End-Stops, Enjambments, and Caesuras: Certain Line-Breaks in Recent American Poetry

William Gillespie


Before I lose interest in other writing I should ask what poetry is.

Today, strictly speaking, poetry is almost always free verse, which is sometimes prose.

Free verse, though, is not freedom from rules, which would not be liberating.

Free verse is the freedom to choose your own rules, which is liberating.

Poetry, then, is a textual act which does not privilege a single reading.

Rules, techniques, forms, are methods of identifying and manipulating parameters of a poem.

These parameters can include a range of interdependent and independent aspects of language.

These aspects can include what words sound like (rhyme) or how many words.

They can include grammatic structures, recognizable or not, and how words are spelled.

They can include, as we shall see, how poetry is arranged on paper.

A poet can even concern herself exclusively with exactly what the poem means.

Strictly speaking, though, writing that does that isn’t poetry — it’s the other kind.

She is also free to disregard this aspect of language — the semantic — altogether.


Whatever poetry is is only immediately obvious to the eye: it has line-breaks.

These line breaks compliment, contradict, confound, and compete with real or implied punctuation.

Thus, verse is an erratic polyrhythm: breaks, syntax, (and rhyme and meter) simultaneously.

Of these three interdependent systems, breaks seem to be the hardest to theorize.

Unlike punctuation, the break "has not been regulated or domesticated," writes James Scully.

Unlike punctuation, grammar, syntax, meter and rhyme; "It has not been theorized." (127)

The terminology: end-stop, caesura, enjambment to indicate grammar and line-breaks’ agreement and discrepancy.

An end-stop is a rational alignment of line-end and punctuation — implied or actual.

A caesura is a pause midline, with punctuation — implied, actual, or represented unconventionally.

Enjambment: a line-end when there is no grammatic or phonetic pause — incorrect punctuation.

Either grammar and line pause together or separately, but they usually do both.

Assuming, of course that there is grammar — sometimes only breaks ration the text.

And in the case of concrete poetry there are lines in no sequence.


For sake of clarity in this paper I will use several terms incorrectly.

I am only concerned with poetry with line breaks (and writing about it).

Thus I will use "prose" to refer to grammatical writing with usual punctuation.

"(advantage of prose… its linebreaks being hidden/ demands the reader work)." (Silliman 98)

"the break is where/ meaning is not, which is its own/ content" (104)

I will use "verse" to refer to writing with an overt metric structure.

Most of the poetry I analyze will be prose, little of it verse.

Prose makes its poem’s line-breaks significant even as its punctuation renders them unnecessary.

Line-breaks distract from the structure of prose, but draw attention to verse’s structure.

The associations between lineation and verse are, at this point, quite well established.

Whereas the rationality of prose seems to contradict the divine intuitiveness of lineation.

Even when the breaks fall exactly on the periods there is some conflict.

Sentences and lines seem to demand different modes of reading, even when together.


"Line is the essence of verse" writes Robert Wallace in his Writing Poems.

"The concept of the line is fundamental to the concept of poetry itself."

So says the 1993 edition of the Princeton Guide to poetry and Poetics.

"A formal structural division of a poem" said the equivalent passage in 1965.

Barbara Herrnstein Smith: "The fundamental unit of poetic form is the line." (38)

Turco’s New (1986) Book of Forms calls line-breaks used as punctuation "line phrasing."

"Verse is language in lines. This distinguishes it from prose." Says Charles Hartmann.

End-stopping is "oracular," while enjambment is "meditative and ruminative or private." (Fussell, 80-1)

Frank Scully writes: "Line breaks define energy. They may let the air out,

redistribute rhythm, shift the weight of a word, reset our relationship to it….

"The line break is the most volatile, productive punctuation in free verse." (127)

Charles Olson equated the line with the breath, one exhalation of a speaker.

Denise Levertov: the line-break is a half-comma, the line the poet’s inner voice.


I find useful the distinction between Olson’s outer voice and Levertov’s inner voice.

I think of it as a distinction between the phonetic and grammatic levels.

A line-break can exist instead of or in opposition to a punctuation mark.

A line-break can also reinforce or undermine aspects of a text’s sound structure.

