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The Breaks

Quality of Pause at the End of the Line

by Jeff T. Johnson

“THE CONCEPT of the line is fundamental to the concept of poetry itself, for the line is the differentia of verse and prose,” according to The Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms. As I would like to concentrate on the machinations of the line, and in particular, the end of the line, let’s set aside our favorite prose poems and consider the breaks. A line break is a moment of suspense for both the reader and the poet, who await the poem’s next move, and this moment can be wasted if it is not allowed to take its time. For years I have nurtured an aversion to end-line punctuation because it tends to say too much too soon, spoiling the surprises of the next line. What follows in this essay is a valediction to end-line punctuation, which I reserve the right to withdraw or compromise at any moment.

Enjambment Vs. Quality of Pause

Discussing the rejection of “end-stopped cadence in favor of a mild counterpoint created by enjambment” on the part of William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and e.e. cummings, Stephen Dobyns explains:

The basic premise [of enjambment] is that the line break, by being a brief pause, interrupts the rhythm of the sentence. The exact duration is unimportant. It lasts about as long as it takes to move one’s eyes back to the beginning of the next line. The theory is that the poet is able to manipulate these artificial pauses to create a sufficient force to set against the rhythm of the sentence. … When a line is broken at a piece of punctuation or a natural pause, that break creates a rest. When a line is broken between pauses or pieces of punctuation, that creates tension. (Best Words, Best Order, p. 109)

I am interested less in the concept and practice of enjambment, which is a convention of free verse (that is, poetry that avoids standard meter), than I am in the possibilities of non-punctuated end-line pauses to create other varieties of tension in free verse. Not all pauses are created equally, and lines do not necessarily behave like good sentences.[1] I would like to talk about the quality of pause, which I distinguish from the conventions of enjambment. If you believe Dobyns, the duration of pause at the end of a line that does not end in punctuation is mechanical (i.e., based on the time “it takes to move one’s eyes to the beginning of the next line”). That assumes, of course, that the lines will indeed enjamb. The quality of pause matters more if the poet allows for ambiguity about how one line relates to another. By quality, I refer not only to the length of the pause, but the meaning and tone of the pause. Just as types of end-line punctuation differ in effect (e.g., comma vs. period), so do various forms of nonpunctuated line breaks (e.g., enjambment vs. an abrupt semantic shift; line break vs. stanza break).

Something like quality of pause is mentioned in The New Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms during a discussion of “Line and Syntax,” with regard to enjambment:

In reading, the mind makes projections, in that pause [between lines], based on what has come before, about what word is most likely to appear at the beginning of the next line, expectations which a masterful poet will deliberately thwart, forcing rapid rereading. … Certainly in modern times, at least, it has been thought that one of the chief functions of line division is to stand in tension with or counterpoint to the divisions of grammar and sense, effecting, in the reader’s processing of the text, multiple simultaneous pattern recognition.[2] (p. 159)

Two elements here are particularly relevant to quality of pause. First is the idea that a line break without punctuation has the potential to force rereading. Of course, this is an opportunity for the poet to direct and manipulate the reader, but it is also a turn at which the poet might lose or otherwise frustrate the reader. Also relevant is the suggestion that since the innovation of enjambment (itself, again, a device of free verse), further developments in the use of the line break have contributed to the poet’s ability to create meaning. That is, to manipulate “grammar and sense,” which is to manipulate the reader.

However, in addition to arguing about the poet’s ability to effect quality of pause, I would like to acknowledge the reader’s role in animating and directing a poem. If unimaginative teachers have suggested that there is a best way to read a poem, which can be demonstrated by the “correct” reading of enjambment, quality of pause suggests a more subjective approach to reading. Just as the “masterful poet” can trick the reader into rereading part of a poem (which our short-sighted teacher might interpret as an attempt to correct an error in reading), a poet who employs quality of pause can leave space for the reader to interpret the nature of a break. There is naturally a per- formative aspect to line breaks, in which the person reading the poem (aloud, in this case) makes decisions about how to deliver a line, and how to ride the break into the next line. Here, quality of pause is related to the sense that a reader (or the poet, who may after all be the reader) might explain the meaning of a poem or image, but her explanation is not definitive.[3]

Indeed, quality of pause is itself a sort of invisible punctuation. Under the heading “Line Forms,” Princeton discusses how the way a poem looks affects the way a poem is read:

[Denise] Levertov says that the free-verse line-break affects both rhythm and intonation: it is … “a form of punctuation additional to the punctuation that forms part of the logic of completed thoughts.” (p. 160)

If this is true, end-line punctuation may be unnecessary and even tautological (in the sense of “a mere repetition of acts”[4])—an unintentional overlap or doubled pause. I suspect that Levertov is thinking of the judicious use of end-line punctuation, or anyway, that’s what I’m ultimately advocating.

