5-7-5 Haiku form: strengths and weaknesses

writing a haiku
five, seven, five syllables
still, this doesn’t count

I was taught -like so many others- that a haiku is three lines with syllable lengths of five, seven, and five, totaling seventeen syllables. The 5-7-5 formula. Unfortunately, that conception of haiku is way oversimplified (and arguably just plain wrong).

This post is just about the form of haiku, not its many features (like the seasonal reference, or juxtaposition of images). Mostly, it is a close look at the 5-7-5 form -it’s strengths and weaknesses.


Note: An Intractable Translation Problem

This might seem a pretty obvious point, but it’s important: English haiku are different from Japanese haiku. The writing system is different, the sound system is different, the culture is different, the history is different, the poetic tradition is different. Whatever we’re doing when we’re writing English haiku, it’s different from writing Japanese haiku.

The definition of English haiku is necessarily contentious and subjective. It is an act of imprecise translation. People with different sensibilities attempt to carry into the English language what they perceive to be the heart of Japanese haiku. Even if it were possible to precisely define haiku in Japanese -I don’t think that’s possible either- it’s even harder to do so in English. (Maybe even twice as impossible.)

Many people writing English haiku have no idea how to write in Japanese (I’m one of them), nor any understanding of the nuances of Japanese haiku (or Japanese cultural references, or historical references, or poetic allusions). These are all parts of Japanese haiku that English haiku often has to do without. English haiku (hereafter “haiku”) is evolving on its own terms in the English speaking world, within the English language.

Haiku is an amorphous, flexible, vague, subjective, and negotiable category. It is sensed rather than demonstrated. It is a category that can change, over time and from person to person. It’s vague enough that it may sometimes be difficult to say if a poem fits. It is open to argumentation. Different people will have different ideas about what should or shouldn’t count, based on the presence or absence of this-or-that feature. Different sorts of arguments can be brought to bear on this question.

The definition of haiku is inextricably bound with aesthetic sensibility. Disagreements over what does and does not constitute “real” haiku are often disguised disagreements about what haiku should be.

Formal Structure: 5-7-5 syllables versus 2-3-2 beats

first, five syllables
second, seven syllables
third, five syllables

In “The Haiku Handbook”, William J. Higginson writes:

“Many Western authors have fallen into the simplistic trap of saying that the haiku is a seventeen-syllable poem in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. This has led to whole classrooms of teachers and children counting English syllables as they attempt to write haiku. But Japanese haiku are written in Japanese, which is quite different from English or other Western languages… In fact Japanese poets do not count ‘syllables’ at all. Rather, they count onji[sic].”


The sound symbols (“on”) counted in Japanese haiku do not correspond to English syllables.

If we measured speaking duration, we could say Japanese haiku are roughly twelve English syllables, not the 17 of 5-7-5 (Higginson, pp.101-102: “As a result of this study I concluded that an English-language translation of a typical Japanese haiku should have from ten to twelve syllables in order to simulate the duration of the original”; “Approximately twelve English syllables best duplicates the length of Japanese haiku in the traditional form of seventeen onji[sic]”); not only is this approximate -since different sounds take different lengths of time to produce, and different poems take different lengths of time to speak- but there is also no reason why speaking duration should decide haiku form.

Higginson also makes a point of noting that many good poems have been written in the 5-7-5 pattern, just as they have using other conceptions of English haiku. This assertion may have been intended to placate the 5-7-5 formalists among his readers. Although Higginson suggests there can be no definitive answer to what constitutes English haiku -it’s a necessarily insoluble translation problem- he is equally clear in arguing that we can do better than the overly simplistic (and maybe-just-plain-wrong) 5-7-5 formula.

After discussing the differences in Japanese and English sound systems and the rhythm of haiku, Higginson makes a compelling case that the best English equivalent of the haiku form is successive lines of 2, 3, and 2 accented syllables, for a total of 7 accented syllables (and roughly 12 syllables overall, including the unaccented syllables). This would “approximate the duration of Japanese haiku”, establish similar rhythmical proportions, and yield a similar “sense of rhythmical incompleteness” that is characteristic of Japanese haiku. (This latter point recognizes that the English poetic tradition, with deep roots in iambic verse, and in particular iambic pentameter, creates a sensation that the poem should continue after the final line in a 2/3/2 accented pattern, leading to a feeling of openness.)

I find Higginson’s view particularly compelling, especially since the English ear does not readily register syllable counts, but rather accents. The typical English speaker doesn’t hear the number of syllables -not without deliberate attention to counting- and more importantly, doesn’t feel the number syllables in a line -they feel the rhythm. So for the speaker to feel presence of the haiku form, it should correspond to beats, not syllables.

