line breaks

3 posts

Tips on Those Pesky Line Breaks: Part Two

Earlier this week, I wrote a post about line breaks from Diane Lockward’s book, The Crafty Poet, sharing Wesley McNair’s (pictured above) first five tips on where to break your poems’ lines. Today we have the remaining five:

#6. Break so your reader sees how to say your poem.

#7. But don’t forget the wordlessness around the poem, which can be made articulate by a line break or by an artful arrangement of lines.

#8. Break mainly on nouns, verbs, and the words that describe them; they carry the sentence’s essential meaning.

#9. In your line breaking imitate the stresses of meditation and feeling, which are present in every earnest and intimate conversation and are the true source of the line break.

#10. Believe these tips and don’t believe them. Let the feeling life of your poem be the final authority.

Very cool how the final tip becomes a disclaimer pointing back to James Tate’s quote (shared yesterday) saying, basically, “Whatever the hell. It’s your poem!”

And #9 above, by using the words “meditation” and “feeling,” brings us back to the cryptic quote about lines being Buddha and sentences being Socrates. East is East and West is West and never Mark Twain shall meet, I think my English teacher told us. (Though that may be apocryphal like a lot of things she said.)

Look back, too, on #7, which gives a shout out to negative space, the final frontier. Too many of us forget that WHITE NOTHINGNESS is a part of every poem we write. It is agreeably malleable, willing to assume any shape our words, lines, and stanzas afford it.

As for me, I lean on #6 the most. I read my poems aloud for the musicality, the rhythm, the beats, the pauses. How natural does it sound? Am I throwing emphasis around the room with no regard for lamps and other fragile items? That would be good for the poem, even if it means a little clean up afterwards.

McNair’s advice is Everyman’s version of line breaking. Trust me when I say you can read scholarly works even on supposedly “free verse” which advocate all manner of “un-free” design in your freedom.

There’s fancy names for that, too. Ten dollar words you pick up off academic floors. But I’m not going there. One, because I do not have time; and two, because it’s too early in the morning to hurt my brain.

I’ll leave well enough alone, then, and wish you all a Ruby Tuesday….

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

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…