ABCs of Poetry: L is for Line & Line Break

Posted by on May 22, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: L is for Line & Line Break

I grew up and live in the Midwest. I know—boring. Flat fields, farmland. Nothing around for miles. Dull. Landlocked. But none of those things. Certainly not landlocked—we have five great lakes. I grew up right on the shore of one: Lake Michigan. You can’t see across it to the other side, just another state, though it might as well be France for trying to see it. An expanse. And boring? Dull? Everyone says this about the Midwest but I’ve been here long enough to know what flat lands mean: huge sky. Land—like water—you can’t see the other end of. In college, I knew a “coastie,” as we say here, who said, “I hate the Midwest. There’s nowhere to hide,” and my Kansas-born friend said, “What is there to hide from?” I love driving across the middle of this country for its long, long line. Like my lake, I can never find the end of it—just flatness stretching out. Sometimes I don’t want the end. Against vast sky and land, looking up, looking out, I feel insignificant—and love it.

But if you’ve been in this middle place long enough, you start to look for the breaks as well as the lines, those moments of breath where the landscape curves just slightly or the middle of the field is briefly stopped by some farmhouse—often broken, dilapidated, abandoned—this small moment of a breath, to look intently at what’s there: old planks, a shattered window, a silo no longer used. Then move on as your car passes. So the moments of clarity I have here aren’t white space, but the lack of it. The break becomes the thing itself. So line breaks make us look. They change a landscape. One of my undergraduate poetry professors told me, “I can tell you’re from the Midwest by the way you break your lines.” I’m still not exactly sure what she was pointing to then, but I know that if a poem is a landscape, I’m looking for the places I can breathe, whatever splits that flat line up.

Here are two of the best exercises I’ve gotten considering line: take a prose piece—any prose piece, really—and break it into lines. On a computer or right there on the pages, making slash marks for the points where you think the line should end. If you can find the rhythm of the line in prose, you’ll find it anywhere. And this, from one of my graduate school professors, poet Mary Leader: break one of your own poems three different times into different line lengths: the first version, medium lines, about ten syllabus. Another version gets all short lines, fewer than ten syllables and, finally, break a version of your poem into long lines, more than ten syllables.

Ultimately, what these exercises have to teach about the poetic line is that it’s about play. Like a puzzle, moving the words around, seeing what works. I do this with each of my poems, mixing up line breaks. I ask my students to do it, too. But the thing is, we think so much about line break. It’s what poets talk about, what makes us different than prose writers. We’re all into white space, focusing on the words at the end of each line and what we’re emphasizing. But what does a line break create? A line. A single unit, like a musical measure. I always forget that when I break a line to emphasize the end of it, I’m also emphasizing the beginning of the next, considering how these units bleed into each other. Here is what I tell my students: prose writers can divide their language up into sections, paragraphs, but that sentence—or arguably the phrase—remains the smallest unit. Remains a unit. What we poets do is break that unit smaller, fracture it. We upend the phrase itself. And that new unit we create: that single line is every time a new, small poem.

Bess Cooley won the 2017 Mississippi Review Poetry Prize, and her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, The Journal, Columbia Poetry Review, PRISM, Verse Daily, Ruminate, and other journalsHer book reviews can be found online at Sycamore Review, Electric Literature, and Kenyon Review. A graduate of Knox College and the MFA program at Purdue University, she lives in Knoxville and teaches at the University of Tennessee, where she is also managing editor of online content for Grist, an editorial reader at Spry, and co-founding editor of Peatsmoke.