Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Prejudices about lineation

Reading the latest PBS choice, Sarah Maguire's The Pomegranates of Kandahar, I was struck by a strange reaction. The poems vary in line length, sometimes within the poem but more usually from poem to poem. As I turn the page I'm instantly put off by the poems that have very short lines (some have single-word lines in places, but usually three or four) - like, to take the first few poems in the book, 'The Grass Church at Dilston Grove', 'Cow Parsley, Bluebells' and 'Passages'. On the other hand, I'm much better disposed, at first sight, to 'Vigil' and 'Solstice', both of which use a fairly long line.

On reading the poems I sometimes go against my prejudices: I rather like 'The Grass Church at Dilston Grove', for example. But perhaps more often I find them confirmed. In this instance - although this isn't meant to be an essay on Sarah Maguire but on my own reading habits and preferences - I liked 'Vigil' and 'Solstice' and didn't have so much time for 'Cow Parsley, Bluebells' or 'Passages'.

Is it mere prejudice? Sometimes a short line seems to me unearned, as if the poet's trying to make the words weightier by giving you fewer to the pound. Yet I must also confess that I don't always know how to read short lines - do you pause after each line? Linger over each phrase? Read through normally without regard to line breaks? This last option seems to defeat the purpose (whatever it is) of the short line. The second option risks the fey. So maybe the good, old-fashioined pause at the end of each line it is.

On the other hand maybe it's just that I have a preference for poetry in long lines — in which case, a further question is raised. What sort of poetry goes around in long lines? Does the length of the line correspond to tonal and thematic qualities? It should be fairly clear that a long line is better suited to certain rhythms - the discursive, the ironic, the prosaic (Michael Hofmann, Ciaran Carson) - as well as, obviously, certain metres. And those rhythms and metres are often associated with particular effects and types of poetry - whereas the short line is generally associated with the free verse lyric (in a wide spectrum from breathless emotionalism to modernist jigsaw). And though I can be tempted by that sort of thing, from all areas of the spectrum, none of it's really my thing. I keep looking greedily on in Maguire's book to 'The Water Diviner', which promises some hearty chunks of regular lines I can get my teeth into. I'm so uncool.


Blogger Ben Wilkinson said...

Hi, Tony, I came across your blog from a link on Rob's 'Surroundings'. In my reading experience, poems with longer lines often tend to have a more serious tone, like much of David Harsent's work, for example. But then I'm sure there are plenty of exceptions to such a 'rule'. Although I must say that my preference is for the long line too. Perhaps this stems, as you suggest, from reading a great deal of bad and poorly written short poems. Reminds me of Armitage's satirical poem, 'Ivory', from Zoom!, in which he cleverly pokes fun at absurd avant-garde postmodernists. Whatever's the case, most of my better poems end up being the ones with long (or longish) lines; perhaps the longer line gives poets a headstart in writing the poem, in thoroughly sticking your head into the subject matter you want to deal with. Plus, long lines do have a sort of elegance in their scansion that shorter lines usually fail to capture...

12:17 AM  
Blogger Julie Carter said...

As I ponder this, I realize two things about my preference for longer lines:

1. It strikes my eye as looking more like prose, which signals something in my brain that says the poem will be more accessible and "friendlier."

2. There is no justification for 1. since I haven't found that longer lines really do make poems more accessible and friendlier.

Short lines do generally strike me as self-important, though. Again, with no justification that I can think of.

4:40 AM  
Blogger Tony Williams said...

Hi Ben
I think you're right that long lines have a head start in having room for rhythms to develop. The danger with the short line is that
each short
is supposed to con-
tribute towards
a unique and weighty
but doesn't.
I wonder if it has to do with how much importance the poet places on the word as a site of meaning. Does power derive from writing the right word or writing the right line? If the former, a short line presents the poetry in a purer form; if the latter, a long line gives more room for manoeuvre.

Hi Julie
You're absolutely right that the long line is more inviting, even though on some basic level the short line should look 'easier' because there are fewer words... And yes, it is difficult to justify these preferences/prejudices.

It might be an interesting exercise to write out long-lined poems as short-lined ones, and vice versa - partly to see whether they still work, regardless of the rewrite, as long/short-lined (and therefore are 'naturally' of that type), and partly, as ever, to see what other effects occur.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

I also lean to the longer line. I'm not sure why. I've sometimes tried writing out my poems in short lines, but they rarely seem to work too well - too choppy and distracting.

Too often short lines seem short for no reason other than to 'poeticize' what otherwise might be mistaken for prose.

On the other hand, it might be true that short lines are simply hard to write well, but when people do them well and give each line integrity, the effect can be powerful.

To take an example from someone not too far away from you, Jim Sheard often employs short lines - taut, concentrated, continually on the point of exploding. And lines, not just words, count in his poetry.

Short lines can work in slow, meditative poems, where the lines build gradually on one another. Often rhyming and chiming effects between lines can help in these kinds of poems.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Tony Williams said...

Hi Rob,

Yes, Jim's a good example of the short line used to good effect - his poems are dense in the sense that every word is working at full stretch. In comparison my own lines (and this is the danger of the longer line, which till now I've been skirting) can seem a bit thin, especially taken in isolation: whatever they contribute to the whole movement, in themselves they may be a bit flabby. Excess words, I suppose, turning a short line's worth of material into a long one.

I see from Jim's blog that he's on retreat in Wales, musing on the caravan as garret/cell. Given the small space this allows for pacing up and down, I think more short lines are in the offing ;)

8:33 AM  
Blogger Crafty Green Poet said...

For me short lines add drama, long lines make the words flow better. Rob's comment about short lines being 'choppy' seems right to me. I think too many poets these days seem to be using short lines without thinking about the effect these have on the flow of words.

2:22 PM  

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