Line Breaks in Poetry

Sean Glatch  |  October 2, 2023  | 

Line breaks in poetry are what separate the form from prose. But when it comes to the craft of poetry, deciding where to break the line, on what word, and how the line should be broken proves difficult.

Indeed, poetry line breaks often confuse writers and readers alike. How do you read them? How do they impact the way the poem is read? Poetry, sometimes, feels like a puzzle, with the poem line breaks being a kind of code you need to crack.

In truth, once you understand how they work, line breaks in poetry can prove to be some of the most exciting craft elements of writing a poem. Poetry line breaks are a skill mastered over a lifetime, but with careful attention to poetry, you’ll recognize how the line breaks in a poem impact the poem as a whole.

In this article, we’ll example different line break examples in poetry, and then offer guidelines for using poetry line breaks yourself. But first, what is a line break in poetry?

Contents

What is a Line Break in Poetry?

Line breaks are what make poetry distinct from prose. In prose, the line break happens randomly based on the width of the page. In poetry, the poet breaks the line with intention, making the poetry line break a unit of the poem itself.

What is a line break in poetry?: The basic unit of a poem, in which a line is broken intentionally to convey something distinct, unique, and essential to the poem.

Indeed, the basic unit of a poem is the line. A line of poetry should convey something distinct and express something unique and essential to the poem. This is true even for poetry forms like the villanelle or the pantoum—the repeating lines should have unique meanings given their new contexts.

The only time line breaks don’t matter in poetry are if you’re writing a prose poem, which, arguably, is distinct from poetry itself. Prose poems eschew the line break, yet still demand the close attention to language that poetry requires.

There are a few different types of poetry line breaks that affect the poem’s meaning. Let’s examine those in closer detail.

Line Breaks in Poetry: Enjambed Lines

Enjambment, or an enjambed line, is a line that flows into the following line without interruption. In other words, the line does not end on a period, comma, semicolon, or other mark which signifies a pause or completed thought.

When you read an enjambed line, it should flow into the following line, with little or no pause. The bolded words in the example below signify enjambed lines.

“And Then I Tried” By Rene Ricard

Retrieved here.

And then I tried to put myself at
a distance from the subject, but the
distance was just another
angle on the same subject and
it was always the same subject, you.

Each line of the poem is enjambed, except for the final line. This makes the poem read faster, but the line breaks are still occurring where the line feels like a complete unit within the whole of the poem.

Line Breaks in Poetry: End-Stopped Lines

An end-stopped line is a line of poetry that ends with a pause. Typically, this pause is created by some sort of punctuation, such as a period, colon, semicolon, comma, or (sometimes) an em-dash.

The end-stopped line should be read with a pause. It serves to pace the rhythm and cadence of the poem, while also signifying a greater transition into the following line.

In bold in the following poem are words at the end of end-stopped lines:

“Tin Bucket” By Jenny George

Retrieved here.

The world is not simple.
Anyone will tell you.
But have you ever washed a person’s hair
over a tin bucket,
gently twisting the rope of it
to wring the water out?
At the end of everything,
dancers just use air as their material.
A voice keeps singing even
without an instrument.
You make your fingers into a comb.

Read this poem out loud, with a pause at the end of each end-stopped line. Notice how the alternation of end-stopped and enjambed lines creates a sense of movement and tension within the piece. Alternating these poetic devices helps make a poem flow in surprising and intentional ways.

Line Breaks in Poetry: Half Lines / Caesuras

The half line is a poetry line break that occurs implicitly in the middle of a line. It is marked by a “caesura”—a pause or gap that occurs within the reading of the line itself. Typically, the caesura isn’t physically present in the poem, but it’s implied by the poem’s form.

Contemporary poetry rarely uses the half line, as it’s more a feature of Old English narrative poetry. Those poems used what’s called “alliterative verse,” in which the words surrounding the caesura alliterate.

Line Breaks in Poetry: Experimental Lines / Visual Poetry

Since poets experiment with everything else, it’s natural that they should experiment with line breaks in poetry, too. Some poems break the line in ways that challenge the reader to interpret the text in different ways. The poem’s line break might also guide the reader through how the poem is meant to be read.

