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Line Breaks & Free Verse — a Clarification

While I was attempting last weekend to till the garden (I broke the tiller about a third of the way through the job) I spent some time thinking about reader’s responses, in comments and email, to my control freak post — it seems I sowed confusion there as well — and I want to try to set things at least a little straighter than my garden rows. Please understand that I’m writing particularly about the performance of poems, and I know some poets don’t give a damn about performance. They may be wonderful poets, but not for me. I’m just not interested in poetry written purely for the page. If a poem can’t be read aloud to a competent, comprehending listener, I won’t read more than a few lines and you can’t make me. By the way, “comprehending” includes what happens when we hear “Jabberwocky.”

First, I’ll try to make clear what I mean by metrical versus free verse:

  • In metrical verse, some aurally distinguishable speech feature is counted to determine when the line breaks. Depending on language and custom, that feature could be stresses, syllables, patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, syllables of a certain length, patterns of syllables of certain lengths, tones — it doesn’t matter, as long as native speakers of the language can hear it. They need not be able to identify what it is that’s counted to determine the line break.

  • If line length is determined by anything other than by counting aurally distinguishable features, then for my purposes here it’s free verse. The poem may be organized in some ferociously complicated manner, but however important such organization may be to the poet and to any students of the poem, if a listening native speaker of the language cannot hear the effects of that organization as the poem is performed aloud, the poem is indistinguishable from free verse in performance, and that’s all I care about here. Obviously that organization is very important in other contexts.

Whatever verse I write, whether free or metrical, I work damned hard to make it sound a certain way. I especially work hard to control the rhythm – the pace and the patterns of emphasis of the poem. And whatever verse I write, most of the tools work in pretty much the same way — length of clauses, kinds of subordination, syntactical jiggery-pokery, assonance and consonance, any rhyme (especially internal rhyme), passive or active verbs, almost everything. The great exception is the enjambed line break.

In metrical verse, enjambment speeds the pace of the poem – it jams the two lines together! In unrhymed metrical verse, particularly in longer lines such as the pentameter, excessive enjambment, just as excessive substitution, can blur the nature of the meter, as Johnson complained of Milton’s blank verse.

In free verse, on the other hand, enjambment slows the pace of the poem — or, if it doesn’t, then it can’t be heard and is imperceptible in performance. When a listener can hear it, it has great expressive potential. To take just one example, by emphasizing both the last phrase of the first of the paired lines and the first phrase of the second, it can cue the reader that the poet intends unusual emphasis on their juxtaposition — an effect difficult to achieve in metrical verse without some typographical cue such as an ellipsis or a dash or a sprinkling of ungrammatical commas.

My complaint with some practitioners of free verse is that they read their work as if it were prose, and all that wonderful suggestion for the eye is lost to the ear. Ironically, free verse is most like chopped up prose when readers ignore the chopping.

This distinction in the function of enjambment in free versus metrical verse is destabilizing to the performance of both kinds — poets working both ways lose some confidence in how someone else will speak the lines. On balance, though, it seems to me I’ve got a better chance of getting a reasonable reading (no such thing as a correct reading) with metrical verse, and that’s one reason I write mostly metrically.

This is not the first time I’ve nattered on about enjambment — I spent most of December 2004 writing about it, and my very last substantive post before moving from Radio to WordPress was on the subject. I don’t anymore agree with everything I wrote then, but it does seem still useful.

Unlike the borrowed tiller. I’ll rent next time.

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1 MAS { 05.12.09 at 7:11 pm }

(Not having found time in the past thirty years to learn Anglo-Saxon, I cannot entice you down that rathole.)

2 Tad Richards { 05.13.09 at 9:33 pm }

What about vaguely distinguishable speech features determining when the line breaks? I write a lot in what you might call accentual free verse, or accentual verse, or I suppose sprung rhythm, where there’s a regular or more or less regular accent count, but no regular pattern of metrical feet.

3 Mike { 05.14.09 at 9:28 am }

Tad, for my purposes here, what you describe falls on metrical side – that “regular or more or less regular count” of some feature. It doesn’t matter whether there are accentual-syllabic feet or not.

I’m talking about a very narrow issue – is enjambment functionally different in verse with counted audible line features as opposed to verse without such counting? My claim is that it is: in metrical verse, whatever is counted, enjambment speeds the reader through the line-break, while in non-metrical verse, enjambment causes some slight hesitation in the reader, if only because of the unexpected space between tightly connected words. It seems to me that if that’s not what happens, the line loses some functional integrity, and when read aloud becomes indistinguishable from prose.

4 Tad Richards { 05.14.09 at 2:58 pm }

Mike — this is a really interesting insight.

5 Tad Richards { 05.14.09 at 3:06 pm }

But…well, here’s something just finished, in the “needs more thought” mode, but it’s in two-stress accentual lines, and I think if I read it aloud I’d pause at all the enjambments.


At the moment he entered
her and the fly
landed on his back

she could see it over
his shoulder and feel
the twitch unrelated

to the rhythm of sex or
the shudder of pleasure
the telephone rang

she heard her own voice
unable to come
to the phone right now

please leave a message
then a second voice
which was her husband

he was calling from out
of town he was not
the man inside her

she closed her eyes
to remember with
her fingers her breasts

her thighs her cheek
all of it felt
strange but good

she wanted the cock
inside her to feel
different too

but now she wondered
once they breached the barrier
were they all the same?

6 Mike { 05.15.09 at 10:44 am }

Hey, I like this, Tad. I wonder if it’s because dimeter is such an unusual meter that one feels (me too!) that there ought to be a pause. But even so, is that pause more an effect of emphasizing the beats? And emphasizing the beats is certainly appropriate in this poem.

Another consideration: A E Stallings wrote a passionate defense of rhyme, and , among other things, she says this:

Rhyme can also free a poem from fixed line length. A rhyme lets us hear the end of the line, so lines may be of any metrical length, or even syllabic, and still be heard.

Johnson complained of Paradise Lost that without rhyme the pentameter was hard to hear. Of course that’s partly because IP is such a long line, and partly because Milton was so free with internal stops and inversions. But might something similar also be true here? Dimeter is hard to distinguish from tetrameter, especially when unrhymed, and without rhyme to mark it we might, when we speak it, be inclined to mark it in other ways.

7 Tad Richards { 05.15.09 at 1:50 pm }

I wonder if the issue of expectations doesn’t enter into this also. Since my poem, as it stands now anyway, is not accentual-syllabic, it’s not clear right away that it’s going to have a regular accentual pattern, so maybe one starts reading it with the free-verse expectation that the one is going to be stopped by the line breaks, and that expectation, once set up, follows one through the poem. Or maybe it’s just the dimeter. Which also sets up its own expectations. Why

then a SEC/ond VOICE

instead of the more metrically regular


Just because one has become accustomed to two stresses per line and no accentual-syllabic regularity.

And I’m not sure how I feel about the poem. I think I may want to dial back the explicitness just a little.

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