The Bathtub Hinge

Pity the bathtub its forced embrace of the human
Form may define external appearance but there is room
For improvement within try a soap dish that allows for
Slippage is inevitable as is difference in the size of

—Matthea Harvey, “Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form”

Matthea Harvey’s 2000 debut collection of poetry, which carries the same title as the poem quoted above, provides ample opportunities for “multiple simultaneous pattern recognition” by use of what I’ll call the hinged line. As she does in the excerpt above, Harvey enjambs sense as well as syntax, so that related lines also stand on their own, and even head off in different directions. Her hinge usually lies at the beginning or end of a line, as it does between excerpted lines one and two and lines three and four, but she might also suggest a hinge in the middle of a line, as she does in line three (between “within” and “try”). The latter case is notable in its relation to Levertov’s point about what I call invisible punctuation: Harvey places a ghost-caesura[5] in line three. In other words, she does not demand that the reader pause after “within,” and in fact her ghost may be a false lead, since a reader familiar with the poem knows that each line stands on its own, despite its fraternity with neighboring lines. If lines two and three are read with conventional enjambment, one might be spooked by the apparent pause midline, unable to regain her composure until the line is re-approached, unless of course she flees this haunted bathroom.

My point is that Harvey gives us a sense of how to read her poem without giving up on ambiguity in her lines, and in the passage above, she underscores the very workings of her hinged lines by highlighting the unpredictability of her changes in direction. Above all, she lets us know that a lack of end-line punctuation does not necessitate conventional enjambment, even when the lines are related.[6][7]

Toward a Personal Poetics

Poets and readers of poetry have ever-evolving ideas about the way poetry works, in a way that is similar (and related to) our sense of diction and language in general. The Oxford English Dictionary relies more heavily on etymology (examples of usage) than on explicit definition of words in order to describe the way usage changes over time. Words collect and shift meaning, and our understanding of poetic form and convention develop as poetry is practiced, over the years. In this sense, we can discover a mutable personal poetics that continually rejuvenates our reading and writing. Without such personal poetics, our sensibilities age badly, and we repeat the dry lines of our most stubborn teachers. If instead we approach each line as a fresh track to meaning, accompanied by the suspense of not knowing what’s next, we will change with poetry, and poetry will change with us.

Jeff T. Johnson is in a band called nasturtiums, which has an album called hate the line/ fuck punctuation

[1] This is to say that pauses at the end of a line do not have to be “natural”; furthermore, what’s “natural” in a sentence from a paragraph is not necessarily what’s “natural” in a line from a poem.
[2] Like the narrator in Lee Skirboll’s “Hey Bartender!” who cannot stop his train of thought from Rebel Yell whiskey to Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell,” I cannot help but board the train of this sentence, where Sonic Youth’s “Pattern Recognition,” stuck on the first titular reference, plays on a loop. Is there a nurse on board?
[3] That said, there is no greater authority on the poem than its reader, who must decide for herself how a poem works (or does not work).
[4] from the Oxford English Dictionary definition of tautology.
[5] According to the OED, a caesura is “a pause or breathing-place about the middle of a metrical line, generally indicated by a pause in the sense.”
[6] The quoted passage is from part three of the two-page poem, and aside from parentheses, she does not use any punctuation in the poem (though she does of course signify her hinges by capitalizing the first letter of each line, a poetic convention she does not follow throughout the book, though it is her preferred indicator of a hinge between lines).
[7] The curious reader can find plenty of other examples of non-punctuated pauses between lines in the poetry of John Ashbery, Gertrude Stein, and other poets who do not necessarily enjamb lines without punctuation, and who tend to play with grammar and/or disregard the logic of sentences in their poems.

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