Here’s an example of what we mean by this. Take the first movement from Cindy Tran’s poem “Fluid Dynamics”:

line breaks in poetry: fluid dynamics by cindy tran

The poem still has complete lines, of course, but they’re positioned in ways that take up the whole page. What does it mean for the poem to have so much white space scattered throughout the text? How might the indentations of certain lines change the way you read them? We can’t answer those questions for you—visual poetry often requires the reader to interpret the text in their own way.

Visual poetry can also be a multimedia art. The Poetry Foundation has a great write-up of visual poetry here.

Functions of Line Breaks in Poetry

So, what do these different poetry line breaks do for the poem? The list goes on and on. But, here are a few conventional functions of line breaks in poetry:

  • To isolate a line. A line of poetry is both complete and interdependent; the line break allows a line to stand alone as a complete unit. This often helps magnify the language or imagery in the line itself.
  • To create movement. Line breaks set the rhythm of a poem. Notice how a short line is fast, and a long line is slow. Line breaks in poetry control the speed at which you read, making them integral to a poem’s melody and rhythm.
  • To create opposition and tension. Because the line is a unit of poetry, a line break can cleave two or more contrasting ideas, creating irony, opposition, or tension in the piece. The poetry line break often helps isolate contrasting ideas more clearly; otherwise, that juxtaposition might be less impactful.
  • To create multiple meanings. A line can have one meaning on its own, and a different meaning when read as part of the entire poem. Both readings of the line are correct, which also helps create tension in the poem itself.
  • To generate surprise and intrigue. When poetry is read slowly and carefully, you might finish a line and think, “what comes next?”

Pay attention to all of these possibilities in the below readings, as they contain great line break examples in poetry.

Stanza Vs. Line

Briefly, let’s discuss the difference between stanza breaks and line breaks in poetry.

A line is to a stanza what a sentence is to a paragraph. Stanzas are groups of lines that operate as larger units in an entire poem. Some poems are entirely one stanza: this is known as an isometric poem. Other poems or poetry forms, such as the sestina, require a poem’s lines to be grouped into multiple stanzas.

The rules for poetry line breaks and stanza breaks are much the same. Just understand that a stanza, being a group of lines, is inevitably more complex. It will contain contradictions and complexities, comparing and contrasting different ideas. It will also create movement, add a pause, generate surprise and intrigue, or advance opposition and tension. A stanza break can be both enjambed and end-stopped, since the stanza break is also a line break, just bigger.

In short, anything a poem’s line break can do, a stanza break does, too. Both units of poetry group words together in startling, intentional ways.

Line Break Examples in Poetry

Of course, any great poem is going to have great line breaks. But these examples stand out because of how they use poetry line breaks. The clever poet knows how to generate movement, opposition, tension, and surprise all in the cleaving of two words with one line.

Here are some line break examples in poetry. Read these poems slowly, and read like a poet!

Line Break Examples in Poetry: “Night Walk” by Franz Wright

Retrieved here.

The all-night convenience store’s empty
and no one is behind the counter.
You open and shut the glass door a few times
causing a bell to go off,
but no one appears. You only came
to buy a pack of cigarettes, maybe
a copy of yesterday’s newspaper—
finally you take one and leave
thirty-five cents in its place.
It is freezing, but it is a good thing
to step outside again:
you can feel less alone in the night,
with lights on here and there
between the dark buildings and trees.
Your own among them, somewhere.
There must be thousands of people
in this city who are dying
to welcome you into their small bolted rooms,
to sit you down and tell you
what has happened to their lives.
And the night smells like snow.
Walking home for a moment
you almost believe you could start again.
And an intense love rushes to your heart,
and hope. It’s unendurable, unendurable.

I adore this poem. It’s filled with a certain painful beauty, an overwhelming despair, both at life’s hardships and at the need to live anyway. The second person POV makes the reader intimate with the speaker’s experiences, while also making it feel like the speaker is distancing himself from his emotions.

I could dissect this poem for pages and pages and pages. Instead, I’ll point out some amazing uses of the poetry line break:

Double meanings:

  • “finally you take one and leave”—this line is a bit of a fake-out. It seems like the speaker is leaving the store, but he actually leaves money and then leaves the store.
  • “There must be thousands of people / in this city who are dying”—immediately, the reader thinks the people are on death’s bed, but then the next like, to welcome you,” immediately shifts the tone.

