A friend shared a quote from the American poet Kay Ryan with me recently. It reads
‘ Edges are the most powerful parts of the poem. The more edges you have the more power you have. They make the poem more permeable, more exposed.’
I was on my way out when I read the quote and responded with my first thought which was
‘ I’m not sure more breaks equals more power and/ or more permeability. Just asking, but can power in a poem not also lie in a certain im-permeability? A sort of locked down emotional box of words that has a physical presence that won’t budge and that you (the reader) has to climb into? Some poems seem to lose something in their over brokenness.’
I’m not sure whose work I was thinking of here. I suppose I was thinking how I sometimes read poems where line breaks seem to distract or detract from the poem. I suppose I’m of the opinion that if the words of the poem are not interesting in themselves, no amount of splicing them up or rearranging them in ‘interesting’ ways on a page will make them into a ‘good’ poem.
The poet Fiona Sampson has this to say about line length.
‘Length solemnizes a poem, lending it a sustained music which suggests it arises from sustained thinking’.
Solemnity – noun
the state or quality of being serious and dignified:
“his ashes were laid to rest with great solemnity”
synonyms: dignity- ceremony – stateliness- courtliness- majesty
impressiveness- portentousness-splendour- magnificence- grandeur
augustness-formality-seriousness- gravity- sobriety- studiousness- sedateness etc
So maybe short lines disrupt or counter or act as the opposite of these effects?
When I started writing poems I set out to make my lines as neat and regular as possible. I was probably conscious of the rhythm, but I’m not a stress of syllable counting kind of person in the same way that I can play the guitar to a certain standard without knowing how to read music. Now I am more aware of how line length effects the pace of the piece.
I’m also concerned with how lines and stanzas reflect the content.
All of my poems go through a multitude of drafts in which the line breaks change. When I’m drafting poems the words change, of course. And the stanzas change or disappear completely. But mostly the line breaks change. A flicker through all the drafts of even (and sometimes especially) my shortest poems would make for animation almost comparable with the movements of an ant hill in summer.
What am I looking for? It is hard for me to say since I am ‘feeling’ for what looks and reads ‘right’ and this seems to vary from poem to poem.
To get a little clarity into these rather random musings, here are some definitions.
A line (at least in English poetry) is a row of words. This line ends or breaks for a reason other than the margin on the right-hand side of the page. So the line- break is the point at which, for whatever reason (and there may be many) the poet chooses to make the reader turn back to start the next line. This point of turning was known in Latin as the versus. And this is where the term verse comes from
verse ; Middle English vers (e), fers line of poetry, section of a psalm, Old English fers < Latin versus a row, line (of poetry), literally, a turning, equivalent to vert (ere) to turn (past participle versus)
It seems verse is so termed because a large percentage of the power of poetry is concentrated in the turning of the line; the point at which the word confronts white space, variously characterised or described as the void, the frame, silence.
The line leads the reader’s
eye, either to a
stop, or over
to somewhere else.
The above is an example of enjambment- the continuation of a sentence or clause over a line-break.
Enjambment mid 19th century: French, from enjamber ‘stride over, go beyond’, from en- ‘in’ + jambe ‘leg’.
Generally speaking (there are such things as ‘prose poems’ of course, which I don’t know much about at the moment) it is the line break that makes a poem a poem. A conscious decision has been made by the poet to break a line. The power that resides in the line’s turning point becomes a subject of obsession for the poet. The end of a line is the place where it the poet is perhaps most aware of being in the driving seat. As the pilot of the de Havilland Chipmunk I sat in as a lucky fifteen year old air cadet one said to me, ‘You have control’. And as I found out a few seconds later when he took it back after my banking was a little too sharp, control should be used with care. The eye of the reader can be taken where the poet wills.
The first collection I came across where short and long lines worked together was John Burnside’s ‘Swimming in the flood’ . I was amazed at how the lines conveyed fragmentation. Reading the collection’s title poem, it feels to me as if the eye is moving over a panorama, in this case the surface of the flood waters.
Here are the opening lines
Swimming in the flood
Later he must have watched
his village erased by water: farmsteads and churches
breaking and floating away
as if by design
bloated cattle, lumber, bales of straw,
turning in local whirlpools; the camera
panning across the surface, finding the odd
rooftop or skeletal tree,
or homing in to focus on a child’s
Some general points on line length
1. Long Line Poems. – generally don’t leave much white space. Often narratives or lists. Long line poems might adopt an authoritative voice, one of importance or mock importance. Some might have psalm like quality or hypnotic quality like Kim Moore’s ‘A Hymn for the Scaffolders’, or they may have ‘breathless’ incantatory quality like Allen Ginsburg’s ‘Howl’.
- Short Line Poems One effect of short-line is to speed the poem along. Short lines contain and confine and focus the poem, so that each word seems to gain in importance. End and beginning words are lit by the white space around them.
- Medium Line Poems A ‘happy medium’. These are probably the most common form of poem. Medium lines can give an understated and nuanced feel. Direct ancestor of the sonnet.
- Staggered or undulating line poems Tend to be interested in disrupting or reconfiguring the way the poem is taken in. Speculative, experimental, disjointed, disorinatating. Form as a reflection of content. A classic example is Ciaran Carson’s ‘ Belfast Confetti ‘I’d be interested to read any comments that take up any of these threads.