A line’s system of stressed and unstressed syllables reflects its grammar only loosely.

A line’s sequence of consonant and vowel sounds is irrelevant to its grammar.

A line-break can disrupt or facilitate assonance, consonance, sibilance, echoes, puns, and alliteration.

"The oldest prosody… is based … on grammatically parallel language structures." (Turco 8)

"Phrasal repetitions at… beginnings of lines… create an effect called… anaphora." (Fussell 80)

A line’s length is (usually) maximized by the page width, but not minimized.

A line-break can even occur in the middle of an insignificant one-syllable word.

A line-break structure is as inevitable as the interrelated grammatic and sound structures.

The line-break however, can bolster, oppose, comment on, ignore, and influence these structures.


"L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E LINES," a chapter in The Line in Postmodern Poetry, offers the following:

"…in favor of difference & a more individualized interior, an intrinsic legitimacy" (178)

Parts of the poem are not subservient to the grammar of the whole.

"Polyrhythms’ spatial counterpart, lack of (regular, traditional) closure as generative, tensions restored." (177)

The grammar shattered, the shards gleam along angles of their own sharp edges.

"Not simply to restate the obvious, but to open it up, smack…" (180)

Line-breaks can open (for interpretation) a closed (single-meaning) poem or text’s recognizable phrases.

"The line thus has been set off as the mark of artifice…" (183)

An essay with stanzas will read differently than the same essay in paragraphs.

"…prose has never petitioned the line as a sign of a value." (198)

Perhaps because paragraphs are careful — the sentences bundled tightly together for (their/writer’s) protection.

"There is no such thing as ‘the line’…. line --- may exist." (211)

The line means that it is uncharacterizable, and its text a controlled ambiguity.


The line-break can also set up a rhythm that supersedes the other rhythms.

The line break can divide its lines into equal syllable or word counts.

Such breaks can tick off lines independently of grammatic or phonetic rhythmic patterns.

An example is May Swenson’s poem "Four-Word Lines," a poem with four-word lines.

The poem’s word-per-line rhythm is a metronome that drowns out grammar and phonetics.

The sentence lengths are (in number of words) 12, 10, 18, 28, 20.

The line-lengths in syllables range from four to five with two six-syllable lines.

The tension between line length and sentence length is a sort of syncopation:

"Your eyes are just/ like bees, and I/ Feel like a flower." (1)

The line has three downbeats to the sentence’s two: they are a polyrhythm.

The first two lines are iambic bimeter, the third a long rocking foot.

The next sentence: "Their brown power makes/ a breeze go over/ my skin."

This assonant rise and fall reverses the meter to the beat of line.


In this paper I will investigate where line-breaks and caesuras in poetry are.

As Swenson’s poem demonstrates, some breaks may result from counting words in lines.

Precision of this sort is infrequent, and counting words in sentences is rarer.

Perloff’s "The Return of the (Numerical) Repressed," addresses this rarity -- counting:

Mathematics repairs "`ruin’ of a ‘free verse’ determined primarily by speech rhythm." (170)

An alternate view is that mathematics can sculpt those sentences unlikely to say.

Throughout this paper I will use mathematics to measure poetry and demonstrate proportions.

I will also rely on my understanding of formal grammar, also as measure.

I hope to show how line-breaks are parameters that have effects on me.

I hope to pay attention to how line-breaks are manipulated to end poems.

Adrienne Rich’s An Atlas of the Difficult World is useful for investigating endings.

Well-written, it has deliberate endings of lines, stanzas, poems, poem-cycles, and the book.

I will also read recently-re/published poems by Audre Lorde, Jorie Graham, Tory Dent.


The final stanza of Jorie Graham’s "Chaos (Eve)" employs accelerated end-stopping for effect.

Here every line ends with a period: "The tree rose into sight. Stayed./

The question of the place of origin is not true, too slow." (131)

Because the poem has anticipated this moment structurally, the effect here is dramatic.

The caesuras and sentence fragments shift force to the line-ends, acting as upbeats.

Throughout its duration, the poem moves from enjambment to end-stopping: commas to periods.

Enjambed stanza-breaks tie the stanzas together, periods at line-ends pull the lines apart.

