some notes on line breaks and punctuation

So this is a little mini-lecture I wrote up and posted for my students. Perhaps it will be of interest to other poets who are thinking about/teaching lineation. I present these ideas with a lot of certainty, but I do recognize that the conversation is varied and complex, so feel free to chime in!

  1. Even if you choose to omit punctuation, a line will still either be enjambed or end-stopped based on where the punctuation should go. So if a period would be correctly placed at the end of a line, that line is still end-stopped whether or not you decide to include punctuation in the poem. One drawback to omitting punctuation is that it can be unclear where sentences begin and end, so enjambment can be tricky. This is especially true if your grammar isn’t clear.
  2. With poems, punctuation is almost always all or nothing—that is, you use it correctly throughout or you omit it entirely. There are very few times you can justify using it sporadically (unless you are e.e. cummings). If you want to omit punctuation but keep a line that would require a comma or period mid-line, try white space:  “I wanted to live       No one else did anything”
  3. Line breaks serve several purposes in a poem. One is pacing—how fast or slow we read the poem. Generally, shorter lines read faster than long lines, and enjambed lines read faster than end-stopped lines. Additional purposes are 1) to emphasize the last word in a line or the first word in a line (the place of greatest emphasis is the last word; the secondary emphasis in a line is on the first word); 2) to create deliberate if momentary ambiguity by breaking a line so that, when read separately from the lines before and after it, the line has its own, slightly different meaning from what it has in the sentence it’s part of (for example:  “He ran/into the dark. He would never see/what his running meant.” In this example, that line “into the dark. He would never see” leaves readers thinking that he can’t see the dark itself, or that perhaps he will never see again, or perhaps that he isn’t going to see the obstacle he’ll run into. Note that in the sample line above, if there were a line break after “did” [“I wanted to live      No one else did/anything”] it would create a momentary understanding that no one else wanted to live. Basically this makes it so you get more than one meaning for the same words—more bang for your buck, to use a cliché.)
  4. You can enjamb between stanzas if you like, as well as between lines.
  5. Don’t forget that you are allowed to end and begin a sentence mid-line.
  6. Part of what gives poetry its energy is the tension between the line and the sentence. If you cannot write a sentence, you cannot write a line. Grammar can be twisted and flouted in poetry—but only if it’s clear that you’re doing so for a reason, that it’s not just a mistake or laziness.
  7. Lines that end with a period, semi-colon, dash or comma are end-stopped. A truly enjambed line is broken not just in the middle of a sentence, but in the middle of a grammatical unit (as opposed to at the end of a phrase, which is often a place where a comma is optional).
  8. Make sure you use these terms correctly: line break, enjambed line, end-stopped line, enjambment, lineation.

September 18, 2012. Uncategorized.

2 Responses to “some notes on line breaks and punctuation”

  1.   Womby Says:


    It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d without a doubt donate to this fantastic blog! I suppose for now i’ll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account. I look forward to new updates and will share this blog with my …

  2.   Katie Riegel Says:

    Wow, thanks! But I’m now blogging at a different place:

    This one, tied to where I teach, was a bit hard to use with non-USF people at times. :)

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