Tuesday 12 May 2020

Whose line-breaks are they anyway?

  • Dawn Gorman in a review (The Interpreter's House 66, p.89) wrote that "you notice the spaces - blank pages, many short poems, short lines, four clear sections - there is a sense of breathing here, an opportunity to take stock".
  • Katy Evans-Bush in "Forgive the Language" writes of Sharon Olds' poems that "Putting the stress on the first word of the line below, [the line-break] creates a sense of urgency as well as hesitancy, and disorientates the reader, who then grabs for the emotional content as for a lifeline"

This common, submissive attitude to white space puzzles me rather. When I read a difficult text I stop when I feel like it, even if there are no spaces. If there are blank pages in an easy text I skip quickly over them. Spaces don't make me think. They make me suspicious. I adapt to quirks like Olds' after a few lines, as I would a strange font, American spelling, etc. Later, looking back, I wonder what their purpose was.

It's all too easy to insert line-breaks that create tension by breaking the form or the grammatical unit. If prose writers (or advertisement writers) used the same methods it would seem crass. Ditto for provoking premature parsing (e.g. "I'm dying/ to meet you."). Another problem is that once free-versers employ meaningful line-breaks they feel impelled to use meaningless ones too, driven as much by the love of rectangles as by any thought of tension. If you try to get the sense of every line-break, you're in for a tough time.

Tension in prose can easily be missed if you read it faster than you read poetry. I once ran a "Slow Reading" workshop on a Graham Greene story. After each paragraph we discussed what questions were raised, what mysteries were solved. It begins with "She found me in the evening under trees that grew outside the village. I had never cared for her and would have hidden myself if I'd seen her coming. She was to blame, I'm certain, for her son's vices. If they were vices". What genre of story is this? Where and when is it set? How old are the characters? Ask 3 questions that you think will later be answered.

Some readers don't ask themselves such questions as they go along, missing out on tension/release. I think poetry readers more often do, provoked perhaps by line-breaks.

Form creates the most obviously breakable expectations. The subtlety of Greene's tensions is that not only might readers miss them, but the tensions might be relieved in the next paragraph, the final paragraph, or never.


  1. For many years now I’ve written poems with structures that evolve naturally during the writing process based for the most part on syllable count which have resulted in some interesting shapes. I generally scribble down a poem as it comes and place the line breaks where they “feel” right, where I might pause to take a breath of for effect, and then I count the syllables and invariably—it’s quite uncanny—a pattern emerges and all I have to do is tweak a line or two to reveal the underlying form and I’m done. I did try playing around with iambs and dactyls and all the rest in the early days but they never read right because people don’t read poems in that la-de-da-de-da-dah way. I always go back to Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’ when I’m thinking about form because although it’s structured in a very traditional way—THIS was MISTER bleaney’s ROOM (DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM) no one would think of reading it like that and even the full rhymes at the end of alternating lines fall in places where it would be stupid to stop. It’s a poem, yes, very much so, but also not at all really. If you reformatted it it would work perfectly as a piece of flash fiction or a prose poem. I heard Larkin read the poem once in that wonderful lugubrious way of his and all I could think was: He’s reading it wrong! He didn’t read it the way I would (not that I can ever recall reading it aloud) and he certainly didn’t read it like a poem.

    Over the last few months I’ve been churning out poems at a steady rate of knots—about three a month which, for me, is fast—and I’ve found myself drifting away from my normal way of writing. It all started with a longer poem that refused to find a form and so I said, Sod it, and left it in its freeform form, if I can say such a thing. It doesn’t hurt it although I’m not sure it improves it. I don’t honestly think 99% of readers care or notice. Only once in the last twenty-three years has my wife ever commented on the structure of one of my poems and she’s read everything I’ve ever written. I tend to think of structure in poetry the same as I do in music. We know it’s there in the background holding the piece up but it’s not that important to us. This is especially true of serial music. Yes, there’s clever stuff going on in the background but at the end of the day the listeners will either connect with it or not. I’m not a huge fan of poetry readings—half the time I can’t follow them unless I’ve read the work beforehand—but all you have there are the words in the air and they work or they don’t.

    Can you divide line breaks into meaningful and meaningless? I suppose you can: supporting walls versus decorative walls. But at the end of the day they’re all functional, holding up the roof or separating living areas. But who really gives wall a second thought unless you’re looking for someplace to hang a picture?

    1. 3 poems a month! I've written 3 this year, at least 2 of them not very good.
      I tend to agree with you that 99% of readers won't care or notice. If they don't like the poem, they might find fault with the line-breaks. If they like the poem they might applaud the line-breaks. I try not to let the line-breaks get in the way of the poems I write nowadays, putting line-breaks where readers expect them to be.