Sentence fragments and a sentence beginning with a conjunction sutures a caesura together:

"Stepped free./ And yes it was a poorer land then./ Birds everywhere." (131)

Enjambment binds stanza breaks, grammatic parallelism binds line-breaks, and conjunctions bind sentence breaks.

On different levels the poem works to rejoin its own unnatural divisions: breaks.

As the periods and line-breaks converge the divisions are instead accented rapidly, pulsing.

Two bouncing balls synch up, accelerating as they slow down to a stop.


"10" of Adrienne Rich’s "Eastern War Time" does something nearly opposite: decelerated end-stopping.

More than a third of the poem’s 25 lines are nine words long.

The grammatic parallelism accents the end-stopping: the parallel (implied) periods of flat declarations:

"I’m a canal in Europe where bodies are floating/ I’m a mass grave….

I’m a corpse dredged from a canal in Berlin/ a river in Mississippi"

Here the enjambment is found in line-beginnings (I can’t use the term "attack.")

The line-beginnings are also where the end-stopping and grammatic parallelism are most prominent.

Lines two through eleven all start with the word (and grammatic formation) "I’m."

Lines twelve and thirteen start with "is" and "in" respectively, offering alphabetic parallelism.

Lines fifteen through eighteen start with "I have," though fifteen has a caesura.

After line nineteen’s "I’m," only three of the last eight lines start "I."

Grammatic (and alphabetic) parallelism reinforces an initial almost-consistent use of end-stops as periods.

But the final line-breaks (and caesuras) are commas, dissolving in a smoky mirror.


Tory Dent’s end-stopped, grammatically immaculate lines are frequently too wide for the page.

The poem "What Silence Equals" has five interlinked nine-to-thirteen-line stanzas in cyclic form.

The last line of each stanza is the first of the following stanza.

Consistent with that structure, the last line of the poem is also first.

(Like "Eastern War Time" which begins with the image of the smoky mirror.)

"Where the homogenous wind beats the wild grass closer to the quiet ground,"

The effect of her long line-phrased, end-stopped lines is a closed, forceful syntax.

A second effect is the apparent division of the poem into interrelated noun-phrases.

This effect may be an effect of the three word-lines following repeated lines.

"Homogenous, wild, quiet/" is the second line following the first/last line cited above.

Dent’s practiced syntax and frequently punctuated (commas) line-ends clarify her poems’ semantic ambiguities.

The line-breaks are, for the most part, backgrounded and used to diagram sentences.

This, though, intensifies enjambment in "Eternal Snow": "for forced prematurely with warm water/".


End-stopping is logical — an adherence of a poem’s typography with its grammatic structure.

A line has to end and a sentence doesn’t -- breaks influence grammar also.

End-stopping means the most when employed in combination with caesuras and enjambments.

The relationship of these aspects may shift throughout the duration of the poem.

It may have a sudden or gradual change between line and grammatic unit.

A metaphor that works for me is A POEM IS A TRAP SET.

The periods (real or implied) are the bass drum — marking major rhythmic units.

The commas are the snare — staggered with the bass, dividing major rhythmic units.

The lines are the highhat — they tick off a beat of their own.

The highhat is usually in synch with bass and snare, but usually faster.

Equally-sized lines ending on periods are analogous to hitting all three drums simultaneously.

Your expert jazz drummer will seldom do that, only occasionally for emphatic emphasis.

It is the interaction of the different rhythms that makes for exciting drumming.




In this essay I hope to propose a temporary taxonomy of line-breaks. Punctuation,

with its established forms, provides a useful way of distinguishing end-stopped lines. For

example, we can distinguish between a line that ends where a comma would

be (or is) as opposed to a line that ends where a period

is or would be. There is no equivalent measure of enjambments: I am

using "enjambment" to mean lines that end where no punctuation should be. End-stopped

lines frequently employ line-breaks to reinforce the actual or implied punctuation, or simply

instead of punctuation. The enjambed line does something else. It disrupts the rhythm

of the punctuation and achieves a variety of difficult-to-classify effects. Grammar may still

provide a certain measure — a line that breaks between an article and its

noun is more enjambed than line-breaks between noun and verb. A line that

breaks between sentences, clauses, or between subject and predicate, is thus even less

enjambed. However, enjambments have more to do with words than part of speech.


