When to Break a Line of Poetry

During my last poetry group meeting, I was inspired to create a type of verse known as found poetry. This is created by taking phrases, passages or sometimes individual words from another work – often a prose piece – and reframing them, frequently by altering the line breaks.

My source material was taken from a comment that another member had written when distributing our poems. Here it is as prose:

Collation enfolded. Zoom link below for this evening. There have been recent times in recent weeks where the Wi-Fi at 2 Shore Terrace has been decidedly dodgy.

I then arranged this into a short piece that illustrates arguably the most obvious distinction between prose and poetry: the difference between sentences and lines.

Collation enfolded.
Zoom link below for this evening.
There have been recent times
in recent weeks where the Wi-Fi
at 2 Shore Terrace
has been decidedly dodgy.

The original material uses the sentence as a delimiter, whereas the reworked version uses a combination of sentences and lines.

I felt the first two sentences would work well as complete lines on account of their brevity. The third sentence, by contrast, runs over four lines to emphasise the repetition of recent times and recent weeks. It is also considered good practice to end a line with a strong noun or verb, as the reader is likely to linger there for a moment longer than the other words.

If you want to try this yourself, here’s a more in-depth discussion about the difference between a sentence and a line. It’s also worth reading a few examples, such as when a journalist used the technique on speeches by the politician Donald Rumsfeld.

Finding Poetry from Odd Sources

Poets are often characterised as agonising for hours over a single word or phrase, or even a punctuation mark. Yet sometimes, the source material arrives almost wholesale and just needs a little packaging. This is the art of found poetry.

In 2003, the journalist Hart Seely wrote a piece for the Slate website in which he took chunks of speeches by Donald Rumsfeld, who was then the US Secretary of Defense, and turned them into short verses. The phrase ‘There are known knowns,’ caught the imagination of the public for a brief time.

Sometimes the phrase is just a single line that the poet then expands into a further thought. Some years ago, Luke Wright took a quote by Boris Johnson and turned it into a piece called Once You Clear the Bodies. In this instance, a lot has been added to that one line in a satirical manner.

Away from politics, a classic source of material is the shipping forecast, issued by the Met Office. Looking at any given part of it, there are no wasted words; even a phrase like ‘gale force 8’ often has ‘force’ removed to increase its brevity. The forecast is also broadcast on BBC Radio 4, always at a moderate pace, which is easily parroted and parodied.

If you’re dabbling in found poetry, always be careful not to steal someone’s work outright. The examples above use politicians’ statements and public weather reports, so they’ll generally be safe to use.

But simply adding line breaks to work that’s already creative, such as a novel or a film script, is unlikely to be considered fair use. In short: have fun but be cautious.