Freeform poetry doesn't have to include line-breaks merely for the sake of form.
They can be saved for when they really matter - when they're sincere and
authentic. The resulting work is very likely to have irregular line-breaks.
There may even be several lines of prose between line-breaks. But this form is
rarely seen in magazines - it's neither poetry nor prose. Two solutions
- Poetrification - there's a temptation to make the piece more
uniform visually by adding more line-breaks. Uniform line-lengths
(as measured by a ruler rather than meter) can be created along with
uniform stanza lengths. The non-functional breaks by default tend to coincide
punctuation (which also fits the breath-indication and unit-of-thought
functions of line-breaks). Agonising about these line-breaks and adjusting
the phrasing accordingly helps the poet spend more time with the poem and can
lead to improved work (look
In some poetry books I've read, the most prosaic pieces are those
with the shortest lines, as if the poet hopes that the more line-breaks there are the better
chance of reader seeing extra meanings that will salvage the piece (since
there's often no penalty for redundant line-breaks)
- Prosification -
Nowadays any short
literary text can be considered a poem, especially if it's in a form
(a shopping list or menu, for example). This didn't used to be the case
(Gertrude Stein wasn't a poet) but markets changed.
In conversation with Charles Bernstein discussing the birth of "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry" , Bruce Andrews said he felt more uncomfortable about the "poetry" word than about "Language". He might have preferred the
term "Language Writing", but said he found "poetry" more marketable. Perhaps
the time is right for prose to reclaim its ground.
The main free-form short prose genre at the moment
is "Flash Fiction" which often needs some character or narrative development,
though as its popularity increases so will its scope. Already its limits
easily encompass some texts currently accepted as poems.
But the prosification I'm suggesting here is to do with format, not genre. "if in
doubt leave it out" can be applied to line-breaks as well as adverbs. The
result needn't be Flash Fiction or a "Prose Poem" (which is distrusted and tends to be dominated by
surrealism at the moment), just a tighter poem. Such poems are quite often
in poetry books nowadays (a single example usually). They make me wonder why the book's other poems
have so many line-breaks.
Of the 2 solutions, I think the 2nd is more aesthetic though it's less
used because of prevailing market forces. There's a further, more radical
- From-the-ground-up formatting - just as rhyme shouldn't be an
afterthought, so the format and content can emerge together. By relaxing
the subservience of the format to grammar, the formatting effects are given
more range of expression so that formatting can take turns with content to be
foregrounded (like instruments in a Jazz group). The resulting through-composed
piece might not just be jagged-right but jagged-left as well, with white-space
You could perhaps think of the format like the hand gestures of a speaker. Some
of us barely move our hands. TV presenters do, but it often seems unnatural,
the same gesture (a hand-chop, for example) repeated every few seconds. On TV recently though I saw an old lady from
Naples whose hands were in constant balletic motion even in the silence
between sentences. The gestures and words were loosely coupled, coming
together when emphasis was required.
In the light of all this I was interested to read reviews in Iota 85 (August
there were several references to line-breaks. A review of Jorie
Graham (whose work is "an exposure of actuality") contained these comments
- "line breaks take control. Like humanity, form doesn't notice its own
- "The music of Graham's form provokes change in its terrifying jolt of white
space and line break, which emulates natural disaster"
- "A colloquial liveliness separates sites of divergent modulation and
lexicon. Like line breaks, they contribute to a sense of disruption; the
poems are not about what we think they are about, but the process that the
Reviewing another poet in "Other Poetry" IV.1, James
Roderick Burns sees similar power - "The form ... strains away from the
margin like a catapult sling stretched to capacity, an event about to
happen". Here the mimetic 'breaks' of from-the-ground-up formatting take on
apocalyptic proportions in contrast to another review's more mundane description
- "Each line is measured to Higgins' breath worked so the break occurs
always on the strong word"
But if those words are strong, aren't the line-breaks redundant?
another review there's
- "Maybe Walpert is of the opinion that each line needn't hold itself as an
individual unit of sense, and that weak line endings are a matter of choice;
but frankly it distracted me unnecessarily"
This is how I feel about much poetry - weak line endings don't become strong
by lining up with other weak line endings. But I'm coming round to the idea
that it's not the poet's fault that I'm distracted. In "Contemporary Poetry
Review", 2009, Hannah Brooks-Motl wrote "British readers may
find American poems' line breaks arbitrary, the arrangement of lines or stanzas
bizarre or arbitrary". Such formats are the
default nowadays, and it's not necessary that I should let myself be distracted by them. If I
don't like the poem, I can decide to attack the format too, otherwise I can ignore the
line-breaks - all they mean is 'please read this poetically'.
Besides, what does "weak" mean in this context? Ending on a word like "of"
or "the" means that the next line can start with a substantial word - maybe
it's the line-starts that we should be looking at rather than the endings.
I wondered how the reviewers might receive the poems in the issue.
The poems split this way
- 50% have mostly uniform line-lengths
- 40% have uniform stanza-lengths.
- 20% have mostly uniform line-lengths and uniform stanza-lengths (the standard "multi-box" form).
- 15% use indenting
- 15% have erratic (organic?) line-breaks
There were no traditional forms that I could see (maybe there were syllabics but who
cares?). There were no token prose layouts either, which is odd given
the material and the number of weak line-endings.
This Iota issue doesn't contain a random sample of contemporary poetry by any means, but the statistics
are worthy of submitters' attention. Any form is better than no form at all,
even if the form doesn't match the content and introduces weak line-endings.
Of course, the same conclusion could be drawn after reading a good many
Formalist magazines too, but the weak constraints of the forms in Iota are
easier to satisfy.
Updated November 2009