Lineation – A Guide to the Line Break in Poetry
In poetry, knowing where and why a line breaks or ends is crucial to a full understanding of the poem they are a part of, for both reader and poet.
Line breaks are what distinguish poetry from prose, so the length of a line and its relationship to other lines is a crucial aspect of the art. With conventional poetry, lines are inseparable from predictable rhyme and meter (metre in British English); in free verse lines can be unpredictable.
- But no matter the type of poetry – be it prose poetry, found, shaped, concrete or LANGUAGE poetry – the way the lines end is crucial to the whole poem.
- Whatever the form of the poem, the line break is fundamental, the last word in a line of high significance.
- But does that word simplify, confuse or complicate meaning? What about the effect on sound and rhythm? Does a line break flow with syntax or disrupt it?
The relationship between words and lines to sound and rhythm is what creates the depth of emotional response many readers experience when reading or listening to a poem.
For example, in this opening line of a traditional Shakespearean sonnet, the last word is truth, the main theme of this love poem.
When my love swears that she is made of truth,
To break this line in any other place would both undermine rhythm and rhyme, essential ingredients in this kind of iambic sonnet, and take the gravity out of that word truth. Note the additional comma which means a pause for the reader.
At the other end of the spectrum, some modern free verse has no such constraints. Many different types of lines have evolved since Ezra Pound first demanded ‘Make it new!‘ to his fellow poets back in the early 20th century.
The unconventional e.e.cummings wrote since feeling is first in 1926, another love poem:
since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
This is the first stanza of a poem that follows no set, metrical pattern, has no end rhymes but does have strange syntax. Formality goes out the window. Playfulness climbs in. Punctuation does exist, but it plays an unusual role.
The short first line seems to start in mid-air and that end word first creates a natural caesura (pause or rest), as well as suggesting that our emotions and physicality are more important than our thought processes and dry intellect.
The next three lines, all enjambed, flow right up to the semi-colon. Why? The poet wants the reader to focus on you the anonymous lover. Alliteration brings texture and bonding and the short lines slow things down.
So the end word of the first line can play a key role in unlocking a poem’s meaning. The same goes for other lines and words too. As a poem moves along, the reader has to use both experience and intuition to make the most of the journey.
It’s a bit like walking into a house for the first time and having to fathom out the contents and décor and ambience of each room. You may have to identify what’s in that room; you may want to know why. More importantly, how does that room make you feel?
A useful exercise which can help with learning where and why a line should break is to first of all turn a stanza or poem into prose. Here is the first stanza, turned into prose, of Mirror by Sylvia Plath.
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions. Whatever I see I swallow immediately just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike. I am not cruel, only truthful – the eye of a little god, four-cornered. Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall. It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers. Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Sylvia Plath chose to personify the mirror and use a first person voice as speaker.
The first two sentences are emphatic declarations and make up a powerful first line. The first sentence describes the physical make up of the mirror, the second the mirror’s mindset.
That word midway through, exact, is abrupt, with a hard consonant, whilst the end word, preconceptions, is a complete contrast. The end stop reinforces the idea that this mirror is what it says it is. There are no judgements, no blurred edges. The reader has to pause.
The second line is enjambed, that is, the reader is encouraged to read on into the next line without pausing. Meaning continues. The second line needs the third for a full understanding of both.
The word immediately has five syllables, a mix of long and short vowels. It’s a bit of a paradox too because it suggests things happening in an instant but it takes a relatively long time to pronounce and digest.
It’s worthwhile going through each line ending, studying the way a word fits in with others, how it sounds, what it’s role is.
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful ‚
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Robert Frost much preferred the traditional form for his poems and tended to use conventional metrics and rhyme in a lot of his work. He couldn’t see any sense in the experimental free verse of the modernists.
This particular poem is dominated by iambic pentameter and steady compliant lines but there are interesting differences. Just look at the first line, a juicy twelve syllables, iambic hexameter, with alliteration and a mix of long and short vowels.
