Coming of Age: How to Read a Poem’s Linebreaks (or Write Them)

Coming of Age Monarch Caterpillar

During my recent visit to a state poetry society’s annual meeting, a man asked me how to write free verse.

“What are the rules?” he asked.

“There are none,” I said. “It’s free.”

“So it’s just random, then?”

“Absolutley not.”

“Then how do you do it?”

“I don’t know. But it takes me a long, long time.”

Free verse gets the lazy rap. It’s what today’s feel-good relativists write because they don’t want to put the intellectual commitment into sonnets and villianelles. In fact, when a formalist reviewed one of my mostly free-verse collections, she wrote that my linebreaks were random, arbritrary. That bothered me—not that she didn’t like my line breaks, but that she assumed I invested no time in the hateful things.

Now time does not always equal consciousness. When I work on my line breaks, I can’t always articulate why I’m doing what I’m doing, but I write, break, re-break, re-stanza, and cut—all while reading aloud—over and over and over, to help my poem come of age. The right line break resonates, rings in the bones. It echoes an emotion or idea in the reader’s brain, often without the reader realizing it until he or she takes some time to explore.

Consider the poem “Tree” by Andrew Hudgins:


I’d like to be a tree. My father clinked
his fork down on his plate and stared at me.
“Boy, sometimes you say the dumbest things.”
You ought to know, I muttered, and got backhanded
out of my chair. Nowadays, when I chop wood
and my hands gum with resin and bark flakes,
I hunker at the tap and wash them human.
But in math class, I’d daydream of my choices:
not hickory or cedar not an oak —
post, red, live, pin, or water oak. Just pine.
If not longleaf, I’d settle for loblolly.
My skin would thicken with harsh bark, my limbs
sprout twigs, my twigs sprout elegant green needles.
Too soon, Miz Gorrie’d call on me. “Why did
you do step four that way?” Who me? It looked
good at the time, I guess — and got invited
to come back after school and guess again.
And that’s when I decided it: scrub pine.

A lot can be said about this poem. Eighteen lines draw up a boy’s history and psyche better than many full-length memoirs. Every time I read it, I find a new angle or receive a new twinge in my heart. At the aforementioned poetry society meeting, several of us discussed the poem for over an hour then used it as a model for our own drafting. Without a doubt, it is a rich piece in its images, figurative language, sounds, and themes.

But for now, let’s look at the first line:

I’d like to be a tree. My father clinked

That last word. It rings like a flung fork. It hits against a plate’s greasy enamel and makes my teeth vibrate. On the heels of a little boy sharing his imagination, an instrument of nourishment and joy becomes a weapon of anger and intimidation.

I know. This past week, my daughter and I disagreed on the respectful qualities of her tone and body language at a groggy 6:30 a.m., and when I couldn’t take the conversation any longer, I threw my coffee spoon in the sink. Stainless steel on stainless steel. Clang.

It was a break, all right. She gathered up her things and left the room.

Sometimes the best way to figure out how, why, or if a line break works is to break the line at other places and compare the effects. What if the line broke after tree? Father? Fork? Down?

Poetry is the heart distilled, words in their most concentrated form. In his poem Introduction to Poetry, Billy Collins advises readers to “. . .drop a mouse into a poem/and watch him probe his way out.” When you crawl around these words, what do you discover? What happens when you linger on the edges, when you let the words make you catch your breath?

Read the poem aloud. Several times. Feel the end words. Then read just the end words themselves.


How do these words work together, work in you as a whole? Of course I’m not going to give you an answer. Mine is different from yours. It’s free verse, after all—in all its clinking, ringing, painstaking coming-of-age glory. And there is nothing random about it.

Photo by LadyDragonflycc, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan, author of How to Read a Poem.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Black Eyed Susan Nothing Gold Can Stay How to Read a Poem

As September flickers out like a candle, this line of poetry marches through my brain: “Nothing gold can stay.”

Yes, the line’s from a famous Frost poem.

Nature’s first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Yes, the phrase features famously in The Outsiders.

But I don’t care about that now, don’t care about the scores of articles and web sites siphoning the meaning from the poem, the students across the country hammering out their theses for their first poetry paper of the year. I just can’t get this line out of my head.

Nothing gold can stay.

Nothing gold can stay.

Nothing gold.

Nothing. Nothing.

I hop on my bike and ride to McDonald Woods, the forest preserve nestled behind our neighborhood. As I enter the prairie, stalks of goldenrod wave by the thousands, their studded strands hanging like the light that drips from a firework seconds after it explodes.

I pump my legs into the darkened woods. Nothing gold can stay.

I glide down a slope and cruise over a small steam. A few asters pop through the spotted shade. Then woods open to prairie again, alight with false sunflower, which just yesterday, it seems, was budding. And the day before that, crushed under snow.

Nothing gold can stay.

