Teaching Line Breaks

This fall, I am teaching Introduction to Poetry Writing at Oregon State University. I excitedly planned my lessons, assignments, and exercises during the summer, many of which I feel proud of and want to share. Here’s the first one.

Summary of my lesson on Line Breaks:

First I introduced the terminology of the different types of breaks:

  • End stop: when the end of a line coincides with the end of a sentence or clause.
  •  Enjambment: when a line ends mid-clause, and the clause continues onto the next line.

Line breaks function somewhat like punctuation in that they indicate a pause for the reader. Therefore, using enjambment brings emphasis to the end of the line. However, if you use enjambment haphazardly, it can become confusing and put off readers. Ted Kooser gives a great example of this in his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual (which is one of the required texts in the course):

Mother and I went down to the shoe

store and she took along her white

purse so she could get a pair of

shoes to match (117).

Kooser explains that line breaks are a huge part of what gives a poem rhythm, and “the closer your writing gets to the pacing of conversational speech, the less it’s likely to call attention to itself” (118). Just like any other decision in a poem, it depends on the poet’s intention.

I added my own thoughts:

It is absolutely fine to not want your line breaks to call attention to themselves, to let other aspects of your poem take the spot light. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with using line breaks to create an interesting, more interactive reading experience. Whatever choice you make, take a step back and look at the poem like a potential reader, approaching the poem for the first time. Do the line breaks seem purposeful?

After looking at a few more example from The Poetry Home Repair Manual, we turned our attention to the poems they were assigned to read from Best of the Best American Poetry, the anthology I chose for the class.

The assigned reading for this lesson was “Dharma” by Billy Collins and “A House is Not a Home” by Terrance Hayes. After ask for volunteers to read each poem aloud, I asked them to look for specific breaks that they found especially effective, and I asked them to articulate how the break affected their reading experience. (I believe this was an effective angle to approach discussion, because participation was excellent.)

After all observations were noted, I added that I often don’t know what line breaks I will use until I try breaking the line at various points to see how the effect varies, then I passed out the in-class assignment, which students worked on until the end of the period (about 15 minutes).

In-class Activity

Finish this block of text by filling in the blanks:

In the dream, I woke up to find myself stuck on a boat with ___________________. It was a tiny boat, barely larger than ________________. Out of nowhere ____________________________, I ______________________________________. That’s when it started raining. Then I saw lightning. Then I saw ________________________. Then I saw a lighthouse. But the lighthouse looked more like a ____________________.  That’s when I realized I was dreaming.

Now take the text and break it into lines. You will do this twice. The first version should utilize primarily end stop line endings. The second version should utilize primarily enjambment.