Higgins 2-3-2 accented-syllables formula doesn’t preclude 5-7-5 syllable forms. It’s quite possible to achieve both. But you’ll end up with a ratio of 7 to 10 accented to unaccented syllables. This limits the poet’s ability to play with tempo modulation within the lines, and will tend towards fast-moving lines, which might poorly serve the needs of the poem. Better instead to just use Higginson’s 2-3-2 formula, and forget the syllable restriction.

The number of syllables in 2-3-2 haiku is highly variable, because the number of unaccented syllables can change. The shortest poem that can be written in this formula would have seven syllables:

bus stop
cold dark night

We could stretch the form to twenty-one syllables with seven anapestic feet (although English tends towards iambic). We could stretch it even further by way of constructions stuffed with unaccented syllables. Here is a 2-3-2 pattern with 24 syllables:

in the dark of the dusk
the silence as it’s broken by a crow
on the gambrels of a chapel

That’s pretty awkward, and there are a lot of words that aren’t doing much, and really, there’s not much good to say about it all, but it still fits the 2-3-2 form.

So there’s a quite a bit of range for rhythmic variation and different syllable counts in the 2-3-2 form. The natural range, the one Higginson recommends, is in the neighborhood of twelve syllables.

I wouldn’t tell people not to write strict 5-7-5 haiku. It’s an art form just like any other, and people should write in whatever form they want to. But for my taste, the form draws too much attention to its own artifice. Arbitrary restrictions are nothing new to poetry, of course; one might say that all poetic forms -be it a sonnet or villanelle or  5-7-5 haiku- could be called “arbitrary” in some sense. But 5-7-5 haiku -which is not felt by the English speaker, but rather counted- is arbitrary in the severe sense of imposing a formal restriction that is outside of the immediate experience of the reader. To count syllables is to draw oneself out of the poem, to engage a mode of thinking that is not fully immersed in the words. For this reason, I would suggest that strict 5-7-5 haiku are better suited for deliberate displays of cleverness or humor. The 5-7-5 restriction is more like the rules of a game than a formula with expressive utility (it’s somewhat comparable in this way to lipograms, the challenge of which allows the writer to show off their linguistic prowess -probably the best example being Christian Bok’s Eunoia– except that lipograms can produce a definite aural effect).


The website Thinkgeek holds a regular haiku contest. Using the 5-7-5 form makes sense for this forum, because what they are looking for is funny and/or clever poems, not poems of deep feeling or insight. The following examples are illustrative:

Yes, I am a nerd
I have a social life, though
It is IRC
–Julia from Pennsburg, PA

Rose: red. Violet: blue.
Haikuception: a poem
within a haiku.
–Christie, from Boston, MA

Error 404:
Your haiku could not be found.
Try again later.
–Mitchell from Shubenacadie, NS, Canada

They are meant to be poems of humor and cleverness, not deep feeling or capturing the essence of a moment. And the 5-7-5 forms works well for this purpose. This is not a criticism of those poems. They achieved what they were meant to achieve.

We all understand the rules of 5-7-5, and we can all tell whether the author has followed them, because we know how to count syllables. It is the shared understanding of these arbitrary syllabic bounds that allows these displays of humor and cleverness to operate. I think that is the greatest strength of the 5-7-5 form.

5-7-5 is also a very accessible form, simple enough to teach to young children, and without barriers that would prevent non-poets from confidently and effectively participating. Organizations running a haiku contest, but which aren’t primarily dedicated to poetry (like Thinkgeek), should probably choose the 5-7-5 form.

The Nation held a haiku contest for political haiku. It produced these winning poems:

McCain is ailin’
Chooses hockey mom Palin
You betcha, we’re pucked!
-Chaunce Windle,of South Bend, Indiana

See dust thick on text books.
Evolution was a fad.
Science dead? You betcha.
-Laura Welch, of Syracuse, NY

Habeas corpus
And that pesky Bill of Rights
Who needs ’em? Wink. Wink.
-Jean Hall, of Norwood, MA

These poems rely on the 5-7-5 form for their effect. They are not poems of deep feeling or profound sentiment or capturing the essence of a moment or authentic expressions of the human experience. But they aren’t supposed to be. They are displays of cleverness, fitting political references and comedy into the tight bounds of a rigid syllabic structure.

Vulture.com had a Tom Petty haiku contest. These were some of the finalists:

Dance with Mary Jane –
She puts the “high” in Haiku.
[That joke was petty].

Heard “Breakdown,” hooked forever
Still hooked in ’13

And this was one of the winners:

Youtubed ‘Free Fallin’
Autofill said ‘John Mayer’
I had a ragestroke

These poems, similarly, are all exercises in fitting cultural references and jokes into a restrictive syllabic structure. The “petty” haiku crams two puns into a small space, and two or three cultural references, depending on how you’re counting. The “77” haiku is a display of cleverness, recognizing that the two characters ’77’ already constitutes a full first line; the poem mirrors this cleverness by also ending in a year number, thereby enacting the passage of 36 years right up to the present. The last poem is definitely the best, enacting an action, reaction, and emotional response, with three cultural references and two technology references (depending on how you’re counting), as well as ending with a stab at humor (it probably works best for the right sort of fans).

