Lines today

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 are employed

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 alternative though

In the light of all this I was interested to read reviews in Iota 85 (August 2009) because there were several references to line-breaks. A review of Jorie Graham (whose work is "an exposure of actuality") contained these comments

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

But if those words are strong, aren't the line-breaks redundant? Later in another review there's

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

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
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Tim Love