When writing a poem, how do you decided where to draw the line? That is, when you crack a sentence in half, what determines where you make the break?
After some sifting, blending, testing, and reducing, here’s our tips to help you determine where to end your line:
1. Whatever word your line ends on, that word gets special emphasis. As Mekeel McBride says, don’t just give this coveted spot away, choose carefully.
2. A "Janus-faced" word works logically and syntactically as the end of the first line/idea/sentence and as the beginning or continuation of the second. When a Janus-faced word is put at the end of the line, it can
a. add a playful ambiguity, tension, or duplicity to your meaning.
b. But, when it fails, the Janus-faced word can be confusing, distracting, and corny (an expected pun or a loose double-entendre).
3. Enjambment increases speed.
a. This can be good if your sentence has a lot of abstract diction, high number of stress or adjective- dense descriptions.
b. This can be a problem if the line is light, with monosyllabic diction, as the speed can rush a reader past words better-addressed with slow consideration.
c. Radical enjambment (as seen above) produces propulsion, but it can also create a jerky, dissonant rhythm.
4. End-stopped makes the line feel like a completed thought, a unit.
a. But too many of these in a row (without dramatic shifts in syntax, line length, or meter) and the poem will feel plodding, as elegant as bricks for shoes.
5. According to Charlie Simic, a line ought to stand on its own. You should be able to extract it, examine it, poke it a bit, and it should maintain a margin of integrity.
6. Since each line has its own small meaning, you can use line breaks to group meaning, creating a subtle relation of ideas.
7. Add an element of surprise! Break the line on one implied meaning, and then let the second line undercut or complicate it.
8. Cut the line in an unusual place to draw attention to the frac
tured nature of your poem’s content.
9. Use line-breaks to bury a flashy rhyme that would ring too loud at the end of a line.
10. All words being equal, a short line tends to read quickly and a long line reads slowly.
a. But shorten a line too much and you create a jerky or heady effect (on account of too much atmosphere).
b. Make the line too long and you’ve lost an opportunity for the miraculous effects a line break can have on meaning. Plus, marathon length can be exhausting, or appear unpolished.
11. A wide variety of line lengths is dynamic, but can also come across as chaotic and unrestrained.
12. Lines all the same length, (be it appearance on the page or syllabically, without significant internal play of sound and syntax), can feel claustrophobic, over pruned, and suggest content is submissive to form.
13. (.) Period = full pause. (;) Semicolon is slightly less than the period. (,) Comma uses even less of a pause.
14. (—) m-dash both stops and propels (at least according to Louise Glück).
15. Break the lines, break the rules, but know the expectations and effects.
16. “When in doubt, pile the pieces of your sentence on a dinner plate, sprinkle a tea-spoon of baking powder atop this, add a cell-phone if it’s low on juice and put all of this in the microwave for no less than 4 mins. Hit Start and go for a walk” (Stephen Wells Brand, Poetry Editor).
Katie Brunero is one of Barnstorm's Poetry Editors.