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What Is a Line Break?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 17, 2024
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A line break in poetry happens when the writer ends a specific line of text and starts on the line below. This standard convention in poetry has changed along with the various poetic forms of different eras. In the modern era, poets frequently make use of multiple line breaks to break up sentences, and even individual words, for various kinds of artistic effect.

In classic Western poetry, line breaks often conform to specific poetic meters, with rhymes in pairs or quatrains. The line breaks were part of a rigid system of creating symmetrical, straightforward poetry that expressed classic ideas and emotions in standard ways.

When fixed verse or highly structured conventional poetry began to give way to freer poetic techniques, the ways that poets used line breaks also changed. Here, students of literature began to make a distinction between end-stopping, where a specific idea coincided with the end of a line, and enjambment, where an individual idea or phrase continued over a series of poetic lines. Poets began to use line breaks prolifically for expressing somewhat arbitrary pauses, or for other dramatic effects.

As the line break began to be more and more common in poetry, many forms of modern poetry began to appear more abstract. The lines of poetry in general became much more fragmented, where a typical line might not include an entire sentence or a fixed meter. The line break began to function as a way of arranging more abstract short phrases into an overall pattern that the reader often had to understand intuitively, which remains part of the challenge of reading modern poetry.

Poets often understand that the technical use of line breaks coincides with the use of white space on a page to showcase a poem or other piece of writing. Throughout the evolution of poetry in the last century, the use of white space has become more and more important. Publishing methods have also changed, which perhaps contributes to the overall use of a line break. For example, much modern poetry that is disseminated through Internet browsers or smart phone devices may need specific types of line breaks that showcase the poem or other piece of writing effectively when it is read on these devices. The line break is thus an important yet sometimes overlooked resource for modern poets and writers.

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Discussion Comments
By RocketLanch8 — On Apr 24, 2014

My favorite poet is ee cummings, and he was a master at line breaks. Once you catch on to what he's trying to do, you realize he's painting a poem visually, not just linguistically.

By Ruggercat68 — On Apr 23, 2014

I'm a published poet myself, and I use line breaks to force emphasis on certain words. It's a lot like the down beat in music. As a line of poetry grows longer, the reader starts losing a sense of tension. If it goes too far, it's like running out of breath. If I break the line at a point of high tension, the next word on the next line gets a jolt. A lot of free verse poetry is built around this idea of tension and release. The judicious use of line breaks is one way to achieve it.

I will say that many beginning poets will use frequent and arbitrary line breaks to make a piece sound more "poetic". If the line is really a sentence, most of the time it needs to be read as a sentence. Breaking it up into several fragments isn't going to give it any more weight.

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