I’m very hit or miss when it comes to liking poetry, and I most frequently miss with free verse, because part of what draws me to poetry is the rhythmic effect of meter. But I’ve taken to copying out poems I like in a small notebook, and a couple of the recent ones have been free verse — and in writing them down (which forces me to pay finer-grained attention to the arrangement of the words), I found myself reflecting on one of the things I find most puzzling about the style:
How do the poets decide where to break their lines?
In a poem with meter, the answer to that question is set for you, and the challenge is to figure out how much of your idea you’re going to put into a given line and how you’ll make it fit. But with that element gone, you can end your line anywhere you choose. Sometimes I can see why the choice was made in a certain way; for example, two lines might be structured so that they echo one another, and the positioning of the break draws your attention to the similarity. But other times, it seems to be completely arbitrary.
And yet I’m sure there’s an aesthetic principle, or more than one, guiding the decision. So my question for the poets among you is: what are those principles? If you were critiquing a poem, what would make you say “it would be better if you moved this word down to the next line/joined these two lines together/broke this one apart”? What are you looking at, or for, when you give someone feedback like that, or choose the placement of the breaks in your own work?
I feel like, if I understood this, I might enjoy free verse more. Because things that register on me as arbitrary are rarely impressive, so seeing through to the underlying reason might increase my appreciation.