Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The End of the Line for Modern Poetry

In 1997 I became increasingly sceptical about the value of line-breaks in much free verse. This article considers the possibility of dispensing with them.

Lately I've become increasingly sceptical about the value of line-breaks in much free verse. This article considers the possibility of dispensing with them.

The Line between Prose and Poetry

Early in the 17th century, Campion and Milton both expressed their dislike of jingling rhyme. As the century progressed, dramatic poetry (whose plain verse and accomodation of speech rhythms foreshadowed free verse) "grew even freer; with apparently incomplete lines, increased enjambment and a recognisable degree of sprung rhythm" [Hobsbaum, 1996, p.94]. Between the 18th and 19th centuries the trends that led to the current dominance of free-verse were already in motion. Gradually there were more verbs than adjectives and more subordinate than serial constructions. Form and content began to slide apart: "to the tendency towards parenthesis, and the persistent enjambment, Keats adds the effect of directing the sense not with the couplet, as one would find in Pope, but against it." [Hobsbaum, 1996, p.29]

By about 1820 most of the leading poets' work was stanzaic in structure, while a half century before it had been mostly linear. Also oblique metaphors had taken the place of explicit similes [Miles, 1964]. During the 19th century priorities continued to change towards grammar, semantics and speech patterns and away from surface structure.

Rhyme, alliteration and other sound effects are still used. Witness, for instance, this extract from a piece of recent criticism

    "Bellflowers, seldom seen now, stellar, trim."
    Note the triple statement of the el(l) sound counterpointed against 
    the duple m; the narrowing of el(l)'s vowel to ee and i - boldly 
    interrupted by recapitulation of ow; and the modulation of s through 
    st to t.

    (Of Talisman, by Peter Dale). W.G. Shepherd in Agenda 33.1

To some there's more than just sensory pleasure in this. Denise Levertov wrote that "In organic poetry the metric movement, the measure is the direct expression of the movement of perception. And the sounds, acting together with the measure, are a kind of extended onomatopoeia - i.e. they imitate, not the sounds of an experience ... but the feeling of an experience, its emotional tone, its texture" [Denise Levertov, 1973]. But there's a limit to how much can be expressed by such sound effects, and the primal heartbeat of iambs can dull the senses after a while. Looking through books on poetry technique one will see examples of alliteration and repeated vowel sounds (the mournfulness of long 'o's or 'u's, the precision of 't's). But it's suspicious how often the same examples are used. Pick any old poem and you're statistically likely to find a cluster of similar sounds and it's not hard to justify the pattern - no harder than finding patterns and meanings in tea-leaves. It's been estimated [Wesling, 1985] that only about 1% of old poetry exploits the sound effects; in the remaining poems the poet's inner ear has got stuck on a particular noise; the sound and sense each going their own way. So during the twentieth century the redundant metres and clangy rhymes were gradually removed. The remaining sound effects stuck out, looked cheap. Many of those went too. Without metre and rhyme, the line break became less necessary.

The consequent loss of a clear boundary between poetry and prose continues to worry many. It's not clear why we need a carefully drawn dividing line. It's true that poetry has had to fight to preserve its territory against encroachment by the developing novel and everyday speech (adverts, songs, Hallmark cards), but constructing artificial, typography-based distinctions isn't going to help the cause - "cut-up prose" isn't accepted as poetry by much of the reading public.

Perhaps the line is defended because prose is judged as intrinsically inferior to poetry. One can sympathise with people who hold this view (send them flowers?) but I suspect that their case rests on definitions of poetry and prose that can't deal with the very texts that challenge their view (for instance, some of Beckett's later work). And they may be saddened to learn that Coleridge and Wordsworth spoke about the absence of an "essential difference" between the languages of prose of verse. Valery wrote "if I were seized by a desire to throw away rhyme and everything else...and to abandon myself completely to the desires of my ear, I'd find no truth essential to poetry standing in his path." Browning, Poe, Goldsmith and Coleridge all did prose drafts of their poetry sometimes, and weren't averse to de-versing a troublesome section of a poem-in-progress, working on it and then re-versing it back into poetry.

Cultures vary in their attitude towards the prose/poetry divide. Some want overt structure in their poetry, and see its loss as symptomatic of a loss of morals or control in society as a whole. Some insist on classifying works as (strictly) poetry or prose, thus driving works away from the grey area. Others create new genres (prose poetry, experimental fiction) to contain the troublesome material.

