I’ve recently been asked how to do line breaks in free verse, so I thought I would share it with my readers. As T.S. Eliot said: ‘No verse is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.’ (Though of course he meant women too!)
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. These enjambed lines are read over the line break, because the form is dictating where the line break is made, not the sense or the voice.
Free verse deals very differently with line breaks. The poet has an opportunity to manipulate them and use them purposefully. Free verse has a subtler rhythm than formal verse, and though is does include rhymes, they are not patterned and are often internal, or based on other devices of sound such as assonance and consonance. In other words, the free verse poem is free of the bonds of strict metre and rhyme patterns, but exchanges these for other guiding principles.
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!)
I have heard people accusing free verse of being nothing more than ‘chopped up prose’, but they soon back down when the craft is explained to them. Each line break is there for a purpose, though the purpose can vary. White space matters; it is part of the poem, and should never be ignored.
Line breaks are a vital part of the drafting process. Each line should be controlled, matched with other lines, playing variations on the rhythm established, unless of course deliberate differences are being cultivated. Read your poems aloud, see where you pause naturally, let the poem tell you where a break is needed.
The point of free verse is to create your own pattern, make up your own ‘rules’ for that particular poem, but it’s always worth remembering that the two most emphatic places for a word are:
- the end of a line
- the start of a line
so throwing away these good places on a definite article must be done for a good reason.
This article is based on my own study and practice. I would welcome any comments from other practitioners who might want to add to this piece.
Manchester-based poet Steven Waling has asked me to add this comment from his perspective: breaking the line just before or just after the end of the phrase provides a syncopation effect which gives a sense of forward motion, as I do here with the line break after ‘mouth’. My ‘rule’ that each line is a complete unit of sense still applies. A unit of sense does not mean a sentence but rather a phrase. This technique can help with creating a ‘turn’ in the poem too. Thank you Steven.