Monday, July 2, 2012

Break it down

At a recent poetry workshop I attended in Bristol, a writer new to poetry asked the organiser to explain why poets use line-breaks the way they do. Not an easy question to answer.

Lineation seems obvious enough when a poem has a regular metre, and especially if end-rhymes are used, but how to explain what poets are up to when they use other principles to break their lines? The obvious answer, I suppose, has to do with the rhythm and weight of the individual lines, but I've heard claims for all kinds of other allegedly hard and fast rules: for instance, the suggestion that line-breaks are a substitute for punctuation, that they somehow stand in commas (surely piffle to anyone who has actually read contemporary English-language poetry). I prefer to think of line-breaks as a conventional feature of verse which doesn't have a function per se, but which can be made to do all kinds of things.

Here's a list of my top five things to do with line-breaks, not necessarily in order of importance - I'd be happy to hear some more...

1. A line-break can suspend meaning, or even give us two (or more) meanings for the price of one.

For example, in Alasdair Paterson's poem 'Dome' (from his pamphlet Brumaire and Later, 2010), a description of a space where a cathedral used to stand begins as follows:

The park's quiet
where the cathedral was.

Seems simple enough, but we can see how the line-break create ambiguity. It forces us to read 'the park's quiet' at first without reference to what follows. We could read it as 'the park is quiet' or 'the quiet of the park', both meanings being possible until we have the following line, which pins things down more closely to 'the park is quiet'. But the second meaning ('the quiet of the park') does not just cease to exist as a possibility, and this notion of the 'the park's quiet' as some particular kind of quiet that is specific to the park, a quiet which becomes almost a tangible thing in itself, still echoes.

2. A line-break can surprise

Th value of surprise in poetry is severely undervalued. But who wants to read a predictable poem? Line-breaks create surprise by allowing out thoughts to move in one particular way, only to make them shift into some other direction. The example from Paterson's 'Dome' is a good one for surprise, too. First we have the perhaps rather banal statement that the park is quiet. Perhaps we are expecting one of those nice nature poems. Perhaps there will be swans alighting on a silvery pond. And now, all of a sudden, we have the idea that a cathedral used to be here. Since when did cathedrals use to be anywhere. Surely they are the kinds of things that stay built, massive as they are? How much more surprising this notion seems because of Paterson's use of the line-break. If his poem had begun 'The cathedral used to stand in the park' (which would make a much inferior poem) we would not even be invited to see this as a surprising idea.

John Burnside is a real master of the many possibilities of the line-break, and often uses them to make imagery more surprising to the reader. For example, in his poem 'Nativity' (from Black Cat Bone, 2011), the narrator describes his birth:

and I lie squalling in a slick of blood
and moonlight [...].

Blood and moonlight is an unexpected combination (although Burnside is doubtless drawing on ancient associations of femininity, fertility and the moon), but the line-break makes the image much more striking. We take in the fairly naturalistic 'slick of blood' only for the next line to then reveal a further element which unsettles the image we have already established in our minds.

3. A line-break can suggest movement or distance

In the same poem, Burnside gives us an instance of the line-break that suggest physical movement or distance of some kind, when he describes lights going out

in house after house, from here
to the edge of the world [...].

In that line-break, we can almost feel the gesture, as if the poem was pointing and making us feel that difference between the here and the unimaginably far away.

4. A line-break can make strange

There is a widely-held view that line-breaks should not break up the sense of an expression so that it wrong-foots the reader. I think what the reader really needs is wrong-footing. To poets I say, 'come on - wrong-foot me, give it your best shot.'

Paul Muldoon and Matthew Caley do this a lot. In Muldoon's case, there is often a very deliberate strategy of fragmenting the sense of an expression over several lines so that the reader is constantly having to reorient themselves. The individual lines frequently don't make much sense standing alone. In a way, this is a similar process to no. 1 (suspending meaning) but carried to such an extent that language becomes a strange material the reader has to struggle with rather than simply the opaque medium of some easily-digested meaning. So, for example, in his recent collection Maggot (2010), we can read the following in 'The Humours of Hakone':

[...]  I'd read somewhere that the Japanese love of kitsch
is nowhere more
evident than in the craze for these sticker-photo booths which

go even further to reinforce
not only the heels of a panty hose worn under a kimono
but the impression that phosphorous
might still be a common element in flash photography. Dead

There's a kind of stop-start quality to this I like - we get drip-fed bits of meaning which slowly accumulate.

Matthew Caley often does this making strange using hyphens to break up otherwise common words over more than one line. In his poem 'Elbow', for instance (in Apparently, 2010 - not sure why most of my examples were from 2010 - must have been a good year for line-breaking), he describes

the entire audience, vibrat-
ing life the F-holes of a cello [...]

Apart from making the word 'vibrating' seem very odd (like when you say a word you know over and over until it seems arbitrary and strange), there's a great joke here, too. The word 'vibrating' itself seems to, well, vibrate.

Despite my use of recent examples, this kind of thing has been around since Modernism at least. You can see all of these things happening in e.e. cummings, for one (as in 'Poem, or Beauty Hurts Mr. Vinal').

5. A line break can be funny

While we're on the subject of humour - I love a good line-break joke. Maybe we're getting into the realms of  concrete poetry here, but let's finish with A. R. Ammons' rid-tickling two-liner 'Their Sex Life':

Their Sex Life

One failure on
Top of another


Well, that's my personal top five things to do with a line-break. If there's one thing a line-break should not do, though, it's to

fool us into thinking
that because we have added
line-breaks to what is essentially
prose, we have written poetry.
Because we haven't.


  1. At a poetry festival in Texas assembled poets got chatting about how you know poetry is poetry. The general concensus was that out loud it is simple to detect because you know it when you hear it. And that on the page it is easy to spot, because the words don't go all the way to the end of the line...
    But it was very late at night and we might have been just a little bit poetically enhanced!
    Thank you, David - a far more thorough and knowledgable look at line-breaks than happened during our session.

  2. And thanks for the inspiration to get thinking about this, Polly!