As someone who writes both poetry and prose, I’m often (okay… sometimes) asked to talk about the difference between the two. Over the years, I’ve played around with all kinds of lofty pedagogical answers (firecrackers versus bottle rockets, making a long story short versus making a short story long, etc.) but really, I think it all comes down to line breaks.
In my experience, poets and prose-writers tend to regard each other like members of vying, half-starved species observing a temporary armistice—which is unfortunate, because it’s also been my experience that some of the best poets have a healthy respect for prose, and vice versa. That was certainly the case with Raymond Carver, whose poems have a deceptively simple elegance and pacing that readily illustrate how narrative need not exist in paragraph form. Put another way, Carver’s narrative poems are arbitrarily broken prose the way statues are arbitrarily chiseled blocks of marble.
Again, it all comes down to line breaks.
Thinking about line breaks while you write isn’t just a way to play with rhythm and energy. It’s also an extra tool you can use to avoid cliché, which is a skill that translates directly into writing stronger prose, as well. For example, let’s say you had to put a break in the simple sentence, I watched a bird fly through the sky. Most people would probably put the break after bird or after sky. Either way, though, the connotation of bird (which is, generally, flight) makes the next line rather expected, and therefore a wasted opportunity.
Any experienced writer would get that right away, of course. But if you were already writing with line breaks in mind, you’d probably be a bit more likely to favor more compelling language – say, I watched a bird / dissolve into feathers and spindle-bones, or I watched a bird fly / backwards in the winter gale. Here, the breaks serve to build surprise, sure, but that same skill helps to avoid cliché and weak writing in prose, as well.
Now, here’s the $10,000 bonus: When you skirt but avoid cliché, you still invoke the cliché in the reader’s mind BUT you do so in a way that strangely, almost serendipitously redeems the image. For example, knight in shining armor is horrible, for obvious reasons. But in the right setting, dentist in shining armor might be cute. Let’s try a bigger twist: a stripper in her birthday armor or the mechanic in his shining tool belt. Now, the reader might instinctively juxtapose the new image with the antiquated one, thus making the line more than the sum of its parts.
Going back to the example of the bird, if we use the line break as both a litmus test and a tool to craft a more unique sensory twist, even if we end up removing the break and simply writing the line as prose, we accomplish something awesome. Basically, we trick the reader into simultaneously imagining both a bird in flight and a bird decomposing, and by contemplating two opposites (a bit like contemplating the paradoxes inherent in a Zen koan), we can prompt the reader to grasp for one moment the full breadth, glory and tragedy of a bird’s life, which in turn becomes a metaphor for our own.
So, yeah. Line breaks. They’re your friends.
Michael Meyerhofer’s fourth book of poetry, What To Do If You’re Buried Alive, was published by Split Lip Press. He’s also the author of the Dragonkin Trilogy, a dark fantasy series from Red Adept Publishing. For more information and at least one embarrassing childhood photo, visit troublewithhammers.com.