A few brief notes on line breaks

A friend shared a quote from the American poet Kay Ryan with me recently. It reads

‘ Edges are the most powerful parts of the poem. The more edges you have the more power you have. They make the poem more permeable, more exposed.’

I was on my way out when I read the quote and responded with my first thought which was

I’m not sure more breaks equals more power and/ or more permeability. Just asking, but can power in a poem not also lie in a certain im-permeability? A sort of locked down emotional box of words that has a physical presence that won’t budge and that you (the reader) has to climb into? Some poems seem to lose something in their over brokenness.’

I’m not sure whose work I was thinking of here. I suppose I was thinking how I sometimes read poems where line breaks seem to distract or detract from the poem. I suppose I’m of the opinion that if the words of the poem are not interesting in themselves, no amount of splicing them up or rearranging them in ‘interesting’ ways on a page will make them into a ‘good’ poem.

The poet Fiona Sampson has this to say about line length.

‘Length solemnizes a poem, lending it a sustained music which suggests it arises from sustained thinking’.

Solemnity – noun

  1. the state or quality of being serious and dignified:

    “his ashes were laid to rest with great solemnity”

    synonyms: dignity- ceremony – stateliness- courtliness- majesty
    impressiveness- portentousness-splendour- magnificence- grandeur
    augustness-formality-seriousness- gravity- sobriety- studiousness- sedateness etc

    So maybe short lines disrupt or counter or act as the opposite of these effects?

When I started writing poems I set out to make my lines as neat and regular as possible. I was probably conscious of the rhythm, but I’m not a stress of syllable counting kind of person in the same way that I can play the guitar to a certain standard without knowing how to read music. Now I am more aware of how line length effects the pace of the piece.
I’m also concerned with how lines and stanzas reflect the content.

All of my poems go through a multitude of drafts in which the line breaks change.   When I’m drafting poems the words change, of course. And the stanzas change or disappear completely. But mostly the line breaks change.  A flicker through all the  drafts of even (and sometimes especially) my shortest poems would make for animation almost comparable with the movements of an ant hill in summer.

What am I looking for? It is hard for me to say since I am ‘feeling’ for what looks and reads ‘right’ and this seems to vary from poem to poem.

To get a little clarity into these rather random musings, here are some definitions.

A line (at least in English poetry) is a row of words. This line ends or breaks for a reason other than the margin on the right-hand side of the page.  So the line- break is the point at which, for whatever reason (and there may be many) the poet chooses to make the reader turn back to start the next line. This point of turning was known in Latin as the versus. And this is where the term verse comes from

verse ; Middle English vers (e), fers line of poetry, section of a psalm, Old English fers < Latin versus a row, line (of poetry), literally, a turning, equivalent to vert (ere) to turn (past participle versus)

It seems verse is so termed because a large percentage of the power of poetry  is concentrated in the turning of the line; the point at which the word confronts white space, variously characterised or described as the void, the frame, silence.

The line leads the reader’s
eye, either to a
stop, or over
an edge

and on
to somewhere else.

The above is an example of enjambment- the continuation of a sentence or clause over a line-break.

Enjambment mid 19th century: French, from enjamber ‘stride over, go beyond’, from en- ‘in’ + jambe ‘leg’.

Generally speaking (there are such things as ‘prose poems’ of course, which I don’t know much about at the moment) it is the line break that makes a poem a poem.  A conscious decision has been made by the poet to break a line. The power that resides in the line’s turning point  becomes a subject of obsession for the poet. The end of a line is the place where it the poet is perhaps most aware of being in the driving seat. As the pilot of the de Havilland Chipmunk I sat in as a lucky fifteen year old air cadet one said to me, ‘You have control’. And as I found out a few seconds later when he took it back after my banking was a little too sharp, control should be used with care.   The eye of the reader can be taken where the poet wills.

The first collection I came across where short and long lines worked together was John Burnside’s ‘Swimming in the flood’ . I was amazed at how the lines conveyed fragmentation. Reading the collection’s title poem, it  feels to me as if the eye is moving over a panorama,  in this case the surface of the flood waters.

Here are the opening lines

Swimming in the flood

Later he must have watched
the newsreel,

his village erased by water: farmsteads and churches
breaking and floating away

as if by design
bloated cattle, lumber, bales of straw,

turning in local whirlpools; the camera
panning across the surface, finding the odd

rooftop or skeletal tree,
or homing in to focus on a child’s

shock-headed doll.

Some general points on line length

1.  Long Line Poems. – generally don’t leave much white space. Often narratives or lists.  Long line poems might adopt an authoritative voice, one of importance or mock importance.  Some might have psalm like quality or hypnotic quality like Kim Moore’s ‘A Hymn for the Scaffolders’, or they may have ‘breathless’ incantatory quality like Allen Ginsburg’s ‘Howl’.

