Tips for Writers

Potent Line Breaks that Pack a Punch

Posted by on April 26, 2016 at 3:15 PM


Poetry speaks to us in ways other texts simply cannot. As with any literary work, the actual text does its job on the surface while it relies on literary devices to suggest underlying meanings that drive the tension in the surface happenings. One characteristic that sets poetry apart from other literary styles is its reliance on line breaks. Line breaks can make or break a poem. Whether you’re a trained poetry reader or not, you will sense and feel when you’re caught up in well-crafted line breaks. The static will raise the hairs along your neckline as it syncs your heartbeat to the verse’s internal rhythms. This static magic is what will pull you back and back again to reading poetry.


I read A LOT of poetry that is good but has unrealized potential. The ideas are present; they just aren’t fully realized in their current presentation. Many of these poems would tap into their potential if poets scrutinized individual lines as much as they do finding the perfect word. In scrutinizing line level elements, poets will get at the very driving force that inspired them to develop the piece in the first place. Scrutinizing at the line level will also lead poets to potent line breaks that pack a punch.


How poets break their lines controls how readers receive information, be this surface or underlying details. Impactful line breaks are one way the poet speaks to readers beyond the text’s surface. The right line break will add depth to the imagery and potential meanings. Consider the following lines. The line breaks here are literal in their delivery. They do not offer anything extra to the poem’s tension or imagery. These line breaks are the standard I see regularly as I review poetry for publication consideration.


My hope drifts away

like a helium balloon

Cat, Beth, Angel, my love,

your faces fade

into a night sky

that never could contain you


Sure the ideas and imagery are here. They just aren’t doing all they can to recreate a powerful experience for readers. Notice, with some simple tweaks, how systems of potential meaning, tension, and imaginable imagery enter when the lines are handled as follows.


My hope drifts away like helium

balloons. Cat, Beth, Angel, my love, your faces

fade into a star-pocked night

sky that never could contain you


Are you imagining things in this second version that didn’t even come to mind in the first reading? Is there imagery evoked in the second lines that is vivid while it reveals something at stake for the speaker. Without digressing into a full-out analysis, consider the duality and meanings evoked in the second version that inform the poetic conventions in the lines. What does likening fading hope to uncontained helium do to the verse? How does isolating helium allow its chemical composition to add unifying elements to the celestial motif? What happens in that second line that radically changes the imagery contained in these selected lines? How does the revised third line inform the imagery contained in the second line? And finally, how does the final line inform ALL the other lines in the excerpt? Each of these observations enhances what is happening for this speaker in these lines, and ultimately enriches your reading experience.


Though these revisions might seem subtle on the text’s surface, they drive the poem forward in multifaceted, arresting ways. Potent line breaks are just one way poets enchant their art. Imagine that line breaks are to a poet what a brushstroke is to an artist. Each line, like each brushstroke, must contribute depth in its placement while it also contributes to the overall piece. Just as a great artwork will captivate viewers, a well-crafted poem will take readers on an enchanted trip that rocks their world, even if only for a moment. And readers needn’t be concerned with how the magic works, only that they’ve been caught up in it during the journey. Take a moment to consider the following: How do the line breaks in your favorite poems impact you?


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