Jump to most recent response

White space, line endings and stanza "shape."

This is one of those enquiries almost impossible to phrase. I have always been interested in poets' use of space, and am frequently baffled by the sorts of stanzas people use. For years I have wanted to ask if there is some sort of "golden rule" pertaining to indentation and white space, but have tended instead to ask individual poets about poems of their's which include lots of apparently meaningless line-breaks (which often impede the flow of the poem) and why they use them. No-one ever wants to discuss it, and I often feel I am the only reader not to understand. I'm not referring to poems where the shape relates to the subject, or the rhythm of the poem is suggested by the line breaks, but to examples where there seems to be no reason whatsoever, and which would actually be easier to make sense of where the lines simply contained in stanzas with a justified margin.
I'm aware this makes me sound either like a philistine or a formalist. The latter is far from the case and I hope the former isn't true, and I am in fact a great devotee of experimental poetry. But so often I read poetry where even the authors can't seem to explain why the words are set out the ways they are.
There are so many thousands to quote from I wouldn't know where to begin, so I'll simply round this off with a self-penned example:

I'm talking about poems which
use the page in ways like
this
and
am wondering if my general confusion
at such methods
means I am an idiot?
Sun, 7 Apr 2019 07:22 pm
message box arrow
WOL won't actually let me type the joke example above as I would like to. It posts it with the lines all starting from the left hand margin whereas I typed it with the lines all over the place, some in the middle of the page, some just containing a single line etc, which is how quite a lot of poems are set out.
Sun, 7 Apr 2019 07:35 pm
message box arrow
A quick scroll through the poe
try blogs here doesn't throw
up many examples
of bafflin g
foRmats

nor were there many (any?) in the uptotheminute
poetry book I was just enjoying.

I think we may be worrying over nothing here


I have seen a few inexplicable extravagances over the years


but let's not concentrate on them



best wishes from Adam
Sun, 7 Apr 2019 08:29 pm
message box arrow
Don't get me wrong Adam, I'm not worried about the poetry its self, but rather my own inability to grapple with much of it. I actually enjoy challenging and experimental poetry, poems which make me think, and in any art form I think its good when people shake things up and introduce new ways of doing things. The sorts of slicing up of stanzas are comparable to, say, anti-tonality in music, or cubism in painting. But for some reason that stuff inspires me, whereas with poetry it leaves me confused and concerned that I may have missed some obvious reason why it is written as such. So I suppose that's the hub of my enquiry: not, is it right or wrong for poetry to be written in disjointed stanzas with weird line-endings, but does anyone have any explanation as to why it is often so, while it never was before, say, the 1950's? I'd be especially intrigued to hear from poets who have written in such ways. Sometimes I've heard poets read their work at readings, in apparently seamless, flowing style, yet when I see the poems written down they are in disjointed style, so I can't really believe such techniques are supposed to have any effect on how the lines come over. Therefore, I'm wondering, why bother with it?
Mon, 8 Apr 2019 12:32 am
message box arrow
To be really simplistic about it, and at the risk of revealing yself to be a totally uneducated thickie, a straightforward example of what I'm asking about is a poem where a line starts in an indented way. I can understand that traditionally this just means it is a sentence or phrase carried over from the line above, but often the line preceding it will be short and leave plenty of space for the words to have just followed on. In such a case, does this mean the writer intends for the reader to pause for several seconds before commencing re-reading? If so, then far from seeming subversive, groundbreaking or experimental, this seems quite managed and formal.
Mon, 8 Apr 2019 12:39 am
message box arrow
i think i know what you are talking about. the placement of the text can mean various things. if text is aligned to the right, the text can be seen as more prose like. if it moves more central, it can take on the form of a spine, the backbone to the work. left sided alignment can show instability in the work, as if we are reading something we are unsure of. basically if we move the words around on the page we can introduce various moods in to the work that we cannot when it is simply aligned right and prose like.

the way white space is used by different poets is various. john cage and ee cummings used white space to impose a kind of arythmia on the words. some white space is just used to give the reader a pause.

