Line Breaks in Free Verse
‘No verse is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.’ T.S. Eliot
In formal verse (written with a set rhyme and metre) the convention allows the sense to run on from line to line and stanza to stanza; the flexibility of this is vital to prevent the pattern becoming a straightjacket.
For example Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got
And how we got it; looked back on they rear
Like sand-clouds, thick and close, embodying
(Larkin: ‘Dockery and Son’)
In free verse a line should be a unit of sense, and the stanza is like a prose paragraph, embodying one main idea. But these ideas are not rigid and can be used flexibly to good effect, for emphasis, to make us hungry for the next line. The shape on the page is a script to help us read the poem with the rhythms and emphases the author wants. When reading the poem aloud there should be the merest of pauses where the line ends, described by Manchester poet Peter Walton as ‘ half a comma’.
And poetry should be read aloud! (Silent reading is a modern concept – Shakespeare’s audiences went to ‘hear’ a play, and contemporary poetry was read aloud, often to friends in taverns – the origin of poems and pints!)
Read these examples of poems written without line breaks.
1) Attempt to decide where to put line breaks in.
In pencil, mark them in using this sign /
At the top of the stairs there’s an island of sun, where the carpet’s a world, curled all colours of warmth. Under its furr purr the hot water pipes. Geraniums hum from the tiled window sill. There’s a view of the clouds; birds chat upon the roof. It’s the best place: it’s where the cat sits.
2) Where would you put the line breaks in this poem? Try reading it aloud that way. Did you pause where you’d put the breaks? If not, try again.
Behind us gravediggers standing for the briefest ceremony. In my hung head I’m listening to a back gate latch, a voice. ‘It’s only your Auntie Fanny, luv.’
Now look at the poems as they were written. Did you find the line breaks easier to find when hearing the poem read? Why? What do you think has been added to the poems by the line breaks? Line breaks are a vital part of the drafting process. Each line should be evenly matched with other lines, playing variations on the rhythm established, unless deliberate differences as being cultivated. Read your poems aloud, see where you pause naturally, let the poem tell you where a break is needed.