The curve of each line of each branch in each tree smiles at us. Clear, dark skies keep pouring heaps of stars into the lines. Silhouetted in the shrubs next to the road, several deer watch us pass by. Gratitude moves in all directions. I wish all poems were like this.
It might take me two, maybe even three posts to really say all that I’d like to say about line breaks in poetry. Since poets use line breaks in a way that is pretty much unique in all the arts, it makes sense that it’s a core skill and a major effort to learn.
I often bring up a classic essay by American poet Denise Levertov titled “On the Function of the Line” when teaching about lineation in poetry. She gets a bit grumpy about it, complaining that her students have no idea what the line break is. I don’t think it’s worth getting grumpy over, but I do agree that we could be more attentive to the power of the line. Our poems would thank us.
One of her most interesting points is that the line break can feel more like a punctuation mark than like a rhythmic notation. In this case, the linebreak is “a form of punctuation additional to the punctuation that forms part of the logic of completed thoughts.”
So think about that for a moment. The way a comma or a period or question mark organizes the logic of a sentence, so too the line break organizes the logic of thoughts within a poem. Certainly, we can imagine this because a line break can cause us to pause very slightly in the reading, as a comma would or a sentence-ending period or other punctuation. But what does this mean, “the logic of completed thoughts”?
The logic of the piece pronounces them into the mind. Try reading to yourself just one line at a time, observing the strange meanings that arise out of the line breaks.
My hair was always
so nobody knew
that you left me
your thick heavy braids
I was taught to address you with a plural “You”
as if there was more than one person
in your body
otherwise, how could you
your frightening life
(Excerpt from "Umbilical," from Motherfield, copyright 2022 by Julia Cimafiejeva. Translation © 2022 by Valzhyna Mort and Hanif Abdurraqib. Reprinted in Words Without Borders)
There’s a multiplying of meanings. Observe the weight that each phrase takes on when it is alone on a line. The breaks can make a counter-logic or a counter-rhythm in the poem that reveals other layers of meaning. In a poem like this, about separation from family and homeland, the fracture of meanings is especially vivid.
If you are writing your gratitude into a poem for Thanksgiving, try using line breaks as a way to say more than you can say with prosaic logic. There’s so much to say thanks for in any life.
A gift to end this post: the beautifully curated and produced “Gather in Poems” 2022 recording from the Academy of American Poets. It’s all amazing, but definitely watch Tracy K. Smith’s reading of Aracelis Girmay’s “The Black Maria” (4:30) and David St. John’s reading of Ralph Angel’s “Sampling” (8:50) and Natasha Trethewey reading Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Thanks” (39:00). Turn on closed-captioning to see the line breaks marked out in the running text. This is how we learn and grow and be poets together.