One of the major differences between poems and prose is that poems are written in lines, and prose is written in sentences and paragraphs.
Figuring out where to break your lines is big decision for a poet, and there’s no one right answer. But here are the things I like to consider when I’m playing around with line breaks in a non-rhyming poem.
Pause: A reader often takes a small pause, and a breath, at the end of a line. I don’t always do this, myself, because when I’m wrapped up in a poem, I often race to the next line to see what happens next, what words are next. But when I hear people read their poems out loud, or when I hear polished performers read other people’s poetry out loud, there is often a small breath at the end of each line. So as I read my own works out loud, I practice this and see where the pauses sound the best and have the most impact.
Surprise: Sometimes, when there’s a surprising word coming up, I like to break the line just before that word, so that the surprising word is the first one in the next line. It’s like the little pause in the action of a movie, where there’s just background music and you know something interesting’s about to happen.
Weight: I like to think of my words as having a weight, and each line needs to weigh about the same. Some words, like a, an, the, of, are unimportant, lightweight words. They only “weigh” a couple of ounces. Other words, verbs and nouns like sizzle, starlight, and desert, are heavier. They “weigh” four or five ounces. And then there are the heavy words, the words that carry great weight and impact in your particular poem. Each of those words, and there might only be one in your whole poem, “weighs” a lot. Maybe a whole pound all by itself! So, if each line of my poem needs to weigh a pound, I might have a long line with several lightweight words and a couple of great nouns and verbs, or I might have just one very heavy word, etc. It’s just about balancing things so that each line has about the same amount of impact on your reader.
The Look: Another thing I think about is how the poem looks on the page. Sometimes I’m trying to bring to mind (even if it’s in a subconscious way) some shape or form on the page, and I’ll break a line in a certain place to help reinforce that shape.
First and Last Words: One last thing to look at is all your first words and all your last words in your lines. You don’t want a string of weak words in either position, usually.
Again, there’s no right or wrong answer. These are just the things I think about. Here’s a short poem I wrote, rewritten in paragraph form:
Polar bears’ white velvet spreads until it becomes snow and the polar bears become the Arctic
There are lots of ways I could break this poem up.
Polar bears’ white velvet spreads
until it becomes snow
and the polar bears become the Arctic
That was okay, but I’d like something that emphasizes the ending, because I like my ending.
and the polar bears
I like the emphasis on the ending here, on the transformation of fur into snow and bears into the very landscape of the Arctic. But I think it feels too choppy for a poem about spreading…
white velvet spreads until it
and the polar bears
become the Arctic
I like this version. I like the tension that builds up in the second line ending with “until it,” which makes me want to read forward to find out until it what. I also like the same effect on the next-to-last line. The forward motion carries me along and I want to see what the polar bears are going to do.
Once you’ve written a poem, try typing it out in paragraph form and then play around with line breaks. Try three to five different versions and read each aloud. See how the line breaks affect the meaning and mood of the poem.
For a nifty online tool to learn more about and try out some line breaks, check out the Line Break Explorer at readwritethink.org.