Tension and opposition:

  • “It is freezing, but it is a good thing”—this line holds two contradictory ideas together in an interesting way.
  • “And an intense love rushes to your heart, / and hope. It’s unendurable, unendurable.”—the line breaking “love” and “hope” cements these two forces as different, somehow. It also places “hope” in closest proximity to “unendurable.”

Movement:

  • Notice how each line is of similar length, but small changes in the lines, such as the use of punctuation, change the flow of the poem. It speeds and slows, speeds and slows, all the while building tension towards the poem’s climactic insight.

Line Break Examples in Poetry: “Snowdrops” by Louise Glück

Retrieved here.

Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring—

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.

Each of these poetry line breaks fill the reader with suspense. There’s a sense of holding your breath and waiting for release, a feeling not dissimilar to that of the “earth suppressing” you. The poem’s line breaks contribute to the tension of the poem, a tension which the poem is trying to describe itself. Such is the power of the line break in poetry.

Note, this is a persona poem from the vantage of a flower, out of Glück’s collection The Wild Iris.

Some thoughts:

  • “Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know”—keeping “You know” on the same line answers the opening rhetorical question, while also making the reader curious. What is it we know, exactly?
  • “I did not expect to survive,”—again, Glück is building curiosity and intrigue. Why didn’t the speaker expect to survive?
  • “in damp earth my body / able to respond again,”—elegant double meaning here. The speaker is surprised to feel both its own body and its body’s ability to respond.
  • “crying yes risk joy”—what an interesting line! It’s a bit hard to parse on its own, but each word is doing an immense amount of work, and the juxtaposition of crying, risk, and joy encapsulates the theme of rebirth present in this piece. A line of poetry can do this: isolate a poem’s core, even without making grammatical sense.

Line Break Examples in Poetry: “The Problem with Travel” by Ada Limón

Retrieved here. 

Every time I’m in an airport,
I think I should drastically
change my life: Kill the kid stuff,
start to act my numbers, set fire
to the clutter and creep below
the radar like an escaped canine
sneaking along the fence line.
I’d be cable-knitted to the hilt,
beautiful beyond buying, believe in
the maker and fix my problems
with prayer and property.
Then, I think of you, home
with the dog, the field full
of purple pop-ups– we’re small and
flawed, but I want to be
who I am, going where
I’m going, all over again.

This poem (by the current U.S. Poet Laureate) is filled with suspense. Many of the poetry line breaks encourage us to ask: what’s next? For example:

  • “I think I should drastically”—drastically what? The reader is hooked!
  • “start to act my numbers, set fire”—there’s a contradiction in this. What can you set fire to that makes you act your numbers?
  • “Then, I think of you, home”—there’s a turning point in the poem at this line, a transition from the poem’s yearning to what the speaker already has.
  • “flawed, but I want to be”—works well as both an isolated line and within the poem as a whole.
  • “who I am, going where”—that “where” in the penultimate line references the title elegantly.

The poem ends by suggesting that the speaker is always yearning for home to the person she loves, and the problem with airports is that they take you elsewhere. She would rather do it all over again, make the same mistakes laid out in this poem, as long as she’s with her love at the end. This gorgeous, unexpected love poem uses line breaks to help the reader travel through the same set of emotions as the speaker does.

Line Break Examples in Poetry: “Ode to Friendship” by Noor Hindi

Retrieved from Jellyfish.

Edgewater Beach, 2019.

The night so warm I could fall in love
with anything
including myself. My loves. You are the only people
I’d surrender my softness to.
The moon so blue. And yes, what’s gold
is gold. What’s real
is us despite
a country so grieved, so woke, so death.
Our gloom as loud as shells.

Listen. Even the ocean begs.
Put your hands in the sand, my friend.
It’s best we bury ourselves.
What’s heavy.               What’s heavy?
Becomes light.

This sonnet-length ode certainly reminds me to love my friends a little harder. It also uses poetry line breaks in moving, evocative ways.

