by Carol Ann Duffy, Helen Taylor and Gillian Clarke
Lineation means lines. A line in a poem is NOT a sentence. Poems sometimes use sentences, but the lines are more important because they make the tune. Why do poets use them? What are they for?
Poems need lines because poems are songs. Lines set the pace of the poem, and help us to hear the tune. If a poem uses rhyme, the rhyming word tells you where the line ends. That’s easy. A regular beat can help too. If it has a dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum beat, we can expect it to be the same in the next line too. Poems without rhyme or a regular beat must rely on the rhythm of natural speech. A line break, where one line ends and another begins, is a shorter pause than a comma, too short to breathe. A good line-break is good timing. It’s almost like a glance. You’ll only find it by reading and listening.
Read the poem to the class before you let them see it on the page. Read aloud the article on lineation. Then let them look at the poem on the page for a moment before hearing it again. Get one of the children to read it aloud to the class. See also article on enjambment.
In the following poem by Gillian Clarke, each line describes one detail or action as the girl, cautiously approaching the horse, prepares to tame it. The horse is curious, so it allows the girl to come closer. The lines don’t rhyme and have no regular beat. They are short, to be read slowly, suggesting the slow approach, one small step at a time, between the girl and the horse.
Breaking the Horse
ear to the ground
for the beat that might be
her own heart.
The horse comes
muscular as water,
like a man
but without his thunder.
She lies quiet
in the grass.
It comes sidelong.
It shares her breath,
the moss of its muzzle.
She bridles it with glances,
slow as water
lapping its body,
hoof, fetlock, shoulder,
its beautiful head.
She numbers the vertebrae
as the sea counts the stones,
lays her head
on the thundering ribcage,
kneels till he takes
the bitten apple.
Here is an extract from ‘The Owl’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In this poem the rhyme and rhythm help Tennyson decide where the lines end. The most important thing about understanding lineation, and how it’s different in different poems, is to listen to it.
When cats run home and light is come,
And dew is cold upon the ground,
And the far-off stream is dumb,
And the whirring sail goes round,
And the whirring sail goes round;
Alone and warming his five wits,
The white owl in the belfry sits.
There will be at least one or two in the class who understand about ‘breaking’ a horse. Ask one of them to explain to the class what it means. What does the class think of this use of the word ‘breaking’?
Have they heard of the Horse Whisperer?
Is the girl in the poem breaking the horse, or ‘whispering’ it into submission?
Look at each stanza and work out what is happening in each. What is the girl doing? What is the horse doing?
Stanza 1: She puts her ear to the ground to listen for the sound of hoof beats. A horse is an inquisitive animal. Once it knows she is there, it will approach.
Stanza 2: The horse is ‘flickering’ towards her. It is ‘muscular as water’. Does this suggest the horse is galloping? Discuss these words.
Stanza 3: She lies still in the grass and allows the horse to approach her. It breathes on her face and touches her face with its muzzle. Look at each word. Which word tells you the horse’s muzzle is like velvet?
Stanza 4: She looks it in the eye, gets up, touches it firmly, using long slow strokes as if she were sculpting it out of clay. The horse allows her to put her arms round its neck. She can hear its heart beating. It shares her apple. Its taming has begun.
- How does the language reflect the girl’s movement towards the horse?
- Which words express her attitude to the animal?
- If this is the very first girl in the world, what is her name?
- Help the class to ask questions about the meaning of ‘The Owl’. There are a few words and phrases that might puzzle them.
Get the class to think about apples, or other fruit, in stories and legends. They should collect as many stories as they can.
The children could:
- Write their own legend about an apple.
- Re-tell a story one they know
- Invent a new story
- Find poems about animals in the class library.
- Write about a person who befriends and tames an animal.
- Have they ever taught an animal something? Write a poem about it.
- Re-tell the story from the horse’s point of view.
Remind the class, a line is not a sentence. Let them:
- Write a story about an animal using sentences.
- Write a poem, using short lines.
- Write a poem where rhyme or rhythm helps decide the line-endings.
They should always read a poem out loud to make sure they’re happy about where the lines end. The pattern on the page is the sound in your ear.