Sometimes when I sit down to write a poem, I struggle with shaping the lines. Part of the issue is that I have a lot more freedom to play around with sentences, phrases, fragments, and words in of themselves than I do in prose. This freedom will often leave me wondering what works best for this particular poem. My goal today is to do a brief introduction about the various aspects of lines in poetry.
Lines, being the basic unit of composition, tend to be a diverse group of forming sentences and/or ideas. To be clear, when I use the term “sentence” here, I don’t mean line necessarily. A sentence is a component of poetry that focuses on an idea, and can appear in one line, or part of a line, or in more than one line. How that sentence is cut up into lines is where the end-stopping and enjambment parts of poetry come into play.
You can halt the idea (or sentence) at the end of a line, known as end-stopping, or you can let it flow onto the next line, known as enjambment. An end stop gives a breath of relief, a pause to breath, while an enjambment is like the rush of a wave that swells up and over a rock and then crashes over the other side. Both have their uses. One of the best examples of the use of end-stops and enjambments is in Shakespearean plays and poetry, where both are used extensively. Most poets use bits of both — sometimes mixing them up in the poem or using primarily one and not the other.
But when should you use them? That’s the issue I often have in poetry. Part of this lies in the goal of the poem. Do I want the poem to flow like water, free and without any jarring breaks? Then longer “sentences” and more enjambment may be useful. Do I want bouncy, nervous lines that provide contrast and ramp up the tension? Then end-stopping and shorter “sentences” may be useful. Varying sentence length can also be useful, just as varying up a musical composition’s melody, harmony, or rhythm can provide an interesting contrast to other sections of the piece.
Another method is to delay the main point in a long sentence, so that it takes time to reach the pay-off. For those that study languages, such as German or Japanese, where the verbs come at the end of the sentence, this long delay to the pay-off can be either interesting, exhilarating, or frustrating. This type of sentence that has a delay in pay-off is called periodic and is another potential tool in the poet’s toolbox. One way to use it in English poetry is to use fragments that have no verbs but provide vivid imagery and describes the idea, but each fragment leads into the next, until the final phrase contains the pay-off verb. An example of this is: “At the top of the hill, its fur melding with the orange and red hues of the sunset, the lion’s muscles rippling with anticipation of its prey, pounced.”
I can take that same sentence and use some of the methods above to shape the flow of the piece into lines:
“At the top of the hill,
its fur melding with the orange
and red hues of the sunset —
the lion’s muscles rippling with anticipation
of its prey, pounced.”
This is one way to shape the poem. Another way:
“At the top
of the hill,
Its fur melding
with the orange and red
hues of the sunset,
the lion’s muscles
rippling with anticipation
of its prey,
Both ways are legitimate and valid, but which work better with the idea and atmosphere of the sentence? Which one has better pacing and more emotional impact? Those questions are best answered by asking what the poet hopes to achieve in the poem itself. If I hope to give the reader a tense moment before the payoff, the shorter lines in the second version can aid in increasing tension. With this long of a sentence, it is hard to use short and choppy end-stops mostly because enjambment is inevitable. End-stops won’t work, so making the lines look short creates breaks that give an illusion of end-stops and can still increase the tension. The first version works as well because the line breaks jar the reader, which if the purpose is to increase tension for the pay-off, a jarring cut-off may be just what you need. However, jarring the reader too much could have the opposite effect of reducing readability and disrupting the flow too much, where the pacing just feels off to the reader. It’s a fine balance.
Another important aspect to consider is how we organize the lines over the course of the entire poem. Stanzas are lines organized in sets that are set apart from other sets by white space above and below it; some people call stanzas verse paragraphs. When constructing the poem, how do you know if lines should be cut up into stanzas or if they should all be crunched together in one large “paragraph?” One way to determine it is to read the poem itself and look for natural pauses in the flow of the piece. These pauses differ in length; very short pauses for breath may not work well for a stanza break. Longer pauses work better as a break between stanzas. Sometimes a pause in the poem is a great way to provide emphasis on an idea or image. This is why stanzas are so common within poetry; they tend to improve readability by dividing the poem into easier to digest chunks as well as providing emphasis on certain ideas or images.
Being cognizant of the lines and stanzas in your poem can improve its readability, keep your meaning coherent, and improve the overall atmosphere, pacing, tone, and emotional impact. So go forth readers, explore these methods and their effects on your poetry.