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The line break

In which learners consider different functions of the line break and identify the line break as the defining distinction between poetry and prose.

Put more practically, line-break is all you’ve got, and if you don’t master line-break – the border between poetry and prose – then you don’t know there is a border. And there is a border. [1]

In the quote (above), the poet Glyn Maxwell suggests that the line-break is the defining feature of poetry—poetry on the page at least. The decision where to break the line can be informed by different reasons. If you are following a particular metrical pattern or form, then that choice is, in a way, made for you. You are made to write into the form. In free verse, you may use the line break to emphasize a particular phrasing. What’s certain is that the last word on the line often receives particular attention by being positioned there (and this can be further intensified through the use of rhyme). Some poets avoid this intensity by deliberately ending lines on ‘small’ words.

Helen has provided two versions of a poem she wrote and which was published in the collection No Map Could Show Them (2016). The published version appears as a prose poem—that is a poem with no obvious line breaks. However, the poem was first written with very clear line breaks.

Read the two versions of the poem and answer the following questions. What thinking went into the initial line breaks? Which words were being emphasized and why? How does the experience of reading the prose poem differ? Which do you prefer and why?

This is the original version of ‘The Fear’ as I first wrote it:

The Fear

I worried about running.
My fear grew legs
and raced me
to the finish line.

I worried about finishing
and my fear was lacquered,
shone: that fruit-sized
model of the globe

I wanted as a kid.
I turned it in my sleep –
crumpled countries,
oceans I couldn’t

name. I worried
about my name and fear
introduced itself
before me at the party.

I worried about the party
and fear was a drink,
a pale flute pushed
into my hand.

I worried about drink,
so fear leaked
through the seams
of my clothes,

grew into a stain
on my wool coat
and people pretended
not to look at it.

Look – I’m still standing
in the corner
where you left me,
mid-sentence.

I’ve promised not
to move, but of course
I’m worried
about my promise

and fear is a pledge,
a lifelong IOU note,
a signature that looks
like this.

This is the edited version of the piece in more of a ‘prose poem’ format and as it subsequently appeared in my collection No Map Could Show Them:

The Fear

I worried about running. My fear grew legs and raced me to the finish line. I worried about finishing and my fear was lacquered, shone: that fruit-sized model of the globe I wanted as a kid. I turned it in my sleep – distant countries, oceans I couldn’t name. I worried about my name and fear introduced itself before me at the party. I worried about the party and fear was a drink, a pale flute pushed into my hand. I worried about drink, so fear leaked through the seams of my clothes, grew into a stain on my wool coat and people pretended not to look. See – I’m still standing in the corner where you left me, mid-sentence. I’ve promised not to move, but of course I’m worried about my promise and fear is a pledge, a lifelong IOU, a signature that looks like this.

References

[1] Maxwell G. On Poetry. London: Oberon Masters; 2012.

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How To Make A Poem

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