How to read line breaks in poetry
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Have you ever read a poem and wondered why a poet cut a line after a specific word? I’m not just talking about the lyrics of songs where, overall, the rhyme scheme and time signature dictates everything. Maybe you read Rupi Kaur or Amanda Gorman or Walt Whitman. Maybe you were browsing your Instagram feed and stopped on a piece of poetry that spoke to you. Why these particular line breaks in this poetry?
Unless you’ve taken poetry lessons, you’re probably wondering how, exactly, are you supposed to read a line break? Suspend briefly? Breathe? Read on like it’s prose? The answers are as varied as poets and poems, but here is a brief guide on how to read line breaks in poetry.
The most obvious use of line breaks comes in various forms. The Shakespearean sonnet, for example, uses an iambic pentameter meter. This means that each line has ten syllables with an emphasis on even syllables. This form also uses a strict rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. So in this case, the line breaks are dictated by the shape.
William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18
Will I compare you to a summer day?
You are more beautiful and more tempered:
Strong winds shake the cherished buds of May,
And the summer lease is too short a date;
Sometimes too hot, the sky’s eye shines,
And often her golden complexion fades;
And every fairground sometimes declines,
By chance or the changing course of unadjusted nature;
But your eternal summer will not fade
Do not lose possession of this beautiful you are;
And death will not boast that you wander in its shadow,
When in the eternal lines of time you grow:
As long as men can breathe or the eyes can see,
So long live this, and it gives you life.
The haiku should stick to three lines consisting of five syllables, seven syllables and five syllables. The obituary adopted by Victoria Chang in OBIT was motivated in large part by ensuring that each poem was in the form of a diary obituary. The prose poem does not use any line breaks. The shape of the golden shovel created by Terrence Hayes uses the last words of each line to quote another poem. The ghazal is made up of couplets, each couplet ending with the same word preceded by the rhyming word of the couplet. In this case, the poet is free to break the first line of each verse as he sees fit, but the end of the verse is dictated by the form.
Emphasis and ambiguity
But what if the poem you’re reading doesn’t stick strictly to one form? Or if, like the ghazal, only part of the line breaks are dictated by form? There are many reasons why a poet chooses to break a line on a specific word, syllable, or punctuation. Let’s start with the simplest thing: emphasis.
Every word, sound, punctuation and spacing are carefully designed by the poet. The choice of the word that ends a line is part of that decision. As you read the end of one line and move down and left to start the next, there is a moment that passes. It’s brief, that’s for sure, but it does exist. At this point, the last word in the line is living in your memory, right in the foreground, taking up space. This means that a word receives additional emphasis over the rest of the words on that line. The poet asks you to dwell on this word a little longer than the others.
This same moment of eye tracking from right to left for emphasis also allows a poet to introduce ambiguity. A word at the end of a line can have a meaning, and then that meaning can be reversed at the start of the next line. To better explain, I’m going to look at two stanzas from one of my own poems, “A question born. “
“A Question Birthed” by Chris M. Arnone (excerpt)
Like a flower, I was both
and neither sex, a question born.
Science solved for X and Y
& yes, science guessed correctly
In the first stanza, I end the first line with “both”, having already established the gender binary in the previous lines. But then the next line introduces the opposite of “both” with “neither of the sexes”. The power of “two” is instantly undermined, but it lingered in the reader’s mind for a while. In the second stanza, I end the first line with “Y”, a reference to chromosomes, but also a homonym with “why”, as if science itself is asking a question. As if the whole poem asks why I was born intersex. Here I used line breaks for emphasis and ambiguity.
Energy and tension
When writing a poem, poets think about how a poem flows. It’s not just the meter and rhyme or rhythm, but how certain words, syllables and lines can speed up or slow down a reader. Lines or stanzas are used to generate energy and then release it at the right time. Likewise, poets play with the build-up and release of tension in a poem. Line breaks play a key role here.
To show this, I first want to watch Mary Oliver’s “Rage” from Dream job. Oliver is a master of rhythm in his poems, and “Rage” is no exception.
“Rage” by Mary Oliver (excerpt)
You are the dark song
in the morning;
serious and slow,
you shave, you dress,
you go down the stairs
in your public clothes
Oliver’s lines are short and largely populated with simple and effective language. His first line break plays with ambiguity with “dark song / of the morning”. His second line uses a semicolon to slow us down as we read, and the use of “serious and slow” as its own line reinforces this poem’s slow and orderly reading. The lines lengthen as the poem advances, giving an impression of momentum, of construction, just like the emotion for which this poem is named. Then watch what happens to the flow and tension of the poem in the last lines: “Until no one can put the fragments together – / in your dreams you have defiled and murdered, / and dreams don’t lie. “
At the height of her tension, after her longest sentence that ends with the incredibly powerful word “murdered,” comes a tiny, poignant line: “and dreams don’t lie.”
For comparison, take a look at Allen Ginsberg’s classic poem, “To yell. “Click on that link. Read it again. Better yet, if you have a hard copy, read it. At least part of it.
Ginsberg’s lines extend beyond the capacity of a single printed page. Each moves forward like the seemingly endless chain of wagons on a freight train, and with just as much momentum. Each line break is a transition in the topic, but only slightly, with each line and each sentence connecting to the next. “Howl” asks you to do the impossible: read it in one sitting, in one screaming breath. Ginsberg’s intentionality with line breaks is one of the main reasons “Howl” is his best-known work.
So the next time you read a poem, check out these line breaks. What word ends the line? What punctuation? How does the next line change it? What do you think the poet wanted? Ultimately, think about yourself and how that line break made you feel. Once you’ve read or heard this poem, it’s yours, not just the poet. Let this line break mean what it means to you.