eternal questions

I have been struggling with line breaks in my poetry for years. Even so, I am a bit taken aback by a friend’s email promising me a copy of a text “which should definitively answer the question of ‘Why did you put the […] line break there!?'”

In my last post (on the present poetic) and in follow up comments, I have been pondering some of the reasons behind choosing to write in the present tense (a subject I intend to revisit soon).

In other posts about first-person narrators I have considered the question of the writer/narrator dichotomy and why I so often write in the first person if I am not writing about myself.

At some time, I’ve no doubt I will get around to considering other questions about writing poetry – including line breaks, stanza breaks and page layout. I’ve got plenty to say about line length and the use of rhyme, too, as well as translation and transformation, and a whole host of other issues.

But I’m not trying to give definitive answers in any of these posts: I’m interested in any thoughts that visitors to the blog might like to contribute, and I’d be more than happy to be shown where my arguments or theories fail.

To be honest, I don’t think there are many absolute rules about how poetry is, or should be, written. But that doesn’t stop me wanting to talk about it and find out what other people think about the subject. So, although I’m looking forward to reading the article on line breaks, I do hope it doesn’t “definitively answer” anything.

After all, as Majikthise said in THHGTTG chapter 25:

“[…]I mean what’s the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives us his bleeding phone number the next morning?”

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

12 thoughts on “eternal questions”

  1. I have been struggling with line breaks in my poetry for years.

    If you put the emphasis on the breaks instead of the lines, it’s no wonder that you struggle.

    The fundamental building brick of verse is the line (or perhaps hemistich) , just as the fundamental building brick of prose is the sentence (or perhaps clause or phrase).

    The building bricks come in various shapes, such as the “iambic pentameter” (which is an oblong Lego brick) or the “Sapphic stanza” (which is a triangular Toblerone brick sharpened at one end, and also incidentally technically a line, not a stanza, despite its length), but what counts is how competently the bricks are arranged together, not how cleverly the mortar is inserted between them.

    Like punctuation marks in prose, line breaks in verse let the reader know how the text is divided into parts.

    Will that do?

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      1. “That” was a reference to some song lyrics by Clive “Google” James that were set to music by Pete “Google” Atkin in the first of their six collaborative albums of the 1970s (of which I own, alas, only the first four).

        The song is on YouTube;

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      2. I know Clive James (though I think he’s more popular than he was when I left the UK), but hadn’t come across Pete Atkin. Thanks for the YouTube link. (Except that now it’s all too tempting to follow through and listen to a whole chain of songs instead of doing what I should be doing.)

        I guess we could discuss whether song lyrics count as poetry, but perhaps I’ll wait and make a new post that will trigger that ‘thread’.

        tnx!

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    1. “Like punctuation marks in prose, line breaks in verse let the reader know how the text is divided into parts.”
      Then what does punctuation do in poetry?! (And why shouldn’t I use a line break to substitute a punctuation mark?)

      More seriously, I don’t think you can separate the line from the break. Perhaps we are just more focused on one or the other. I’m focused on line breaks as I see them as the one – very powerful – tool that exists in poetry in a way it doesn’t exist in other written forms.

      Like looking at a tree and seeing the shapes of branches and clusters of leaves, because that’s what our society’s preconceptions and norms have led us to see, rather than the spaces between them which are equally valid shapes, is it just a question of refocusing?

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  2. Punctuation in poetry does exactly what it does in prose. Poetry doesn’t necessarily eschew the methods of prose.

    In my opinion, a line break doesn’t allow you to suppress a punctuation mark that would help a reader or speaker to make sense of your syntax. What punctuation mark are you suppressing? Comma? Colon? Dash? Ellipsis? The reader or speaker has no way of telling.

    Unlike prose, the essence of poetry is to be spoken aloud, and it’s spoken in a measured way to make it easier to remember for speaker and listener. Division into lines and strophes makes the speaking easier, both for the speaker who envisages the speaking in the future and for the listener who wants to be able to recreate the experience of hearing the poem spoken.

    Consistent punctuation also makes the speaking easier.

    Just as George W Bush once said “Make the pie higher,” I say unto you, “Make the speaking easier!” That’s what line divisions are for.

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    1. Thanks for this. I’m mulling it over.

      As for making the pie higher, well it could make it quicker and easier to divide: a (flat, round) cake can be cut into eight equal pieces with only three cuts if it’s tall enough to be slit through the middle horizontally. Somehow, I don’t think GWB was advocating fewer cuts and more equality, though.

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