Free Verse Line Breaks

A Pen In Each Hand

By Sandy Longhorn

Formal poets make decisions on line breaks based on their choice of form, including rhyme and meter. How then, can free verse poets make the most of their line breaks to emphasize sound, rhythm, and meaning? One of the best exercises in line breaks is to study, in an active way, those who have gone before.

  • Below is the text of Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Thanks” written in paragraph form.
  • Rewrite the poem and put in the line breaks where you think they fit best for sound, rhythm, and meaning.
  • Repeat with a different variation on the line breaks.
  • Check out Komunyakaa’s poem on the Internet Poetry Archive and listen to his reading of it. (No cheating and looking early.)
  • Compare your two versions to Komunyakaa’s and try to determine why he breaks his lines where he does and what impact that has on the reader.
  • Apply to your own work.


Thanks for the tree between me & a sniper’s bullet. I don’t know what made the grass sway seconds before the Viet Cong raised his soundless rifle. Some voice always followed, telling me which foot to put down first. Thanks for deflecting the ricochet against that anarchy of dusk. I was back in San Francisco wrapped up in a woman’s wild colors, causing some dark bird’s love call to be shattered by daylight when my hands reached up & pulled a branch away from my face. Thanks for the vague white flower that pointed to the gleaming metal reflecting how it is to be broken like mist over the grass, as we played some deadly game for blind gods. What made me spot the monarch writhing on a single thread tied to a farmer’s gate, holding the day together like an unfingered guitar string, is beyond me. Maybe the hills grew weary & leaned a little in the heat. Again, thanks for the dud hand grenade tossed at my feet outside Chu Lai. I’m still falling through its silence. I don’t know why the intrepid sun touched the bayonet, but I know that something stood among those lost trees & moved only when I moved.

*Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Thanks” with line breaks removed.

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