There is a familiar theme running across these casual encounters with haiku. Haiku contests often work better in the 5-7-5 form. It is more democratic, more open to the casual writer, and more conducive to certain types of humor and cleverness.

There’s nothing wrong with this type of poetry. It is made for a certain purpose. But for more serious poetry, I think it’s wise to consider moving outside of the 5-7-5 form. I don’t want to suggest that 5-7-5 haiku can’t be serious. They certainly can. But the strength of the form is not there, relative to other haiku variations.

For precisely same reason that modernists moved from the confines of verse -because those confines created a felt sense of arbitrariness; of words chosen just to fit the form- writers of English haiku may choose to move from strict 5-7-5 haiku, thereby imparting a greater sense of genuine expression, where the words are chosen because they are right for the poetic experience, not because they have the right number of syllables.

Poetry Readings and Feedback – Free Online Group – Tuesday December 19th, 7:00PM EST

I’m running a small online group for poetry readings and feedback on Tuesday, December 19th, 7:00PM EST. It’s free.

Feedback should be encouraging and supportive, and should be phrased in terms of your reactions as a reader (not an editor): talk about what the poem meant to you, what images stood out, what emotions you felt, what parts connected with you, or didn’t, and so on.

We’ll warm up by first doing a few famous poems by professional poets. After things get going we’ll share some of our own work. (Sharing your work is not necessary. You are welcome to participate just to give feedback, or just as a listener, if your prefer.)

There is a max group size, so if you’re interested, RSVP ASAP.

Details and RSVP here.

Publications in Wax Poetry and Art, and “Degenerates: Voices for Peace Homelessness Edition”

I was very happy to find out that my poem “kawasaki highway” will be published in Wax Poetry and Art, and my poem “the concrete” will be published in “Degenerates: Voices for Peace Homelessness Edition”, by Weasel Press. Both of those should be coming out soon!

Goodnight – by David F. Shultz

In this post, I want to take a look at a poem that I wrote, called ‘Goodnight’. This poem was published in Polar Borealis magazine, issue #4. (Polar Borealis is a Canadian speculative fiction magazine that is available for free; if you’re not familiar with it, you should check it out).

Here’s the poem:

She looks at me
with big brown eyes
Remember, Daddy,
the time we died?

I tuck her in.
She shuts her eyes.
I say goodnight.
She says goodbye.

No, sweetie,
we say goodnight.
But, daddy, it’s
goodbye this time.

I pull up the covers.
She says from her bed,
remember the men
that cut off our heads?

when you were with mommy,
in the village shop,
and they came with swords?
Then she mimes the chop.

I shush her quiet,
ask her to sleep,
hoping she stops
her disquieting peeps.

She’s almost sleeping,
and with a sigh her
tired voice whispers,
we died in a fire

last time, daddy.
What do you mean?
Don’t you remember
the burning dream?

If we should die
before we wake,
I think she will
remember why

This is a poem about a child saying creepy things while being tucked in, as children sometimes do. There is an ambiguity about whether there might be some truth to this child’s foreboding words. I was hoping to generate some feelings of unease.

There are a lot of short lines, small words, and simple, end-stopped rhymes. Normally I would want to avoid this kind of poem because, for my taste, it tends to impart a childish, nursery rhyme flavor. But that was the right tone for this poem, which is really about a child going to bed. I think using simple, end-stopped rhymes works well with this subject matter. It also provides a nice ironic contrast to the creepy feeling I am trying to develop.

The rhyme scheme is pretty straightforward: ABCB. Except for the last stanza, which switches to ABCA. I did this because ABCB feels like it is rolling forward, whereas the closed form of ABCA stops the momentum. I wanted that feeling of stopped momentum to close the poem off, and to complement the lingering thought of death. I was also hoping that the sudden switch in rhyme scheme would signal some change in the father’s mindset, like the child’s words had really gotten to him. (Whether any of those things worked is really the reader’s call, of course).

The poem is ambiguous about whether there is any truth to the child’s strange murmurings. I think that was the right choice, leaving the reader some space to interpret, and hopefully contributing to the sense of unease.

One thing that I like about this poem is the implied metaphysics, if we assume the child is remembering properly. A lot of world-building is carried out by this simple exchange: this is a world with reincarnation, which implies a soul, or something like it; souls evidently have the potential retain memories across the threshold of death; the line “when you were mommy” implies both that souls are non-gendered and that souls travel together, in family groups, reincarnating together and, as it seems for this family, repeatedly dying together; and, some souls -the child in this poem- have foresight of future deaths. None of this is said directly, but we need to understand these premises to make sense of the child’s words.

I hope you liked the poem and that you found my comments on it interesting.

