Getting Your Poems On The Page: Create Momentum with Lines

Sage Cohen

By Sage Cohen
Lines act as the engine that moves the reader through a poem. How you hinge one line to the next, where you break the line, and the amount of white space you create through line lengths instruct the reader about how fast and bumpy-or smooth and leisurely-the ride of your poem will be.

The choices you make about lines will reflect your own unique sense of rhythm, music, and meaning. While there are no rules about how and where you should break lines, there are a few things you might want to consider.

Think of the line break (the place where the line ends) as a comma-the place where the reader lingers an extra beat. A line break can coincide with the completion of an idea, or it can leave the reader hanging mid-idea, intrigued and wanting more. Each creates a different kind of momentum.

When breaking a line, decide what word you want the reader’s eye to linger on a little longer. Because strong images or language can engage the reader enough to follow to the next line, you might want to end a line with a descriptive word like “atrophy” rather than a modifier such as “the.”

Now let’s look at the shape of the lines themselves. Do you want your poem to feel dense or light, fast-paced or leisurely? Line breaks can contribute to these effects, especially when the shape is paired effectively with meaning. For example:

Tense and tightly
wound, staccato
short lines strung
together without
stanza breaks
feel halting,
stagger
like ocean
chop

Whereas a poem whose lines are longer and lingering might suggest
Something a little more spacious, such as a curtain
breathing in and out a window or a leisurely walk
along the lacy froth of foam along the line
of the ocean’s receding memory.

Do you see how the shapes of the stanzas mirror their meaning? Does the first stanza look tense? Does the second stanza feel more languid and slow moving?

Of course, these are only two possible ways to approach the shape of a poem in a world of possibilities. The following exercises can get you started with an exploration of how to make line breaks work best for you.

Your turn!

1.    Write an angry poem. Don’t say anything explicitly angry in the poem. Just try to give the reader an angry, agitated experience through the shape and momentum by using the white space of the poem. Let rage stutter through the length of the lines and the places where you break the lines.

2.    Find a published poem whose line breaks you admire. Write your own poem that imitates the pattern of the line lengths and the types of words at the end of each line. If the first line of the example poem is a complete sentence, yours should be, too. Where a descriptive image continues from one line to the next, yours should do the same.

3.    Revisit a poem you’ve already written. Whatever your previous choices were, do the opposite; break long lines up, and lengthen short lines. Vary the types of language and phrasing that end each line. Then compare the two versions and see which one feels like a better form for the content of the poem.
October 2007 Family Fun Magazine

Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University and teaches the email class Poetry for the People.
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