Line Breaks in Poetry

Over on my tumblr (where I’ve been posting all my Napowrimo 2012 poems), my friend mermaidcomplex asked me how I approach line breaks in my poetry. Since, I ended up doing a longer, more detailed response, I thought I’d share it here, too.

Line breaks decisions really depend poem to poem, but essentially, they tend to be based on overall ton, visual elements, word emphasis, flow and rhythm, and (very much less so for me) formal meter or syllable counting considerations. Each reason tends to get wrapped up in the next, and I think the concept of the “pause” at the end of the line is connected to both word emphasis and flow or rhythm.

Tone/Feeling comes first for me, because it’s one of the first things I get a sense of as the words fall where they may. If the mood is calm and peaceful, then I tend to use more even lines, whereas if the poem is angry or in any way chaotic in mood, then I tend to use jagged lines, some longer or shorter, some indented in a seeming haphazard way, so as to suggest the disjointed feelings I’m trying to evoke. Though that’s not always the case, as the indented lines can also have a wistful, floaty feeling (which was what I was going for at the end of #9 napowrimo poem). Shorter lines tend to feel more immediate as they focus on only a few words at a time or they can feel more rushed, whereas longer lines tend to feel more stable, anchored.

As you noted, the Visual element can also play a part. This also ties into tone for me, as a poem that looks jagged on the page can immediately give a feeling of disjointedness even before the reader reads the first line. I’ve also seen poets, as I’m sure you have, take the visual element a level father by

the visual layout of
the poem into the metaphorical
images in the text, so that if you’re
writing about rolling down a hill, each line
can grow in length, so that the rolling hillside
is instantly present, even in the poem’s layout.

I don’t usually use the visual aspects of line breaks in that way, but it certainly can work well if the poem calls for it.

Word Emphasis is of equal importance, for me, to the tone or visual elements, and is also closely tied to Flow and Rhythm, which is really where the concept of the “pause” comes from (Allen Ginsberg was big on the idea of line break = pause, as determined by breath, and wrote all or most of his poetry with this in mind). I believe the pause is there. Even if you don’t actually sound out the pause while you are reading a poem, there is at the very least a visual break, as your eye stops at the end of the last line and scans back to the beginning of the next. For example, this poem, “Autum,” on the Poetic Asides page, I definitely pause at the end of each line while reading it, so that there’s a kind of rhythm as I take in the image in each line and mentally pause before moving on. (For me, the pause is stronger when the lines are shorter.)

I approach word emphasis, flow, and rhythm in several ways, including singling out short phrases or single words on a line, if necessary. But even in longer lines, I also look at what the last word is on the line, because the last word can sometime have increased emphasis, as well as to determine whether I want to break up a phrase or keep it whole. Take this not-so-inspiring example: “I don’t want to dance in the moonlight. Stop the buzzing of the bees.”

I don’t want to dance in the moonlight.
Stop the buzzing of the bees.

The above is too standard for my tastes. I don’t usually like to end on a period, because with the combined pause of the line ending and the stopping power of the period, it brings the line to a full halt, which is good sometimes, but most of the time I want more flow. So I would probably break up the lines like this:

I don’t want to dance
in the moonlight. Stop
the buzzing of the bees.

In this way, “I don’t want to dance” is a complete sentence on its own, which puts emphasis on “dance.” For a moment, however, brief it would allow the reader to feel a sense of conclusion, only to find there’s more to it as they read on. In the second line, by putting the period in the middle with the single word after it, my aim is to have the word, “Stop,” serve two functions at once. On the one hand, it relates to the sentence of the line it’s currently on, “I don’t want to dance in the moonlight,” so then “Stop,” it concludes. On the other hand, it also carries forward into the next line, as a part of a separate sentence and thought.

I rarely use Formal Meter and Syllable Counting (and by rarely, I mean, almost never). I cannot for the life of me wrap my head around meter or iambics — those who do, and do it well, are amazing. I only syllable count in very rare circumstances, as with my poem “Broken Cuckoo Clock“, in which every two syllable line is meant to evoke the “tick tock” sound of the clock with the final one syllable line bringing it to an abrupt stop.

So that’s pretty much my whole spiel on line breaks. Overall tone and feel of the poem tends to be the ultimate consideration for me. As I’m writing I usually go by my gut feeling on where a line should break, but during rewrites, I’ll play with line breaks, switching words back and forth between lines to get the combined tone, visual, emphasis, and flow that I’m going for.

[Cross-posted to my livejournal.]