Posts tagged ‘craft of poetry’

December 10, 2013

The Irrepressible Line in Your Poetry (by Jeffrey Hillard)

** The following is also a free bonus article for those that purchased my ebook, STORY’S TRIUMPH: Mining Your Creative Writing for Its Deepest Riches on

Several years ago, I taught this session to female inmates at Franklin Pre-Release Center, a prison that formerly housed female inmates.


Breaks Away

The kind of attention that poets give to a poem’s individual lines is often a source of great frustration. We write the poem. We “get it all out.” We hurry to write. We think the poem contains most all of what it intends to say. Maybe we’ve spent hours on it. Perhaps even days. And we stare at the poem repeatedly and think, “These lines don’t seem right. They’re lacking in something. They don’t feel true to the poem. How can this poem get more from its individual lines?”

There is not an easy answer to this question.

The options for line lengths and breaks are many. The way a poem “appears” on the page becomes a subjective decision, especially if you’re writing in free verse, with no dependency on a particular form.

With the free verse line – which is what we’ll focus on here – there are seemingly unlimited ways to arrange a line. Still, in getting the most out of your lines, you must ask: what does this poem want? What does this poem need?

Since Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, and so many others proved that a poem’s strength can be derived from close attention to the poetic line, let’s examine several ways that a poem can achieve more interesting energy and fluidity.

Free Verse

When writing free verse, for example, it’s easy to get lost in the over-arching feel of the poem, in its grand, free development. But, as some poets have complained, their subject matter may not be that interesting because there lines have “the blahs.”

John Hollander writes in “Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse” that “since a line may be determined in almost any way, and since lines may be grouped on the page in any fashion, it is the mode of variation itself which is significant.” I strongly agree. Let’s look at this variation in poems by three poets who give major attention to energizing a poem’s lines.

I like to use the phrase, “manipulating the line.” Two basic options for “manipulating” rise to the forefront: one is allowing poetic lines to achieve immediacy. By immediacy, I mean that a poetic line reflects a sort of spontaneity. It may put the reader’s attention greatly on the line’s end word(s). A second option is to emphasize more rhythm; this is especially true with longer lines.

The lines that achieve immediacy, where momentum can gather quickly from the middle to end of the line, are usually short lines. Take this excerpt from the poem, “Money,” from the book Split Horizon by Thomas Lux. Look at the energy his lines generate. Look at Lux’s attention toward the end word in these lines:

“A paper product. We say it’s green

but it’s not, it’s slate green, drained green.

New, it smells bad

but we like to sniff it

and when we have a relative pile

we not only want to inhale it but also look at it,

hear it buzz

as we work with our thumbs

its corners like a deck of cards.”

There is no mistaking the energy in these lines. The breaks seem arbitrary, and maybe they are, but notice how the senses of sight and smell are emphasized. The references to money as “smells bad,” “it,” “pile,” and “it” create an urgent image – and not a positive one – in the reader’s mind. The “paper product” itself presented here almost has an eerie human feel to it. These nine lines contain only one full sentence (“A paper product” being a fragment). But it’s not a sentence that drones on. It is crisp and controlled, and it has the freshness of spontaneity.

The same can be said of this excerpt from the poem, “The Winged Eye,” by Beckian Fritz Goldberg. She goes for a similar immediacy, although her line lengths are not as jagged. Consider these lines:

“We sit in the garden where lips

purse in the snapdragons. A chicken

lands on his arm leaving its claw

print in his skin like creases in the cardboard

seal of a cereal box

pressed beneath a thumb.”

In this poem, the speaker imagines being cast into hell. In the poem the devil actually reads a book to the speaker. The speaker is entranced by the devil’s calmness. In these lines, notice how the poem emphasizes the chicken, claw, cardboard, box, and thumb. The mystery of the devil’s physical presence is expressed in the way one simple sentence is broken: “A chicken/lands….” To break the subject and verb here energizes those lines and keeps momentum happening. The break of “cardboard/seal” is a poetic strategy called “enjambment,” which means jamming one line, basically, into the next line. This mostly occurs when end-words presented as subjects and verbs or adjectives and nouns are broken.

Rhythm of the Night – and Day

Other than for immediacy and abruptness, shape your lines for rhythm. You may want to mix line lengths, for example, to vary a certain rhythm in a poem. The poet Belle Waring concentrates on blending long lines with short lines in most of her poems in her book, “Dark Blonde.”  Here is an excerpt from her poem, “Shots”:

“…but in the ambulance, he codes, and then, in the ER

with the furious swirl of personnel, crash cart rumbling up, curtains

snatched to shield him from the drive-bys and the drunks,

the boy expired.

Measles encephalitis.

He never got his shots.”

Waring shows how the longer line more often depends on lucid sound. In this case, the alliteration of “crash cart” and “curtains,” and “drive-bys” and “drunks.” There’s a focus on long-vowel sounds in those first three lines that add to the mystery of what’s happening to the boy. But the staccato rhythm of the last three lines signals the boy’s fate. It is explicit. It’s not pretty. The poem’s lines are etched in a lyrical music.

It’s true that most anything can happen in a poem when it’s written in free verse. But if you find that your poem is lacking in energy, momentum, or even interest, you might try “manipulating” your lines for maximum effect. A poem is so beholden to language, and because of that, the poet owes it to his or her poem to pay attention to the individual lines, to sculpt them in a way that benefits the poem.


Editor’s Note: This article stems from a workshop session at Franklin Pre-Release Center in Ohio in which some of this material was covered.