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Why Line Breaks? Tension, Significance, and the Insanity of it All

Updated on September 13, 2016

Line breaks are a nasty beast to tame. When to use them, how to use them – no one really knows, but of course we all pretend we do. We can certainly guess why poets like to bounce around the page like a mouse on heroine. It’s new and inventive. It’s snarky. It’s fun and fresh. Who doesn’t know where to put a silly line break? Come on, English majors.

Now, line breaks do have some significance to a reader. For one thing, they create tension. For another, they make the reader cautious, a little apprehensive even. Thinking that of course the poet has some great significant reason for placing lines as he did – why else would they be there? Is that reason just unfathomable to the novice poetry reader? Surely, all the teachers know, probably most people in the class even know. There’s a great possibility that my first grade English teacher skipped over the significance of line breaks in poetry, but I’d never admit to that.

Maybe it’s just something that is supposed to be ingrained in us as writers. Our speech patterns are random and twisted. Maybe our poetry patterns should reflect that also? Or no, it’s very hard to say without additional facts on the matter. So, published poets, generally, must have some facts to back their choices or poetry would all look happenstance. Maybe they know the rules so they can break them.

Breaking the lines in silly ways gives the reader a bit of tap dancing to get through the poem. In this, line breaks can be funny on their own. Of course, that also leaves us to believe that the poet is sitting there, published works in hand, wringing their hands together like an evil scientist as we attempt to comprehend the purpose, function, and symbolism of their damned line breaks.

Ha – except that poets are not that well paid, so this leads us to believe that the line breaks may be nothing more than a flick of the wrist during the construction of the poem. Unless, the poet is actually a masochist, but then we have other issues to discuss.

In retrospection, line breaks are what we make of them, aren’t they? If nothing else, they sure give the reader a lot to think about when deconstructing a poem. And, if the poem sucks, maybe add some funky line breaks to liven the whole thing up. We’ll just consider that, right?

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