Thanks for reading.

All About Line Breaks


The line break is such an important feature of poetry that we can almost use it to define poetry: prose is text that runs all the way to the margin, whereas poetry is text written with line breaks.

For poets writing in fixed-form and spoken traditions, the line break was in some sense an invisible feature of their art. Since its placement was determined by the form, the poet needn’t concern themselves with moving it around; words moved around the line breaks. Things have changed. The position of the line break is no longer fixed or determined by tradition, so the poet needs to make decisions about where line breaks should fall.

The evolution of free verse has also changed the relationship between sound and typography:

[…] in metrical verse, the auditory structure generates the printed structure; in free verse, the printed structure generates the auditory.

Stephen Adams, “Poetic Designs”, p.153

We listen to metrical verse to determine where the line endings fall; we look at free verse to see where the line endings generate auditory effects.

One of the main skills of a poet -perhaps the fundamental skill- is sensitivity to the aesthetic effects of formal elements. Since free verse has given the poet greater control over the positioning of line breaks, poets need to develop sensitivity to the aesthetic effects of line breaks in varying positions.

It is the duty of a poet to take care and consideration in crafting their poems. Every word, sentence, and punctuation mark is chosen deliberately and against a backdrop of all alternatives. Every element of the poem, every mark and all the white space, serves the whole. So it is with line breaks. It is the duty of a poet to be aware of the options for placement of line breaks and to choose judiciously among them, just as it is their duty to choose the right word and to put the punctuation marks in the right place. And by “right place”, I mean the best choice in service of the needs of the poem; the form must serve the content.

This post is all about developing sensitivity to and skill with line breaks.

Learning Goals

develop sensitivity to the effect of line breaks; develop awareness of the range of effects of the poetic line; analyze a variety of uses of line breaks from poems; practice using line breaks to achieve varying effects.

Poetic Lineation

The first effect of lineation is to create a visual structure that affects the reader before they have even read the first word. The words look like a poem. Presenting words in the visual shape of a poem has the effect of drawing the attention and focus of the reader and shaping their expectations; the reader feels as though they are approaching something poetic, something that demands poetic attention.

Take a look at the following lines:

The night hours passed, and the dark
was in against the truck. Sometimes

cars passed them, going west and
away; and sometimes great trucks

came up out of the west and
rumbled eastward. And the stars

flowed down in a slow cascade
over the western horizon.

It feels like a poem. A reader looks at the words, sees the lines, recognizes the familiar signs of a poem, and treats it as such when they are reading it. This is one effect of lineation. It is a cheap effect. I say it is cheap because it takes almost nothing to pull off, and it doesn’t require the poet to put any thought into where the line endings fall. It comes free.

These lines were taken from The Grapes of Wrath, which happened to be within arm’s reach. I flipped to a random page, took the first few sentences in a random paragraph, and chopped it into lines of roughly the same length.

Here are the same words as they appeared in the book:

The night hours passed, and the dark was in against the truck. Sometimes cars passed them, going west and away; and sometimes great trucks came up out of the west and rumbled eastward. And the stars flowed down in a slow cascade over the western horizon.

To be sensitive to the differences between the words as prose and the words as I have chopped them up above is to appreciate the aesthetic impact of lineation. How do the words feel different in each form?

First, when broken into lines, the words posture as a poem. They are read more slowly, with additional attention drawn, in particular, to the ends of lines -which linger in the mind for a pause that might be said to roughly equal a half-comma- and the beginnings of lines, which can surprise the reader and carry extra weight. Although I chopped these lines up purely for the visual effect, there were some fortuitous line-endings that create interesting aesthetic effects: a parallel structure between enjambment in the second and third stanza with the recurring words “west and” enhances the effect of passage of time and the monotony of cars passing on the highway; a similar enjambment between the third and fourth stanza forces the reader to link the movement of the cars to the movement of the stars; “flowed” at the beginning of the final stanza gets extra emphasis, as the third stanza flows over into the fourth -a formal complement to the content. These are happy accidents. They are the sort of thing that poets look for in language and exploit to the benefit of the poem (rhyming poetry, for example, to the extent that words are not onomatopoeic, is an art of exploiting accidents of language). Whether or not those lines were chopped in the right place is precisely the question that a poet needs to answer when they compose a poem, and they do so by relying on their sensitivity to the effects of various alternatives.

It’s the job of the poet to judiciously arrange words in coordination with punctuation and line endings, so that the effects generated by the interaction of those elements contribute to the aesthetic whole. Form must complement content; the greatest sin in composition is arbitrariness. If someone created a poem merely by chopping up sentences, as I have done above, and if there were nothing to be said of any of the other elements -if there were not an inordinate confluence of fortuitous accidents- it would be a very poor poem indeed.

We need to look at the different ways in which line-endings can be deployed to create various effects: these are the dimensions of choice in which the poet’s craft is exercised. A skilled poet exercises control over these dimensions of choice to create a well-crafted structure.

