17 October 2007

Line lengths and endings in poems

In workshopping our poems, Western Women Writers have had several discussions about line lengths and what dictates them. We've had visiting poets talk to us about how long lines should be. Some are of the Peter-Bakowski-keep-em-short school, and some are not. Line lengths do dictate flow as does enjambment.

None of us are of the a-poem-is-just-a-bit-of-prose-with-really-short-lines school, and sometimes our criticism of why a poem is not working is that it is too prosaic. Poems are their own form, and need to be working on their own terms.

In our professional development day the other day for work, a PWE (Prof Writing and Editing) teacher from another institute was talking about telling her students never to break a line after the word "the", and then the next week teaching a poem that, you guessed it, ended a line with the word "the". Of course students are invariably pleased when they see something like this, and will take great pains to point it out. "But last week you said..."

Yeah, we know, but that doesn't mean it's still not a good "rule" (and I use that word loosely) to observe. And it doesn't mean we didn't think that line might have been better served had the line been broken elsewhere. Or perhaps that this is a particularly effective breaking of the rule. Or that the teacher had an oh-shit moment when considering the poem, but decided to use it anyway because, though that line detracts, there's other elements that make it an excellent poem to study. Or that the teacher wants the students to remember that people break rules all the time.

The thing about breaking rules is that some do it well; some not so well, and the general rule of thumb is that the more experienced you are, and the more aware of the rules, the better you'll be able to break them. That's why I take great pains to teach my Editing students the grammar and punctuation rules -- not so they'll always write grammatically perfect sentences. Gotta love that sentence fragment! But so they'll learn how to break rules, how to tell if what they're doing is working and how to tell if it's not.

But, I'm digressing. Line lengths. What I find really interesting is whether we think poems with long lines are quicker or slower to read. Some say slower, because the lines are longer, and some same quicker because the lines aren't broken up as much. It is interesting because I think the reality is that they are quicker, but that there is a psychological thing that goes on when we seem them on the page that makes them feel slower. Does that make sense? Maybe it's dependent on whether we sound them out in our heads or not? I usually do when reading poetry.

The other aspect of line lengths is from the typesetting point of view. Can you tell what I've been doing this week? Yes, I'm typesetting Poetrix, and I had one poem with two lines that didn't fit on the page. In the old days I'd just carry the line over to the next, but I hate the look of it. I think it does disturb how the poem reads on the page. After all, poets put a lot of thought into where they should break their lines. Then I discovered WordPerfect's typesetter functions and learnt how to adjust letter and word spacing. This can often be done with no perceptible change on the page, so that things are squeezed up and I can get that last letter in and so the taken-over word moves back. But this time I had one line with three taken-over words, and I squeezed the text, but it was too much. The changes affected how the poem looked on the page, how readable the text was. It didn't work, so just as in the old days, I have one poem with a broken line.

As a poet myself, I wouldn't be happy about this, but it makes me think more about what magazines I'm targeting when I am sending poems out. For example, I have one poem that sits inside a diary entry of twenty years ago (before the fall of the Berlin wall) -- that poem needs a journal that's at least A4 size, and I wouldn't send it anywhere else. Poetrix is A5. As a poet I wouldn't have sent it to us. I'm not suggesting don't send us poems with long lines -- far from it. What we want to see is everyone's best work. But I'm saying, as a writer, not editor, that we should all be thinking about our line lengths, what best serves the poem, when we're sending out to markets, and most importantly when we're writing.

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