Enjambment is peculiar. It is easier to measure the weight of a downbeat

than the lift of an upbeat. Sometimes words change meaning when the line

is truncated. Transitive verbs are momentarily frozen intransitive. Sometimes a pause is meaningful,

but sometimes line-breaks seem to reflect no meaning whatsoever, as in prose. For

example, a break between an article and its noun. Even a break between

modifier and modified seems to work against meaning. When there is not only

no speech pause but no distinction between grammatic units, a line break is

a foregrounded absence. A line-break at these times may seem irritating, playful, or

dramatic. Enjambment means, but what and how? Is it theorizable, or is it,

as Scully writes, a practice, not a technique, meaning only meaningful in a

social context. Not as a feature of an artifact, a style removed from

intentions, but as an exchange between writer and reader. To take Scully’s reasoning

further we would have to begin investigating the context of each reader individually.


Jorie Graham’s "I Was Taught Three" has an enjambed title. "The illusion is

that the poem is magically organic that not even a part traditionally considered

separable can distance itself." (Fussell 81) The poem moves towards enjambment -- by

stanza eight enjambing every line — and then away again to the final end-stopped

period. Stanza nine: "was loyal. No, this/ was all first person, and I"

(6) A very abrupt, awkward, terse, and distracting effect. It is a poem

about the translucence of language — the three colored filters of Graham’s native tongues —

and it illuminates its own medium. We cannot follow the lines this way,

no matter how perfect the grammar. The line breaks are as unnatural and

artificial as language. We are groping with the shattered syntax of an alien

dialect when Graham gives our speech back to us. "that governs blossoming? The

human tree/ clothed with its nouns, or this one" (7) The lens is

a magnifying glass which makes seven sentences seem to fill two entire pages.


"XIII (DEDICATIONS)" of Rich’s "An Atlas of the Difficult World" features hidden enjambments —

line-breaks which occur between clauses — line-phrasing more subtle than commas. Each line ends

as if the end of the thought, the sentence, but each line-beginning forces

us to retroactively correct that impression, continuing the sentence: "I know you are

reading this poem/ late, before leaving your office/ of the one intense yellow

lamp-spot and the darkening window/ in the lassitude of a building faded to

quiet/ long after rush-hour." Every line can be read as the end of

the sentence (and many of them are), in fact, except lines 25 and

26 of this 37-line poem, which are enjambed, particularly line 27 which breaks

between "thick" and "lens." This reading assumes that the indented lines are not

breaks but continuations of the lines above. The effect is strange. In a

poem addressing its readers directly, each of these continuations entails greater risk. The

first line "I know you are reading this poem" is, after all, true.

Specific effects enjambment has on certain words include ways of distorting the word

by briefly delaying what follows it. The next line may cause us to

retroactively correct our impression of what the word was doing. This doesn’t happen

with a line ending in an article. The article is simply a severed

"the," there is little meaning to be wrung from it. In certain contexts,

transitive verbs, ending a line, may appear momentarily transitive. Other words might change

meaning and part of speech altogether as a result of being detached from

the words that follow them. A line-break can be used to blur a

word between two of its definitions, most noticeably at a line-end. Of course,

where a line begins is also relevant. A line might mean differently when

read without the words that precede it. This involves no retroactive correction: when

we misinterpret the part of speech or the definition of a word that

ends a line, it is because the next line retroactively, recognizably recontextualized it.


An example of transformational enjambment at a line-end can be found in Audre

Lorde’s "Martha." "On the eighth day you startled the doctors/ speaking from your

death place/ to reassure us you were still/" and the next line is

"trying." Or "Neighbors": "We made strong poems for each other/ exchanging formulas for

each particular magic/ all the time pretending/ we were not really witches/… and

each of us went back/ to her own particular magic/ confirmed believing/ she

was always alone/ believing/ the other/ was always lying/" and the poem ends

"in wait." "Enjambment" refers to line-ends, but enjambed caesuras are also possible. In

"Now that I am Forever with Child" three out of four caesuras, represented

by spaces, are fully enjambed: "I recall you/ growing heavy against the wind."

