Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Writers for Writers: Wes McNair's Rules for Poetry Line Breaks

Recently crowned with the title of Maine's Poet Laureate (What some argue is the only good decision made by governor Lepage), and who is also the founder of UMaine Farmington's BFA creative writing program, Wes Mcnair often meets with UMF students in his retired years in a workshop or one-shot lecture format to offer his sage advice.
This semester, Wes visited to discuss his new thinking, among other things, about why and how to select one's poetic line breaks. He eluded to having a longer list, but please enjoy the ten thoughts he shared with us.
For more about Wes McNair, see:

Rules for Line Breaking
1. Break to suggest central action and its unfolding, to create anticipation
Let words stick out of your lines that connect to the poem's heart. Also, let the lines create tension, as professor Jeff Thompson would put it. Make the reader chase you to the next line to find out what fell, or who chased her, or whatever have you.
2. Break for interplay between line and sentence; This is free verse's rhyme & meter equivalent
In other words, as Wes was once advised: The line is Buddha, the sentence is Socrates 
Buddha is content to be were he is, as he is, the way a line, on its own, its simple, perhaps pretty or cryptic, but calm. Socrates is always asking, wanting, and hungry. You follow the entire sentence line to line to find out what, who, or why, jumping from Buddha to Buddha until your questions are answered. When line breaking, be aware of how you answer Socrates's questions effectively, but also create graceful pauses in your lines, to enjoy the moment.  
3. To create a graph of feeling
Playing with jagged margins, or waves, or open space to illustrate a reflection of the poem's feeling. Using shorter lines for riddles and unknowns also plays with what isn't said.
4. Break to emphasize related sounds
Is there a song to your poem? Find the music. See if there is a sense of metronome, or words you can link together at the poem's pauses to create a resonance. This can be done with or without rhyme.  
5. The word at the end of the line is most important.
Use Nouns, verbs, and their describers. All sentences have and, the, or but. They are less important, only connectors. End on the words that need to stand out of the poem, let them linger with the reader on the end of the line before they continue through your poem, or follow them through their day after they put your poem down.
6. Break to show the stresses of meditation
Listen to people around you as they speak. It was Wes Mcnair's observation that people speak in line breaks as well as can write in them. People pause for thought, for continued meditation, at places in their sentences that are their own, and make their voice. He advises to play with this in our poetry.
7. When breaking, be aware of stanza form: Do you use regular, or irregular stanzas?
You'd better know, and have done it on purpose.
8. "Let me learn the rules so I can break them"
In the days of rhyme and meter, rhythm would be broken in choice places in order to bring attention to a message. This rule was not abandoned in the days of free verse. Create a theme, pattern, or message, and then obscure it. Play with capital letters or punctuation at the end of lines in a way that brings focus to a contrary feeling or ironic concept.  
9. Find the second story
It isn't really a secret of the trade that poems about waltzes, or red wheelbarrows, or horses at night, rarely stop at just creating those everyday images. There is always a "second story," or rather, a reason for why the initial object was worth writing about, a discovery that is made along the way.   

Additionally, putting this much though into how one writes their poetry makes you a stronger reader. You will pay more attention to these choices as they are made by other poets, and take this play into consideration when you absorb their work.

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