18 April 2008

So You Think You're a Poet? Part Two: Structure/Line Breaks

This month my freshmen classes are reading and studying poetry. One particular bit of advice I’ve given them is to pay attention to the structure of a poem. Poets insert line breaks for a reason.

There are many poets whose poetry attests to this:
Walt Whitman, E. E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, and others. Each line break is treated with the same reverence as an image, a title, and any form of punctuation.

When I was in high school, I didn't know much about the structure of poetry. So when I wrote a poem (I use the term loosely), I broke the line when I got to the end of the page. The only indication my poems were, in fact, poems was that each line was capitalized. And, in my young writing mind, I thought I was writing poetry.

Careful consideration must be made in the decision to create a line break, or to structure a poem in a particular way. Look at this poem by E. E. Cummings. In it, he uses line breaks and structure to add to the whimsical atmosphere of a spring day in the park. Now imagine the poem as a prose poem, or having been broken at the end of a thought or sentence.

My college poetry professor told us to be sure our line breaks served a purpose in the poem. What do you want the break to accomplish? Or, for that matter, what do you want the lack of break to accomplish?

A line break, especially to readers who have not studied poetry as much, is a pause. Yes, if there's enjambment you should continue reading as if it were on the same line, but when seeing it on the page, the mind still pauses for a split-second as the eyes move to the beginning of the next line. That said, where do you want your readers to pause, even if briefly, to think about what they've just read? Consider the poem below by William Carlos Williams, which has been altered (though the words are same):

so much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens.

Now close your eyes for a moment and picture the image just described. Can you see it? Okay. This is the proper structure:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Close your eyes again. Now what do you see? If you're anything like me, the image was very different.

When I read the first version, I see a red wheelbarrow on the ground next to a few chickens. And the wheelbarrow is wet. In my mind, it's an entire image.

When I read the proper version, the image develops as I read. First, I see a bright red wheelbarrow, upside down on the ground. It's wet and you can see the water rivulets on the sides of it. It's large and it's all I can see. Then, my mental camera pulls back on the scene, and there are three white chickens, so bright in the sun you can barely stand to look at them, picking at the ground next to the wheelbarrow. And despite the brightness of the chickens, my mind still goes back to the wheelbarrow, fire-engine red, upside down, shiny from the water.

If Williams had structured his poem in any other way, I very much doubt I would love it as much as I do. But because he took time and consideration as he wrote to create the perfect image in the line breaks, it is my favorite poem.

When you write a poem, be careful about how you write it. Don't let it fall flat because you didn't structure it the way it should have been structured. Be aware of what you're presenting both visually and mentally with every line of your poem. All the imagery in the world couldn't save a poorly formatted poem.

And now that I've worried you, go! Write! Worry over whether or not to start a new line!

And happy scribbling!

1 comment:

  1. I think more wanna-be poets need to have this post nailed to their foreheads. Grrr.

    Actually came by a really good example of this today. First you have this:


    Then this:


    Exact same words, only one invokes the song, and the other's just a bunch of words all shoved together.

    Sorry about the lack of hyperlinks - haven't memorized the code, too damned lazy to open a blog to cheat right now. ;-)


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