Breaking Lines

Mar 1, 2018 | Bubbler

a commentary on craft, by Barrett Warner 

My buddy E. J. loves his iambic apartment in Catonsville. “Ten feet to the kitchen, ten feet to the bathroom, ten feet to the living room,” he says, grinning like a baseball in October. It’s the sort of home where everything is close without feeling small or short. You can climb to the top of an association and see the next one and climb on top of that one and see the next. Every possible abstraction has an actual doorway and a chest-high dimmer switch. E. J.’s apartment is one of fourteen in the building, in a cluster of anonymous stanzas, within walking distance of a coffee shop if you’re thinking eastward, and the Patapsco River millraces if you’re thinking west.

In spite of its perfect pitch, E. J.’s bedroom community wasn’t designed by a poet. On the other hand, anyone who breaks a line is a draftsman. In addition to being a dreamer, a lover, a soothsayer, a cook, and a thief, a poet is an architect. No one can really teach you how to sleep or feel desire or pickpocket a little tradition, but line breaking—architecture—is the one skill in poetry that can be “learned.” So why is it something we all try to avoid? Come to my house, everyone, and you’ll find boxes of notes on Edna St. Vincent Millay, including my pedigree analysis of her secret racing stable. But you’ll need to spend a month in the attic before coming across a wadded piece of yellow ruled paper with the fragment: Try not to end a line with a preposition.

The trick is that line breaking can be learned but it cannot be taught. It’s a process of constant trying out, plugging in another amp, going acoustic. Musicians rehearse the same song every day. There’s writing a song—that’s one thing—but arranging a song is quite another. And unlike most poets, songwriters must scan every word and chord into charts for others to perform. Shouldn’t all of us be more like guitarists and pianists?  There’s writing a poem, but there’s also arranging the poem. Not every composer is the best arranger, and not every arranger is the best poet.

Seductive language in a poem is modulated language. Iambic pentameter is about that modulation. Its premise is that the average non-smoking Elizabethan poet can modulate five times per breath, resulting in five stressed and five unstressed feet. Speaking (and breathing) are instinctive, but language isn’t. Even bird calls can be scanned. That’s the trouble: breathing is so personal, so instinctive, so reflexive, so organic. And rules for breaking lines are so ruling and impersonal and inorganic. But without that scaffolding a poem isn’t a poem. It’s just the dream of a poem.

The best way to learn how to break a line is to breathe and speak over and over and over. No one can do this for you. No one can teach it.

Here’s a poem fragment from Selected Unpublished Blogposts of a Panda Express Employee, by Megan Boyle:

i can’t stop using my tongue to feel my chipped tooth
last night i got drunk and cleaned my room, it was okay

i don’t know why i just wrote ‘it was okay’
i think it was because it would make the line look complete
that line was a little too long
that one was a little too short
but since they were together it looked okay

First appeared in The Tishman Review