Wednesday, 12 January 2011

More on line-breaks

  • Over Xmas I read Stress Fractures (Tom Chivers (ed), Penned in the Margins) a collection of essays I'd recommend. "The Line" by Katy Evans-Bush will have the widest appeal and is amongst the longest pieces. I don't think it needed to be so long: the tight-rope sub-plot doesn't earn its keep and there are longeurs - a half-page quote by AS Byatt on pleasure belongs elsewhere. When there's a list of "pet peeves ... combined with examples of excellence" that "runs down a spectrum of enjambment" the essay's at its most useful, but by then there's too little space left to discuss why "Many poetry tutors don't like to discuss [line endings] at all; there is such a taboo on discussing this most personal aspect of poetry" (p.194). This quote raises important, unanswered questions - why is it considered personal? Is there a taboo on all other personal aspects?
    I think I need more convincing before I can believe the discipline of WS Merwin, or the effectiveness of Bunting's breaks. I'm also not sure why in a book of this type we need to be told that "Used well, [end-rhyme] has an amazing galvanising effect on a poem" (p.200).
    What I found most useful was how others might respond to line-break usages. E.g. Putting the important words at the start rather than end of the line in some readers "creates a sense of urgency as well as hesitancy, and disorients the reader, who then grabs for the emotional content as for a lifeline". Maybe so - it's a personal thing - but one that, I feel, isn't beyond the scope of experimental psychology. Maybe it's an acquired habit that only poetry-readers suffer from. How does putting heavy words at the start of lines produce more breathless urgency than unbroken prose?

    And I'd still like to know how we've reached a situation where gratuitously tidy line-breaks producing regular, boxed stanzas is considered preferable to irregular shapes or even a prose layout.

  • Iota 88 arrived. George Ttoouli's review of an Elisabeth Bletsoe book discusses some line breaks.
    buoyant ashstems &
    quick silver-
    dark hollythorn
    equivocal, the
    fields of plover;

    Here the line is chopped in order to double sense in multiple ways. The breaking over "quick silver- / dark" gives both the quicksilver and the silver-dark of the hollythorn sitting in the same charged couplet. Similarly, are we to take "equivocal" as referring to the hollythorn, or the fields of plover? It is both, simultaneously, and also neither: the accumulation of lines that demand alternate readings also gives the phrase "equivocal, the", the indefinite definite article of an implied dusk, where shapes are both known yet imprecise, solids liquids, objects both shaded and shining. There is something overwhelmingly wonderful at work here

    I'm unsure about some of this. "double sense" is ok, but the extra meanings need to be worth having. What is "hollythorn"? I couldn't find info online. If it's not sometimes silver then that's one imprecision solved. I suppose the 2 lines form a couplet, but is it "charged"? What's wrong with the single-line "quick-silver-dark hollythorn"? Perhaps the poet wanted to make the vowel repetitions clearer - "ant ash" and "quick sil". Do the lines demand multiple readings or is the poet hoping that if she throws in enough possibilities the reader will bother selecting those that made some sense and politely ignore those that don't? Why the line-breaks after "hedgerows" and "the"? Is it really "overwhelmingly wonderful"?

  • "I found the variety of shapes that the poems make on the page refreshing; a factor in keeping my interest and attention" (Angela France, Iota 88). I don't find that variety interesting, per se.
  • I've just heard about "The Art of the Poetic Line", (James Longenbach, Graywolf) In the light of the above points I think I should read it.


  1. The more I do this poetry stuff -
    reading and making attempts to write -
    I can't help thinking that the only
    bods who analyse as they
    read are Other Poets. Or may
    be students, being told what they
    must do, by said Other Poets.

    I just gave my comment post a few line breaks. To improve it, and make it look clever.

    But talking of pet peeves - this beautiful word 'enjambement'. In which the second 'e' was always half-pronounced. When I was studying - admittedly, French verse.

    How on earth did we allow it to be squashed into 'enjambment?' In so doing we have stripped it of meaning. Cutting off our jambes to make a jamb. Which rhymes with strawberry jam and may come from the same root, but was never ever intended to be a verb.

    The line is 'enjambed'. Ho ugly is that? How lazy we were to nick the French word and not bother to think up our own.

    (Not that that has anything to do with the argument. I shall now return to your collection, which I am enjoying, enjambs or no.


  2. "I can't help thinking that the only/ bods who analyse as they/ read are Other Poets." - imagine what magic shows would be like if only magicians watched them. I think some types of poetry are getting to be like that. A shame - the assistants were cute.

    I've skim-read "The Art of the Poetic Line" now. It's quite practical - it has many worked examples (Shakespeare, Yeats, WC Williams, etc), and shows how/why some authors changed styles (e.g. WC Williams wrote prose to revitalise the syntax of the poems, and that led to using a wider variety of line endings, ones that didn't just break at clause-endings). He presents extracts from Joyce's Ulysses showing how line-breaks are used in a sort of prose, and how punctuation can be eliminated from prose without replacing it by line-breaks. He points out some pitfalls - how some approaches look like "jazzing up uninteresting syntax".

    I think I'm aware of the effects than line-breaks can produce, but I don't always attach much significance to them, just as I don't worry about the font used. For me, there are higher priorities.