Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Yet more line-break experiments

Pound wrote "to break the pentameter, that was the first heave". People objected that without meter there was no poetry, yet poetry survived. The resulting poems didn't have to somehow compensate for the loss of meter. Though meter had sometimes been used to effect, often it wasn't - it was just habit - so leaving it out merely removed the superfluous. Maybe line-breaks are the next to go. People will complain of course, and of course line-breaks will still have their uses, but they've become so much a habit that even their users struggle to explain them. If in doubt, leave them out. Let rhythmic, articulated sentences recover their lost potency, making line-breaks seem rather heavy-handed, more suited to ads and teleprompters.

Try the task below with a poem. For each version, start with a non-line-broken text.

  1. Lay the text out in rectangles, 2 lines per stanza, lines over 8cm long. Isolate the final line if you wish
  2. Lay the text out in rectangles, 5 lines per stanza. lines less than 5cm long. Isolate the final line if you wish
  3. Break it into stanzas as you'd break prose into paragraphs. Then break lines at the clause-break nearest to the 6cm mark.
  4. Look for a place or two where you can add a clever line-break (at the word "break" for example, or "he was good/ for nothing"). Then break the other lines so that the resulting poem's lines are all about 6cm long. Add a stanza break half way through the poem.

Give these versions out. Ask people to put a "1" by a line-break that deserves a point, a "-1" by line-breaks that detract from the poem, and nothing beside line-breaks that do nothing. Try to have some people who read many novels/stories but no poetry amongst your audience. Assess the results. In how many of the versions does the line-break total score come out positive? In particular, ask yourself why the line-breaks with a "-1" beside them need to be there. Then consider removing the line-breaks that have nothing beside them - if they do nothing, why clutter the poem with them? Or do the results suggest that the more line-breaks used the better?

You might try scoring the adverbs and adjectives while you're at it, culling those that don't earn their keep.

There may well be more uniformity of opinion amongst the poetry-reading (aka poetry-writing) audience than amongst the general audience. The poets know that line-breaks can be used to

  • suggest to the reader the overall reading-strategy to adopt
  • disrupt the language
  • create units of breath
  • create units of meaning
  • replace punctuation
  • create a pause (less than a comma)
  • emphasize the final word of the line
  • emphasize the first word of the next line (US poets moreso than UK ones do line-breaks like "the/ death", leaving a minor word at the end of the line)
  • create a shape poem
  • force a premature parse ("he fell/ asleep")
  • set up a pattern of line-length expectation (or clause/line-ending synchronisation) that can be used to surprize the reader
  • etc

In fact, it's rather hard not to be able to find an excuse for any particular line-break. And it's hard not to sound like a boring kill-joy when trying to describe why a line-break isn't good enough. Moreover, some people tend to be defensive about their line-breaks, especially if the poets can't explain why the line-breaks (which begin to be described as "powerful") have to be just so - it's a personal thing, part of their "voice", the last vestige of visual evidence that they're writing poetry rather than prose. One of the outcomes of the above exercise is to gain experience at discrediting line-breaks so one is able to perceive that adding a line-break is taking a risk, that there are disadvantages too. If there aren't, we'd all be writing long, thin poems.

I sometimes use rhyme (and half-rhyme). I usually use line-breaks, and often my stanzas are bricks. Like the rhymes the line-breaks vary in their "strength". Much of the time I use line-breaks because other people do - they're the default, they're what readers expect, and they're easy for readers to ignore (easier than ignoring the lack of line-breaks in "prose poetry").

The book I've got the most from on this subject is Next word, better word by Stephen Dobyns. He points out that for some (generations of) poets, "many of their lines appear flaccid and lack any apparent reason why a line is broken this way rather than that. Their lines often read like prose". However, not all poetry's like that - "Rewrite Gluck's poem with end-stopped lines and it would read as prose, while if the same were done to Lux's poem, it would still read as a poem, though a much weaker one". He points out that readers can find in prose the patterns of sounds and pauses they appreciate in free verse. He spends 3 pages on this first sentence from Henry James' "The Middle Years" - "The April day was soft and bright, and poor Dencombe, happy in the conceit of reasserted strength, stood in the garden of the hotel, comparing, with a deliberation in which, however, there was still something of langour, the attractions of easy strolls".

The stage/page issue arises with line-breaks too. In his book Dobyns write that "Wallace Stevens, when he read his poetry, never audibly broke the line". At the other extreme is the poet I heard who read his poem (shaped like a temple) so that his pauses matched the length of the spaces on the page! As an experiment it would be interesting to see where listeners think a poem's line-breaks are.

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