It’s 2 a.m. and I’ve written a poem that I’m excited about. (Aren’t we all excited about our new poems?… at least for a solid week.) So I’m reading it aloud afterward, only to find myself vacillating between verbs and propositions, dotting the ends of lines with hyphens or commas or… No, that’s not a strong enough word to punctuate. Sometimes I end up with a string of ands and sos and ofs tailing my lines—and hell if that doesn’t look like garbage on the page. I move it up. I put it back down with the next line, but that doesn’t look right either.
It goes on and on this way until I finally give up for the night.
So what constitutes a good line break? An adequate one? A nonsensical one? Does it even matter?
Of course, there’s a very academic approach—rules that have been beaten into me over the years, rules like: “Don’t end a line with a weak word, like a preposition,” or “End a line with something strong that will carry over the reader to the next thought,” or “Try to end your lines with verbs.” To some people, these rules sound silly; everyone has his or her own theory. But even knowing this doesn’t help in the cold, lonely hours of the morning when I’m sitting on the back porch in my underwear, lit up by the dull glow of my laptop screen.
Line breaks are definite. They are transitions. Two things I don’t do very well.
Then this voice comes in: Just make it a prose poem, damnit. (I have a friend, Kelly, who has recently taken to this methodology.) But prose poems are another bag of beans I’m not about to get into.
In my early years, line breaks weren’t an issue. Those hormone-driven scribbles, full of melodrama and too many exclamation marks, came easier. Poems seemed to make sense in my spiral-bound notebooks of neon-colored cats, shooting stars and purple moons. (We have Lisa Frank and the 1990’s to thank for such flamboyant school supplies.) Preteen Poetry was simple. You were longing and alone and in love, so you rhymed. You ended on words that fell out like songs: Don’t break my heart. You’ll tear me apart. Let’s go back to the start. I want a Pop Tart. You know what I’m saying.
Finally, it came to me.
Something I knew all along, but didn’t trust myself to enact. Once I finally freed myself from all those academic notions of poetry, I realized line breaks are all about rhythm. And as obscure a term as it is, rhythm is where verse got its start, right? Ok, we can argue that we’re too cool for school and nobody’s getting down with iambic pentameter or counting feet these days, BUT, rhythm still exists—whether manufactured or not. In fact, it explains why I’m always going back and forth with the breaks, trying to figure out what sounds right—some days I must have a different rhythm. And, well, at 2 a.m. I apparently have the uniform cadence of a drunk knee-slapper at an Abba concert.
I know this is not an exact answer, not a rule like those handed down to me in college, but trusting ones rhythm is everything.
It’s not to say all those profs weren’t on the right track, but that’s what happens after college… you take everything you learned in the classroom, then you figure shit out for yourself. So recite poems on your back porch in your underwear. Better yet—have someone else read them aloud to you. You’ll learn where to stop. You’ll hear it. You’ll feel it.
It’s like my mom always said (in response to my many childhood shenanigans): “Meghan, you never know when to quit, do you?”
Maybe not. But now I’m closer.