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 that 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 end-stopped line. An enjambed line breaks in the middle of a phrase or thought. An end-stopped 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.

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