by Gillian Clarke
Lines. Why do poets use them? What are they for? How do you decide where a line-break goes? Does it make a difference? Is poetry chopped up prose? Poetry is NOT chopped up prose. Poems need lines because poems are songs, but that’s not the whole story - all songs have different tunes. Some poems rhyme, some don’t. Line-lengths can vary. Some poems use lines with a regular beat. Some poems have a delicate rhythm, like breathing, or natural speech.
A line makes you pause at the end, then your eyes flick to the beginning of the next one. The pause lasts a split second, shorter even than a comma, too short to breathe. We take in the line’s last word before reading the first on the next line. The pause lays stress on the last and the first words. That doesn’t happen in prose.
Seamus Heaney’s poems in the anthology mainly rhyme, and the rhyming word clearly marks the line-ending. However, in Death of a Naturalist , which doesn’t rhyme, ‘festered in the heart’ ends line one, and ‘Of the townland’ begins line two. For a moment we’re left with the idea that the flax-dam is festering in the human heart. But no! The flax-dam festers at ‘the heart/ of the townland’, the centre of the area where the poet lived as a child. The two meanings of the word ‘heart’ add force to the image.
My (Gillian Clarke) poem Catrin takes the story forward line by line, ending each one with an important word before moving on. October splits ‘the slow/ fall of flowers’ from ‘Over the page the pen/ runs faster than wind’, with a verse break between the two. The line itself is split, one half in verse two, and the other half in verse three, the first half looking back, the second half moving on towards the future.
Look at Carol Ann Duffy’s Havisham, and Anne Hathaway, for different ways of ending, and breaking, the lines and the verses. Anne Hathaway is a sonnet, so rhythm and rhyme decide. Havisham has an interesting break between verses three and four, where ‘Love’s// hate behind a white veil’ is one sentence, but those two words are separated by the line-ending and the verse break, like Miss Havisham herself, jilted by her fiance on her wedding day.
In Simon Armitage’s poem about his mother helping him to measure a new house, (first line, ‘Mother, any distance greater than a single span’) the lines come in all shapes and sizes. It rhymes, but not all the way to the end, so rhyme doesn’t make all the decisions. Take verses three and four. Three ends with ‘Kite.’ Four begins with ‘I space-walk’, which is what kites do. The short and long lines are like the distances in the house - the stairs, the loft, the skylight. At the end of the poem the poet’s mother is left downstairs holding one end of the tape, while he, in the loft, looks through the skylight at ‘an endless sky/ to fall or fly’. The line break suggests the holding on and letting go, between mother and son.