Ever wonder why poets break up their poems the way they do? There are a bunch of reasons, but some of the more popular have to do with control. The poet isn’t always there to read the poem to you, complete with personal emphasis and breath-taking pauses. Rather than send his/her baby out all alone into the world to be misread and unappreciated, the poet puts cues in on how the piece was intended to be read. Of course there are those who work in rigid forms, their line breaks are mostly dictated by the form. Others let the lines fall where they may, and leave everything open to interpretation.
A majority of poets use time tested techniques to dictate the reader’s experience. Depending on how the lines and even words are stacked together, the pacing can be sped up or slowed down. Certain words lend themselves to the process. Compare the word “below” and “chick”. Same number of letters, but 'below' begs to be drawled out in slow motion. The letter ‘o’ is good at this. “Chick” is an impatient word, it wants to be spit out and proceed merrily on its way. "Pick a chick flick" snaps out with staccato rhythm. "Let's go below, Joe" takes a while to meander its way out.
The tempo of the poem can be changed by placing roadblocks like ‘below’ in a fast paced poem. “Chick” cuts off and emphatically ends the line. “Below” can be used to draw the line out and lead into the next one. Words can jar the reader from complacency, make them uncomfortable, or lull them into a trance. Some poets use stream of conscious writing, what is thought of is what you get. Others revise and tweak to tighten the poem to the exact meaning they had in mind. It's a personal choice, both methods lend themselves to exciting poetry.
Line breaks can also be used to enhance rhythm and sound. Line length and breaks work as road signs for the reader. Poems can resonate because they are rhythmic and easy to remember, the line breaks fall logically in a pattern.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
Each of Frost’s lines is an independent thought, like a painter he builds the poem, layer by layer to the conclusion. The repetition of the final line seems a logical conclusion to the poem, drawing the reader to a gentle close that fits the depth of the poem.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Compare this to a short poem by Lucille Clifton. Her words are deceptively simple and straightforward, but they pack a punch. Carefully placed line breaks and word choice directs the reader and drives the point home in a poem where the power is in its simplicity – and resonance.
"why some people be mad at me sometimes"
they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
and I keep on remembering
© Lucille Clifton
Blessing The Boats (BOA Editions, 2000)