Poetry essay: The importance of ending poetry lines at natural sounding places

Poetry is made up of line breaks.  This is one quality that separates it from prose.

Because poetry is made up of line breaks, there is importance in where those line breaks occur.  The placement of line breaks will affect how a poem is read, how it sounds, and how the message in it is received.

Sometimes poets put line breaks in unnatural sounding places.  This can be done for many reasons.

Sometimes a poet wants to emphasis something.  For example, they might have all but the last word of an idea on one line, with the last word on the next line.  This can serve to cause a pause and emphasis the last word.  This can be a useful technique in poetry.

Sometime though, poets place line breaks in unnatural sounding places for reasons that can detract from the presentation of their work.

For example, sometimes a poet is fitting a poem to a form.  For example, they might decide in advance that each line of a poem would have ten words.

When writing the poem though, they might find that they have some ideas that are contained in less than ten words, and some ideas that are contained in more than ten words.

Rather than changing the ideas or using another form, the poet might decide to simply make each line ten words long.  If an idea has less than ten words in it, it simply gets words added from the next line.  If an idea has more than ten words in it, some of the words get moved to next line.

In other instances, poets might place line breaks in unnatural sounding places, because they perceive that that is what poetry looks like.  They can feel that poetry “should” have line breaks in varying spots.

In both of these cases though, having line breaks in unnatural sounding places can detract from a poem.

If a line does not contain a complete idea, it can confusion for the reader.  The reader can get to the end of a line and not understand the idea.  They get the meaning when they read on to the next line, but the train of thought was broken.

If a line contains more than a complete idea, it can seem long and bulky to a reader.  It’s almost like a comic speaking after the punch line – there are too many words and the effect is lost.

It is better to have poetry lines that contain complete ideas, unless there is a desired effect as mentioned above.  Having complete ideas in poetry lines makes poetry easier to read, easier to understand, and it can help poetry sound better.

To illustrate these ideas, below is a poem written three ways.  In the first two ways, the lines of the poem end in unnatural places.  In the third way, the lines end in natural places.

In the first presentation, the lines breaks were chosen so that the lines would have approximately equal lengths.  Additionally, the poem was made to be one stanza.

Night in the hospital room

The hospital room was dark, except for
the lights of the machines.  They seemed
to twinkle like city lights, except the
meaning was different.  The meanings were
obscure.  Read and green numbers, mixed
with letters that stood for things.  Levels of
this and rates of that.  As long as they were silent,
and nothing flashed, everything was supposedly
all right.  Sitting in the room though, with the
machine lights glowing, and shallow breaths
coming from the bed, nothing was really all right.
It was strange though.  In the night, in the dark
hospital room, the machine lights almost seemed
pretty, like a city in the distance, like someone had
decorated the place.  At least it gave the mind
something else to think about in the dark hospital room.

 

Reading the poem written this way, it feels like one big idea.  There is no break in thoughts.  The lines don’t mean anything by themselves.  For the poem to make sense, it has to be read as one long piece.  A reader can feel incomplete at the end of each line until they read on to the next.  A reader has to ignore the line breaks for the poem to make sense.  If a reader pauses at each line, the meaning because unclear.

In the second presentation, the line breaks were chosen to be after random numbers of words.  Additionally, indentions and stanza breaks were added for effect.

Night in the hospital room

The hospital room was dark, except for the lights of
  the
   machines.  They seemed
to twinkle like city lights,
  except the meaning was

different.
     The meanings were obscure.
Read and green numbers,
  mixed with letters

that stood for
     things.  Levels of this and rates of that.  As long as

they were silent, and nothing flashed, everything
  was supposedly all right.  Sitting in the room though, with

  the machine lights glowing, and shallow breaths coming
  from the
bed, nothing was
really all
 right.  It was strange though.  In the
 night, in the dark hospital room,
the
        machine lights

almost seemed

pretty, like a city in
  the distance, like someone had decorated
the place.  At least it gave the mind
  something else to think about in
the

dark hospital room.

 

The poem presented this way is hard to read.  It is like reading words that have the middle letters mixed up.  A person might understand what it means, but it is slow to get through.

The line breaks in this poem detract from the idea.  A reader has to put lines together in their mind for things to make sense.

This poem though, might have a “poetic” look to some.  It can be seem to be written like a contemporary poem.  This though, detracts from the presentation.

Lastly, below is the poem written with line breaks in natural sounding places, and stanzas to separate the ideas.

Night in the hospital room

The hospital room was dark,
except for the lights of the machines.

They seemed to twinkle like city lights,
except the meaning was different.

The meanings were obscure.
Read and green numbers,
mixed with letters that stood for things.
Levels of this and rates of that.

As long as they were silent,
and nothing flashed,
everything was supposedly all right.

Sitting in the room though,
with the machine lights glowing,
and shallow breaths coming from the bed,
nothing was really all right.

It was strange though.

In the night,
in the dark hospital room,
the machine lights almost seemed pretty,
like a city in the distance,
like someone had decorated the place.

At least it gave the mind
something else to think about
in the dark hospital room.

 

In this presentation, the poem make sense.  The line breaks and stanzas are natural.  A reader can read one line at a time, and pause at each line break and stanza and get the meaning of the poem.  The line breaks and stanzas help with the presentation of the ideas.

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