Poetry Tips

Linebreaks

_____ "This is just prose with linebreaks."

_____ At some point, all developing poets will hear this criticism of their free verse. But what does it mean? What distinguishes "prose with linebreaks" from free verse poetry? Certainly sonics, language and, yes, rhythm all play crucial roles but perhaps the most salient difference lies in where we choose to break our lines.

_____ Linebreaks serve a number of functions, beginning with the most obvious:

  1. To set the line length.

    This is vitally important since it sets the mood and pace of the piece. Longer lines tend to be more relaxing, contemplative and luxurious. Shorter ones tend to lend more drama and importance to that line at the expense of others around it. A typical novice error is to make all of our lines short. This is like italicizing or bolding all of our text; too much emphasis is no emphasis at all.

    For "shape" or "concrete" poems (e.g. where a poem about a house might be in the shape of a house), setting each line's length may be the only purpose of the breaks. See
    "Un Drapeau pour Trudeau" below for a poem in (roughly) the shape of a flag on a pole.

  2. To complete the line as a unit.

    Each line will usually make some sense on its own. Thus, we should not end a line on an article, conjunction or leading preposition if we can avoid doing so.

    I walked in
    the mall.

    This is fine because "in" is not a strictly leading preposition; "I walked in" is a complete phrase.

    I walked into
    the mall.

    "Into" does not leave the first line as a viable expression.

  3. To lead the reader to the next line.

    This can be particularly difficult when the line is "endstopped": culminating in a period, semicolon or a clause-ending comma. Lines that do not end in such punctuation are called "enjambed" lines.

    Thera, you left your cord
    blood across the pharaoh's skyline.

    The first line is enjambed. The second is endstopped.

  4. To stress the last word in the line.

    Imagine a line of children stretching from the edge of a cliff. On which child do your eyes naturally focus? The boy standing safely at the back of the line or the little girl on the precipice with nothing but open space in front of her? This analogy illustrates the emphasis that the last word in a line--the one followed by all that white space--will enjoy. It is almost as if that word were bolded:

    It was nice
    knowing you.

    In rhyming verse, of course, this last word is further emphasized by rhyme. Even in free verse, though, a reader's eyes and thoughts are drawn to the endwords. These are "important" words. Indeed, try reading only the last word in each line of a free verse poem. Chances are good that the endwords can serve as a miniature synopsis of the poem itself.

    The emphasis given to this last word in a line can lend drama--especially in cases where the word is repeated. Consider "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks:

    We real cool. We
    Left school. We

    Lurk late. We
    Strike straight. We

    Sing sin. We
    Thin gin. We

    Jazz June. We
    Die soon.

  5. _____
  6. To form an acrostic.

    An acrostic is a poem where the first letter of each line forms a word or name, such as DPK's "Beans" below.

  7. _____
  8. To stress the first word or phrase of the next line.

    Beans

    September came like winter's
    ailing child but
    left us
    viewing Valparaiso's pride. Your face was
    always saddest when you smiled. You smiled as every
    doctored moment lied. You lie with
    orphans' parents, long
    reviled.

    Notice how the choppy linebreaks in this, the first stanza of "Beans", do not "finish the thought" as #2, above, suggests. In eulogizing Dr. Salvador Allende, the speaker, knowing the consequences of partisan sentiment, pauses to choose words carefully. Such a hesitant break underlines the vital ambiguity, ambivalence or apolitical nature of the word or phrase that begins the subsequent line.

  9. On occasion, the break can serve:

  10. To create ambiguity.

    Two ways in which poets can use enjambment in an interesting and effective manner are:

    • Misdirection.

      We read one line and draw an inference, but when the sentence continues on the next line we see that this was a feint; the poet is referring to something else entirely.

      you face your fellow
      totems on the mantle
      one of them
      solid silver

      The first line suggests the character is facing a beau, but the second clarifies that she is merely another totem. The third line seems to repeat that she is one of these but, again, the fourth line corrects this impression.

      This can work to "decliché" a common expression.

      Bonnie and Clyde were dirt
      poor


    • Double entendre.

      In the case of misdirection the second line obviates the first, making it a red herring of sorts. Not so with double entendre, where the meaning of the first line remains pertinent. That meaning can hover like a spectre; if sustained via similar references it can give our poem a certain duality.

      In this room we saw the fall
      sooner than others.

      Does "fall" refer to autumn or a stumble? If the rest of the poem supports both interpretations the poem can have a "dual track" charm. Here we see both misdirection and double entendre:

      I can see my wife, a rose
      corsage adorns her wrist; her iris
      catches the voyeur sun.

      The first line suggests that the person's wife is a rose but we soon learn that she is merely wearing one. The second linebreak highlights the back-to-back double entendres, "iris" (eye versus flower) and "catches" (detects versus reflects); neither ambiguity is entirely resolved.

