. I learned by writing
to negotiate between what I had,
and that more distant thing I dreamed of.


Ancient Greek wisdom tells us the fox knows many things and the hedgehog knows one big thing. McNair’s poem illustrates as much. The fox knows all about the line breaks’ role in this work; the hedgehog just knows he likes this work. Not because of its line breaks, but because of its certain je ne sais quoi.

Signing off for today, a snow day in the world of Crafty poets,
Your Humble Hedgehog