  1. Short Line Poems One effect of short-line is to speed the poem along. Short lines contain and confine and focus the poem, so that each word seems to gain in importance. End and beginning words are lit by the white space around them.
  2. Medium Line Poems A ‘happy medium’. These are probably the most common form of poem. Medium lines can give an understated and nuanced feel. Direct ancestor of the sonnet.
  1. Staggered or undulating line poems Tend to be interested in disrupting or reconfiguring the way the poem is taken in. Speculative, experimental, disjointed, disorinatating. Form as a reflection of content.  A classic example is Ciaran Carson’s ‘ Belfast Confetti ‘I’d be interested to read any comments that take up any of these threads.

13 thoughts on “A few brief notes on line breaks”

  1. Thanks for this, really interesting take on l/bs. I’m a great believer in the beat of silence at the end of a line (however tiny) and the bigger, more significant silence at the end of the poem itself.

    Best wishes, Claire x


  2. We had quite a bit of a ding-dong about this at the poetry masterclass I attended this last weekend, with some of the poets saying ‘What is the point of putting in a line break if you read over it, as if it didn’t exist?’, while others argued that what is on paper and what is read aloud are allowed to be different, and that Shakespeare’s sonnets would sound singy-songy like nursery rhymes if you were to just pause at the line breaks. Not sure we came to any agreement, but I love the points you are making.


    1. Thank you Marina. I suppose the ‘as if it didn’t exist ‘ comment is from someone who thinks a line break equals a pause, even if it is hardly noticeable? I guess the eye and therefor brain acknowledge a line break even if the voice doesn’t. Some people use breaks to create ambiguity, intrigue or surprise. I haven’t really gone it those things here.


      1. Yes, exactly, they were saying we should pause even if the line ends with a ‘with’ or ‘to’… but sometimes it’s about what you put on the next line, making it stand out more, plus pacing etc.


      2. Kind of ridiculous to pause at the end of a line when you read something like Edward Thomas ‘Aldelstrop ‘ aloud, for example. Although the there is something about a line break that naturally makes the brain pause perhaps.


  3. I’ve nothing new to add that I haven’t bored people with many times already. But that won’t stop me

    * Poets are using less punctuation nowadays (especially colons and semi-colons), so line-breaks need to do even more than before. They already act as commas, as instructions for performers, to disrupt, to emphasise, to ease reading (as with auto-cues), and not least as a hint to readers that they should adopt a poetry-reading strategy.

    * Tinkering with line-breaks is also an excuse for (or justification of)
    contact-time with your poem – time during which you get to know the poem better
    and may change other things too.

    * “The Art of the Poetic Line” (James Longenbach, Graywolf) is the longest book
    I’ve seen on the topic.

    * To add to your list at the end there’s poetry where there are gaps in the
    lines (as if the long lines were a sequence of short ones – more edges per page!).


  4. I argue that the ‘line’ comes out of a pre-literate age. If you have to memorise texts, then they need mnemonic aids built into them. This will always require some sort of repetition, which in turn creates rhythms. Regularites create shape. If you invent rhyme to beef-up the rythm and the memorisabilty then you can see how the ‘line’ developed. The minute you can write it all down the game changes. You can start to subvert the ‘rules’ that help to make text memorable/memorisable. You now have the tension between what your eye tells you…or what the white space beyond the line tells your eye/mind, and what your eartellsyouwhich is that the sound of this linecarriesonasiftherewasnowhitespacelinebreak. I can see how it’s possible to write post-doctoral theses on this kind of thing, but essentially it’s not an arcane thing at all. You do right to make folk think about it, Roy


    1. “I argue that the ‘line’ comes out of a pre-literate age.” – Agreed. In the olden days there was so much metrical patterning that line-breaks weren’t really needed. When vellum was an expensive recording medium, line-breaks were denoted by red blobs.

      “You now have the tension between what your eye tells you …” – Agreed. Just as sound and sense can slip in and out of sync, so can visual and sonic effects. And yes, there’s a lot of academic fodder around – see http://www2.eng.cam.ac.uk/~tpl/texts/quotes.html#ThePage – e.g. “The early avant-garde’s play with poetic language as visual art grasped the change in poetic emphasis from aural to visual with the ascendency of free verse, and, further, moved poetry from weight on metaphor to emphasis on the material world, trying to put some physicality onto the poetry … The influence of Cubism and Dadaism encouraged poets to see the page as verbal collage, and led to rediscovering Greek patterned poetry”, Carol Ann Johnston, “APR”, 2010, V39.3, p.45


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