Poetry line breaksI was wondering the why behind line breaks.  If poetry is to be read according to punctuation and not the line breaks, and on top of that it's free verse, so it doesn't need to...

Poetry line breaks

I was wondering the why behind line breaks.  If poetry is to be read according to punctuation and not the line breaks, and on top of that it's free verse, so it doesn't need to be in lines with x amount of syllables with the stress falling on the y syllable, why not make longer lines?

Strange, but after I started questioning this, a poem by Wallace Stevens, A Red Man Reading (or something close to that) was passed out in class, and it has the longer lines that reflect almost-sentences. 

Is part of it that a two-line poem wouldn't be accepted as a poem?  

What am I not understanding about poetry that a two-sentence poem shouldn't be structured as such?



Expert Answers
susan3smith eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I like this question!  Perhaps, though, some of the answer lies partly in the history of poetry.  Early poetry had various frames or patterns that were followed: patterns of rhythm as well as patterns for line lengths (meter). The sonnet form, for instance, dictates roughly ten syllables per line.  Following various rhyme schemes dictates that  the ends of lines rhyme, and therefore the line breaks at these rhyming words.

Modern poets often place emphasis on the words at the ends of lines, often forming slant rhymes, or repeating alliterative sounds, that would be overlooked had the poet not placed the breaks as he did. An example of such a poem would be "Blackberry Picking" by Heaney.

If you looked at "Dover Beach," by Matthew Arnold, or "After Apple-Picking," by Robert Frost, you would see seemingly random line breaks.  Yet, if you look more closely at the words at the end of the lines, you will see that every word (with an exception of one) has a matching rhyming word elsewhere in the poem.  Therefore, through the line breaks, a subtle pattern forms that enhances our enjoyment of the poem.

Line breaks can also contribute to the overall effect of the poem.  The breaks in Arnold's poem are reminiscent of the ebb and flow of the sea that the speaker is describing; those in Frost's poem reflect the state between being awake and sleep.

lmetcalf eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with ms-charleston-yawp and would add some ideas about why a line breaks where it does.

Does the line break add emphasis to the line, or perhaps to the next line?  Does the length of line reinforce other devices such as alliteration or assonance?  Does the line arrangement create visual structure? Does the line length draw particular attention to a word or phrase? 

While I agree that sometimes it may just be "because the poet did it that way,"  I am of a school that says the poet is intentionally making the decision to enhance the experience of the poem.


Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The simple answer to your question is artistic licence.  A poet breaks up his or her poetry however he or she would like.  Some write in free verse and some in strict form.  I'll tell you one thing, though, if you wrote about a particular free verse poem and quoted the lines together without breaking them, that author would consider the poem to be butchered!  There's a reason for every break, even if it's just "because I'm the author, and I wanted to put a break there"!  : )  Just respect the poet and don't always attempt to figure out the reasoning.  : )

ask996 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Line breaks should be chosen very carefully regardless of the type or style of poetry. The line break is the author's way of guiding the reader through the poem in just the right way. If the author needs the reader to hurry through a certain section to increase the intensity, then lines would be short and choppy. If the author wants the reader to slow down and savor the moment, then lines should be longer. In addition, line breaks should be placed where the author wants a specific image, though, or word to impact the reader.

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