Such enjambments open a closed text, blur distinctions and definitions, create a controlled

ambiguity, and make the language more opaque — foregrounding the poem as artifact. They

prevent us from being caught up in the poem’s grammar, rhythm, or meaning.


When I identify enjambed stanzas or caesuras, I am taking the first step

towards assuming that these terms can be reapplied on different scales with a

similar meaning. Assuming the stanza is the poetic unit of meaning larger than

the line, and that the word is the unit of meaning smaller than

the line; if I can write about enjambed stanzas can I discuss enjambed

words as well? I see no reason why not. Audre Lorde’s "THE AMERICAN


"Of all the ways in which this country/ Prints its death upon me/

Selling me cigarettes is one of the most certain/ Yet every day I

watch my son digging/ ConEdison GeneralMotors GarbageDisposal/ Out of his nose as he

watches a 3-second spot" In one sense, she is merely correcting these compound

words, the parallelism draws a parallel to "GarbageDisposal." She makes it clear she

is not endorsing these companies. Here, enjambed words spell sarcasm to the reader.


Scully’s Line Break is excellent. It is central to the inspiration for this

paper, if not the content. It is beautiful how he politicizes line-breaks almost

without hesitation. After bad rhyme, line-breaks are central to popular misconceptions of poetry

in all epochs. They are identifiable: you can point to them. Poetry itself:

capricious, enslaved to the poet’s intuition, aesthetic effect perhaps of interest to technical

specialists. But Scully does not for a moment allow that the line-break is

arbitrary, pretty, cool, purposefully irritating or self-consciously poetic. For him it is always

a political strategy, always in a context and language already lost to time.

And he and I are in agreement that poetry is already political, but

somewhere else in disagreement. That to translate a poem’s meter, one should translate

not that meter but its relationship to its audience. He is not in

favor of fetishizing scrupulously inept, precisely naïve technical experiments. He wants the context,

I want outdated meters and cocktails: quantitative classical meter, absinthe-and-martinis. Not technique: techniques.


In Charles Bernstein’s essay with line-breaks "Artifice of Absorption," he proposes the notion

of "absorption." A text or one of its aspects may have an "absorptive"

or "antiabsorptive" effect. Bernstein’s metaphor is an extension of one of those we

live by: we are absorbed by mystery novels, we are absorbed by work,

we are absorbed by our lovers. It is Bernstein’s notion of the "anti-absorptive"

where the metaphor has been extended. We don’t want to be totally absorbed

by our work or our lovers or our children. We need to escape

from them into our mystery novels where, on the other hand, being absorbed

means a good and compelling book. An enjambed line can be anti-absorptive. It

distances us from the content of the poem by disrupting our reading in

ways that remind us that we are, after all, reading. "Absorption is blocked

by misting/ this glass, or by breaking it, or/ by painting on its

surface. Any/ typographic irregularity,/ any glitch in expected/ syntax, any/ digression…" (Poetics 33-4)


Another poet associated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement whose terminology may be useful here

is Lyn Hejinian. In Writing/Talks in her talk "The Rejection of Closure," Hejinian

distinguishes between the "open" and "closed" text. Her title does not, apparently, use

"closure" in the sense normally attributed to poetry (the sense Barbara Herrnstein Smith

uses in the title of her book) — that of a poem with a

neat ending and an intact logical or formal structure. Hejinian: "For the sake

of clarity, we can say that a closed text is one in which

all the elements of the work are directed towards a single reading and

delivers the text from any lurking ambiguity." (270) An enjambed line ("obvious when

encountered" (271)) may serve to open a closed text. It may cause us

pause, to wonder "why did Rich break this line after "this"? Hejinian also

includes grammatic parallelism as a technique that might open a closed text. Her

reasoning is elegant, and is behind much L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetries. Here is a paragraph:


I perceive the world as vast and overwhelming; each moment stands under an

enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information, potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed, and

certainly incomplete. What saves this from becoming a vast undifferentiated mass of data….