  11. To substitute for punctuation.

    Bearing in mind that the reader will pause--if only for breath--after each line, we see that poets can use linebreaks to stand in for punctuation.

    Bobby (1925-1969)

    with los angeles lurking
    your rail car runs
    out of wisconsin
    to plateaus west

    as prairie skies wait

    you wonder what
    an "epaulet horizon" is
    until you can see the stars
    without looking up

    Were the poet to have used punctuation "as prairie skies wait" would not serve as a pivot between the strophes before and after it. A period after "west" relegates the next line to the following strophe. A period after "wait" would limit its scope to the first strophe.

    Occasionally a poem will use linebreaks much as most poems use strophe breaks, switching from theme to theme within a strophe--perhaps even changing themes line-by-line! We will see an example of this in "Paradise Has No Colonies".

  12. To clarify, complete or break up a rhythm.

    Bobby (1925-1969)

    with los angeles lurking
    your rail car runs
    out of wisconsin
    to plateaus west

    The first three lines break in the middle of the anapests (de-de-DUM), leading the reader to the next line. Only the last line ends on a stressed syllable, promoting a (de-DUM-DUM) bacchic to a (DUM-DUM-DUM) molossus in the process. This creates a sense of finality.

    Within the anapestic pentameter of the curgina, "Un Drapeau pour Trudeau", we see enjambment used to clarify the rhythm as the poet quotes CBC commentator Rex Murphy:

    Once again he has made us
    accept something better
    denied: one more rose
    on his breast before infinite
    moments alone, one more snowfall
    to face. It is just
    as old Rex
    eulogized:
    "He has gone
    to his grace,
    leaving us
    so much less
    of our own."

    "Leaving us" could easily be read as a dactyl; highlighting "us" with a linebreak ensures that it will be read as an anapest (or cretic substitution).

  13. To create a cada línea.

    It is possible to write a poem in which each line addresses a different subtheme. In a cada línea each linebreak serves much as a strophe break would.

    Rosie knows the night
    is a forgiving
    thing. She takes her daughter's
    corner, posing just a little
    further from the street

    light. This is a school
    night for Lynn; someone
    will have the children
    in bed by ten.

    Notice how each line, if read independently, hints at a different aspect of their lives: experience, redemption, incest, artifice, caution/vanity, education, humanization, childbirth and pedophilia (i.e. "in bed by ten years of age" rather than "ten o'clock").

_____ Novice poets tend to rely on endstops and random enjambment. Developing poets often write their lines and then look for the most propitious spot to break them. With experience, we learn to write our lines with a view towards the break. Like good writing in general, effective enjambment rarely happens without technique and planning.



Titles

_____ Here is a list of some of the purposes/functions of a poem's title:
  1. To identify the poem.

    While it isn't a popular sentiment in these days of titles that are longer than some of the poems they represent, the shorter the title the more useful it is in identifying the poem. Virtually every English speaking person in the world recognizes the last one or two lines from Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" but how many can name the poem? "Trees", on the other hand, is a no-brainer.

  2. To attract a reader's attention.

  3. To identify the setting (i.e. time and/or place) or central character.

  4. To double as the first line of a poem.

  5. To give the poem a specific context.

    For example, the following mediocre effort:

    Up, down, circling,
    cardiac clench, bones mesh
    surrounded by arms

    proto-human surfaces
    showered in body fluids
    loving only what is at risk

    ...would be utterly meaningless without its title, "Sex, War and Ferris Wheels".

  6. Paradoxically, to avoid giving the poem a specific context.

    Suppose we write a poem that has a number of equally important subjects. If the title were to relate to any one of these we risk making that theme central--an undesired priority in this case. To avoid this we may select a title which seems tangential or even completely unrelated to the poem.

    Rosie knows the night
    is a forgiving
    thing. She takes her daughter's
    corner, posing just a little
    further from the street

    light. This is a school
    night for Lynn; someone
    will have the children
    in bed by ten.

    With each line addressing a different theme, the poet selects a neutral title: "Paradise Has No Colonies".


  7. Endings

    _____ New writers often complain: "I never know how to end my poems."

    _____Plotting is invaluable to any form of writing, but particularly so in poetry. A novel can have a soft, anticlimactic ending but such a flat finish to a poem may leave the reader feeling let down. Here are some standard exit strategies to ponder:

    Substitution:

    _____ Think of something that can "stand in" for (i.e. symbolize) the main subject and end on a statement about this second subject.

    Similarity:

    _____ This is the mirror image of substitution. Instead of a symbol substituting for the subject, the original subject acts as half of a simile, metaphor or analogy, the second half being revealed at the end.

