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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Line breaks can make or break your poem

Whether you write free verse, prose poems, traditionally patterned poetry, or experimental verse, the artistry often comes with such poetic techniques as musicality, sound echoes, internal rhyme, insight, imagery, or unusual juxtaposition (comparisons, contrasts, or even weird positioning) of thoughts and pictures.

Since all types and forms of poetry need at least one or more poetic traits, they could all sound or look alike except for one big difference:

The dividing line comes in dividing lines.

As you write prose poems, for example, you divide the lines into blocks of paragraphs that look like those you normally use in writing articles, stories, books, and business letters.

As you write and scan traditional metered verse, you extend each line only as far as your choice of patterns will allow. For instance, if you write in the classical English pattern of iambic pentameter, each line scans into five feet of iambs, which, hopefully, we’ll talk about again in upcoming articles. Or, if you choose to write syllabic poetry such as haiku, you count the syllables to determine where to break each line.

And then there’s free verse.

Poets often assume that free verse is the easiest type of poetry to write since they think they can do anything they want. However, freedom comes in being free, not of poetic techniques, but of the constraints, predictability, regularity, and consistency found in counting a predetermined number of syllables, beats, or metric feet per line.

Free verse is free of pattern.

Free verse is free of refrain.

Free verse wears no uniform.

For instance, you can scatter rhymes into free verse unless those sounds start to get predictable, which means the poem has lost its freedom from a set pattern or routine.

The freedom of writing free verse comes in freely breaking lines.

Unfortunately, this freedom can also bring indecision. Choices! Choices! Where do you break each line? What look will your new poem wear? Will you go for long lines? short lines? tabbed over lines? dropped down lines? Or, will you go, not for how your poem looks, but how it sounds? Or, as yet another option, will you break lines into fragments of thought to generate mystery, shock, emphasis, or surprise?

Regardless of your goal or deciding factor, each line break needs to lend a poetic feel or quality to the poem, which brings us back to an ongoing motto:

Read each poem and each revision aloud.

Listen carefully to the effect of each word, phrase, pause, and line break. Then revise the poem until you get the effect you want.

Usually, your poetic ear will let you know what works and what does not. The last time we talked, though, I gave an example of lines broken by similarities seen in syllables noticed by the eye or mind. In the following poem, the line breaks show a choice to emphasize connotations or layers of meaning that accompanied some of the words.

Since the setting for this poem includes the uncertainties of war in general and the concerns of a World War II soldier in particular, I also wanted the line breaks to help build drama appropriate to the scene but without becoming overly dramatic, maudlin, or sentimental. The latter especially concerned me since I wrote the poem from the “I” of my father’s perspective, basing thoughts and feelings on his WWII letters – letters, which I never read until decades later, not too long after his death.

Night Flying in Uneven Lines
by Mary Harwell Sayler

Everywhere the night explodes
in darkness –
blank and black
like a deep hole cut
to accommodate a casket.

Some nights before a mission,
sleep exhumes me,
draws me
from disarming
visions: relics,
recollections, and what still

(c) 2011, Mary Harwell Sayler. Other poems from the Winning the Wars chapbook have been included on the International War Veterans Poetry website.


  1. i do agree with your information that line breaks can make or break a poem. i believe that many times at a quick glance it provides some form of attraction. for some people it can make the difference as to whether or not they want to read a poem.
    great article.

  2. From a poet's perspective, your chosen form will help you to decide where line breaks go, but, yes, from a reader's perspective, each poem needs visual appeal. I've heard poets say one reason they like prose poems is that the paragraphs are user-friendly so don't scare off their readers!

  3. Very good instruction here, Mary. I think writing poetry can be more difficult than writing prose.

  4. Thanks for your comment. Funny but one of the hardest things for me is writing a plain old letter! I'm apt to stress over saying just the right thing, but with poems, I can hardly wait to see what they will say. Then with revising, the fun of having countless choices begins.