Some highlights:

  • “The night so warm I could fall in love”—this, alone, is a beautiful image. We can all feel the kind of wonderfully warm night this evokes.
  • “with anything”—these two words as its own line is daring. There’s a certain emptiness, an ambiguity waiting to be filled and defined (which the poem ultimately does).
  • “including myself. My loves. You are the only people”—breaking the line here suggests that the speaker’s friends are the only people, elevating their importance to the speaker.
  • “The moon so blue. And yes, what’s gold”—fun use of color to punctuate the middle and end of this line.
  • “What’s heavy.               What’s heavy? / Becomes light.”—the caesura in the middle of this line carries a sense of time passing, of waiting for the heaviness to transform. The last line offers this transformation. But, what kind of lightness? Lightness of weight, or illuminating light?

Notice how the beginning of the poem includes a lot of enjambed lines, while the end is entirely end-stopped. What do you think the poem suggests by this? What about the poem’s end seems resolute?

Guidelines for Line Breaks in Poetry

How do you know when to break a line of poetry? There are a few general rules to consider when utilizing line breaks in poetry. The key words here are general and consider: most of these rules have been broken in all of the above line break examples in poetry. Use these rules to arrive at the purpose of poetry line breaks: surprise, intrigue, movement, tension, double meanings, and all the other possibilities a good line of poetry can accomplish.

DO:

  • End a line on a verb. Preferably a non-being verb. Verbs of motion, of thinking, and of action are especially powerful.
  • End a line on a concrete noun. Preferably the most evocative image in the line itself.
  • End a line on unusual or important words. They’re not always verbs or nouns, though they often are.
  • Break a line for the poem’s rhythm. Poetry line breaks can highlight the flow of a poem, as well as internal- and end-rhymes.
  • Utilize a mix of enjambment and end-stopped lines. Notice how each one varies the speed of the poem, building or breaking tension.
  • Allow each line to be unique. No two lines should convey the same things.
  • Allow a line to be as short or as long as it needs to be. Line length is another way to play with speed, movement, and tension in a poem.
  • Allow the poem to breathe. Read your work aloud. Do you find that the poem’s line breaks are good points to take a breath? This is often a good rule of thumb when you’re not sure where else to break the line. Also note, this breath is slightly deeper after an end-stopped line.

TRY NOT TO:

  • End a line on a pronoun (I, you, he, she). Depending on the subject matter, sometimes these pronouns are inevitably emphasized, but do so sparingly.
  • End a line on a preposition (for, to, from, between, beneath, etc.). You can do this occasionally, especially if the preposition provides an interesting direction for the verb in the line. Where is that verb headed?
  • End a line on a word that’s cliché or abstract. The word “soul” or “home,” for example, are both wildly overused in poetry. That said, sometimes a line break in poetry can make old language seem fresh and new.

DON’T:

  • End a line on an article (a, an, the). This makes the line feel unfinished, like it can’t stand on its own.
  • End a line on a conjunction (and, but, nor, or, so, etc.). Same reason as above. Try to keep these words at the start or middle of a line.
  • Relegate one thought to one line. The line is not a unit of thought, it is a unit of poetry. As such, one line can and should contain contradictions, juxtapositions, competing ideas, and continuing ideas.
  • Try to shape the poem like an object. This poetry form—known as a calligram or, less often, a technopaegnia—is rather antiquated, and tries to rely on the image of the words to convey meaning, rather than the words themselves.

Master Line Breaks in Poetry at Writers.com

The line is what separates poetry from prose. So, practicing your poetry will inevitably strengthen your line breaks. Take a look at our upcoming online poetry classes, where you’ll practice poetry line breaks and craft your best poetry yet.

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Sean Glatch

Sean Glatch is a poet, storyteller, and screenwriter based in New York City. His work has appeared in 8Poems, The Poetry Annals, Rising Phoenix Press, Ghost City Press, on local TV, and elsewhere. When he's not writing, which is often, he thinks he should be writing.

2 Comments

  1. Dale Rogers on June 20, 2023 at 9:54 am

    Wonderful article. Thank you.

  2. Denise on June 28, 2023 at 3:05 am

    I needed to read this. You are the best for what you know but can always get better.

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