A Theory of Line-breaks

FormatFrequency
2 line stanzas7
3 line stanzas14
4 line stanzas4
5 line stanzas5
6 line stanzas2
7 line stanzas2
8 line stanzas1
Misc stanzas8
Deviations from norms will be noticed. In most prose, line-breaks are deviations. The norms for poetry seem to be changing. Here are the statistics of Jane Holland's "The Brief History of a Disreputable Woman" (Bloodaxe 1997). Note the high percentage of poems with regular 2 or 3 lined stanzas. For regularity, the "Brighton Pilgrimage" poem takes the prize - 18 7-lined stanzas where the longest line is about 1cm longer than the shortest.

In the last decade or so, line-breaks seem often used to produce equally shaped stanzas in this way. Like any pattern it offers the writer chances to thwart expectation - units can be end-stopped or enjambed, for example. The requirements of form also give the writer an answer to people asking why the poet broke a line. Stanza lengths can (indeed, should) be varied from poem to poem. The important thing is not to let any line stick out more than 2cm from a neighbour. Once the poem's been shaped, minor tweaks can be made to exploit a line- or stanza-break, but these shouldn't be too obvious - such effects are often pretty cheap, and they might draw attention to the other, form-driven line-breaks. For added variety regular indenting can be used too. The final stanza is allowed to be a line shorter or longer than all the rest. It can even be a single-line.

Why do poets use the form? After all, the line-break's potential in this context is limited. I guess the form's purpose is partly to please the eye and partly to get people in the poetry mood, to get them to "read into" the work. As Culler wrote in "Structuralist Poetics", this will make readers see extra meanings (the word "red" will burst with connotations), and affect their interpretation of style (reportage will become "restrained writing"). There'll also be a tendency to read a fragment as the tip-of-an-iceberg.

Note the key-role played by line-breaks. Not only do they indicate that the text is a poem, but by encouraging minor closures they help readers to focus on (and magnify) particular phrases as well as generating extra interpretations - e.g. "I am good/for nothing".

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. In "A Lope of Time" Ruth O'Callaghan writes "smoking at an open window, the man notes the abandoned boat. Come spring he will replace it". I misquote; actually she wrote

smoking at an open window
                      the man
        notes
                the abandoned boat

come spring 
        he will replace it

I don't think this earns the right to be read too generously.

Rather than use the shape of the text to indicate that the work should be read poetically, writers can use the context. It's common nowadays for poetry books to include at least one poem that has no line-breaks. Lachlan Mackinnon's "Small Hours" takes this approach further. On the flap it says that the book ends with "a long poem ... written mostly in prose". The piece in question ("The Book of Emma") takes up 63 pages. Here are some extracts

It's interesting to note the reception to this piece

I'd call it prose written in prose. Yes, it has shifts of time and subject, but thankfully so does prose. It has a consistent voice. Its imagery and analogies are developed at a leisurely pace. There are leit-motifs and unspoken interconnections. It doesn't exploit sound effects. But if it doesn't need line-breaks why does an earlier poem, "Midlands", need so many? It has these passages:

It's commonly said that some poems are "just prose chopped up", but even if a text is "poetry chopped up" it's faulty. In Ruth O'Callaghan's piece what are line-breaks for? I'm not the only person puzzled by latterday line-breaks

FormatFrequency
2 line stanzas4
3 line stanzas3
14 line stanzas1
Prose3
Misc13
Sonnet1
Triangular1
Nathan Hamilton's selection of recent poetry in Rialto 70 (2010) has these statistics. It's unfair to compare this multi-author sample with single-author books, but maybe it's a sign that line-breaks are regaining their power. In Mackinnon's "Midlands" the line-breaks are for making each stanza 9 lines long, which is currently considered a worthwhile aim, but perhaps "The Book of Emma" signals a further drift of norms. If Faber accept it as poetry, what prose would they turn down? Anything with sections longer than 2 pages?


Updated November 2010
[Quotes] [Articles] [LitRefs]
Tim Love