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Poetry: Lines

"Try thinking of a poem as a flow of water downhill. Gravity is naturally pulling on it. Undisturbed, neither channeled nor dammed, it will flow quickly down to a level plane, its ultimate destination. So it is with poems. We erect aqueducts to channel it and dams to stop it. We install valves to limit the flow as needed."—poet and teacher Al Rocheleau

Though of course it's not always the case, one of the common defining features of poetry is line breaks. Just like words, which we discussed in the last lesson, these are important tools and it's vital that you be able to use them. So how do you decide where to break a line?

The beginning and end of a line carry a lot of weight, and the words you place there will have extra emphasis. Line breaks can also help you create a certain rhythm, whether it be even and regular or something more idiosyncratic. Another choice you can make is whether to end on a natural pause or to enjamb the line and work against that pause. Ending lines on a pause adds power to a statement, but when you break in the middle of a phrase, it creates suspense and pulls the reader on to the next line. That pull will be stronger if you break on a verb instead of a noun, even more so if you break after an adjective, adverb, preposition, or conjunction. Often when a writer does this, we expect the phrase to be completed in one way, but the writer does something else. Enjambment can be used to give a twist to a traditional fixed form.

Then there's the difference between long and short lines. Short lines move quickly, and like enjambment, hurry us along. Long lines can be used to contain a thought that should be taken in all at once. They also work to "stop" the poem, as Rocheleau discusses above.

Start the exercise for this lesson by doing some freewriting. If you need a prompt, start with "things that I�ve lost." Don't think about lines at first, just write a prose block. When you have something you like, create TWO poems from this material, each one using the same material but with different line break choices. This should really give you a feel for what it means to make different line break decisions. If you feel you need to, after you have your two separate poems, you can change the material in each poem to fit the meaning and tone that their respective line breaks support.

Once you complete this exercise, you can get a critique from a writing teacher.

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