From a 2011 Poets Forum panel titled "Breaking the Line, Breaking the Narrative" featuring poets Ron Padgett, Sharon Olds, and Rita Dove as they discuss how line breaks can surprise the reader, shape the "breath" of the poem, or cut it off.


Ron Padgett: The way lines can be broken, or not broken, to create a kind of tedium...there's a kind of predictabililty, and certain poems have line breaks that are very predictable. Then there are some that there's a big surprise for it to go from first line to second line.

I remember back in the sixties, the poet Ted Berrigan and I collaborated on a poem. And the first line was:

In 1903 W. B. Yeats went out to get the mail /

I mean, it was a really juvenile kind of thing. Nonetheless, you can overdo it too.

And I just wanted to mention also very quickly: prose poems? Well, what happens there? Where's the line break in a prose poem?

But the most important thing is probably the ultimate, the last line. Because there's a huge line break after the last line of a poem. And the way the silence at the end of the poem informs the entire poem is a large version of what happens at the end of the silence at the end of every line.

Sharon Olds: I thought I would end by showing how I put into words, to myself, a while ago, how I see the line. I can't do things backwards, so I have to read with you.

So we're reading a poem. This is the left and this is the right.

Now, to me, the reason why I put: 'about the,' in the,' 'of the,' over here is that this is the left-justified margin, the backbone. I feel this way when I'm facing the paper and making the poem. I don't think about it, but that's what I realize that I feel.

So, that's the left margin, and then over here is the right margin. And, of course, you know a pine tree. It has its little dingle-dangles on the ends of its twigs, on the ends of its branches. So the nouns, in my lines, are here. They're a column of strength at the left—to avoid the rhymes at the end of the hymns, so I wouldn't know I was copying the hymns, the end-stopped, even-shaped.

So that's how I feel about my lines. It's like a pine tree. Or a hemlock. And, over here, is the mirror of that—which is not in language and is not written but is the life that the spirit that this matter of language is representing.

The last thing I'll say is that the whole thing also has a sense of a dervish dance. That first line—whrr—and then second line—wshh. This is to say: Oh, you think I'm going to do end-stopped? I don't think so. So it goes over—psh, psh. And then longer—so many cones on the end. And then really short. Pshh. Ha. Surprise.

Then when you get to the end—though sometimes my last lines end up being very long—I have a certain sense of—nrrh—like a dust devil—and then at the end—psht—stopping on one toe, one point.

Rita Dove: The one thing that I find that poetry does that no other written art form can really do is that it can use the visual and use the oral to orchestrate our breathing, so that it becomes an extremely physical act to read a poem: aloud or to yourself, if you're really into it.

Sharon mentioned the turning of the line—every time you hit that white space with the tendrils—you know you're going to go back, and you take a little breath, or you try to catch one, because you don't know what's coming.

Every time you go back, it's with a sense of relief, snapping back, but knowing that you're going to out there into the abyss. So there's that oral sense, but there's also: How long can you hold your breath? How long can you breathe?