Friday, February 24, 2017

A Question of Line Endings

Since no one else seems to read my blogs, I think I'll write this one for myself to help me pull together and understand something I think I've may now got a handle on. I've looked for someone to lay it out for me, and didn't find it clearly spelled out anywhere. One idea is to end at a natural break in the syntax. Another suggestion is that line length determines how the reader goes through the lines, slowly or quickly.

I think the basic rule for line breaks is to end at a point that is syntactically logical, at a comma, the end of a phrase, the end of a sentence. Once in a while, there is no convenient point and then the poem must break the line where the last word in the line seems to hurry the reader on to the next line, a technique called enjambment. That is probably the trickiest of line breaks.

Here's a poem January 5, Ted Kooser, Winter Morning Walks, that shows line breaks at syntactic points. Note how each line seems to end at an obvious stopping point and the next starts at a normal point.

Hung from the old loading chute
is a lasso of rusty wire,
and caught in the grain of its boards
is a wisp of red hair, and the heavy,
dead knocking of hooves.

And the first two stanzas of this poem, Some Herons by Mary Oliver, House of Light, show the same kind of strong, obvious line breaks.

A blue preacher
flew toward the swamp,
in slow motion.

On the leafy banks,
an old Chinese poet,
hunched in the white gown of his wings,

And here's the beginning of another poem by Kooser, January 4, in which the beginning of the poem seems to be a series of lines with no clear break point, thus enjambed.

My wife took an apple to work
this morning, hurriedly picking it
up and out of a plastic bag
on the kitchen counter, and though
she has been gone an hour,
the open bag still holds in a swirl
the graceful turn of her wrist,

I suspect Kooser wanted to see those lines as her graceful action of picking the apple up out of the bag to take to work. After those lines, he continues with normal line breaks. So this example shows why one might use enjambment, to show continuous fluid action.

And now the question of how long should the lines be. A line may have several obvious break points, but which one to use. There seems to be general agreement that short lines accentuate fast, breathless action, while longer lines emphasize the poet thinking or normal, slower action. Here's a poem of mine, Tunnel Vision, in which I wanted to show the action speeding up after a rather normal introduction.

The Jeep we're passing suddenly swerves
into our lane. I hit the brakes hard.
Instantly I'm looking down a narrow tunnel,
only my car and the Jeep in it.

I stay on the brakes,
drift slightly left,
but not too far,
traffic racing by,
close, close, close.
A low growl
as the left rear tire
of the Jeep
rubs my right fender.
He's in our lane,
a foot in front,
pulling away. 
I make it through safely.

The opening stanza, has rather normal line lengths, indicating that I action is happening at a normal rate, as time might be experienced driving down the interstate. The second stanza then shows racing thoughts and actions as I avoid crashing in high speed interstate traffic.

An even longer line can emphasize that the poet is almost in a meditative mood, seeing something that needs to be chewed on and savored carefully. Here is Kooser at his best in this, the title poem, Splitting an Order, from his latest book of poetry. The length of the line doesn't, by itself, make this poem a meditation, but it augments the words and images Kooser uses.

I like to watch an old man cutting a sandwich in half,
maybe an ordinary cold roast beef on whole wheat bread,
no pickles or onion, keeping his shaky hands steady
by placing his forearms firm on the edge of the table
and using both hands, the left to hold the sandwich in place,
and the right to cut it surely, corner to corner,
observing his progress through glasses that moments before
he wiped with his napkin, and then to see him lift half
onto the extra plate that he asked the server to bring,
and then to wait, offering the plate to his wife
while she slowly unrolls her napkin and places her spoon,
her knife, and her fork in their proper places,
then smooths the starched white napkin over her knees
and meets his eyes and holds out both hands to him.

The longer lines slows the pace of the poem, letting each image of the old man cutting the sandwich in half sink in as the line continues to a natural syntactic break. Then a new line with a new image comes along and we are invited to savor it also. And the last line ties it all together with that look of love from the old woman to her mate and the gesture of her open hands and his placing the gift in them.

And I think that wraps this up for me and gives me now a coherent idea of how and why to break lines and why. 


  1. I read your blog, Art. Thanks for sharing your insight. :)

    1. Thank you, Susan. Writing it helped me solidify my thoughts on the topic of line breaks and length.

  2. I printed this out to read during my morning journaling time. The line endings question has always been something I put off thinking about, and now I have some impetus to think about it. Thanks!