But why has the poet added a tree when the normal thing to do, to maintain the pentameter, would be to end the line at through? Enjambment keeps the line moving into the second, shorter line, so both lines need each other to fully work out.
There is the basic idea of this first line representing a long and tough day’s work. Because the speaker has gone the extra mile, the line goes the extra foot, stretching out. And the focus is on that last word tree, reinforced by the letter t (two, pointed, sticking, Toward).
The second line is much shorter and with that comma, tells the reader to pause briefly. Note the uninhabited white space, an integral part of the poem’s field, a contrast to the first line, suggesting emptiness after all the work?
The next three lines complete this first sentence, full end rhymes bringing familiar closure, keeping things relatively tight despite more enjambment.
The sixth line is end-stopped and is a complete, emphatic statement.
My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Walt Whitman changed the course of the poetic form when he published Leaves of Grass in 1855. His long, all inclusive and generous lines, together with diverse and controversial subject matter, sent alarm bells ringing through the English speaking world.
He saw himself as a cosmos and was not one to hide his light under a bushel. His lines reflect his mode of expression; they are cascades of speech and are often overwhelming and rich.
To read Whitman’s poetry and do it justice, the reader needs to take deep breaths and go with the flow.
Whitman preferred long lines with punctuation, a chance for the reader to pause and intake. His formal conversational style, attention to detail alongside broad philosophical meanderings, invited readers in to his new limitless world.
The end word of the first line, myself, meets the end word of that longer third line, you, – poet needing reader, humanity as one.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Whitman used little consistent end-rhyme in his work, preferring internal echoes and near rhymes to bond lines together. He also created the natural, organic line, incorporating everyday objects, the natural world, and just about everything else in a fusion – all filtered through the speaker’s dominant persona.
In complete contrast to Walt Whitman’s extroverted, bold and non-rhyming lines, are the poems of Emily Dickinson. If Whitman’s lines come from a deep drawn breath, Dickinson’s are slight whispers, hesitant and short.
Her use of dashes and lack of enjambment give this poem a stop-start feel; each line becomes an independent phrase, single or split. In the second stanza especially the end dashes create a pause which isn’t really necessary as the sense would run on with the use of enjambment.
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
William Carlos Williams became associated with the Imagist Ezra Pound early on in his poetic career. Subsequently he moved away from rhyme and set lines and developed poems as unfinished snapshots of ordinary life, sketches of everyday local things.
Many of his poems are experiments in form and content, seeming to appear out of a mind that was always tuned in to street speech, domestic things and the American way.
This short poem first appeared in 1930.
As the cat
the top of
first the right
then the hind
into the pit of
On the surface, Poem is about the action of a cat stepping over a jamcloset top (a jamcloset was an area in a cellar where preserved food for winter was stored), and putting its hind leg in a flowerpot.
The short lines introduce anticipation, the reader having to manoeuvre with some caution between those opening unpunctuated lines. Already, after just four words, the mental image of a cat appears.
Those long vowels in the second line highlight the slow progress of the feline, contrasting starkly with the short vowels of lines one and three.
- Enjambment rules as there is no punctuation, so the reader is being encouraged to progress with the bare minimum of pause. The stanzas seem fragile, white space separating, and the onus is on the reader to follow the tentative action within the simple words.
There’ll be natural pauses of varying length: between stanzas as already mentioned, after jamcloset in the second stanza, after carefully and hind.
Note also that the words forefoot and carefully are complete lines, and demand extra attention.
This is a poem by Robert Herrick (1591-1674) in iambic monometer, with the stress on the end word. It’s a rare specimen that uses enjambment, rhyme and short rhythms to create a slim epitaph fit for any gravestone.
- The line breaks here are dictated by the metre (meter in American English) with each foot having an unstressed and stressed syllable. With careful placement of punctuation at the end of certain lines, the pace is slowed right down.