Before we look at the many uses of line breaks, we should do a simple exercise to develop sensitivity to the effects of lineation.

Poetic Lineation Exercise – General Sensitivity Exercise: Arbitrary Lineation

1. Arbitrary Lineation. I recommend doing this exercise on paper. Take the following words (from the Wikipedia entry on pigeons) and chop them into lines of roughly equal length, about seven or eight syllables, two lines per stanza (if you prefer, use a random paragraph from a random article):

Pigeons have made contributions of considerable importance to humanity, especially in times of war. In war the homing ability of pigeons has been put to use by making them messengers. So-called war pigeons have carried many vital messages and some have been decorated for their services.

Additional instructions: for this exercise, don’t omit any words; it’s important to exercise a minimal degree of creative control over the manipulation.

2. Compare the effect of your lineated words to the plain prose. Read your version twice. How does it feel different? Does it feel like a poem? Did any line-endings fall in interesting places or create interesting effects?

Reminder: the purpose of this exercise is to be attendant to the aesthetic effects of lineation. By fixing the words and comparing them to prose, we are isolating the line-endings as a formal element; any aesthetic difference between the two forms is entirely the product of lineation. Think of it as a controlled experiment. We are controlling for the effect of word choice so we can experiment with the effect of line-endings.

3. Take the same words you used in the first exercise. Chop them into shorter lines -maybe four to six syllables, or about three words (your choice)- and stanzas of three lines each.

4. Compare the effect of the shorter line version to the longer lines. Without reading them, just looking at the shape on the page, do they feel different? After reading both versions, does one feel faster or slower than the other? Did you notice any different interesting line-effects in the short version? Which version do you prefer? Why?

Lineation to Direct Attention

Modern poetry expanded the power of the line break. But it’s difficult to say what the line break’s power is, precisely. It doesn’t have a standard “meaning” or a standard effect; its “meaning” and effect changes depending on the context. Nor is there a numerable list of functions that the line break can serve, as we have for punctuation marks.

Still, we can try. If a line break were said to have a meaning, it could be, roughly, “pay attention; something interesting is happening”. It doesn’t specify what kind of interesting thing is happening, nor where it happens. It might happen at either end of the line break, or somewhere in the line.

Part of the effect of the line break comes from the time it takes your eyes to move from one line to the next -a slight pause that the reader feels, even if it is subconscious- and part of the effect comes from our knowledge that the poet has chosen every formal element deliberately, so we can expect the placement of every formal element to mean something.

The reader expects that line breaks serve a purpose. To satisfy this expectation means that each line should have, at a minimum, at least one interesting thing going on. By interesting thing, I mean the sort of thing that deserves attention for its poetic merit: a fresh metaphor, a clever thought, an emotional truth -something that justifies the reader’s attention. If you think this density of interesting-ness sounds hard, you’re right. Poetry is hard. It takes skill and craft to justify poetic attention.

The poet’s choice between long and short lines is a decision about what kind of attention they are asking for from the reader. If we want readers to focus on each image and each minute detail of description, we will use shorter lines; if we want them to focus on phrasal units, or the musicality of the speech, or larger arrangements of words or images, or complete, complex thoughts, we will use longer lines.

Imagist poems and haiku tend to use short lines. They are asking for close attention to be paid to each word. This is also why the poet needs to take great care to condense their imagery in these forms: not just because there are fewer words to work with, but because the reader is being promised by the form that close attention is justified. So it had better be.

One of the principles of Imagism is:

To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.

This statement of the importance of each individual word relates to the formal tendency in imagist poetry towards short lines. If indeed each word is chosen with deliberate care, this warrants greater attention, and therefore shorter lines.

It is difficult to sustain this level of heightened attention for long. This explains the formal tendency of Imagist poetry towards fewer lines. (Conversely, poems with many lines are likely to have longer lines).

Haiku is similar. Here is a haiku:

Autumn moonlight—
a worm digs silently
into the chestnut.

-Matsuo Basho

This is characteristic of haiku: the unadorned expression, short lines, and lack of commentary all suggest that we should pay close attention to the individual words and images. The overall impression is that the poem contains condensed meaning. The reader will expect it, and the poet should work to satisfy that expectation.

By contrast, longer lines, such as Walt Whitman’s, ask us to pay attention to whole phrasal units and aggregate images. These types of poems are meant to be read in a different way, and we’re told this through their form.

Here are four lines of Whitman (selected pretty much at random, and pulled completely out of context):

And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud,
And I or you pocketless of a dime may purchase the pick of the earth,
And to glance with an eye or show a bean in its pod confounds the learning of all times,
And there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero,

-Song of Myself XLVIII, Walt Whitman

The long lines suggest that it would be inappropriate to focus tightly on individual words like “furlong” or “sympathy” without considering them in the context of the poetic unit in which they appear; we are meant to read these lines as whole units, and reflect on the entirety of the thought expressed. This way of reading is further suggested by the alignment of line breaks with syntactical breaks. Whitman is not using line breaks to direct our thoughts any more than they are already directed by ordinary punctuation. Each line is presented as a complete unit, and it is meant to be read as such.

