I’ve argued that consistent use of a single, consistent measure for the lines of a poem is meaning-bearing in itself and one of the most significant choices a poet can make in the construction of her work. Part of the legitimacy of this claim rests on the fact that to establish a consistent measure is to lay the ground against which any departure from that measure is striking and powerful; another part rests on the fact that line-breaks are a critical focal point of verse construction. It is evidence of the complexity of poem-making that I do not contradict these facts when I tell you that breaking your line early is a great way to start a poem.
I’m going to show you three different kinds of “early” line break here. The first tacitly acknowledges that in the long history of verse composition, a line tends to be so long that to say it aloud takes up most of a single breath. There are many reasons why this should be so, for example:
• a longish line gives a poet more chances to employ sonic ornament,
• a longish line may allow greater and more complex imagery, or more incidents in a narrative to be conveyed
• rhythms in a longish line may more easily accompany the motion of its speaker’s body (i.e. walking), etc.
The predominance of such premises for longish lines is tacitly acknowledged by contrast: a drastically short line break with the past and a break with our expectations.
When Langston Hughes, for example, begins a remarkable short poem with the line
he’s a high Modernist, overthrowing, with two words and a comma, the entire history of English verse. Whatever he’s making, it’s no commonplace object. His line employs the word “calm,” but Hughes’ mid-20th century reader must be jarred into a new perspective on what a line of a poem can be and feel like. When Hughes lays down the next line,
Cool face of the river
he triples the length (in syllables) of that first line, and that partially restores the tradition, but his rapprochement is accomplished across the literal “break” with the past at “calm,” which is the more emphatic because it physically separates two alliterative terms (the “k” sounds in “calm” and “Cool). In traditional Old English prosody, alliterative terms share half-lines, and only rarely call to each other from one lie to the next. Hughes’ early break leaves us guessing, but the poem is short and he has answers. This exacting use of a drastically short line opens up a space in the reader’s imagination for the fiction Hughes spins.
A second kind of “early” line break cuts off a syntactical or semantic unit before it is complete. Such a break signals to the reader that the fictional site of the poem is a site of disruption: whatever story is told in a poem that refuses correspondence between the line and the semantic or syntactic unit, such a poem also conveys a fictional lack of control in the writer which is felt as exuberance on the part of the speaker, because the lines at times to spill over the lip of their container.
Written as prose, the first sentence of John Donne’s “The Good Morrow,” from Songs & Sonets (1633), is a single unit in four parts set off by some now odd and archaic-seeming commas: “I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I did, till we loved?” In light of the dominance of the two iambic measures—tetrameter and pentameter—which compassed virtually all of English poetry, Donne’s decision to break this sentence after ten syllables and before the semantic unit is complete might seem an accession to metrical convention: at ten syllables per line, Donne’s slow unfolding of thought “passes” for something less radically strange. Even so, his breaking of the line at the second “I” is surprising, much more so than any line he would have made if he had kept the sentence in tact and written a “fourteener,” the longest measure in use at the time.
Ending this first line at “I,” Donne opens up a new world:
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
The sentence’s subordinate clause is broken open and juts out into the white space at the end of the line, and speaker and readers hang there, for the compound subject (“thou and I”) is parted from its predicate (“Did”). Donne’s line break, his physical breaking of the semantic unit, is a suspension of the world. What, while we hang there, is to be done?
His line would have us ask, “What is it to be Donne?” See the remarkable shape it takes? Tall first person pronouns fore and aft, twin monuments to the wonder of being in love, draw equal attention to the wonder of being the poem’s speaker. And what a difference it makes to be such an “I”, who is already a different “I” (reborn, as part of a couple) only nine syllables after he started speaking.
Donne does not withhold the subordinate clause’s predicate for long. The enjambment entailed by his decision to break the line at “I” speeds us toward the conclusion of the sentence, just as the second sentence speeds the compound subject from infancy to weaning:
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
Donne will layer metaphors upon metaphors as “The Good Morrow” waxes, then wanes. It’s an excellent example of what critics mean when they say his poetry “metaphysical.” But from its first sentence, “The Good Morrow” is a love poem. And the early breaking of that first sentence is not just about love, it’s like love, because its effects are profoundly physical.
One last encouragement to break the line early, this one drawn from the Spanish Golden Age. Back when authors used to die but nobody ever heard of the death of the author; back when reader-response theory was just a mote in some unborn critic’s ancestor’s eye, a poet sometimes broke their lines “early” so that the reader might enjoy a brief puzzlement followed by comic satisfaction as they completed each line for themselves. Such versos de cabo rato, as they were called, dropped any syllables that would follow the last stressed syllable in the final word of each line if the line were printed out completely, as below:
If to reach goodly read-
oh book, you proceed with cau-,
you cannot, by the fool-,
be called a stumbling nin-.
The reader uses context clues to supply what the poet left off: in this case, “ers” (line one) “tion,” (line two), “ish,” (line three), and in line four, of course, “ny.” We have seen earlier how important end-marking is to verse construction in oral traditions. But oddly enough here, in what is a literate tradition par excellence, missing text paradoxically makes the end-marking all the more emphatic. Reading such lines, one is likely to subvocalize, or even say aloud, the syllables that “answer” the puzzle the poet has posed for you. The fact that a reader is able to complete lines composed as versos de cabo rato is a delicious irony, when one considers how often one says that the author of a poem is a creative genius, or that the ending of a given piece of work, especially, came as a surprise. If the dynamic made explicit in reading versos de cabo ratos holds for other literary texts, it would seem that at the outset of any given sub-unit of narrative, metaphor, or trope, an author is always already exceedingly reliant upon the reader for the completion of his work.
The passage above is the first sentence of the first of several dedicatory verse poems that open the First Part of the Ingenious Don Quixote de La Mancha (1605, here translated by Edith Grossman.) How delicious it is that the purported author of these lines is herself one of Cervantes’ fictions: none other than the sorceress Urganda the Unrecognized, a character in Cervantes’ popular novel Amadis of Gaul. (Unrecognized, indeed, like the reader’s role in text construction!) Here in this most quixotic setting, Urganda, like me, is in advice-giving mode. Take care, oh book, she says, clearly addressing authors of books, not any one book itself. “Proceed with cau-“ when you break the line! But don’t be a ninny!
Break it early, some of the time.