Lineation & Indirect Metaphor

Daily Warm Up: We’re going to read and discuss a short article from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Our Friday warm ups will generally be like this.

Focus Lesson: Today we’re going to talk about lineation and indirect metaphor.


Lineation = how a writer breaks the lines in his/her poem

When we talk about lineation, the best resource I know is actually this article from the Poetry Foundation. Like, seriously. If you want to get an overall sense of lineation, this article is the place to be.

We’re going to borrow from the article a lot today (like all the exercises are hers, not mine), but I can’t recommend it enough for anyone who considers themselves a serious writer or reader of poetry.

In a nutshell, writers break lines for all kinds of reasons, including things like…

  • To suggest a double meaning
  • To invite a pause or a hesitation
  • To create questions or tension between lines
  • To make an ending word or statement more definitive
  • To amplify/emphasize the sounds (rhyme or rhythm)
  • To mask/de-empasize the sounds (rhyme or rhythm)
  • To complicate the definition of a “sentence”
  • To confirm the traditional definition of a “sentence”

And it’s a good idea to be CONSCIOUS of your line breaks. In the words of the article,

Whenever you have a draft of a poem, try changing the ways the lines break to see if they can bring new connotations or observations to the surface or to see if they can emphasize different aspects of your poem. Line breaks are one of the most important tools you have as a poet, so you want to make sure that your choices of line breaks are informed by knowing the other possibilities and being able to explain a little bit about why you finally formed the lines the way you did.

To try this out, I’m going to ask you to try one of three exercises, all from Hazelton’s article:

Indirect Metaphor

Indirect metaphor = suggests rather than stating the metaphor

Lots of poems use direct metaphors and similes. Poets like Billy Collins are famous for them, as you can see in Introduction to Poetry By Billy Collins:

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

But more regularly, as a part of suggesting rather than stating, poems will employ indirect metaphors. These are like sketches of metaphors, implied metaphors, metaphors that leave room for the reader to noodle around with them.

You can see that in the poem I annotated yesterday, where Donna Vorreyer’s speaker seems to suggest she is a cricket or a flock of crickets or in some way cricket-like without ever actually coming out and SAYING it or even really following through with what it would mean if it was a direct metaphor.

The last Poetry Experiment

We’re going to combine lineation and indirect meatphor into a single poem. Again, this exercise comes from Rebecca Hazelton, so all credit to her!

I’d like you to write a poem that develops an implied metaphor and pushes against your usual trend in terms of lineation. If you usually write longer lines, try writing lines of 3-5 words max. If you usually write short lines, try writing longer lines–lines that go almost all the way to the margin.

Then, re-break your poem as its opposite. This will give you a second poem that’s very different visually than its predecessor.

Finally, write a few sentences about how changing the line length does or does not affect the poem’s character.

  • Did you find yourself revising as you change the line lengths? How so?
  • Does your subject matter differ for a long-lined poem versus a short-lined one? Why?
  • Does your tone differ? How so?
  • Is this a “fast” poem or a “slow” poem in terms of pacing? Why?
  • Do you find yourself breaking lines for different reasons? What reasons?

I’d like to check both versions of the poem as well as your reflections tomorrow.


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