This type of poetry is more suitable for delivering philosophical concepts; it allows room to move beyond letting images speak for themselves to let the poet have a say. And, notice that the disruption caused by line breaks would interfere with expressing the whole thought as a single unit; by maintaining the whole thought in a line, the poet ensures that our focus is there.

These long lines preserve the voice of the speaker. The poem feels less like a crafted object than a speaking voice. We feel the presence of a speaker more in Whitman than we do in haiku, or in imagist poetry. This effect derives in large part from the alignment of syntax with line breaks.

Exercise – Developing Sensitivity to Line Breaks, Line Length, and “Interesting-ness”

The following text was generated by taking poems and removing the line breaks. I’ve also changed the punctuation to remove capitalization at line beginnings. In other words, it’s been rendered as prose, and clues as to where the line breaks originally fell have been removed.

Here is the poem “Night, And I Travelling”, by Joseph Campbell, rendered as prose.

Night, and I travelling. An open door by the wayside, throwing out a shaft of warm yellow light. A whiff of peat-smoke; a gleam of delf on the dresser within; a woman’s voice crooning, as if to a child. I pass on into the darkness.

Here are some lines from the poem “On the Metro”, by C.K. Williams, rendered as prose.

On the metro, I have to ask a young woman to move the packages beside her to make room for me; she’s reading, her foot propped on the seat in front of her, and barely looks up as she pulls them to her.

1. One of these poems uses short lines. One uses long lines. Can you tell which is which? What makes you think that?

2. Take each passage, and add your own lineation. There is no “right” answer here: it’s about poetic sensibilities. Your goal is to make the text into the best poem you can by doing nothing other than adding line breaks (do this for both poems before moving on to the next question).

3. Do you think you would be able to reconstruct the poem as the poet intended? Why or why not? What kind of information might help you to reconstruct the poem?

4. Compare your lineation to the lineation as the poet intended it (provided below). Where are the differences? Is there anything surprising about the poet’s choices? Choose one of the most surprising choices made by the original poet -a line break that you didn’t expect, or a missing line break(s) where you expected them. Why do you think the poet wrote the poem that way? What effect were they going for? Justify your decision to lineate the poem differently (rely on the aesthetic effect you were aiming for).

To see the lineation as the poet intended:

Classifying Line Breaks by Strength of the Break

We can understand line breaks as existing on a continuum based on the “strength” of the break. Line breaks are weaker to the extent that they align with natural breaks in language, and stronger to the extent that they disrupt our expectations about where the language should be broken. The stronger the break, the more we feel its disruption, and the more we expect it to correspond to something significant occurring within the poem.

Break Type Example
Aligned with sentence I ate a cranberry.
Aligned with phrase yesterday,
I ate a cranberry.
Breaks within phrase I ate
a cranberry.
Breaks at morphemes I ate a cran
Breaks at letters I ate a cranberr

Any of these types of break can be “strengthened” by having the break occur across stanzas, rather than lines within the same stanza. Having the break occur across stanzas will increase the effect.

William Carlos Williams uses the first three types in one stanza of his poem “To a Poor Old Woman”, when he describes a woman munching plums:

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

This stanza has three sentences and three different strengths of line break, appearing in order of increasing strength -aligned first with the sentence, then with the phrase (“good / to her”), then a break within the phrase (“taste / good to her”). This poem is a perfect illustration of the way we can use line breaks to direct the attention of the reader, and to shift their focus within a sentence. As the lines are used here, they have the effect of first setting the image, then zeroing in our attention, slowing down time as the stanza progresses through increasingly strong breaks. Critically, the same sentence is used three times, which helps isolate the effect of the line breaks.

This poem can still exist as an auditory work, since the pauses that indicate line breaks can be represented in speaking. But the same is not true of poems that increase the strength of the break further by placing it within a morpheme. These types of poems are orthographic works only.

e.e. cummings makes use of line breaks within morphemes. check out his poem “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r”. There is no way we can read this poem. It exists visually. But the effect of the break exists on the same continuum.

cummings’ lineation focuses our attention on the moment of recognition of a leaping grasshopper. The words broken into pieces enact uncertainty, and the letters gather themselves into a comprehensible form just as the grasshopper comes into focus, leaping up from the grass.

(e.e. cummings also makes use of jagged white space at the beginning of lines, further reinforcing its existence as an orthographic work, rather than spoken. There is no possible way to speak this poem into existence.)