i can understand what you are saying, i do think it is one of the myriad ways that poetic techniques are mishandled, but if you read someone like cummings then white space/line breaks become more important.
Mon, 8 Apr 2019 03:56 am
message box arrow
One of my favourite techniques (an old, underappreciated and underused one) is having a line, without a full stop, and another line follows it. Obviously the two lines can be rushed through together and this is what most people do, rushing poems to get to the next one. But when read as a complete unit on their own, individual lines can have quite different meanings ( the same goes for phrases and even single words) and this is one way of cramming more content into so few words, something poetry prides itself on doing par excellence. Another obvious technique is "highlighting" certain words by placing them prominently, the single word on a line being the most obvious.
I mention these things because they are reasons for the chosen layout. There are many other good reasons for particular arrangements on the page as Stu Buck has alluded to. I have no problem with them in general and in general I think poets scatter their lyrical and powerful words creatively and effectively.
I agree that it can be upsetting if things are baffling and annoying if lines seem chopped up in an arbitrary way but I do believe these occurances are rare and tend to show up in the "twatty shit" end of the spectrum if there is such a place (I think there is) but good poets are those good at playing with standard expectations.
Mon, 8 Apr 2019 06:46 pm
message box arrow
Large subject this, so these are preliminary thoughts.

1. It would be worth investigating the ideas behind 'open form' poetry in the poetics of Robert Creeley & Charles Olson, for instance.

2. In my case, I leave spaces in the lines themselves and sometimes 'synchopate' my line endings (that is, I end the line just after or just before where it's expected in order to deliberately disrupt the easy flow of the poem.

3. Dissonance is as much a part of the music of a poem as assonance and consonance.

4. It goes back further than 1950 - Mallarme was doing weird things with white space in the 19th century...

5. Sometimes I count the number of words in a line (eg 5 words per line) - this is known as iso-verbalism.
Tue, 9 Apr 2019 02:40 pm
message box arrow
Simon, going back to your question, which often gets somewhat lost in everyone's commentary, the answer is no, there is no golden rule.

Some of your opinions appear to contradict when you say.....

I actually enjoy challenging and experimental poetry, poems which make me think, and in any art form I think its good when people shake things up and introduce new ways of doing things. The sorts of slicing up of stanzas are comparable to, say, anti-tonality in music, or cubism in painting.

So what is the problem, really?
Wed, 10 Apr 2019 11:34 am
message box arrow
By the way, brilliant answer Steven. Now busy with my poetry thesaurus.
Wed, 10 Apr 2019 11:35 am
message box arrow
Only problem as such is my sense ofhaving missed something that everyone else appears to understand. I know that there is no rule in the truest sense of the word (ie, no-one is actually going to arrest me or ban me from writing should I break it!) but I feel a sense of ignorance and prefer to at least know the reasons for things as far as possible so I can make my own mind up on whether I like it from an infore dposition. The general consensus seems to be that it is basically up to each writer to use space how we wish to, and that is fine by me, but I have often felt confused, especially when I first started reading poetry magazines about 20 years ago, on seeing lines all over the place and wondering what it was supposed to imply.

Wed, 10 Apr 2019 07:06 pm
message box arrow
Very interesting Steven. I'd like to ask if, on the occasions when you do as you decribe in point 2, does this come over when you read the poems in questions at readings? One thing that has always confused me is that when I hear a poet reading, they do so in a conversational or flowing way, yet when I see their poems written down they are odly lineated and spaced (see the Hughes "Horses" poem in my previous topic post). Whenever I ask why, they never want to say, which leads me to believe that either a. there is no reason, or b. that, again, I have failed to spot something blindingly obvious.

