Aritcle from WRITER on line breaks

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Aritcle from WRITER on line breaks

Post  tsukany on Mon Nov 28, 2011 10:05 am

Section: Poet to Poet

Harness the power of line breaks
Find out what line breaks can do for your free verse, and 6 ways to make the most of them
Have you noticed? The
minute somebody finds out you're a poet, you're likely to hear what I
call the famous TCR, or Totally Clueless Remark, that drives most of us
straight up the wall. It goes something like
this: "The trouble with reading a poem these days is that you can't even
tell it's poetry." Or: "Isn't reading today's poetry just like reading
cut-up prose?"
The proper response,
first, is to refrain from wringing the person's neck. Then you might
say, as calmly as you can, "Well, no"--and proceed to explain, as
clearly and gently as possible, that the importance,
the subtlety, and the potential power of the line, and where it breaks,
has an amazing effect on the whole of a poem.
Often it's hard to get
any of this across to the listener who firmly believes that if it calls
itself a poem there really ought to be a rhyme at the end of every line,
but it's worth a try. You might start out
by quoting former U.S. poet laureate Charles Simic, who puts it this
way: "For me" he says, "the sense of the line is the most instinctive
aspect of the entire process of writing [a poem] .… I want the line to
stop in such a way that its break, and the accompanying
pause, may bring out the image and the resonance of the words to the
fullest."
The statement is
simple, but it's one that poets everywhere should seriously think about
committing to memory, and then quoting whenever someone utters a TCR in
our presence. In addition, we should keep it firmly
in mind every time we sit down to write a new poem in free verse.

Why worry about line breaks? You should carefully consider line breaks for at least three reasons.
You can use line breaks to foreground important words and images.
To demonstrate this, here is a piece of descriptive writing presented as prose:
The great blue heron
sleeps like a bag of laundry on a limb of an old elm, high above the
damp ravine still covered with night chill. Slivers of ice hem the
Winnebago shore. Far away on the edge of Dickie's Cay,
hot sun and jelly-green water wrap around me like wings, and inside a
slumbering bird stirs, opens one blue eye.
But take a look at how it comes across as a poem--which is how Wisconsin poet Rusty McKenzie wrote it:

The great blue heron sleeps
like a bag of laundry
on a limb of an old elm
high above the damp ravine
still covered with night chill.
Slivers of ice
hem the Winnebago shore.

Far away on the edge
of Dickie's Cay, hot sun
and jelly-green water
wrap around me like wings
and inside
a slumbering bird stirs,
opens one blue eye.

As if by magic, or some
other equally subliminal
force, the reader now
knows precisely how this
piece of writing is meant
to be read. Our attention
is irresistibly pulled to the ends of the
lines, where the words "laundry" "ice"
"sun" "water" and "wings" now emerge
clearly, whereas before they were virtually buried. We've also
been shown where to pause, and where to place expressive
emphasis. It's as if we've been
given skillful stage directions on how
to proceed.
You can use line breaks to set the pace. Some
poems are meant to be meditative and want to take their time. Others
invoke action and dash down the page with impressive velocity--like this
one titled "Bobolink"
by Wisconsin nature poet Judy Kolosso:

High
on timothy
and brome grass
you dive
pull up
circle
half twist
burbling
in celebration
of a field
as yet untouched
by assassin
mower
How different the poem would be if Kolosso had broken the lines less often, like this:
High on timothy and brome grass, you dive, pull up, circle, half twist …
Notice how the poem's tempo has been drastically diminished--along with much of its energy, and certainly its bobolink-ness.
On the other hand,
sometimes speed is the last thing in the world a poem needs. Take a look
at the opening to Kevin Prufer's "Poem for My Mother at Her Age":
Stars are one thing we never run out of, The way they fill the black air with a million little breaths.
Breaking these graceful, sinuous lines more frequently would result in a jerky, far less successful effect:

Stars are
one thing we
never run
out of…
The damage I'm doing here speaks for itself.
You can use line breaks to conjure implications that don't exist in ordinary prose. For example, here's a perfectly innocent sentence, taken from Michael Meyer's excellent textbook, Poetry: An Introduction:
"At a poetry slam, poets perform their own work and are judged by the audience."
It becomes a little bit less innocent, though, when it's broken into lines:

At a poetry slam, poets
perform
their own work and are
judged
by the audience.
Readers who are highly
sensitive to line breaks and their possible implications might sense an
undercurrent here. The word "perform," alone on the line and therefore
attention-getting, can be read as a word full
of earnest effort, whereas "judged," also alone on the line, could be
taken as a word loaded with negative energy. A stretch, certainly! But
even so, the question arises: Do carefully placed line breaks open the
door to innuendos that the conventions of meter
and rhyme usually prevent?
It's my feeling that
the answer has to be yes--as the following stanza, by Moira Egan, should
demonstrate. Notice that when it's written out as an ordinary prose
sentence, it's pretty straightforward: "Three
women sit in a café, walls the brownish red of baked apples that smell
of cinnamon and smoke."
But when it's presented to the reader with Egan's line breaks, it acquires a sensuality that is almost sexual:

Three women sit in a café,
walls the brownish red
of baked apples that smell
of cinnamon and smoke.
The transformation is
pretty amazing --although it does require a poet (such as Egan) who
knows how to manipulate and consciously capitalize on the liberties that
free verse provides.

Some general guidelines Please remember that in
poetry as well as in politics, our liberties always need to be handled
wisely. Breaking a line arbitrarily will get a poet nowhere. Certain
conventions will always remain, even in the
freest of free-verse poems. No rule says you have to follow these
conventions--there are no poetry cops out there--but you ought to have
good reasons for deciding not to. So here are a few suggestions to keep
in mind when you're writing in free verse, with
the understanding that you can ignore them if you're after certain
special effects:
• Avoid end-stopping every line. An
end-stopped line, as you know, is one that consists of a complete
grammatical unit--often a whole clause or a sentence, complete with
comma, semicolon or period--with
no enjambment, or "spillover," to the next line. It can lead to a very
choppy read.
• Try to avoid breaking up prepositional phrases, especially short ones. They're usually much smoother and more readable when they're presented as one happy grammatical family, all on the same line.
• Avoid breaking a line after an article, like "a" or "the." Unless the poem is long and skinny and in a terrible hurry, it's a move that almost always comes across as awkward.
• If you can, end every line with a strong word. Try
for one that will nudge the reader down to the line that follows. Keep
in mind that words like "that" or "was" or "when" simply don't carry the
semantic
horsepower of words like "kneecap," "frenzy" or "pelican." Why bury that
terrific energy in the middle era line?
• Resist the temptation to center the entire poem on the page. No
matter how cute it might look, how much it might resemble a Christmas
tree or a football or a caterpillar, a centered poem is usually a
bad idea. Unless you've consciously set out to write a "concrete poem"
in which the shape is part and parcel of the meaning, you're far better
off leaving the text left-aligned.
• Don't feel chained to the left-hand margin. A
little indentation, on the other hand--or even a lot of it--can add
rhythmic variety and provide a poem with an interesting, more sprightly
look on the page.
Do this with restraint, though. Haphazard arrangements might only serve
to confuse.
I hope this brief
discussion of the free-verse line will prove helpful to you. It's an
enormous subject--I haven't even scratched its surface--but if it
intrigues you, my final suggestion is that you pick up
Best Words, Best Order, a terrific book by Stephen Dobyns. It includes a
comprehensive chapter on the free-verse line and deals with the
preceding issues in fascinating detail.
~~~~~~~~
By Marilyn Taylor
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tsukany

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