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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Poetry Critique & Line Breaks

For centuries, poets didn't worry about where to break the lines. Used today, traditional forms still let you know where each line must end, so the pattern itself will make those decisions for you. For example, the ever-popular iambic pentameter requires each line to have five feet of iambs (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one - taDA.)

Conversely, free verse breaks free of all predetermined factors, giving you more freedom and more choices. With no rules to guide you though, you'll need to experiment to discover what works well.

As you play with the lines, you will find various ways to break them. Some will add drama and interest to your free verse. Some will not. To find out, read your poem aloud, and let your ear determine whether each line has the effect you want.

The following poem provides an excellent example of the effective use of line breaks. As you read the poem aloud, pause ever so slightly at the end of each unpunctuated line, then come to a full stop with each period and verse ending.

He Knew That I Cut Snowflakes
by Patricia A. Hawkenson

He is thirteen
seen forever
by sensitive souls
who pass his hillside,
who hear his muffled


Duck tape
wrapped around
his mouth
his nose,
his eyes alone


I drive on,
no scissors
in my car,
my radio,
just a little louder.

Can you see and hear how the line breaks help to direct your reading and also heighten the emotional impact of the poem? Without those remarkable choices, the poem might not make sense to readers who have no prior knowledge regarding the background or setting of the poem.

Anytime any poem seems unclear to you, read the lines aloud. Feel the musicality and mood. Then read the poem again. Highly compressed poems such as this might take three or four readings to become fully accessible to you, but quality work of any kind is almost always worth the wait.

When I first read this well-crafted poem, which arrived from a Follower, I didn’t follow everything at first, mainly because of the title. Intriguing though it is, Patricia, I got the impression of another story, perhaps even a humorous one.

For this piece, I assume you used “Knew” to indicate the past tense, which was the first clue that led me to realize the boy lies dead on the hillside, thirteen forever, perpetually reminding sensitive passersby of the terrible cause of his death. Your use of “Knew” in the title also lets me know the “I” of the poem (whether you personally or a persona) had a relationship of some kind with this young teen.

In addition, the poem’s ending suggests an ongoing sense of guilt each time “I” drives by the place where the child was either found or buried, thereby giving the impression of a caring adult, such as a teacher or social worker, who now feels haunted by the thought, “I should have done something to help this child.” No one can fully protect anyone all of the time, of course, but that does not keep one from wondering.

Perhaps I’m reading more into this than you intended, Patricia, but, if so, I wanted you to know how the poem comes across at least to this reader. If I’ve gotten close to your intent then great! That means you have done an exceptional job of presenting a complex issue and a tragic story with the exquisite use of brevity and effective line breaks.

Oh. I just realized that young children cut snowflakes out of construction paper (if it’s called that now) in kindergarten or elementary school.

I’d still like to see a title that makes the poem more immediately accessible, but it’s entirely possible that the poem has enough impact to get readers to continue reading until they sort it out as I eventually did. My problem with “snowflakes” came in taking the word literally, which other readers will be likely to do too. And yet there’s a rightness about the kindergarten image since it brings those scissors to the table – scissors needed years later to cut the duct tape and free the child. If you can think of an image other than cutting snowflakes that would help readers to make the connection more readily, that could be the perfect choice for your title.

Otherwise, my suggestions have to do with spelling (“Duct” not “Duck”) and a comma! I would remove the one after “radio” since it breaks the thought and adds a smidge of confusion. And, because of a comma, I’d consider changing “his eyes alone/ cry” to a separate sentence: “Only his eyes/ cry.”

Your original version offers the connotation of his being all alone during a horrendous event and lets me know that his eyes were uncovered while his mouth and nose were taped. The reason I even suggest that you consider a change at all is that a comma would normally go between “his mouth,/ his nose,” which then necessitates a period or the next comma just gets confusing. I’m sure that’s why you left it out, and the verse can be left as is too, although you actually have two separate sentences in the verse the way it now reads.

Oh. There’s a “with” implied, which brings up a syntactical problem. One possibility is: “Duct tape/ wrapping/ his mouth/ his nose,/ his eyes alone/ cry.” Okay. That works since it’s clear even without the comma. Another possibility is, “Duct tape/ wrap/ his mouth,/ his nose./ Only his eyes/ cry.” (Hmmm. I really like that, especially when I inserted that version and read the whole poem aloud.) To hear it both ways, read the lines as you have them, then read your other options to hear what sounds best to you.

You obviously have a finely tuned ear and the markings of a fine poet, Patricia, so I appreciate your sharing your work with us. Keep us posted when you can. Meanwhile, I’ll be looking for your name in poetry journals.

[For a private critique of a poetry book, chapbook, or batch of poems, see information on The Poetry Editor website – http://www.thepoetryeditor.com. ]

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