Auld Lang Syne

Monday, June 13, 2011

Throwaway Words & Line Breaks

Well, this is going to be a tough one for some I think. I will get up right now and stand my ground while admitting it is personal choice in large part that determines the "right or wrong" of using throwaway words at the ends of lines of poetry. Certainly you will find great poems wherein the poet has throwaway words at the ends of lines and it works just fine.

Defining throwaways (my term I think, though I might have heard it from someone brilliant): a throwaway is any end word in a line of poetry that is not a noun or a verb, not an image or an action (or in some cases a state of mind or being). This includes conjunctions, such as and, but, or, etc, articles such as the, a, an and prepositions and possessives such as when, of, there, his hers, ours, my, through, during, and so on.

Why are these used? Very good question. I think they are used much the way a comma is used: too much and for the wrong reasons.

Personally I try to use articles as sparingly as possible, unless clarification or positioning is needed regarding the particular of an image. It is more often than not an unnecessary clarification. Why say "the sun" when we only have one? The big issue I have is not these words themselves, but where they are placed in a poem. I believe that every word ought to lead readers to the next word, every line to the next line, every stanza to the next stanza. I get many poems sent to me for review. I admit that one of the first things I do (a personal bias I admit) is to scan the ends of lines to see what kinds of words are being used. If I find a poem with of or and hanging off the ends of many lines, I am less warm to reading the whole poem. I DO read the whole poem of course, but with a bit of a question in my mind as to why the poet broke the line at one of these words.

Here is a made-up example of lines with throwaways:

Gone are summer days, nights of
you and me and music.
Gone are fireflies and moths to
flame that burn my brain and
call us done.

Here is the same piece with the throwaways gone:

Gone are summer days, nights
of you and me and music.
Gone are fireflies and moths
to flame, that burn my brain
and call us done.

In my opinion, the second "stanza" is more compelling. Oh sure you might say that having of at the end of line one makes the reader ask "of what?" before moving to the answer. I think that is a cheap thing to do to a reader. I also think that line two gets a nice image on its own with "of you and me and music." One might argue (reasonably too) that the of could disappear altogether. I'd agree with that on some level. If you simply had you and me and music as line two, it would work well, would be very strong. Maybe we need to discuss throwaways at beginnings of lines too! But I digress.

I believe that lines ought to end with images or actions, or at least with strong nouns that make a reader go onward. I also believe that there is something to be said for a noun that seems to convey one thing at the end of a line and does double duty be enriching meaning as the next line is unveiled.

Here is an example of that kind of enrichment of meaning from my poem, Sabbath (from Breakfast at the Brass Compass, 2009):

The point of it all is faith: that one woman's son
will come home from the storm...

Since the line makes a strong statement that everything is faith, and we know the title is Sabbath, one might leap to the notion that the one woman is Christ's mother and her son is Jesus, UNTIL we get to the next line.

Of course there is double meaning at work here, with both Mary and Jesus and the mother of a sailor being accurate or at least reasonable connotations of the lines. THAT is the power of having strong end words.

Here is an example (from my poem Storm) of how a well-placed end adjective (yes, I said adjective!) can be a strong lead to a surprise:

Sailing to windward is pure

I don't think the line would be as powerful if the line ended with is. One must conclude that the surprise is finding out what noun the adjective modifies here, or is it both? Double duty — ta-da! Later in the same poem I show that sometimes a throwaway word is just the right word, creating impact.

with coffins and urns: someone's
sons and daughters. The beacon is out,
overspilled with oil. It's a drowned thing.

Here are two cases of seemingly unimportant end words that do something great. someone's seems to refer to the coffins and urns until you get to the next line where you find it is sons and daughters. Double duty. At the end of that same line, out is a natural way to end a powerful image. The beacon is indeed OUT. No need to wait for that idea until the next line, and the next line becomes a power line on its own with the clause leading to the final statement, "It's a drowned thing."

So what to do with these throwaways? How much time should one spend worrying about the end words? The answer is individual, because it is your poem. I do think however that loads of time ought to be spent on deciding what is happening at the ends of lines. It is a revisionary moment to be sure, one where the poet can gain ground or lose it in any given poem. Personally, this is the big moment for me in revision. I look forward to working on line breaks and figuring out just the right (hopefully right) word to do what the poem wants to do. I want my readers to find surprise, but not shock, when lines do something new and fresh. I want my enjambments to work, to not be or seem arbitrary. To this end, I try nearly every line a few ways to test the power of the end word. I tweak and re-tweak until it seems right. Often I have to go back to earlier lines once I have created a power line nearer the end of the poem. An example comes to mind from my poem, Water Psalm. Let's look at the first stanza. Pay particular attention to lines four and six and seven.

Bless the water,
the flow, the ebb, the seep.
Bubble it, keep it clear.
Rinse your divine face in it, salty or fresh,
fast or pooled. Feel it in your hair
beneath the storm, hear it
outside your window, running in your dreams.

Originally I had broken line four at face, but found that the next line was weaker that way. I had also broken line six at storm, with the next line hear it outside your window. In revision, because I wanted to emphasize the sensory, I broke at a command phrase: hear it. Later in the poem is a line that caused this whole line-break revision. The line is this: let every molecule of water say its name. I realized that I wanted a series of seeming command statements (in part because this is a psalm) and the line above it is a seeming command. The speaker of the poem, the person addressing the divine YOU, is making blatant command type statements in entreaty for the desired. There are, in fact, eleven command/entreaty statements in 14 lines of the poem. This is jam-packed, dense. What it does is set up a tone for the plea. The poem is not overly demanding, but firmly pleading. If the line breaks had been different, the tone would have been different. It is of course always a choice. But the point here is that the choice should not be an arbitrary one, but one made after careful looking at the poem as a whole, and line by line.

I must say that this revision I do may not appeal to you at all. You might point out (and rightly) that some of the best poets in the world have throwaway words at the ends of their lines. There may be a whole cadre of poets out there who argue these little, seemingly insignificant words DO lead to surprise at the next lines. OK. I agree there is room for discussion here. I hold my opinion here though that FOR ME, and for the poems I look at for publishing purposes, the throwaways are beacons of concern. I will always take these as signals of possible weakness of a particular poem. But know this: I am flexible too. I judge each line on its ability to make meaning in the larger scope of the poem. The issue here is line and word and meaning. If these come together in such a way as to empower a poem, I am all for embracing however the poet managed that.

What do YOU say?

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