Breaking within a morpheme signals that something interesting is going on. The reader knows to pay attention. If a line is occupied by a single element, it warrants a great deal of attention:


In this short poem, marshmallow is split within the morpheme by an exclamation mark, which also produces an independent morpheme out of “ow”.

We connect fire, stick, and marshmallow straightforwardly, since these words are all joined by the weakest line breaks in the context of the poem. The scene is set by these initial lines: someone roasting a marshmallow on a stick over a camp-fire.

The strongest line breaks occur at “marshmall/!/ow”, breaking for the first time within a word, and demanding our full attention. We feel this break, we know something interesting is happening, so we look for it. The isolation of “ow” suggests the person has burned themselves. The isolation of “!” enacts their surprise, and suggests an iconic similarity between the ‘!’ and a marshmallow on a stick.

Exercise – Copy Carlos

To develop a feeling for increasing strength of line breaks, we’ll copy the structure of the second stanza of William Carlos Williams’ “To a Poor Old Woman”.

1. Come up with a sentence that includes a prepositional phrase. Think of any subject you’d like to examine for a close-up, or any moment you want to slow down in time, or, if you’d like a prompt, pick from “spaceship” or “classroom”. It’s probably better if the sentence is shorter, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s an example I’ll use: “her white canoe floated over the falls”.

2. Now, make a stanza by writing your sentence three times. Arrange your sentences in four lines, placing breaks of increasing strength: first, aligned with the whole sentence, second, aligned with the phrase, and last, breaking within the phrase. So, for my example sentence: “her white canoe floated over the falls/ her white canoe floated/over the falls. her white canoe/ floated over the falls.”.

her white canoe floated over the falls
her white canoe floated
over the falls. her white canoe
floated over the falls

3. Read your poem as a whole. What impression(s) does it give you? How does it make you feel? Look at each line. Do the lines feel different? Look at the line breaks. Do any of them feel different? What words stand out in each line? How does the poem feel different in the first line than it does in the last line? Does your poem produce the effect of zooming in or slowing down time? What do you like or not like about your poem? Which is your favorite line? Why?

4. Share your poem! Put it in the comments!

5. Comment on someone else’s poem! Tell them what you liked, and comment on their use of line breaks.

Exercise – Fine-Tuned Controlled

For this exercise, we will exercise control over the full range of line break strengths to enact a scene.

1. choose a moment that typically produces anxiety. This could be opening an important letter, checking a pregnancy test, or anything else that we become mentally fixated on as we await the outcome. I’ve chosen a baseball player waiting for a pitch. A sport is an easy way to go for this exercise.

2. come up with a few images or phrases leading up to the revelation of the outcome. Arrange these into lines. Begin by setting the scene with a line break that is aligned with the sentence. Use increasingly strong breaks as the tension ramps up. Break within a word in such a way that the final line carries additional meaning.

Note: you can increase the strength of any break by having the break occur across a stanza, not just across a line.

Note: bonus points if you can break within a morpheme in a way that contributes to the meaning of the poem.

Here is my attempt:

he stands at the plate.
seventh inning, bases loaded,
two strikes. keep your eye

on the ball. don’t strike


The first line sets the scene. The second line break, aligned with the phrase, indicates a subtle shift in emotion -bases loaded is good, two strikes is bad. The third line break occurs within a phrase, further strengthened by occurring across a stanza break. This break ironically enacts his eye going off the ball -it separates “eye” from “ball” across the chasm of the line break. The final line break, occurring within the compound “strikeout” shows the batter getting struck out by isolating “out”; this break occurs within the batter’s internal monologue -“keep your eye on the ball. don’t strike out”- enacting him being struck-out during his nervous hesitation. If the final line had been written like this:

on the ball. don’t strike out.

it would still feel like the player’s internal monologue. The shift across the line break is what indicates that something has happened, which we feel as the batter being struck out, an impression heightened by the isolation of “out”. We may even hear the “out” in the voice of the umpire. Any way, those are the sort of considerations that I made when lineating that poem.

3. What do you like about your poem? Why? What do you think could use improvement? Try to do that.

4. Share your poem! Put it in the comments!

5. Comment on someone else’s poem! Tell them what you liked, and comment on their use of line breaks.

Other Uses of Line Break

There are innumerable uses of the line break. The line break functions in coordination with all the other elements of the poem to create an effect on the reader. In this section, I just want to look at a few interesting uses of line breaks. I guess we could call this section “advanced line breaks” or “special applications”. Studying the various uses of line breaks will develop greater sensitivity to the possible range of their effects.

Special Application #1: Create Sense of Confusion with Ambiguous Syntax

Line Breaks can be used to create a sense of confusion. Burlee Vang uses line breaks in this way in his poem “To Live in the Zombie Apocalypse”. I’ve written about this poem in another post.

