Poets talk a lot about line breaks.  There is even a site called linebreak.org, as if that were a synonym for poem.  We need synonyms for “poem” because there is so much debate about what counts as a poem.

James Longenbach takes a different view.  Lines don’t break, he insists.  They just end.  It is the sentence structure that may or may not be broken by the end of the line.

Some lines are end-stopped, when a sentence ends where the line ends.  Where the line ends with the end of a phrase, Longenbach calls it “parsing.”  Where the meaning goes right past the end of the line and into the next in order to make sense, Longenbach calls it “annotating” – a term from a Milton scholar.  Milton did a lot of this.  Often in these lines the sense appears to end but doesn’t – the meaning is changed by what comes in the next line.

This play with terminology is a good reminder not to get stuck in habitual patterns, whether in writing poems or talking about them.  Labels are a hindrance to thinking new thoughts and seeing things in new ways.

“The music of the poem,” Longenbach reminds us, “”depends on what the syntax is doing when the line ends.”  There is no better or worse in the ways the syntax can be broken – or not.  Variety is what makes the poem effective.

Going to the other extreme, in Made and Remade I included two poems which have no line breaks: where the line as you see it ends is merely a function of where the margin is.  Here is one of them:


Walking in this desert I can picture you at work in your study because I have also walked on cobbled streets by Independence Hall, seen portrayed the men who met there, your contemporaries.  Your manse in a northern town at a river’s mouth calls to mind rocky shores I’ve walked on, their ten foot tides; I can see you there.  Yet, walking on sand I too easily picture your heath as always yellow, forget your concrete details do not become sidewalks, driveways alongside asphalt roads.  You have no need to bind with cement, build on your discrete images; all point in the same direction, while my direction shifts with desert winds.

Check out http://www.linebreak.org.  They publish a poem every week, written by one poet and read by another.

James Longenbach’s book is The Art of the Poetic Line (Graywolf Press, 2008).  It is a very small book rich with examples of good poems.

See the Books page for Made and Remade and use the Contact page if you’d like to get a copy directly from me.