The open text, by definition, is open to the world and particularly to

the reader. It invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the

reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural)

hierarchies. It speaks for writing that is generative rather than directive. Reader and

writer engage in a collaboration from which ideas and meanings are permitted to

evolve. The writer relinquishes total control and challenges authority on principle and control

as a motive. The open text often emphasizes or foregrounds process, either the

process of the original composition or of subsequent compositions by readers, and thus

resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and fix material, turn it

into a product; that is, it resists reduction and commodification. (Writing/Talks 271, 272)



To clarify: end-stopped and enjambed are opposite ends of a spectrum. A caesura,

like a line-break, can be at either end of this spectrum. Usually it

is somewhere in the middle. In fact, I do not yet have the

terminology to distinguish line-breaks from caesuras. For me, a caesura is a line-break

that happens mid-line. It must be punctuated (a line-break is, in effect, an

ambiguous punctuation mark given meaning by its context). A caesura is usually indicated

by an extra space between words. It can also be indicated by a

double-colon, or simply any punctuation. A caesura can be implied by grammatic structure —

where a punctuation mark should be — but it is still not there. As

in the implied commas of "EASTERN WAR TIME" "I": "darkblue wool wet acrid

on her hands" or "chariots horses draperies certitudes." Or in "3": "DAUGHTER BORN

LAST NIGHT STOP DOING WELL." Line-breaks differ from caesuras in two respects. A

poem must have line-breaks. Line-breaks are a punctuation mark, caesuras indicated by one.


These are my definitions for the purpose of this paper. I will call

"implied caesuras" pauses in a line both natural and unnatural. A natural pause

could be a missing comma or period implied by the grammatic structure. An

unnatural pause could be an unrecognizable grammatic structure. A sequence of seemingly unrelated

nouns will sound the rhythm of a list. Pauses will fill spaces between

words when it is not clear how they are related. These spaces are

what Ron Silliman calls "points of non-integration." "Is it the same or different

if the point of non-integration takes place at a linebreak as when it

happens in the middle of a traditionally punctuated paragraph..? In fact, isn’t non-integration

and the shifting of semantics at the level of grammar precisely what punctuation

attempts to articulate, perhaps even to obliterate, through convention?" (122) Punctuation, including caesuras

and line-breaks, can also create points of non-integration where everything otherwise fits. An

inexplicable caesura or line-break dis-integrates, opens, the text. It is an anti-absorptive technique.


There are examples of transformationally enjambed caesuras in "EASTERN WAR TIME." In "I":

"the streetcar she must ride/ to become one of a hundred girls". Or

in "4": "but in terrible Europe/ anything was possible surely?" The first example

changes the meaning of "one" subtly. (It is grammatically possible simply to "become

one") In the second example the caesura seems to indicate a hesitation I

read as doubt. The "surely" retroactively weakens the "anything was possible." In "3"

the caesura seems to have a mimetic function: a space indicates emptiness. "SITUATION

DIFFICULT ether of messages/ in capital letters silence". Elsewhere in the ten-poem cycle

caesuras stand in for commas, periods, colons, and question marks ("2"): "what’s an

American girl/ in wartime her…" Rich may be using caesuras and line-breaks to

serve the same purposes. Her choice between them may be to maintain line-lengths

within a certain range. There are only a few lines as short as

three words in the ten-poem cycle. Only "1", "4", and "10" have commas.


In "4" caesuras are indicated with colons. Lines four and seven (out of

eleven) consist of quotes. In addition to quotation marks, these lines have colons

at the beginning and end. These colons are separated from the line by

spaces. These caesuras are placed where a pause is already indicated by the

line-breaks. The caesuras must be doing something other than indicating a pause here.

In other parts of the book colons are stacked ungrammatically. ("An Atlas of

the Difficult World" and in "Through Corralitos under Rolls of Cloud." ) The

colons in "Eastern War Time" frame the quotes in irony. "this is what

our parents were trying to spare us" — racial violence prevalent in U.S. And

"But this is the twentieth century." In which brutality and barbarism are more

frightening then ever. Strangely the poem ends with quotes without punctuation. The final

quotes — the ones never said — are simply italicized. "how do you say unfold,

my flower, shine, my star/ and we are hated, being what we are"


