I wrote a poem this week in which I had some line-breaks which seemed, at least to a couple of other people to whom I showed my nascent poem, dodgy.
By dodgy, I mean there was a suggestion by these good folks that 'the line should not have broken there'. In fact, I'd go further and say there was a suggestion by these early readers of my poem - a poem still very much in draft form and therefore more vulnerable to critique than if I'd finished tinkering with it - that there are 'rules' about where a line should break in free verse, and I had not obeyed those rules.
A pretty standard response to a poem-in-draft for those who frequent creative writing classes, in other words.
Luckily for me - and I say luckily, because creative writing classes represent the kind of mental and emotional torture which would bring me out in hives if I actually suffered from such nervous physical reactions - I have spent my life avoiding discussing early drafts of my poems in public. Which is an excellent thing in itself, but does mean that the horror and dubious joy of 'sharing poems' in a class situation is new to me. That is, I've taught creative writing classes, but am not used to finding myself on the other side of a critique, i.e. being the student and not the teacher.
What worries me about writing classes is the personal agenda behind some of the comments that get fired at the writer in the hot seat. And there is always an agenda, even if it's just an opinion that wants to get aired or an insecure ego that feels the need to diminish someone else's.
But due to my course structure, I thought a writing-based class would be useful for me, and so I signed up. And useful it has been, as it has generated this little discussion.
So I had these dodgy line-breaks in my poem.
I saw them as risky, yes. Unconventional, probably. But not 'wrong' in any sense. They were what they were. Indeed, I know of no rules about line-breaks in free verse, except some eminently sensible but unspoken ones like 'try not to break after and or the' because it rapidly makes a nonsense of your poem. But even those quasi-rules can be broken if the poet is confident enough and has a good reason to do so, which includes wishing to prove it can be done.
One line had two full sentences in it, plus the first word - a noun - of a sentence which continued on the next line.
It was complained that this orphaned noun should be reunited with the rest of its family on the following line, which would then contain a whole sentence, unbroken. The line above would also then contain two unbroken sentences - with no messy, raggedy word dangling over the edge afterwards.
However, I wanted the emphasis to fall on the strong verb following that noun, so I placed that verb as the first word of the next line. I also wanted to suggest continuity of idea and action, so all three sentences would be linked via this enjambement.
The other complaint was about a line, higher up the poem, which consisted of only one word. Not a sentence in itself, but a word from the middle of a sentence. A word plucked out of obscurity and used as the lynch-pin around which the poem's action and point of view would turn.
I was told - pretty much without any concession that this was opinion rather than fact - that I could not have that one word on its own line. No way, no how.
Being open to opinion, I have considered whether I should change that word for a stronger synonym. I may yet do so, since the complaint flags up a potential weakness there. But I do not consider that it can be argued that having that word on a line of its own is somehow 'wrong'.
If there are no rules in free verse, how can we possibly decide something is 'right' or 'wrong'?
I agree that many writers desperately need to adhere to some kind of rule of thumb about the sounds and rhythms of free verse, otherwise they produce nothing work heading nowhere. But what that rule might be or how on earth we are supposed to reach a consensus about it is beyond me.
So what are the 'rules' about free verse?
Are there any rules at all?
If not, why do poets bother to argue about decisions like line-breaks or sound echoes or rhythms?
Can anyone definitively state that my line should not be broken where I choose to break it (because the line-break sounds and seems to fall best at that point, in my opinion as poet) and tell me how and why it is possible to be prescriptive about something so tenuous?