Burlee Vang uses a garden path sentence to lead us to a deliberately erroneous reading:

The moon will shine for God

We hit the line break, and naturally resolve the meaning of the sentence: “the moon is shining for God’s benefit”. But as we cross over the line break, our expectations are disrupted:

The moon will shine for God
knows how long

This creates a sense of disorientation, as we have to mentally correct our erroneous reading. This complements the content of the poem, which is survival in a post-apocalyptic zombie world.

The poem uses this effect to keep the reader off balance and create a sense of disorientation or unease. (It also uses line breaks for other effects as well, discussed here).

Special Application #2: Control Sense of Physical Motion – Accelerating or Freezing

A poem called “Fast Break” by Edward Hirsch uses line breaks to variously freeze or accelerate motion in the mind of the reader. It is also written as one continuous stream of action, not reaching a period until the end of the basketball play that it enacts.

A hook shot kisses the rim and
hangs there, helplessly, but doesn’t drop,

and for once our gangly starting center
boxes out his man and times his jump

At the stanza break following “doesn’t drop/” we feel the ball frozen on the rim, an effect emphasized by the presence of the break. It remains frozen there as we move into the next stanza. The effect of the break has been to pause the motion of the ball in our minds while we focus our attention on action happening on the court below.

spinning around to throw a strike
to the outlet who is already shoveling

an underhand pass toward the other guard

Here, we feel an acceleration of movement, with the break occurring on “strike”. As we pass the threshold of the line break, we feel the movement of the ball through the air, which is maintained through the entirety of the next line. It’s so fast we almost missed it -the outlet is “already” making the pass.

This whole poem is about speed. Hirsch very carefully modulates speed through his use of language, line breaks, and stanza breaks, so that we feel the motion of the play on the court; we feel the swiftness of the passes, the feet on the floor, and we feel when time pauses for those critical moments.

The poem is called “fast break”, which seems a deliberate double meaning. It refers to both the play itself, but also the authors use of judiciously arranged line breaks and stanza breaks to make us feel the motion of the play.

Special Applications #3 and #4: Create Sense of Vertical Motion; Create Sense of Deliberate, Methodical Motion

I put these two together because they are both used together in one poem by William Carlos Williams, in a poem called “Poem”:

As the cat
climbed over
the top of

the jamcloset
first the right

then the hind
stepped down

into the pit of
the empty
flower pot

Here, the form assuredly complements the content of the poem. As the line breaks push us across the threshold of stanzas, we feel the vertical motion of the cat; the lines of the poem are walking along with the cat. As the cat “stepped down/” we step down with it, across the threshold between the third and fourth stanza, and “into the pit of/ the empty/ flower pot”. We feel the empty space of the flower pot in the penultimate line, and we feel the cat’s feet touching down to the base of the pot in the final line. Similar effects appear throughout, emphasizing the vertical motion. We feel the downward motion of the cat as we move down the lines.

A second effect achieved here is to emphasize the deliberate motion of the cat’s footsteps. We feel the careful plodding of the lines, the deliberate progression, along with the cat. You can’t doubt, reading this poem, that the cat’s movement feels controlled. The physical movement of the cat is enacted in this way by the careful progression of short, deliberate lines.

Final Exercise

For the final exercise, you’ll experiment with some of what you know about line breaks to write a poem.

1. Pick an animal from this list. Before starting your poem, it’ll help to come up with some material that you could use. Brainstorm some images or phrases for the animal you’ve chosen. Describe it using multiple senses. Describe its home. Describe what it can usually be seen doing. If it had a job, what would it be? If you went on an adventure with this animal, where would you go? If you were that animal, what would you do? If it offered you advice, what would it say? If it could tell you the meaning of life, what would it say? What three objects does it want? Describe how it moves when it is happy. Describe how it moves when it is sad, or scared, or lonely, or angry, or hungry. Put your animal in a reverse dictionary and see what comes out. Check all the terms to see if they make you think of anything.

2. After brainstorming all this material, pick out some of your favorite parts, and write the lines out in prose, one continual paragraph.

3. Okay, time to start experimenting with lineation. Are there places you can insert line breaks to accentuate the feeling of the line? Does your animal prefer to live in short lines or long lines? Or do the line lengths vary based on what it’s doing? Does your animal prefer small stanzas, or big stanzas? Does it move slowly or does it move quickly? How can you emphasize its motion through the use of line breaks and stanza breaks? What is the most important part of the poem? Can you draw attention to this with line breaks? Do you need strong line breaks or weak line breaks?

Note: feel free to change the sentences around at this stage. You might find that you can use the line breaks more effectively if the words and sentences are arranged differently. If that’s the case, then you should do that.

4. Share your poem! Put it in the comments!

5. Comment on someone else’s poem! Tell them what you liked, and comment on their use of line breaks.

Final Words

Thank you for checking out this post on line breaks. I hope you found it useful and/or interesting.

If you want to support me in making more stuff like this, consider donating by Paypal, or purchasing my science fiction book, Angels and Wormholes.