To Pause or Not to Pause; That is the Line Break

green water

Hello Poets,

As my universe goes whirling into a soupy maelstrom of grad school, I have found a shallow moment to ponder my favorite quirk of poetry: the line break. So humble and yet a true demonstration of the power poetry can foster. Many a man, and woman, has faught to death over a line break… or at least, I assume so, I mean, it’s a pretty touchy subject.

I remember most vividly my first experiences with creative line breaking. I was in my first poetry class at JMU, a narrow wooded room in the crooked cooridor of Keezel Hall, with one long table in the center. It felt like a meeting, or a large family dinner just before the entrees arived. The professor, a woman whom I deeply admire, passed out a paragraph. We were to cut it into little pieces, shave away the poem from that block of knotted words.

I cut them carefully, making all the sentences end softly on their toes. The words were goose feathers on a unbroken surface. I intended to make no ripples. But I was wrong. The paragraph was a poem, strong and aching–about a woman who serves fish on the funeral night of her husband. The fish, plunging rough to lower depths, was a lasting reminder of the power of linebreaks. I wish I remember the name of the poem; it meant so much to me, hearing the real line. Waiting at the end of each phrase with my toes curled.

Her tension was beautiful. I was nearly ashamed of how simply I treated the phrases. How desperately I wanted them to sit neatly on the nose. I was (still am) so young. The words, with their billowing potential, float easily on breezes I foster with foolish optimism. I have no gut for broken lines. No weighty pause.

As I began to pay more attention I noticed the forming of two camps. Those who stopped at the end of the line and those who read to the punctuation. Some readers were subtle, waiting only a moment before carrying on the enjambment. A suggestion, perhaps, a Mona Lisa smile. Others, like me, made a point of waiting, letting the line circle it’s own feet before begining another. A pause for thought, or respect.

I was reminded of the line again, some years later from the narrow room with the dinner table, where we feasted on poetry and were satiated and insatiable. While discussing poems with my Editor, I found that the word choices, the slanted grammar, was not a particular bother to me. I realized we were looking at two different poems: one with enjambing lines and one with neat little lines like arm hairs–straight up.

I think that’s why I never fuss over the capitalized first line of poems (oh Microsoft Word). So many of my colegues leer at a poem with capitals at the far left margin, standing straight up as if reading itself aloud. Sometimes I don’t notice. I’m a micro-ist. Reading the poem as a poem, and the line as a smaller poem. Gears on gears on gear, spinning.

Enjambment has become fashionable these days; everyone wants to test out their strength at the wrench. Will it hurt if I increase the tenson. How tight can I wind these bolts. I am guilty of this myself, I’m afraid. But over time I find the poem makes itself comfortable in its own break-age. The mark of a true artist lies in how gracefully one breaks the surface.

Hope that wasn’t too theoretical…
Keep writing and feel free to share your thoughts on line breaks in the comments. I would love to know how you read poetry!