Thursday, May 17, 2018

Breaking the Line - essay

I have noticed when talking to friends who are interested in poetry but perhaps not dedicated readers of it, that the use of the line-break in modern poetry often confuses, or even confounds, them. So I decided, as a challenge, to tackle the problem head-on and write this short essay to explain why (and how) poets use this device in their work. I also think it is very helpful for poets starting out to have a very clear grasp of why they are using 'the break' and the wide possibilities it presents to them. I hope, then, that this piece might be of help and interest to both groups: readers and purveyors of poetry. 

This essay first appeared in Poetry Ireland's literary pamphlet Trumpet, issue 7, late last year. My gratitude to editor Paul Lenehan for including it.

Breaking the Line

When discussing the ‘line-break’ in poetry it is first necessary to talk about the difference between the ‘sentence’ and the ‘line’ itself. For the prose writer the ‘sentence’ is their cornerstone. Through varying the sentence length, and manipulating it by adding cadence and pause, they create a complex craft from it as its unit of meaning. However, for the poet there is one added technique which is the line-break – the way a poem measures itself out in lines rather than sentences, most often to convey ‘movement’ through the poem. This gives rise to many intriguing and unique possibilities.

To begin, though, I will start with a ‘counter-example’: a poem that eschews the use of the line-break to convey its meaning and doesn’t rely on it for its movement. In the well-known poem ‘Gift’ by Czesław Miłosz, the poet simply uses nine simple statements ranging from the visual, the abstract and the emotional, with each line in the poem matching the sentence precisely and therefore shunning the obvious aspect of the ‘break’. Here are the four opening lines:

A day so happy.
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.

The absence of line-breaks here creates a sense of ‘stillness’, of tranquility, yet the poem continues to move (subtly) forward due to the variation in the length of the line/sentence, an effect sometimes referred to by prose writers as ‘modulation’.

A sense of harmony and stillness in a poem can proceed also, of course, by using a sentence that extends beyond one line. In Anne Sexton’s ‘The Truth the Dead Know’, written after her mother’s death, the piece opens with these lines:

Gone, I say and walk from the church,
refusing the stiff procession to the grave,
letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
It is June. I am tired of being brave.

The statement of her ‘refusing’ the procession ‘to the grave’ is mirrored in the tightly controlled processional feeling of the lines, the effect somehow heightening the restrained grief. The first three lines ‘run-on’ but in such a way as there is a balance between the clauses and speech rhythms contained within each. Each line-break has a ‘soft’ quality until, quite brilliantly, Sexton uses the two short sentences embedded in one line to create a sense of deflated closure. Modulation can be a useful tool in poetry also, as proven here, as an inversion of our expectation that poetry mainly utilises the run-on line.

The line-break can also be used to enable a sense of strong movement through the lines of a poem, acting as a propulsive force, offering tension and then resolution with an ‘end-stopped line’. The Romantic poets often stretched the limits of the line-break to employ momentum through and across ‘the line’. An instructive example, from William Wordsworth, show us, in these lines, the ‘new’ expansion of the language of poetry:

It is a beauteous Evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity…

Enjambment (as run-on is technically called) essentially changes the balance between the sentence and the line, establishing a tension and forward movement that forces the reader not to pause at the end of the line but to move expectantly to the next, the line-break encouraging a semi-pause or, sometimes, no pause at all. Yet, when it comes to the various effects of the line-break we can’t fully itemise these unless we consider also the added aspect of ‘music’ in poetry that serves to emphasise its impact and meaning. In such cases, music reinforces the effect of ‘the break’, the run-on line, in a sense, keeping us off-balance and acting as a kind of regulatory valve as we move through the lines of a piece: such a dramatic idea, that we take for granted today.

An example of this effect can be further heightened by ‘internal rhyme’, which intensifies the ‘swing’ over the musical line to the next line as a musical echo. A similar, if more immediate, effect is to look at what I call ‘swing-rhyme’. Here, the rhyme at the end of one line is immediately followed by a rhyme at the start of the next. This is a stanza from the poem ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ (which translates as ‘Forget-me-not’) by the Second World War poet, Keith Douglas:

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

I love this poem, despite its difficult subject matter. The ‘swing rhyme’ from line 2 to 3, coupled with a general rhyme scheme, serves to amplify the action expressed, exploiting the line-break to dramatic, almost explosive, impact.

For me, one of the most interesting uses of the line-break is how it enacts (or should enact) the meaning of a poem, its rhythms perfectly matching the movement and subject. A great example of this are the hesitant, off-balance, lines of Paula Meehan’s piece ‘Take a breath. Hold it. Let it go.’ The young poet is about to leave the family home but watches as her sister make-pretends a circus act on the boundary wall in the garden. She views it with a sense of foreboding:

She steps out
on the narrow breeze block fence. If I shout,
I’ll startle her. She’ll fall …


She falls anyway. I could not save her.

The movement and sense of the lines here make for an off-kilter feeling. It’s interesting also how the short sentences punctuate the line (rather like Anne Sexton’s use of modulation), giving us the ‘high-wire’ act of her sister, enacting both form and meaning to achieve this by utilising the line and line-break to brilliant effect.

Finally, one of the most powerful effects of the line-break is that it can be used to place ‘heavy’ emphasis on the last word of a given line. A compelling example of this can be found in Derek Mahon’s poem ‘After the Titanic’. Here are a few lines as the liner sinks and the speaker says:

... my poor soul
    Screams out in the starlight, heart
Breaks loose and rolls down like a stone.                          

The phrase ‘heart breaks loose’ is a powerful one, but more powerful still by breaking on the word ‘heart’. It intensifies the meaning of that word and, added to this, the absence of a pronoun before ‘heart’ further develops the sentiment: in a way, it is the heart of everyone on that sinking ship that is captured at that moment. Not ‘my’ or ‘your’ heart, but simply ‘heart’. It’s a powerful expression of communality, powerfully expressed in the poem’s extreme context.

The line-break is perhaps the quintessential aspect of poetry, defining it as a distinct form in literature. It allows the poet to manipulate language in a way that no other technique can quite achieve. Being in control of it, is as close as we come in poetry to realising the careful rhythm of a master film editor’s hands, or a great painter’s articulated brushstroke; the line break is as characteristic as both in generating the pace, energy and signature of a given work.