In Praise of Line Breaks

In a post last week, I was on the verge of bitching about the state of modern poetry. That’s not the blog I want to have, so for the most part I’ll keep it to myself. Then yesterday on “The Writer’s Almanac” I heard and read “The Death of Santa Claus” by Charles Harper Web and it prompted me instead to offer some praise for a really well-written piece.

First off, this is clearly a bit of demotic poetry, as most on Writer’s Almanac tend to be. I don’t use that term pejoratively either. Indeed my preference is toward narrative poetry: tell me a story while you paint you pictures. This poem certainly delivers that with a very droll concept deftly delivered with a twist at the end.  But what really caught my eye with this piece was the unexpected use of line breaks.

Now, if you get any group of poets together and the subject comes to line breaks in free verse poetry, the discussion will almost invariably end in fisticuffs. To me, line breaks are like periods. The represent the end of a thought, and each should stand alone even as they are connected to each other. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of long-line pieces, because to my ear it gives the work a Ginsberg-esque flow. Many poets, however, create line breaks to generate a certain visual impact on the page. Done well it adds a nice dimension to a piece, but all too often I find it somewhat gimmicky.

No matter what though, each line in a poem should have impact: you should be able to extract each line individually and see the poetry in it. This is true of both strict forms and free verse, and while I seldom achieve this myself, it is what I strive for. (It is also what makes me cringe in so much poetry I see these days, where poets cuts lines randomly, so you end up with meaningless cruft like that turns or of a great, both of which I’ve seen in actual published pieces.)

But Web’s poem has a couple of really well-done breaks. One example, from the last line of the second stanza and the first line of the third:

hospital gowns always flap

open, waiting rooms upset

Hearing this aloud, (which you can at that link, by the way, Billy Collins will read it to you), you get hospital gowns always flap open, waiting rooms upset. But reading it, hospital gowns always flap, I can already see the image. [O]pen, waiting rooms upset you subconsciously have open modifying waiting rooms, which gives you a very different picture of the waiting room in question. Then, toward the end, there’s this:

wailing, and the elves wring
their little hands, and Rudolph’s
nose blinks like a sad ambulance

light, and in a tract house
in Houston, Texas, I’m 8,

So again, what you read and what you hear are two different things. Reading it though, you are left with the image of the sad ambulance, and again light is subconsciously modifying tract house, juxtaposing Santa’s darkness against the place where this kid lives.

Now, I’m not saying that this is the best poem I’ve ever read, nor that every line is brilliant. I will however take away from it a lesson in technique, a different way of looking at these breaks. Perhaps I can even try it in some of my own work someday.

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