Every Line A Break, Every Break A Transition

by Ron Hayes

In poetry, transitioning from idea to idea in a poem (or scene to scene, or between characters’ points of view, or what have you) seems a lot less complicated than in other genres of writing. You’d think it’s as simple as beginning a new stanza: end the line, hit the Return key twice, start a new line. But the fact is, transitions for us poets can actually be among the most difficult, most important, and most meaningful of decisions we make during composition—and I’ll bet you’re not even close to thinking about what I mean.

Writing poems requires making decisions not simply on “the best words in the best order” (as Coleridge explains it for us), but on how those words will come together, live together, and progress down the page together. Inherent in this concept—and largely overlooked—is the idea that not only do ideas and scenes and points of view require transitions within a poem, but in a very real way every single LINE of a poem is a transition. And we poets must become accomplished at employing these transitions if we wish to get all we can out of our craft.

Think of it like this: of the many tools the poet has at his disposal, few are as important or as unexplored as the line break. Exactly where, when, and how a poet chooses to end each and every line can have a profound impact on how successful a poem is. And every decision a poet makes regarding line breaks can contribute to or take away from the poem’s ability to layer meaning for the reader. The act of ending a line of poetry in the middle of a sentence and carrying the remainder of that sentence to the poem’s next line is called enjambment. The quality of the resulting line of poetry can be assessed in terms of what I call its line integrity. Stronger lines give poems stronger line integrity. Solid line integrity strengthens a poem’s transitions. And poems with strong transitions make for readers who are happy with their poems.

To fully understand how line integrity can work, we can use Noam Chomsky’s famous exercise in linguistic ambiguity, the simple sentence, “They don’t know how good meat tastes” to show how enjambment can generate meaning in ways similar to verbal cues in spoken language. As we all know, inflection is an important component to making meaning when we talk, but absent that sonic element to communication, ambiguity can lead to misunderstanding. In the Chomsky example, it’s possible for a single sentence to have seven different meanings—one for each word in the sentence. A table most easily explains it.

If we stress… …the sentence is saying that:

“They”

“THEY” must be distinguished from others who know how meat tastes

“don’t”

it’s offering a contrary opinion to one that says “they DO know…”

“know”

“they” are merely presuming how good meat tastes

“how”

there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of meat’s flavor

“good”

“they” are unaware of the positive nature of meat’s flavor (good as opposed to bad) OR “good” is an adjective attached to “meat” thereby distinguishing high quality meat from low quality meat

“meat”

“they” are ignorant of the flavor of meat

“tastes”

the focus means to be on the word regarding flavor as opposed to some other quality of meat (like, say, “costs” or “smells”)

And so the question then becomes, how do we as poets help our readers understand which word would be inflected were our poem being read aloud? Often we can accomplish this by how we transition from one line to the next—we can accomplish it through enjambment and line integrity. For example, if we want to stress the word “know” we can break the line there:

They don’t know
how good meat tastes.

If we define “line integrity” as “the soundness of a line when viewed as a whole, both independent of the balance of the poem and as an integral unit contributing to the poem entire,” then the line integrity that has been accomplished by the choice of transitioning the first line to the next after the word “know” tells us just what the words say: “They don’t know.”

Similarly, if we wanted to add further meaning, we could break the next line at “good” so that the reader would understand that the words “know” and “good” are being stressed. AND, as an added bonus, the line that results, “how good,” sits by itself in the poem and gives a subtle, understated endorsement to the exceptional flavor of meat.

I’ll leave it to you to play with other enjambments and line breaks to see how meaning can alter depending on where you choose to make a transition. Further, I’ll invite you to start looking at poems a little differently from now on. Ask yourselves how the poem transitions from one line to the next and see if you can discern a deeper meaning, a clever twist, or a sly double entendre to the line that adds layers of meaning to the work. Chances are, those transitions aren’t random, and your enjoyment of the work will be much greater for having noticed them.

 

 

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