Variety: the spice of life, or something to disguise the blandness?
I was surprised when I read in Iota 88 that "I found the variety of shapes that the poems make on the page refreshing; a factor in keeping my interest and attention" (Angela France). I guess I shouldn't have been, but I prefer layout to be more than eye-candy. I'd like visual variety to be "organic", a consequence of the different styles and approaches of the poet. The following distribution of stanza-lengths is a typical for the free-form poetry books I read.
Format Frequency 2 line stanzas 5 3 line stanzas 14 4 line stanzas 17 5 line stanzas 7 6 line stanzas 4 7 line stanzas 1 Misc stanzas 3
Variation from a norm is common in poetry. Variation of rhythm in metred work isn't gratuitous though - it leads to expressive effects. The effect depends on the norm, the context, though to say that all depends on context - on what's being written against - is over-simplifying; many layers of norms/conventions exist. A line with initial Caps may break the norms of the poem it's in, or the book it's in, or habits of the poet, or the genre, or the prevailing national trend, etc. What may look like a meaning-laden variation in one context may be the transparent default in another, and a poem can be read in several contexts. And anyway, readers normalize as they go along if they see little value in the Caps (or the line-breaks) so poets might have trouble making readers treat these features as significant.
In the past few months I've read more poetry books and fewer mags than usual, and hence have contextualised at the book level more often. A poem with initial caps will stand out in a book where the other poems don't use them (in a way that it wouldn't in a magazine, where there's too much background noise). But my most abiding reaction to variations from norms in the books I've read lately is that they're not significant (or if they are, they're far less significant than word-selection, etc). They make the pages look different from each other to stop readers becoming visually bored. Before I'm far into the book I start to edit out the line-breaks and stanza-breaks in order to focus on the less visual variety. Maybe I over-estimate the importance of a poet's ability to write in various ways, but masking a lack of underlying variety visually doesn't work for me. Why not use different fonts or different colours?