I’ve sent all my children to school, the first year all three are gone. I can take my bike out at will, ride for seven hours if I want. But I don’t. Writing calls, and before long, the Indian summer sun makes me sweat. My skin carries its rays in wrinkles.

Nothing gold can stay.

I downshift to push uphill and pump to the rhythm of the line: Nothing gold can stay. Nothing gold can stay. The words become their own. The whisper of noth, noth like the coneflowers brushing and dropping seeds. Nothing gold, marching in my mouth, the vowel like my exhalation as I pedal up to the pond where turtles sun on logs. Where do they go when the snow piles up? Nothing gold. Nothing. Nothing. Oh. Oh. Oh. Gone.

And when the spokes spark into the last swatch of prairie, the goldenrod picks up in the breeze again. I look down at my spinning, sandaled feet, still tan-patched with July and August, when I hiked through so many sundrenched states and couldn’t imagine an end. Can stay. Stay. Yay? (Is that dumb?) No matter. A opens up wide, like a smile.

This time of year makes me want to cry and dance. It makes me want to unearth hard memories and yes, embrace plants, though fall’s flowers are the messiest, seediest, wildest ones of the year.

Nothing gold can stay. Nothing gold can stay. Nothing gold to say. Whisper. No. Oh. Hooray…

Photo by LadyDragonflycc, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan, author of How to Read a Poem.

How to Read a Poem: Big Dirty Butterfly

Butterfly Newspaper How to Read a Poem

My tween daughter blows through the kitchen. “Mom, we need to make papier mache worlds in social studies this week. Each kid needs to bring either a newspaper or a cup of flour.”

Two thoughts cross my mind: Thank God I’m no longer in sixth grade. Papier mache is of the devil. Secondly, what’s the teacher gonna do with twenty-seven cups of flour?

Because no one gets the newspaper these days. We hold headlines in our palms. So unless the kids plan on layering discontinued iPhones with paste, I don’t know how the projects will get done.

I am one who hasn’t paid for a soggy pile of papers in my driveway for a long time. But then, strangely, a newspaper is what decided to haunt me this week.

Consider this section from “Portrait with Commentary,” written by Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer, a Swedish poet born in 1931.

Here is a portrait of a man I knew.
He’s sitting at the table, his newspaper open.
The eyes settle down behind the glasses.
The suit is washed with the shimmer of pinewoods.

It’s a pale and half-complete face.–
Yet he always inspired trust. Which is why
people would hestitate to come near him
for fear of meeting some misfortune.

His father earned money like dew.
But no one felt secure at home—
always a feeling that alien thoughts
broke into the house at night.

The newspaper, that big dirty butterfly,
the chair and the table and the face are at rest.
Life has stopped in big crystals.
But may it stop there only till further notice!

So much of this poem is striking, but the newspaper image physically caught my breath the first time I read it. A “big dirty butterfly”? Yes. That is it. There is no better way to describe a newspaper. All other poets might as well consider it done and move on to describing the autumn light.

In How to Read a Poem, I talk about Billy Collins’s idea from “Introduction to Poetry” about holding a poem up to the light like a color slide. I like to take a poem one image at a time, peering at it from all angles in a bright window. What do I see, remember, dream, connect? I can’t shake this dirty butterfly. He is sticking to me like the butterlifes from the public museum exhibit, the ones that land on you in a humid indoor jungle and hook their little thread legs in your sweater.

First I see the newspaper, of course, full of that heavy print. Then I see a white butterfly, like the ones that hung out in my California backyard during my childhood. Cabbage moths, my mom called them, though I’ve heard them referred to simply as “cabbage whites,” papery little things with black spots on their wings trembling among the bouganvillea.

These are the butterflies I picture getting dirty, for I remember finding dead ones in the dirt, wings spattered with mud tossed up by a rainshower. They were sad yet hopeful–beautiful–for I could finally see them up close, touch them this way.

Butterflies written over with dirt, just like so many humans written over with somebody else’s news story: war, power, starvation. I think of all the dirty butterflies we encounter in our everyday lives, too. The fallen barns, yellowed wedding dresses at garage sales, children born into drugs and abuse.

But the newspaper still opens, doesn’t it? There’s something in there–a crinkle of life yet, a hopeful story or recipe for apple crisp.

I think about this image all week. I let my mind wander. Then I bring my wanderings back into the poem. And what happens then? That I will leave to you, reader, as you let the poem do its own work on you.

Have you read a poem lately with an image that sticks to your sleeve? Allow yourself to ride its wings. Or perhaps consider revisiting a poetic image that’s so famous, it’s ceased to be personal:

Red wheelbarrow
Grecian urn
Diverging roads
White cliffs
Fog on little cat feet
Lonely cloud
A summer’s day
Fire and ice
Water, water everywhere

Spend some time with an image, and look at it afresh. What do you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch? What does the image remind you of? How do you feel?

Try it. A whole world—papier mache, if you like—awaits.

Photo by She, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan, author of How to Read a Poem.