Line break (poetry)

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A line break in poetry is the termination of the line of a poem, and the beginning of a new line; within the standard conventions of Western literature, this is usually but not always at the left margin. Line breaks may occur mid-clause, creating enjambment, a term that literally means 'to straddle'. Enjambment "tend[s] to increase the pace of the poem",[1] whereas end-stopped lines, which are lines that break on caesuras (pauses), emphasize these silences and slow the poem down.[1] Line breaks may also serve to signal a change of movement or to suppress or highlight certain internal features of the poem, such as a rhyme or slant rhyme.

Line breaks can be a source of dynamism, providing a method by which poetic forms imbue their contents with intensities and corollary meanings that would not have been possible to the same degree in other forms of text. An example may be taken from E.E. Cummings' poem 'old age sticks'

scolds Forbid
den Stop
Must
n't Don't

The line break within 'must/n't' allows a double reading of the word as both 'must' and 'mustn't', whereby the reader is made aware that old age both enjoins and forbids the activities of youth. At the same time, the line break subverts 'mustn't': the forbidding of a certain activity—in the poem's context, the moral control the old try to enforce upon the young—only serves to make that activity more enticing.

While Cummings's line breaks are used in a poetic form that is intended to be appreciated through a visual, printed medium, line breaks are also present in poems predating the advent of printing. Some examples are to be found, for instance, in Shakespeare's sonnets; however, some Early Modernists[who?] would argue that such an effect wasn't consciously intended by Shakespeare to be read as line breaks, which arise from the advent of printing as a method of distribution, which has a contextual effect upon that which is to be distributed. Here are two examples of this technique operating in different ways in Shakespeare's Cymbeline:

In the first example, the line break between the last two lines cuts them apart, emphasizing the cutting off of the head:

With his own sword,

Which he did wave against my throat, I have ta'en
His head from him.

William Shakespeare, Cymbeline

In the second example, the text before the line break retains a meaning in isolation from the contents of the new line. This meaning is encountered by the reader before it being modified by the text after the line break, which clarifies that, instead of "I, as a person, as a mind, am 'absolute,'" it 'really' means: "I am absolutely sure it was Cloten":

I am absolute;

'Twas very Cloten.

William Shakespeare, Cymbeline

Some interpreters[who?] would argue that the 'first' meaning is preserved in the realm of the metatext.

Where the lines are broken in relation to the ideas in the poem also affects the feeling of reading the poetry. For example, the feeling may be jagged or startling versus soothing and natural, which can be used to reinforce or contrast the ideas in the poem. Lines are often broken between words, but there is certainly a great deal of poetry where at least some of the lines are broken in the middles of words: this can be a device for achieving inventive rhyme schemes.

In general, line breaks divide the poetry into smaller units called lines, (this is a modernisation of the term verse) which are often interpreted in terms of their self-contained meanings and aesthetic values: hence the term "good line". Line breaks, indentations, and the lengths of individual words determine the visual shape of the poetry on the page, which is a common aspect of poetry but never the sole purpose of a line break. A dropped line is a line broken into two parts, in which the second part is indented to remain visually sequential through spacing. In metric poetry, the places where the lines are broken are determined by the decision to have the lines composed from specific numbers of syllables. Prose poetry is poetry without line breaks in accordance to paragraph structure as opposed to stanza. Enjambment is a line break in the middle of a sentence, phrase or clause, or one that offers internal (sub)text or rhythmically jars for added emphasis. Alternation between enjambment and end-stopped lines is characteristic of some complex and well composed poetry, such as in Milton's Paradise Lost.

A new line can begin with a lowercase or capital letter. New lines beginning with lowercase letters vaguely correspond with the shift from earlier to later poetry: for example, the poet John Ashbery usually begins his lines with capital letters prior to his 1991 book-length poem "Flow-Chart", whereas in and after "Flow-Chart" he almost invariably begins lines with lowercase letters unless the beginning of the line is also the beginning of a new sentence. There is, however, some much earlier poetry where new lines begin with lowercase letters. Beginning a line with an uppercase letter when the beginning of the line does not coincide with the beginning of a new sentence is referred to by some as "majusculation". However, this is an invented term derived from majuscule. The correct term is a coroneted verse. In T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, where ambiguity abounds, a line break in the opening (ll. 5–7) starts things off.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Because the lines start with capitalized letters, Eliot could be saying "Earth" as the planet or "earth" as the soil.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, Jon Stallworthy, ed. (2005). The Norton Anthology of Poetry. W.W. Norton & Company. p. 2034. ISBN 0-393-97920-2.