Given an isolated, unclassified text, I suspect that the following stylistic factors are used by readers to determine whether they consider a text to be prose or prose. Poetry is seen to have

  • More surface effects (rhyme, meter, word-play, typography, and most of all, line-breaks)
  • More specifics: "3 starlings fluttered by" rather than "Some birds flew by"
  • More metaphor, metonymy
  • Wider vocabulary: "vermilion" rather than "red"
  • More obscurity, discontinuity, brevity, ambiguity
  • A less hierarchical structure (webs rather than trees), fewer forms in which syntax provides structure - less fact, argument, narration [Fredman, 1983, p.128]

Prose which has some of these features is considered 'poetic'; prose with more of these features is considered 'purple', 'experimental' or (currently most damning of all) 'really a prose-poem'.

The Line Today

We are free of the convention that all poetry must be in a recognised form. We don't even begin all our lines with capitals any more. Yet most of us still use line-breaks. Indeed, the line-break for some (e.g. Hartman [Hartman, 1980], and probably many readers of literature) is the one remaining distinguishing feature of poetry on the page.

Because we've dispensed with so many other devices, the line-break's become if anything overloaded with functions. The line for Hartman [Frank, 1988, p. ix] is the primary means by which the poet is able to create and control attention. For Frances Mayes [Frank, 1988, p. 165] it's the unit of attention (the sentence being the unit of meaning). For Olsen it's a unit of breath. Line-breaks can be used in place of punctuation characters. They can disrupt, defamiliarise, build up tension, emphasise. They can show where someone reading out the poem should pause, helping to impose the writer's intended rhythms onto the reader so bringing the various possible rhythmic inflections into line. More extremely, the page can be used like a canvas, the lines stuck like pieces of a collage, or the page can be air, giving the lines room to move like the parts of a mobile. Line-breaks also help switch the reader into poetry mode if opening a poetry magazine or book isn't enough. Just as there's Art which is only viable in the laboratory setting of a gallery, so there will be poems that demand a certain frame of mind before they're considered worthy of more than a glance, and white borders supply that frame.

One can find poems demonstrating the effectiveness of all these devices. Far more frequent however are poems with carefully chosen words intersperced with line-breaks which seem arbitrarily scattered. Of course, with sufficient ingenuity one can usually concoct a reason for some of the line-breaks, but aren't there better things for readers to concentrate upon? I wonder how conscious present day poets are of their use of the line-break? Consider the following stanza that begins Silos, by Rita Dove

   Like martial swans in spring paraded against the city sky's
   shabby blue, they were always too white and
   suddenly there.

I find the line-breaks distracting. The first may be there because of the approaching right margin, but the other looks more like a conscious decision. If the intention is to emphasise the word "suddenly" then how about underlining it? That would be heavy-handed, but no more so than the line-
break. Maybe it's there to surprise us. But the element of surprise wears off when, as in this poem, the device is used so often. This element of randomness in the positioning belongs to a different, more avant-garde kind of writing. If line-breaks are an effective device, perhaps they should be used more sparingly, like paragraphs. Using them at the end of each clause (as many poets do) is a waste: the interplay of 'the line' and 'the clause' - moving them in and out of phase - can be effective. Using line-breaks so that each stanza has the same number of lines and all the lines have about the same length seems, on reflection, a sentimental relic of our traditional forms. The shape poems of Lewis Carroll and George Herbert are far more imaginatively constructed.

For many modern poets, it seems that the line break is as important as the paragraph break in prose - if a reason for using one doesn't naturally arise soon enough, one's just put in anyway. No-one's going to bother too much about where they are. But in the UK at least, we daren't leave them out completely.