Take "6" of Adrienne Rich’s "EASTERN WAR TIME." It has a caesura every

line except four. Of the 18-line poem, only lines one, thirteen, fifteen, and

seventeen do not have a caesura, elsewhere indicated by a double-space. The line-ends

are a mixture of comma, period and ungrammatic end-stops and enjambments. Thus is

ambiguity created in certain lines. "you’re fourteen, fifteen/ classmates from Vilna" could be

taken at least two ways. It could mean ages fourteen, fifteen versus fourteen

or fifteen different classmates. The effect of these consistent caesuras is to fragment

and disorient. It prevents a coherent fragment of words from forming beyond a

certain length. It conveys panic. It is like walking through a forest looking

for snipers between trees. It has a march rhythm. The text weaves in

and out of its gaps. Parts of sentences emerge. "you never knew the

forest outside Vilna/ could hide so many would have to." The confusion between

enjambed and unfinished sentences compounds the confusion between the second and third person.


That last caesura, between "many" and "would" functions almost as a slash. It

hinges a sort of a parallelism. It divides paths the sentence could or

does take. In the last example, the caesura functioned as an and-slash. In

other instances, a caesura might function as an or-slash. A caesura divides the

syntax into mutually exclusive simultaneous parallel structures. This can be seen in "1948:

JEWS." "---Marry out, like your father/ she didn’t write She wrote for

wrote/ against him" It is clear that all three of the possibilities are

exclusive: she didn’t write / she wrote for / she wrote against. The

enjambed "against" does not, however, support my interpretation of this structure. None of

these investigations, sadly, brings me any closer to understanding caesuras. Do they differ

from a line-break when used in the same position? A gap in the

line is disorienting, but less so. It indicates a gap while the line-break

performs it. It can transform words, but the retroactive correction is nearly instantaneous.


"FINAL NOTATION," uses caesuras as "but"s. "FINAL NOTATION," the ultimate poem of An

Atlas of the Difficult World, must end deliberately. The poem has a caesura

in every line in three of the four stanzas. These caesuras are overtly,

misleadingly parallel. They are all commas. However, they function grammatically as missing conjunctions

joining what are otherwise independent sentences. "it will not be simple, it will

not be long/ it will take little time, it will take all your

thought/ it will take all your heart, it will take all your breath/

it will be short, it will not be simple." In lines one, three

and four, the caesuras would seem to be "buts." In line three I

would expect an "and." I read stanza two as "and" "but" "and," and

"and." In stanza three similar line-lengths (and identical stanza lengths) to stanzas one

and two create the afterimages of commas where there are none. Stanza four

reads "and" and "and." No "but"s but "and"s (close) the stanza, poem, book.


When we equate line-breaks with caesuras, poetry dissolves. What little these marks conventionally

denote disappears. There is poetry, as we shall see, that abandons the difference

between caesuras and spaces. There is poetry that abandons punctuation and grammar. There

is poetry that abandons the left margin. There is poetry that abandons the

horizontal line and finally the line altogether. Alice Notley’s poem "White Phosphorus" uses

a unique type of caesura. The poem is written in quote sentence fragments,

apparently with line-breaks. The sentence fragments seldom add up to anything grammatically coherent.

"Whose heart" "might be lost?" "Whose mask is this?" "Who has a mask,

& a heart?" "Has your money" "been published, been shown?" "Who can &

can’t breathe?" "Who went" "to Vietnam?" ("We know who died there") (Messerli 504)

There are numerous identifiable enjambments. There are particularly anti-absorptive quoted fragments enjambed between

stanzas. Caesuras here, however, require rethinking. The gaps between quotes aren’t quite the

same. Inexplicable space mid-sentence is conventional in comparison to spaces in Notley’s poem.


Lyn Hejinian is another poet who makes these relatively useful terms inapplicable. I

have seen three books of her poetry. Each one is formatted consistently differently

from the others and consistently throughout itself. My Life is essentially written in

40-word paragraphs, presumably without line-breaks. The Cell can also be described as written

in paragraphs. It has small paragraphs with a hanging indent. Writing is an

Aid to Memory confounds the notion of caesura. It is written in small

ungrammatic fragments indented freely. The fragments have implied caesuras but no caesuras. The

line-breaks are less noticeable than the indentation. It is divided into 42 numbered

parts of varied lengths. The Sun & Moon edition has no page numbers.

