Friday 20 March 2020

Promises to keep

In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads William Wordsworth wrote

I will not take upon me to determine the exact import of the promise which, by the act of writing in verse, an Author in the present day makes to his reader: but it will undoubtedly appear to many persons that I have not fulfilled the terms of an engagement ... they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title.

When people describe their texts as poetry nowadays, what promise do they make? The traditional idea is that if a text foregrounds language more than usual, it's considered poetry. If it contains a poetic idea (Deep Image) or tries to be beautiful or moving, it's poetry. If it's short, and the culture doesn't support mini-prose, it's poetry.

"Pardoning the turkey", a poem in a Rattle issue, is by Caroline Barnes. It begins thus -

Like a priest about to bestow
a blessing, the President raised

his hand over the blue and crimson
head of the snow-white turkey,

flashed his winning smile at the cameras,
and said: By the power vested in me,

It has the layout of a poem, though the line-length is determined by a ruler more than syllable-count. The language isn't heightened, and if there's a Deep Image, it's a long time in coming. Had it been presented as prose, I wouldn't have suggested improving it by breaking it into little lines. So why was it sent to a poetry magazine and formatted as poetry?

Categorising a text as poetry is to suggest that it might have hidden depths. It's a suggestion that there might be more to the text than meets the eye, that the reader should spend a while re-reading it. Line-breaks are a way to indicate that the author wants the reader to process the text as poetry. But suppose the reader treats all short literary texts as if they need to be carefully read - what then is the point of the line-breaks? If they're given the same amount of attention as the words, can they offer any value back? 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.

Sometimes authors set up expectations then thwart them. For example a piece can start in one genre (comedy, say) and then surprise the reader by becoming tragedy. Or a strictly rhyming piece can slowly fall apart to match the mood. But I didn't think that's happening here.

There are two sides to promises. The author may have one notion of poetry/genre. Various audiences will have others. Especially if one's playing with expectations, it matters how you gauge your audience. Picasso said to a friend that one day an artist would display a blank canvas. He didn't do so himself, because he didn't think the public were ready. Art and writing aren't just about having ideas, they're about timing, and identifying your audience. The text is part of a conversation. Perhaps your audience exists only in the future.

"Pardoning the turkey" might be using couplets to break lines because that's a default way to present words in poems. The line-breaks aren't meant to be expressive, nor is the enclosing white space, just as prose line-breaks and the enclosing margins aren't emotive. Perhaps the reader is supposed to ignore the format rather than be puzzled by it, because experienced poetry readers have become used to ignoring formats. Perhaps this shared understanding is the basis of the promise.

My A Theory of Line-breaks post gives more examples and statistics.


  1. Line breaks have long puzzled me. For the longest time—452 poems long to be precise—I pretty much laid out my poems as the mood took me and, as you noted in your example, a lot of the time I was more concerned with a poem looking pretty on the page that anything else. I think part of the reason for that was, as you say, because readers tend to ignore the formatting anyway. So why bother with it? When a poet reads his poem aloud no one even sees the structure and yet most people wouldn’t say anything’s lost in the reading. I say most because I consider the reading aloud of a poem a different beast to a poem on a page and I’ve never read my poetry before an audience although I do, on occasion, read it aloud for my own benefit. Perverse, no? I’ll be honest, even with my own poems, I rarely find the structure adds to the content. It’s there like a musical score.

    Is poetry more significant than prose though? I’m not wholly convinced it is. I think it mostly comes down to brevity. And framing. You can be standing outside in the enormity that is nature and be handed a photograph taken a few moment earlier of a part of landscape you’re in and there’s so much less to focus on and, because it has a white border round it, it becomes arty. We also associate longer texts with a narrative and take less of an interest in the words themselves; we’re more interested in where they’re leading us. A poem is not a journey, it’s a destination. Maybe. I have no axe to grind. People will do what they do and call it poetry and get royally miffed if anyone has the audacity to question them. So let them.

  2. I've known people to get grumpy when challenged at workshops about their line-breaks. Of course, they can't explain them.

    And yes, the framing effect is certainly an issue. By chance I was looking through my notebook this morning and found a fragment that could have become a Murdochian short poem but ended up being inserted into a short story a la Murdoch.