Letting go of the Line

In the States many twentieth century poets have tried doing without line-breaks. W.C. Williams' early attempts (Kora in Hell: Improvisations, 1920) opened the way for others. Acceptance was grudging though - in 1959 Simon [Simon, 1959, p. 665] was able to say that "the prose poem as such is with us still, but its accomplishments having been absorbed by other genres, it has become the occasional 'aside' of writers whose essential utterance takes other forms". Since then major poets as different as Creeley (Presences, 1976) and Ashbery have used the form, and for a variety of reasons

  • "they had a desire to recapture for poetry modes of thought and expression seemingly denied it" - Fredman [Fredman, 1983, p.8].
  • "Something that needs expression is not being fully released by regular poetry. It may simply be a time of rethinking poetry, the kind of rethinking that cannot be done inside of poetry for a while." - Russell Edson [11]
  • "...suddenly the idea of [prose poems] occurred to me as something new in which the arbitrary divisions of poetry into lines would be abolished... the poetic form would be dissolved, in solution, and therefore create ... more of a surrounding thing like the way one's consciousness is surrounded by one's thoughts..." - Ashbery [12, p.126]

Fredman [Fredman, 1983] feels that US poets write more prose than UK ones. Perhaps they can more appreciate the potential of prose tropes too, and can more easily combine these with poetic tropes. Fewer European poets have escaped from the French prose-poem genre. Even Ashbury thought that "There's something very self-consciously poetic about French prose poetry" [12, p.126] and had to start afresh. Zbigniew Herbert, Charles Tomlinson, John Burnside and Geoffrey Hill are European mainstream poets who sometimes format their poetry as prose. They can afford to - if the rest of us followed their example, it would be received more as an affectation than an attempt to remove affectation (rather as the use of "i" rather than "I" would be, however well-reasoned one's argument from first principles).

The majority of poets and editors do not seem ready to accept poetry formatted as prose - and with some justification. Donald Davie, in a different context, put his finger on the problem when he said that "in translating rhymed verse the rhyme is the first thing to go and metre the second; whereas the amateur...cannot be sure of having poetry at all unless he has the external features of it." The prose-formatted texts would have to survive without some of the licence that poetry readers usually grant. In the UK at least, magazines can't afford to lose any more readers by taking chances.

I've seen line-breaks used as punctuation (but what's wrong with standard punctuation?), to control emphasis (why not italics?) and to denote a pause (let's use Hopkins' stress marks too!). I've also seen line-breaks used thoughtlessly. Poets often follow an "if in doubt, leave it out" policy for words, but not for line-breaks. I think that some types of poems would be no worse if reformatted as prose. Better, in fact, because there'd be fewer distractions. Although I think there's a strong case for more poems to be formatted as prose, I don't think changes will happen soon. It's the last line of defence before poetry looks like prose, one that many dare not abandon.


  • Benedikt (ed), "The Prose Poem: An International Anthology", Dell, 1976.
  • Russel Eldon, "The Prose Poem in America", Parnassus, 5, no 1:321-5
  • Frank and Sayre, "The Line in Postmodern Poetry", University of Illinois Press, 1988.
  • Stephen Fredman, "Poet's Prose: The Crisis in American Verse", Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  • Charles Hartman, "Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody", Princeton University Press, 1980
  • P. Hobsbaum, "Metre, Rhyme and Verse Form", Routledge, 1996.
  • Denise Levertov, "On the Function of the Line", in "Light up the Cave", New Directions, 1979.
  • Denise Levertov, "Some Notes on Organic Form" in The Poet in the World, New Directions, 1973.
  • Josephine Miles, "Eras and Modes in English Poetry", University of California Press, 1964.
  • Clive Scott, "The Prose Poem and Free Verse", in "Modernism: A Guide to European Literature, 1890-1930", eds M. Bradbury and J, McFarlane, Pelican, 1976.
  • John Simon, "The Prose Poem: A Study of a Genre in Nineteenth-Century European Literature", Diss., Harvard University, 1959.
  • T. Steele, "Missing Measures", University of Arkansis Press, 1990.
  • D. Wesling, "The New Poetries", American University Press, 1985.
  • "The Craft of Poetry: Interviews from 'The New York Quarterly'", Doubleday, 1974
  • "A Symposium on the Theory and Practice of the Line in Contemporary Poetry", (many), Epoch 29 (Winter 1980).
  • Center Volume 7, (2008) has a "Symposium on the Line:Theory and Practice in Contemporary Poetry"
  • Extravagances, Hesitancies, & Urgencies: On the Line in Poetry (Mark Irwin)
  • "The Line" by Katy Evans-Bush in "Stress Fractures" by Tom Chivers (ed) (Penned in the Margins, 2010)
  • "The Art of the Poetic Line", James Longenbach, Graywolf
A version of this article appeared in Acumen 29, Sep 1997

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