Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Variety in poetry books

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.

2 line stanzas5
3 line stanzas14
4 line stanzas17
5 line stanzas7
6 line stanzas4
7 line stanzas1
Misc stanzas3
There are many dimensions along which variety can exist in a collection: poem-length, line-length, the formal-freeverse spectrum or process-product spectrum to name just a few of the obvious ones. Poets are quite adept at varying stanza length from poem to poem even if within a poem the stanza lengths are all the same. I'm unconvinced however that all poets who stay in a narrow band on (for example) the "language transparency" spectrum while twiddling with stanza lengths are sufficiently aware that uniformity is more than just a visual effect.

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?


  1. I decided to try this will my poetry collection This Is Not About What You Think which covers my poetry of the last thirty years. The results were pretty much as I would have expected:

            2-line stanzas – 9
            3-line stanzas – 28
            4-line stanzas – 14
            5-line stanzas – 6
            7-line stanzas – 1
            no pattern – 14
            mixed stanzas – 13

    The older poems were the less structured but as I’ve matured as a poet most of the later poems follow a fairly rigid structure. What is interesting is the number of poems where I’ll alternate the size of the stanzas, the most complex being one in a palindromic pattern: 3,4,1,4,3 but most just alternate lengths like 8,3,8,3 or 3,3,1,3,3,1.

    I never start out with a shape in mind. I write the poem and structure afterwards and there always is a structure. It might require adding in a couple of syllables here and there but it is surprising how quickly the shapes reveal themselves.

    When I finish a poem I always number it and print a copy which I keep in a huge red binder but when I do I also pick a font appropriate to the poem although I’ve not yet found the need to write a colour poem. Maybe someday.

  2. Unless the rhyme/syllabic patterns determines otherwise, the only reason I box poems up is because I think they're more likely to be published that way. My conceptual units aren't regularly sized.

    Fonts don't do much for me either - mags will impose their house style anyway. I noticed that Helena Nelson on http://www.happenstancepress.co.uk/index.php?option=com_easyblog&view=entry&id=157 said that when she judged poems recently she "typed them all out again, in the same font so [she] wasn't biased by layout and typeface."