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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Breaking line with free verse

Last time we talked about how, in some ways, prose poems have more freedom than free verse since they act like little shoe boxes that let you freely drop in anything you want – from mental snapshots to contrasting thoughts that seem to have nothing to do with one another. When it comes to form, though, prose poems confine themselves to those same blocks of paragraphs that you use to write fiction and nonfiction, whereas free verse gives you the freedom to break the lines wherever you want.

The problem comes in knowing where you want to break a line and, more importantly, why.

Like prose poems, traditionally metered poetry and also syllabic verse have their own unique forms that keep them in line, but free verse gives poets so much freedom that they sometimes trip over the lines or choices. So, what’s the solution? What's a poet to do?



Break lines at the end of a phrase, in the middle of a phrase, or even in the middle of a word. For example:

Suspended Belief

I thought I had upgiven childhood fan-
tasies: toys from San-
ta Claus, bunny baskets, and monstrous mounds of can-
dy on All Saints Hallowed Eve.

But sipping my morning cup of Columbian
coffee with Christmas-like pleasure, I saw a man
named Juan
and his nameless donkey, bean-laden, on TV,
and I believed.

I believed in the goodness of coffee
for those who grow and pick and drink.

I believed in the kind-eyed man
and his mule – actors both,
bean-dropping on my reality.

And God?
Such belief comes so much harder than
the coffee man's assuring nod.

The One I cannot seem to see
is not so easy to believe,
and, therefore, as I live and deeply breathe,

I believe.

Mary Harwell Sayler
[Poem originally published in the now defunct Writer To Writer magazine and later in my chapbook, Speaking Peach, available through this site.]

As you probably noticed, those lines break with each “an” then “e” sound, which technically speaking, takes the poem out of the free verse realm for a while as it follows a particular pattern before, again, breaking free. Regardless, the broken pattern seemed to fit the theme of enduring faith despite the lack of logic, and, initially anyway, the lines got broken with broken words.

Does this set a pattern for you too? Not really, except to encourage you to play with something that first seems radical or even silly to see what effect you get. If the world’s weirdest line breaks work for you and the poem, great! If not, try something else, and let your ear be your final judge.

Read every poem aloud, allowing the tiny pause suggested by the end of each line break.

Listen carefully to the overall effect.

Do you like it? If not, revise until you do. With free verse, your poems have at least as many options as they have words!

To expand your options as a poet, look for upcoming articles here on traditional poetry and syllabic verse. If you have not yet studied the wealth of poetic techniques and forms available to you, check out the e-book version of the poetry home study course I wrote and used for years in working with students. The poetry dictionary for kids is fun and helpful for all ages too.

(c) 2011, Mary Harwell Sayler

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