Writing Mini-Lessons: Breaking Lines and Stanzas and Punctuating
“I cannot say too many times how powerful the techniques of line
length and line breaks are. You cannot swing the lines around, or fling
strong-sounding words, or scatter soft ones, to no purpose.”
~ Mary Oliver (on lines in poetry)
“The main thing is to make rooms that are big enough to be useful,
shapely enough to be attractive, and not so empty as to be disappointing.”
~ Ron Padgett (on stanzas)
One of the most visually noticeable things about poems is that they look different from prose (or non-poems). Poems have shorter lines than paragraphs, and they are surrounded by white space. The place where a poet chooses to end one line and begin another is called a line break. Thus, the ends of lines are called line breaks. Another of a poem’s divisions is the stanza, which is a grouping of two or more lines within a poem. The space between stanzas is known as a stanza break. Poetry is the only genre in which form matters as much as content.
Beginning writers of free verse poetry are often confounded by line breaks and how to handle them. More rule-bound poetry offers writers greater certainty about where each line should end: lines end after a certain number of syllables or with words that rhyme. Free verse is more free form, and therefore, offers no such formulaic answers. Yet, line breaks and stanza breaks are of critical importance to a poem.
Line breaks set the rhythm of a poem and create the white space and shape of the poem. These line breaks and white space help the reader know how to read a poem out loud or silently. Free verse poems generally have line breaks that emphasize the pauses a reader’s voice might make: line breaks signal the briefest of rests, breaths, or silences. This infinitesimal pause indicated by a line break honors the rhythm and emphasis placed there by the poet. Furthermore, most poets end their lines on strong words: nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs. Slicing a line at a weak word (an article, conjunction, or preposition) forces the reader to pause at an insignificant moment in the poem, rather than at a point of meaning.
Line and stanza breaks are ultimately up to the poet, so how do you choose which words belong together on a line? How do your mind, eyes, ears, and lungs help you choose? First, remember that poetry is meant to be spoken. Then think of the emphasis you want to give your words. Explore breaking the line at different places, whisper reading to yourself, to see which line break gives your poem the rhythm and meaning you most desire.
Try to draft your free verse poems in lines. You will revise later by shortening, lengthening, and moving lines, but it is wonderful to visualize your draft as a poem, rather than as prose, from the very start. If that is too challenging for now, it is fine to write your poem first as prose, and then go back into the draft and divide it into lines, and then revise and polish based on those breaks.
As you work on line breaks, stanzas, and punctuation, consider the following:
- Do pay close attention to line breaks and white space. Notice how a poet makes decisions. Do the repeating lines all look alike? Does one word or one line stand all by itself? Do lines go down the page in a certain way? Why do you think the poet did this?
- Poetry is written to be spoken. Break lines to emphasize breaths, pauses, or silences. Break on nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
- Try to draft in lines. When you revise, insert // between words to create a new line break, and ============= between lines to indicate a new stanza break. Experiment with the size, shape, and length of lines and stanzas.
- In general, punctuate and capitalize poems as if they’re prose, but don’t be afraid to experiment with/without caps and punctuation, either.