Write a poem that has a variable line length rather than a set meter

Day 19 of 31 poems in 31 days

Get in Line

The first and most recognizable difference between poetry and prose is the line. Poetry is written with line breaks and prose is not. While it is possible to write “prose poetry” without line breaks the reason it is called prose poetry is because it is written in a prose style. All other types of poetry rely on the line.

There are many ways to play with and manipulate the line in poetry. The most established way to define your line is the use of meter, which we have discussed several times already. Even when you use meter, it is far from the only consideration in the creation of a line.

One of the primary considerations in the use of the line in poetry is to determine the line break. Even if you use meter, you have to determine the number of feet in the meter you choose. Pentameter (generally a ten syllable line depending on the length of the feet) is going to have a much different feel than trimeter (generally a six syllable line). The first is around the length of the average sentence while the second is closer to the length of a phrase. Each creates a much different feel and rhythm.The line is open to other sorts of manipulation beyond meter. One is the use of the enjambed line versus the endstopped line. An enjambed line breaks in the middle of a phrase or thought. An endstopped line finishes at the end of a sentence or a thought. The use of enjambment changes the rhythm of a poem and gives it a feel that is more like prose. It often results in readings that ignore line length entirely.

Other line tools

Another way that poets manipulate the line is through placement. They indent or otherwise displace a line, often to emphasize that line or to show a progression. These placements can often get quite intricate, with lines appearing in all sorts of locations on the page.

A final way to manipulate the line is length. With meter, there is generally (though not always) a consistent line length. When meter is not used, line length can be much more variable. Some poets manipulate this, following short lines with long lines, or combining line length and line placement to create shapes on the page. These poems are often called shape poems or pattern poems.

The key point, in my opinion, with any sort of line manipulation is that it should be done for a reason and it should enhance the reading of the poem. If a poem uses lines in a disruptive way, it can harm the overall experience of reading the poem and often says more about the poet than the poem. There is often a fine line between art and artifice. The more manipulative you get, the more you risk creating the latter.

Today’s Poetry Assignment

Write a poem that has a variable line length rather than a set meter. Use either enjammed or endstopped lines.

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  1. Bedtime Stories

    There were bedtime stories
    once

    Well, not literally once

    More like once
    upon a time…

    That chunk of age, space, and being
    defined by fuzzy borders

    Of one going on two
    Of two going on three

    Lapping like waves that creep slowly
    unreceding
    to the shores of six and twelve

    They with chapter books now

    The old one snores
    while the young one reads

    On and on
    until the fuzzy reminders

    Of five going on ten
    Of ten going on fifteen
    Of just five more minutes, please!

    Bedtime stories
    once
    upon a time
    in my voice

    Past

    Now me in the rocking chair
    watching them sleep
    not yet obsolete

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