    _____ A typical example would be:

    Breaking Up

    Dressed in air
    force uniform,
    semaphoric ribbons
    and megalomedallions,
    Dad used to tell
    me: "Any landing
    you walk away from
    is a good landing."

    It was nice
    knowing you.


    Contrast:

    _____ With the original subject explored, the denouement could introduce a second one as a foil so that the reader can appreciate the stark differences. Both similarity and contrast are often used in satirical verse.

    Recommencement:

    _____ This entails returning to the theme, mood or point of view found in the first line(s), perhaps giving the work a cyclical tone. Recommencement is most typical in a work where the writer has strayed in a linear fashion from the original point and returns to it to "tie up the loose ends", demonstrating that the trip was a series of relevant ventures rather than tangents.

    Summation:

    _____ This may be the least popular endgame strategy. Because summation involves wrapping the poem up in a neat ribbon it is likely to attract the criticism that either it or the poem itself could be excised. Most effective summations justify themselves by linking two or more seemingly disparate details from within the poem. In "
    Tecumseh" we see the hero described as an egret. At the end of his meteoric life Tecumseh sings his death song. We read these final lines:

    Yours was the song
    of that egret, your life
    like a burning poem.

    Involvement:

    _____ What is the poem's relevance to our lives? What is the title's pertinence to the poem? What is the voice's relationship to the subject? Properly foreshadowed and executed, it could be an effective device to reveal this in the last line. This approach is particularly common in "still life" pieces.

    Departure:

    _____ This is the first of the 3 "D's" (i.e. "Departure", "Disinterest" and "Denial", also described as "retreats") that follow. The voice abruptly leaves the action in order to engage in something else--usually something trivial. As with the other 3 "D's", the idea is to downplay the main storyline--a useful tool if the writer feels that the events or situations described might be too dramatic or fanciful for some readers.

    Disinterest:

    _____ Similar to departure, the voice suddenly denies/loses interest in the subject. A simple example would be "The Chelsea Hotel #2" by Leonard Cohen: an intimate glimpse of a tryst (with Janis Joplin) followed by "That's all; I don't even think of you that often". The statement of disinterest is often ironic.

    Denial:

    _____ This may be one of the oldest ploys in writing: denying that the events ever took place. A typical example is for the person to wake up and see that it was all a dream.

    D.E.N.S.E.:

    _____ Very common is the Dramatic, Enigmatic Non Sequitur Ending, sometimes called "the fourth of the 3 D's". It differs from Departure in that the new endeavour or subject is neither trivial nor, ostensibly, irrelevant to the main theme. The poet leaves the reader to figure out what that relevance is. While haiku seems to rely on the D.E.N.S.E. ending, its use in other forms is far more controversial.

    "Poetry is not a code to be broken but a way of seeing with the eyes shut."
    - Linda Pastan


    _____ If you would like to comment or to pose a question please click here to let us know. For more information on a specific genre of poetry please click on one of the three types listed below.




Aspect
Romantic Poetry
"Serious" Poetry
Humorous Poetry
Subtlety
High
High
Low
Brevity
Medium
High
Low
Clarity
Low
Medium
High
Technique
Medium
High
Low
Form
Medium
Low
High



Romantic Poetry

In this context, "Romantic" poetry refers to "mushy stuff", not to be confused with the more formal, literary definition: poetry from the Romantic Era.

Romantic poetry is likely the most popular genre--especially among young, new poets. It may also be the most difficult. Like cats with diarrhoea, poets are always looking for new ground. Therein lies the challenge for the aspiring Elizabeth Barrett Browning. "How can we say 'I love you' in a fresh, new way?"

It follows naturally that subtlety and originality are of paramount importance here. Adolescent "my baby left me" lamentations may make rock stars millions as song lyrics but will simply not cut it here. This might, though:

Over You

I am not stuck in quicksand
memories of Nevada
nights gambolling down the strip
oblivious to the oblivion
that daylight would bring.

Sometimes a scar
Is just a scar.

The trick, then, is to avoid saying what we mean in a way which, paradoxically, ends up saying exactly what we mean. This is the balance between subtlety and clarity that we seek. If in doubt, the romantic poet should err on the side of subtlety. While not quite as critical as it is in other genres, brevity is important--if only to prevent the work from deteriorating into a maudlin meander in which subtlety is bound to be compromised.

Since our task is to avoid cliché and "telling" rather than "showing", words that the romantic poet must avoid include:

  • Heart
  • Love
  • Sorrow
  • Passion
  • Soul
  • One of the most common errors made by new romantic poets is that of expressing their own feelings. Poetry is the property of the poet and the province of the reader. As such, it is the reader's emotions that we hope to elicit, not the writer's.



