Sistern & Line Breaks

Stone Telling Pt 2: Line Breaks

Introduction: Before I knew it, I used Johnson’s poem as a segue into line break theory. Thus I will delay finishing my review once again as I would like to leave this by itself. I do this because I would like to hear other individual views on the line–its function and construction.

Sistern by C.W. Johnson

This is my kind of poem. There’s a strong central speculative idea: women’s bodies have replaced limestone pillars in an underground cistern. The images are crisp, haunting, and the close is particularly excellent: “All / is silent / but for the clap of wave against / wall, the slow applause of water for / our sacrifice.”

Since there’s so much to love about this poem, I’m going to be slightly pickier about a mundane thing: end words. There are no doubt multiple theories about the construction of the poetic line, and so I’m going to explore this poem against my theory. I don’t know what the author’s method is, but if he finds this, hopefully he’ll share.

The first essential rule is to end on a strong word. Looking at the last word of each line, one should see mostly nouns: good nouns, strong nouns which, when strung together should almost form their own kind of poem. Verbs too can work, but we’ll get to word choice a bit later.

As for the reasoning, I suppose it has to do with the fact that strong end words is indicative of time and care spent on the construction of the poem. Also, the eye is often drawn to the beginning and end of things. Finally, if you’re the type of person who reads with dramatic pauses at the end of each line, then you especially need strong words because those will be the ones that linger in the minds of your listeners.

In this poem, all the end words are strong with the exception of two: ‘to’ at the end of line 5, and ‘for’ in the penultimate line. There are a few more that are less strong, but not wholly weak: ‘other,’ line 10; ‘those,’ second verse line 4; ‘never,’ and ‘all’ verse 3 lines 6 and 7 respectively.

The other reason to pay attention to the ways in which you end your line is to either force the reader to pause, or force the reader to move forward. In some of my workshops, the poets would read their work before the critique. More often than not someone would state “your lines didn’t break the way you read your poem.” Personally, I dislike people trying to read poems the way the lines are broken. A poem is not a typewriter, the break is not a carriage return. My personal feeling is that the line should break on the natural phrase–where there might be a slight breath or pause, but where the line could also be read with no break–jumping immediately to the next line. In my view, the ideal line should be able to be read both ways–but not awkwardly.

Looking at Sistern compare:

“Mother and Auntie live in an underground


“Their husbands selfishly died
as heroes.”

I would argue that the second break is superior to the first. In the first break, one cannot linger on ‘in an underground’ because ‘in an underground’ makes no sense. You have to have cistern at the end of it. Whereas ‘Their husbands selfishly died’ is complete in an of itself, and when you get to the ‘as heroes’ you are continuing to add to that unit. Have you ever held a knife or a sword or a golf club on a single fingertip? Let the weight balance itself on either side? That is what a line break should be. It should be balanced–the long syntactic unit coming to a stop at your finger, the short conclusion merely continuing to hold it in place.

Now, the first line ending in underground isn’t exactly bad–because the weight of the line pushes you to the next. You can’t pause, because logically you know the sentence is still moving. But look down to the line that ends in ‘to’

“Bodies cheaper
than stone, they hired out as pillars to
the city”

‘pillars to’ is another unit that can’t rest. You must read on–but ‘to’ is a tiny, insignificant word. Imagine if someone was reading your poem and they insisted on reading in that stilted voice–pausing at the end of each line. Is ‘to’ what you want echoing in their ears? Of course not. This is why end words are so crucial–if your line breaks aren’t balanced, the least you can do is ensure that your words can stand on their own.

Now, there are other ways of dealing with line breaks–if your poem establishes its own rhythm, you can teach a reader to pause or jump to the next line or the next. Jack Gilbert has a rhythm so smooth you don’t even realize you are changing the way you read his poems until you stop to examine it.

I rarely diagram my syllables for stressed/unstressed syllables, partly because it feels too much like 10th grade. Instead, I read my lines over and over again trying to whittle and carve my way into something that sounds right. Would probably go faster if I did actually start dashing my words but what can I say, I’m stubborn.

Compare the opening of the two halves of the opening sentence:

Mother and Auntie live | in an underground cistern

‘Mother and Auntie live’ is quite different rhythmically from ‘in an underground cistern’. I obviously can’t diagram on screen, but essentially it’s

Stressed unstressed unstressed Stressed unstressed unstressed


unstressed unstressed stressed unstressed stressed/unstressed (depending on how you read underground–I can read it both ways–I actually can also read it as unstressed unstressed stressed–but since I’ve gone too long without a stressed syllable, my preference is for the first)

What if the opening had been changed to:

Mother and Auntie live underground
in a cistern

As units you would have:
S u u S u u S u (s/u)
u u S u

It’s those stressed syllables that our ear is looking for. Technically ‘live’ could go either way (stressed or unstressed), but the Mother and Auntie teaches us to soften ‘live’ when we get to it. Underground also can be stressed or unstressed in different ways: under is stressed/unstressed… but ‘underground’ can stress the ‘ground’ leaving ‘under’ soft (unless you’re British perhaps).

But ‘in an’ is also soft no matter how we read it–forcing us to trip over ourselves before we get to underground (and because ‘in an’ is soft, we read ‘un’ as the stressed syllable). That would be okay–if it weren’t for the fact that ‘in an underground’ is on the same line. If we split them up:

Mother and Auntie live
in an underground cistern

Then our ear gets a break–our ear likes unstressed syllables–but not when it’s looking for a stressed one.

I don’t think that we should make our lines perfect rhythmically–in fact there’s something about iambic pentamer that makes me want to stab people in the stomach–but I feel that people should be exceedingly conscious of it with their openings. When I first read Sistern, I was impressed by the first line ‘Mother and Auntie live in an underground’ because it was so unusual. When I read the line as an isolated unit, I let ‘live’ serve as a break–almost as if ‘Mother and Auntie live’ was the raise of a hand, and ‘in an underground’ was the flourished fall. ‘Cistern’ at the end of the sentence is what threw me because it made me rethink the rhythm of the first line.

And this exploration wasn’t to argue that the poet should have written the poem differently, but perhaps open up the discussion to the theories of line construction. In a recent critique someone mentioned that she feels that line breaks should have some kind of significance–but that mine seemed to be focused solely on keeping the lines even. This was a fair comment–in fact line length is the first thing I look to in drafting a poem. It’s not until the second, fourth, or eighth draft that I start to pay attention to other things (such as double checking my enjambment).

Anyway, those are my thoughts. What are yours?


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