Understanding Poetry #2: Lines

Last week we looked at some of the myths about understanding poetry and reacquainted ourselves with the joys of reading slowly. This week I want to look at the importance of lines and line-breaks.

The most obvious difference between poetry and prose is that poetry has line breaks whereas prose doesn’t (other than for practical typesetting purposes that don’t affect the meaning: two different editions of Robinson Crusoe with different font sizes might break the lines in different places without changing our experience of the book at all).

Consider the difference between:

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.


O Rose thou art sick. The invisible worm that flies in the night in the howling storm has found out thy bed of crimson joy, and his dark secret love does thy life destroy.

The words are identical. In terms of signifiers and signifieds, the meaning is identical. But in another sense the meaning isn’t the same at all: the two passages are clearly different.

Stating the obvious, one is in verse and the other is in prose. We might add that one rhymes and the other doesn’t, but the rhyme-words are there in both so it might be better to say that the rhymes are more prominent in the first passage. Being judgemental, we could also say that the first passage is beautiful and the second is clunky – not because verse is inherently more beautiful than prose, but because this particular arrangement of words works in verse and doesn’t really work in prose.

If you don’t agree with this, try reading both of them aloud. The second is a rhythmical mess: that long second sentence flops around like a creature whose backbone has been surgically removed. The rhythm of good prose is the natural rhythm of clauses and sentences, but that’s not what’s happening here. Let’s compare it with the following, from the opening of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.  I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

This is great prose. And the Blake above is a great poem. The reason that the Blake doesn’t work as prose is precisely because it’s a great poem: the lines and the line-breaks are not some kind of dead convention; they’re the organizing principle of the whole thing.

Poetry uses clauses and sentences and the rules of syntax, but its fundamental structural unit is the line. Poetry is made of lines.

(Note: I’m ignoring “prose-poems” here, and in what follows I’ll also ignore poems that make visual patterns on the page – not because either is unimportant, but because I want to tackle the fundamentals first.)

What is a line, other than the words between two blocks of white space on a page? Although there are lots of theories about this, for me the most powerful ones are about breath. A line – at least in its once-upon-a-time, ur-form – is the length of a breath.

This doesn’t mean you have to pause and take a huge gulp of air at the end of each line like a free-diver. Unless you’re infirm or a heavy smoker, you’ll have enough air in your lungs to deliver 2-3 lines of iambic pentameter with feeling; if you have a mild cold, you might manage 1-2. But even though a single generous in-breath can fuel a number of lines, each line is a discrete stream of out-breath.

If this sounds a bit esoteric, put the back of your hand about half an inch in front of your mouth (so you can feel it when you breathe out) then read the Blake from the top of this post aloud (the verse example, not the prose mutant). You should notice that you naturally stop breathing out for a brief pause at the end of each line in a way that you don’t between individual words.

Contrary to popular belief, we don’t normally speak in discrete words. We run them together into bursts of breath and sound that our brains then automatically translate back into the underlying words. This is part of what fluency in a language means, and the reason why native speakers seem to rattle things out so quickly when we’re struggling with phrase-books in a language we don’t speak well. The natural rhythm of speech runs words together into breath-phrases then pauses every few words to punctuate the out-breath or refill the lungs.

Poetry began in song, and the line is essentially the length of one of these breath-phrases. Over the centuries and across cultures lots of different lines have evolved. At school we come across technical names like iambic pentameter or dactylic hexameter, but all of them are variations on the central idea of an outbreath.

Two ways to massacre a poem when reading it aloud are to ignore the line-breaks completely or to force an exaggerated pause at the end of each line like a telex printer. The first of these turns the poem into a spineless mess like the prose-Blake above (something many professional actors would do well to take on board); the second turns the natural rhythm of breathing into something awkward and imposed. If you think of the line as the length of an out-breath, you won’t need to put in artificial pauses or crass over-emphasis at the end of the line because the (micro) pause will happen naturally. And the poem – if it’s a good one – will come alive.

That’s really all there is to it. You don’t need to think about this too much (and certainly don’t want it to get in the way of simply slowing down and enjoying the act of reading), but there’s no harm in letting your unconscious be aware of it in the background.

From this simple principle you can extrapolate a range of different poetic principles. For example, shorter lines tend to make you slow down and longer lines tend to make you speed up (a variation on the thriller-writer’s principle that short sentences convey emotion and long sentences convey momentum), because the same (ish) amount of breath has to deliver more or fewer words. This is the difference between Seamus Heaney’s

I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home

from “The Tollund Man”, and this from Louis MacNeice’s “Prayer Before Birth” (a single line, though some browsers might break it in two):

Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the club-footed ghoul come near me.

Likewise, some longer lines can have a pause in the middle called a caesura. But there will be time for this later: at first it’s enough to keep reading slowly, to notice the lines and feel the out-breath.

Next week we’ll look at the simple but disputed topic of meaning vs effect. For now, here’s a poem that makes full and wonderful use of its lines.

So We’ll Go No More A-Roving (George Gordon, Lord Byron, 1817)

So we’ll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And Love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.

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