Monday 25 October 2010

A Theory of Line-breaks

2 line stanzas7
3 line stanzas14
4 line stanzas4
5 line stanzas5
6 line stanzas2
7 line stanzas2
8 line stanzas1
Misc stanzas8
Deviations from norms will be noticed. In most prose, line-breaks are deviations. The norms for poetry seem to be changing. Here are the statistics of Jane Holland's "The Brief History of a Disreputable Woman" (Bloodaxe 1997). Note the high percentage of poems with regular 2 or 3 lined stanzas. For regularity, the "Brighton Pilgrimage" poem takes the prize - 18 7-lined stanzas where the longest line is about 1cm longer than the shortest.

In the last decade or so, line-breaks seem often used to produce equally shaped stanzas in this way. Like any pattern it offers the writer chances to thwart expectation - units can be end-stopped or enjambed, for example. The requirements of form also give the writer an answer to people asking why the poet broke a line. Stanza lengths can (indeed, should) be varied from poem to poem. The important thing is not to let any line stick out more than 2cm from a neighbour. Once the poem's been shaped, minor tweaks can be made to exploit a line- or stanza-break, but these shouldn't be too obvious - such effects are often pretty cheap, and they might draw attention to the other, form-driven line-breaks. For added variety regular indenting can be used too. The final stanza is allowed to be a line shorter or longer than all the rest. It can even be a single-line.

Why do poets use the form? After all, the line-break's potential in this context is limited. I guess the form's purpose is partly to please the eye and partly to get people in the poetry mood, to get them to "read into" the work. As Culler wrote in "Structuralist Poetics", this will make readers see extra meanings (the word "red" will burst with connotations), and affect their interpretation of style (reportage will become "restrained writing"). There'll also be a tendency to read a fragment as the tip-of-an-iceberg.

Note the key-role played by line-breaks. Not only do they indicate that the text is a poem (giving it a charge, an aura), but by encouraging minor closures they help readers to focus on (and magnify) particular phrases as well as generating extra interpretations - e.g. "I am good/for nothing".

Given the charitable status granted to poetry by readers, any text is likely to seem more significant when read as a poem, so I think that it's only fair to raise the bar for text with poetic pretensions. In "A Lope of Time" Ruth O'Callaghan writes "smoking at an open window, the man notes the abandoned boat. Come spring he will replace it". I misquote; actually she wrote

smoking at an open window
                      the man
                the abandoned boat

come spring 
        he will replace it

I don't think this earns the right to be read too generously.

Rather than use the shape of the text to indicate that the work should be read poetically, writers can use the context. It's common nowadays for poetry books to include at least one poem that has no line-breaks. Lachlan Mackinnon's "Small Hours" takes this approach further. On the flap it says that the book ends with "a long poem ... written mostly in prose". The piece in question ("The Book of Emma") takes up 63 pages. Here are some extracts

  • "The only television I watched as an undergraduate was the separate inaugural speech President Carter had recorded for Europe on the subject of nuclear weapons. We just didn't. Nowadays people have sets in their rooms. And mobiles. They stay in touch with home friends in a way impossible and unimaginable for us. They text and email. This may be an epistemic shift but they feel terror loneliness and grief no less than we did" (from section XL).
  • "Of course in making this thing about you or around you I am talking about my youth and homesick for it. But that is not the point. The point is that at one time in one place I met someone who became to me a living conscience" (from section XLVIII)

It's interesting to note the reception to this piece

  • Boyd Tonkin (The Independent) - It is a poet's prose: thrifty, rhythmic, specific, given to darting shifts in pace and focus.
  • Carrie Etter (The Guardian) - "The Book of Emma" creates much of its poetry through command of sentence rhythms, repetitions of sound, and epic movement between individual experience and historical perspective.
  • David Morley (blog) - "The Book of Emma", which is neither prose poetry nor poetic prose but a vivid series of elliptical, connected flash-backs that have the quality of flash fiction - except we are clearly hearing a poem... - it is a highly successful experiment in form.

I'd call it prose written in prose. Yes, it has shifts of time and subject, but thankfully so does prose. It has a consistent voice. Its imagery and analogies are developed at a leisurely pace. There are leit-motifs and unspoken interconnections. It doesn't exploit sound effects. But if it doesn't need line-breaks why does an earlier poem, "Midlands", need so many? It has these passages:

  • "TB and rickets/ are back in cities, but these towns/ are too small to support/ such destitution"
  • "Canals hidden/ like avenues by trees// until the bank-holiday/holiday-makers come/ in narrow-boats dolled up/ like gypsy caravans/ with new gloss/ blue, orange, red"

It's commonly said that some poems are "just prose chopped up", but even if a text is "poetry chopped up" it's faulty. In Ruth O'Callaghan's piece what are line-breaks for? I'm not the only person puzzled by latterday line-breaks

  • "the free verse, now dominant not only in the US but around the world, has become, with notable exceptions, little more than linear prose, arbitrarily divided into line-lengths", Marjorie Perloff, "The Oulipo Factor", Jacket 23
  • "The poetic line seems highly problematic nowadays and it sometimes seems better to avoid it altogether", Frances Presley, "Poetry Review", V98.4, 2008
  • "Not only hapless adolescents, but many gifted and justly esteemed poets writing in contemporary nonmetrical forms, have only the vaguest concept, and the most haphazard use, of the line", Denise Levertov", On the Function of the Line", 1979

2 line stanzas4
3 line stanzas3
14 line stanzas1
Nathan Hamilton's selection of recent poetry in Rialto 70 (2010) has these statistics. It's unfair to compare this multi-author sample with single-author books, but maybe it's a sign that line-breaks are regaining their power. In Mackinnon's "Midlands" the line-breaks are for making each stanza 9 lines long, which is currently considered a worthwhile aim, but perhaps "The Book of Emma" signals a further drift of norms. There's no need to add line-breaks to a text if Faber label it as poetry. If Faber accept this piece as poetry, what prose would they turn down? Anything with sections longer than 2 pages?


  1. I have always believed that content dictates form. This is why you’ll never get me writing a sonnet on a sestina. But my poems almost invariably end up with an orderly structure. Such as this poem:

          Background Silence

          The silence was always there
          behind the
          sounds of monitors and pumps

          just as

          emptiness was always there
          behind the
          well wishes and smiles and lies

          just as

          the blankness was always there
          behind the
          words on every card you read


          there is always something to
          block our view
          of the nothingness that is


    The three-line stanzas all have a 7-3-7 syllabic structure and the one-line stanzas all have 2 syllables. I didn’t set out to shape the poem like this. I wrote down the words however they came and then I started to look to shove them around on the page to see if there was an underlying shape. Very rarely will you find a poem by me without a single line break and if you do the odds are it’ll be very short, less than a half-dozen lines.

    I admit that my system isn’t perfect but it’s no worse than those poets who insist on writing haiku in what they believe to be the ‘traditional’ 5-7-5 format. I have spoken to other poets and asked why they break their lines the way they do and the most common answer is that it felt right. Ask them what felt right about it and they’re usually stumped.

  2. ... the most common answer is that it felt right - yes. Same here. Sometimes people aren't just stumped, they're irritated that I bring the subject up. It's a personal thing, gestural; it comes from the diaphragm.