Line breaks are
an obvious necessity
we all know.
Except when they are not because—as we all know—prose poetry is a thing that exists, so essentially I advise that, as poets, we all internalize that rules are fake, so is the concept of an obvious necessity, and so is the idea that a poem must begin or remain flush against the left margin.
The left margin doesn’t love you,
and it won’t mind if you visit the right margin,
and neither will mind if you
want to hang out in the world of center-alignment for a time.
Alignment is, of course, a choice of style and what looks good to the eye of the poet. If you think this right-alignment business is ugly or just plain bad, then first of all, that’s fair, and second of all, my style relies on this, so please be nice.
I’ve been in a few poetry workshops, and at least one person in every workshop has asked how I decide what goes where on the page. Since now someone has made the mistake of giving me a platform on which to talk about my writing, here is a guide on how I do just that.
First and foremost, if the right margin doesn’t suit the way the lines are meant to progress, it doesn’t go there. It’s not about just slapping lines around the page and calling it good, unless it’s necessary for the aesthetic of the poem. Like I said, rules are fake. Anyway, every line has a specific reason for being there in each piece, and while the reason may change from poem to poem, there is always a reason.
When starting a poem on the left margin, there are six “types” of lines that I put on the right margin (I’ll talk about starting poems with right alignment later, because those reasons are generally poem-specific). The main body, and, in the case of narrative poems, the story of the poem exists on the left margin, so lines on the right margin are “nonessential” information, meaning they are not necessary from the standpoint of the narrative but are still things I want my reader to see and understand. Things like asides, for instance, that aren’t necessarily pertinent to the story the speaker of the poem is telling but may develop the speaker's character, would go on the right margin. I would right-align background information and supplemental information, too, as they give context to the reader and a deeper understanding of the subject or the speaker of the poem, but do not necessarily advance the story or the the left margin's idea. I use right alignment to create pauses between ideas or words in a line, or I build suspense in a larger white space before giving an impactful line, sometimes the final line of the poem. The last reason I use right alignment is aesthetic. There are times in poems where I will draw attention to an idea by aligning it in the center. I want the reader to pay specific attention these ideas: they're the middle ground between part of the main body and extra info, so they go in the middle ground between the left and right margins. In that case, the line would start left-aligned, the Big Idea to which I want to draw attention goes in the middle, and it would finish right-aligned so it looks balanced on the page.
Starting on the right margin has a few different rules. One poem I wrote about my relationship with my own Jewishness was written primarily on the right margin because the poem’s title was in Hebrew, Hebrew is read from right-to-left, and I wanted to echo that in my poem. With that poem, I followed rules fairly similar to those previously mentioned, just backwards, moving on the page from right-to-left instead of left-to-right. I've written another poem on the right-margin because it began with the words “I hesitate,” and I wanted to show that hesitation through white space. The poem had many lines that were structurally similar to those first opening lines on the right margin, so those also appeared right-aligned in the poem. The rest of the poem was on the left margin, except for those few Big Idea lines in the center.
In the end, alignment really is just a matter of choice, of what looks good on the page, and how important visual balance is to your writing. I use right alignment because it makes sense to me to put certain things there, and it fills the page in an aesthetically pleasing way. Experiment with it, toss things around, break the rules-that-aren’t-even-really-rules, or maybe just read this and think, "Oh so that’s what the fuck is going on in their head when they do this." And remember, above all, to have fun and be yourself.