It ends: "the situation is in fast with fast evidence/ it is now

a rarity/ I glance toward what the eye can pronounce aside/ an addition

of information must fly". There are grammatic and ungrammatic structures in a sequence

of brief phrases. The breaks do not delay or distort meaning. They mean.


Leslie Scalapino’s "Or" is a play with line breaks and caesuras. The caesuras,

indicated by dashes, are notable in their frequency and where they occur. "or/

-others/ -ah, (a sigh)/ -or/ as -oar// boy/ beaten -and gang/ abused, as

the/ son of -the father at the/ lead of the opposition -and will/

-who come -the family does -here." (Messerli 1052) The very short lines are

divided by hyphens into shorter sections whose relationship is unclear. Tina Darragh’s "volcanic

tuff" abandons grammar further, abandoning words. "ur/ mit/ mals, re/ tan of an/

la rae mi a/ called deer f/ ley first foun/ mic, adj." (Messerli

1090) This poem is apparently fragments of a found text. The found text

seems to be some kind of dictionary or reference text. The comma-caesura in

the last line hardly registers as a pause. The unclear relationship between word-fragments

make space and comma mean similarly. Like line-breaks, enjambed caesuras seem to mean

more intently. However, enjambment relies on a degree of grammatic continuity to interrupt.


Susan Howe’s "Articulation of Sound Forms in Time" is good. Part two, "Hope

Atherton’s Wanderings," blurs the distinction between caesuras and implied caesuras. It also blurs

distinctions between spaces and caesuras. Finally it challenges the distinctions between words. The

poem begins with the gesture of a narrative. "soe young mayde in March

or April laught/ who was lapd M as big as any kerchief" (7)

Its confusing punctuationless lines give way to grammarless lines. "rest chondriacal lunacy/ velc

cello viable toil" (10). Spaces between words expand — "chaotic architect repudiate line Q

confine lie link realm/" (13) — contract, and disappear. "ReddenBorderViewHaloPastApparitionOpenMostNotion is" (15) These lines

are not the extent to which Howe confounds the line. Her poetry includes

text printed upside-down, different texts printed atop each other. Finally, her poems will

abandon the horizontal. Lines which intersect each other at various angles free themselves

of sequence. They are lines. They have breaks. But there is no telling

which lines the breaks come between. Examples include "Thorow" and The Nonconformists Memorial.


Marjorie Perloff, in "Collision or Collusion with History," discusses Howe. "Most contemporary feminist

poetry takes as emblematic its author’s own experience of power relations... There are

Howe’s subjects as well, but in substituting "impersonal narrative — a narrative made of

collage fragments realigned and recharged — for the more usual lyric "I," Howe is

suggesting that the personal is always already political…" (Poetic 310) Howe: "I wouldn’t

want to say what the political role of any poet should be. Who

am I to say? For a long time I thought it was my

political purpose to find some truth that had been edited out of our

history…. I love words. I hope they are allowed to suggest all meanings

possible. I hope that language will always be an undiscovered country. All poetry

that sets words free is political. The irony is that ‘political poetry,’ poetry

with a specific political agenda for improvement, tends to imprison knowledge. But words

will always escape into their own mystery. At least I hope." (Politics 195)


Line-breaks: end-stops, enjambments and caesuras, to summarize, mean. They can open a closed

text, and create ambiguity. They can be points of non-integration. They are anti-absorptive

techniques. They signify poetry, a sign which can mark a text and change

how it is read. They can be thought of as drums playing grammatic

polyrhythms. Sometimes they can make a beat that drowns out the other sounds.

They are the seams of poetic syntax. As such, line-breaks and caesuras are

similar. And, as poetry takes on newer forms, the distinction between the two

may sharpen or blur. They are cracks in the windowpane and facets in

the kaleidoscope lens. If language is a conduit conducting meaning, they are the

shooting sparks. They are only standardized in how they look. How they function

is contextual: punctuation given meaning by the text and context. Scully: "The line

breaking proposes to trouble the sentenced surface, to release ideologically suppressed meaning." (135)

Line-breaks and caesuras are social practice. More importantly, they are play. Line-breaks mean.




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