    There are 6 billion people on this planet. About half of those have written love poems to the other half. Thus, even before we add in the poems of the past, we realize that there are literally billions of romantic works out there. To say that this is well-trodden ground would be an understatement.

    Novice writers are well advised to avoid this genre altogether, but the chances of many following this advice is nil. Hence, if you absolutely must pursue this field, adopt one of these three tried-and-true approaches, ranged in order from the easiest (and most common) to the most difficult (and least common):
    1. Describe the individual so that the reader falls in love with him/her. One tack is the "jealous lover" theme, where we note the many other people who love this individual. Two examples from Leonard Cohen would be the line "Many men have loved the bells that you fasten to the rain" and the song "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong". Do not say that you (i.e. the voice) are in love with the person. Make this obvious without saying it. Subtlety!

    2. Relate prosaic non-romantic aspects and incidents about the person and/or your relationship with him/her and then, at the very end, you might "surprise" your reader with the news of your affection for and/or relationship with the person. Ironically--and this should illustrate the need for subtlety in romantic works--this is sometimes done by denying that you love them, as with Leonard Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel #2".

    3. Compare the individual or relationship to some other experience by describing only the latter, leaving just enough clues for the reader to understand that you are, in fact, describing a love. Note: if the poem is written well enough, it might not matter if the reader "clues in" that you are, in fact, talking about such a love.

    There is, in fact, a fourth approach, but it is extremely rare and difficult. It is conceivable that a master poet could write a deliberately "over the top" love poem which, at the risk of looking like self-parody, manages to "out-Browning" Browning (i.e. "Songs from the Portuguese": "How do I love thee, let me count the ways..."). A cautionary note: By most accounts, no poet since Garcia Lorca has succeeded in this approach.




    "Serious" Poetry

    "Serious" poetry runs the full gamut from observations about nature (as seen in haiku and the works of such poets as Thoreau) to allegory to discourses on philosophy, science and politics. Here, the trick is to avoid seeing the "message" overwhelm its own delivery.

    Question: Is it possible to write a bad poem that tells a great story?

    Answer: Emphatically, yes!

    Indeed, this may be the norm among many newcomers to poetry. Good stories deserve nothing less than a good telling. Such is the importance of technique.

    To avoid stridency, the "serious" poet has to concentrate on subtlety without sacrificing clarity. In addition, to avoid becoming "preachy", we must be as brief as possible. It is in this genre, then, that clarity, subtlety and brevity enjoy approximately equal importance.

    Nothing can have a "deeper" meaning until it has a surface one. A poem can have a multitude of interpretations--one for each reader, even--and none of these has to parallel the writer's original intent. This is ambiguity, which can be a very good thing. Vagueness--always a bad thing--should be avoided by constructing poems to have some clear surface meaning to the reader. This meaning should be supported consistently by the entire work.

    Note: As is the case with "still life" or "photographic" poetry, the "meaning" of a work can be nothing more profound than "this is a novel view of a pomegranate".



    Humorous Poetry

    Humorous poetry can range from the gentle works of Ogden Nash and, yes, Dr. Seuss, to the bawdiness engendered in many limericks. Political sloganeering is often humorous in tone. Indeed, it is said that in a campaign the electorate will forgive a lack of substance but never a lack of poetry. As such, this genre--often ridiculed and overlooked--may be the most important, practical and lucrative of the three mentioned here. The reason for this is simple: humorous poetry speaks both languages of the gods fluently and simultaneously. If done well, it is "catchy".

    Humorous poetry almost always has meter and rhyme. Otherwise, it tends to read more like a joke than a poem. Hence, the humour poet must observe the restraints of form and pay strict attention to cadence and rhyme. Indeed, this is one of the more striking differences between serious and humourous prosody. Humour poets adopt very strict meter; serious poets use imperfect rhythm in order to avoid a "sing-song" effect. When we want our work to be taken seriously we do not want to sound like Dr. Seuss!

    The good news is that technique (e.g. new language, alliteration, metaphor, enjambment, etc.) is not as important here as in "serious" or romantic poetic ventures.



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    Ward's Rules of Poetry

    1. Never say anything in a poem that you wouldn't say in a bar.
    2. If you can't be profound be vague.
    3. Learn the difference between poetry and hebephrenia.
    4.
    The McNeilley Rule:
    Cut off the last line! This will make your poem better!
    (If this doesn't work, keep cutting off the last line.)
    5. Sloganeering is about what you said and how you said it.
    Poetry is about how you avoided saying it.
    6. Poetry lies between synonyms.
    7. The difference between self-expression and communication is poetry.
    8. If you can't spell a word don't use it.
    9. Bad poetry haunts the writer.
    Good poetry haunts the reader.
    10. Don't express. Evoke.
    11. Technique is the difference between a good story and a good poem.
    12. Writing is to poetry as paper is to stone.

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