- This poem’s structure reflects just how short life can be; how it can also be like a ladder left alone, somewhat lonely. Reading this poem aloud brings home the poignant power each mostly single syllable word has.
And die :
And gone :
I’th grave :
Richard Wilbur is an accomplished technical poet who loves to rhyme and construct intricate syntactical units. This poem, about a specific species of corn, Zea, is a sequence of haiku, the Japanese three line 5-7-5 syllable poems traditionally inspired by observations in nature.
Reading each stanza is an exercise in breath control, the three beats per line maintaining a steady internal music, the punctuation placed with care, the reader gently persuaded to pause here, carry on there.
Full and near rhymes add to the idea of the field of regimented corn plants binding together in lines. Enjambment between stanzas, commas, dashes, all help the rhythms that could be strong breezes blowing through the corn.
Once their fruit is picked,
The cornstalks lighten, and though
Keeping to their strict
Rows, begin to be
The tall grasses that they are—
Lissom, now, and free
As canes that clatter
In island wind, or plumed reeds
Rocked by lake water.
Marianne Moore’s poem The Fish is unusual in that each line follows a syllabic count, starting with one syllable in the first line before moving on to three, nine, six and eight respectively.
The strict adherence to syllables (and not feet) means that the lines have a certain repeated structural strength, which builds as the stanzas progress. Full rhyme and internal assonance help with texture and resonance.
But equally, the rhythms within the lines and between stanzas create a sort of wave-like motion, conjuring up fish moving in sinewy kelp. Note the strange line ends here and there which add to the mystery.
wade through black jade. Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps adjusting the ash-heaps; opening and shutting itself like an injured fan. The barnacles which encrust the side of the wave, cannot hide there for the submerged shafts of the sun, split like spun glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness into the crevices— in and out, illuminating
Elizabeth Bishop’s fish poem is at first glance a more straightforward structure. It is one long narrow stanza of 76 lines, based roughly on iambics, with considerable variation in some lines.
Line endings in these first fifteen lines focus on nouns, description of the fish and its reaction. Eleven line endings relate to things – fish, boat, hook, mouth – and so on, and reflect the speaker’s down to earth, matter of fact narrative.
Enjambment helps to keep the first three lines moving, and astute use of commas and stops ensure the action doesn’t race away. This is a big fish and needs time to land and the lines work with the syntax to enable the reader to study the emerging picture.
The end stops in lines five and six underline the successful landing, whilst internal rhymes caught/water/fought and alliteration held him/He hadn’t/He hung bind the various elements.
This is a very personal experience for the speaker. Note the use of my hook/his mouth, the use of words like venerable and homely shows respect, and the repeated reference to scenes domestic tie the whole thing to home.
I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
The importance of line breaks can’t be underestimated. How a poet shapes a poem depends on line length and break, and each ending holds something precious because it influences rhythm, sound, cadence and meaning.
Whilst there are definite ways to end a line there is no such thing as line break perfection because it isn’t an exact science, especially in the land of free verse. Often it’s a case of listening and knowing, of having Auden’s ‘infallible ear’.
Jorie Graham has been experimenting with form and line length for decades. Her series of poems Underneath explore inner thoughts and feelings, bouncing ideas around relating to nature, relationships and emotional pain.
Mirror. Roll away
the stone, unrip the veil. Re-
And handle me. And
see. Behold my hands my feet.
That it is I, myself.
Mirror: a thing not free
it’s seeking reply
Short, heavily punctuated lines suggest a slow, torturous study. There are hints of fairy tale in the opening – Mirror, mirror on the wall – and also some biblical undertones with that stone being rolled away.
And the word Repair is split, hyphened, crossing the lines. Re- is the prefix and shouldn’t be hyphened, whilst the remaining pair suggests two, the presence of another persona, or a schizoid person?
This is the power of poetry. The power of the line break. One small word can hold so much.