“How to Write a Poem,” chapter 4

It’s time for that most mysterious aspect of poetry: line breaks. This chapter is titled “Lay a Path: Path Attention to Line.” Fittingly, the line from Billy Collins’ “introduction to poetry” Runyan uses here is this:

I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out

(Sidenote: In Runyan’s book “How to Read a Poem,” I especially enjoyed chapter 3, which was also about the topic of line breaks.)

This chapter includes two fantastic poems. One I knew, “Course,” by LW Lindquist, and one I didn’t, “Tree,” by Andrew Hudgins. Runyan encourages readers to notice the line breaks in these poems and experiment with doing it differently.

I didn’t want to mess with perfection, so I played around with a poem titled “Courage” by Amelia Earhart—pilot and poet. First, here is her original poem with the proper line breaks.

Courage

Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.

The soul that knows it not, knows no release

From little things;

 

Knows not the livid loneliness of fear

Nor mountain heights, where bitter joy can hear

The sound of wings.

 

How can life grand us boon of living, compensate

For dull gray ugliness and pregnant hate

Unless we dare

 

The soul’s dominion? Each time we make a choice, we pay

With courage to behold resistless day

And count it fair.

Amelia Earhart

 

Here’s what I did:

 

Courage is the price that life

exacts for granting peace.

The soul that knows it not, knows no release

from little things. Knows not

the livid loneliness of fear nor mountain heights

where bitter joy can hear

the sound of wings. How can life

grand us boon of living, compensate

for dull gray ugliness and pregnant hate

unless we dare the soul’s dominion?

Each time we make a choice,we pay

with courage

to behold resistless day and count it fair.

 

What do you think? Would you do it differently?

Back to my poem, revising with an emphasis on line breaks. Something is happening at the end—something not based on the day we planted the cross, other than the fact that it is always windy in the Panhandle. It’s something that snuck in because I found the word “zephyr,” which will eventually change the poem.

 

Roadside Oddity (#3)

There’s nothing odd

about a wee white cross

beside a Texas highway.

 

Just a cross.

Entwined grapevines rising

from prairie grass

 

The earth curves away from the crash

tire tracks lead nowhere. yellow tape

insists DO NOT CROSS.

 

We cross pasture bleached by drought

stare at ivory sky. The wind, a mere

zephyr, lifts our skirts.

 

Comments

  1. Still enjoying. 🙂

    Line breaks are such fun to play with. We should never settle for our first breaks.

  2. I love the way you’ve worked with the different line breaks! And as Laura says, we should always be willing to experiment.

  3. I did chapter 4 already, since it’s easy to play with line breaks (and, while I was at it, I changed some words as well). I don’t know what to do for stanza breaks, and I admit it bugs me a little that the number of lines in each stanza is not the same.

    —–

    My mother favored the fireplace.
    She threw sprinkles that colored
    the flames like fluid movements
    of dancers in jewel-toned tulle.

    Mom had a newspaper log roller,
    cast-iron black. We tucked in sheet
    after sheet, putting old news to rest;
    cranked the handle; saved a tree
    and a trip to the recycles.

    But the flames didn’t take
    on sheets altogether
    too miserly, rolled all tight.
    Flames choked out
    before the next layer of news.

    The happenings of weeks
    and months of yesterdays
    don’t easily burn away
    in ashes.

    • I have the same hang-up–thinking that the number of lines in a stanza need to be equal. I think order is beautiful, that’s my problem. Which leads another problem, that I can force a poem into any form, even though that doesn’t always serve it well.