Wed, 10 Apr 2019 07:09 pm
message box arrow
Oddly, my preoccupation in this area does not extend to other art forms. I'm about to sit down and listen to a Shostakovich symphony famous for its distortions of musical convention. I suppose it is easier to understand the assonance, atonality or refuations of convention when you can physically hear or see the impact right in front of you. With poetry the impact is often seeing it on the page, and that's why I am forced to wonder, why have they spaced the lines in this way, and does it mean they expect me to read them in a certain way, as well?
Wed, 10 Apr 2019 07:12 pm
message box arrow
Simon - In regard to 2 I suppose it depends - but I think performance of a poem aloud is a different experience reading it off the page, and I don't think a poem has a single way of being read or understood.
Wed, 10 Apr 2019 09:39 pm
message box arrow
I agree very much with your last statement. Would you agree, though, that if a phrase within a poem is typed in such a way that there is a large space between two of the words, or that no capitalization is used, or there is suddenly a long indentation mid way through a stanza, it does suggest that its writer has at least some reason for doing this?
Wed, 10 Apr 2019 10:23 pm
message box arrow
Latin poets called verses 'numbers'. Lines were of a set number of syllables at the end of which you started a new line.
Traditional English poetry does that too.
'Verse', by the way really means 'turn' Its a kind of dance phrase. 4 steps one way / turn / four steps back.

Some american poets from Walt Whitman on tried to develop methods which were distinctly American and separate from regular metric, predominantly Iambic forms. They sometimes tried to get the feel of casual speech into verse.
So no syllable count. Instead they used line breaks as a kind of alternative punctuation disrupting the syntactical flow - questioning it sometimes for a specific purpose, sometimes not. Different poets did different things.

Some poets use white space to 'open up' the text inviting different ways of absorbing it.

Some poets will write a line that seems to be meaning one thing but after the line break moves in another. It can create interesting ambiguities.

Some random thoughts. Last year an anthology of prose poetry was published - poetry without line breaks. Worth looking at, but I have to say I think the form looks a kind of edge that I enjoy in line breaks.

Different strokes for different folks.

Thu, 11 Apr 2019 01:08 pm
message box arrow
I feel that where I come from on this is less a complaint, as some of my earlier, hastier postings, may suggest, but more a genuine puzzlement and desire to dig deeper and find out the reasons behind certain forms and styles of writing. I am one of life's investigators, and love to peel away the layers of things in order to make discoveries, and I tend to work on the assumption that there are usually reasons for things (even if these reasons are nuanced and vary from person to person) Although I like my expectations to be challenged, and for poems to jolt me out of my comfort zone, I have an inbuilt assumption that the poet is proceeding in a certain way for a purpose. Maybe this comes from being a poet myself and having spent, as I'm sure most here can empathise with, many hours agonizing over individual words and line breaks etc, in order to really craft a poem and make sure every aspect of it counts for something. I recognize that many do not share this approach, and often create poetry instinctively, or that the "purpose" for them is to reject any sense of purpose, in the way that some visual artists create art by literally hurling paint or other materials at a canvas and seeing what results. This can be a very effective approach in many media, but with poems for some reason I always seem to naturally assume that there is a specific reason behind each individual line or word chosen.
Sat, 13 Apr 2019 11:24 am
message box arrow
Ok. but do not assume that just because the line breaks do not seem to have a specific meaning that the writer has not put as much effort as you do into each individual line or word. If you read Wordsworth's Prelude you will see the line endings are a frame for the poem's iambic pentameters: they are functional but just occasionally they are more than that. Christopher Ricks writes some brilliant insightful things on line endings in the work of Milton, Keats, Tennyson Eliot among others.
Sun, 14 Apr 2019 06:16 pm
message box arrow
I'm not sure I understand the point above - you are pointing out that the line endings you refer to do indeed have a specific point or purpose. When I talk about poets who have rejected any sense of purpose, I'm thinking specifically of many who have told me that they have no idea why their line endings are presented the ways they are. if the lines in Wordsworth's Prelude serve a specific purpose, or are, as you put it, more than just functional, then it would seem that they fit into the category I described as being agonizingly crafted. I'd be interested to know more about the Prelude and its use of line endings. I'd also love to hear if you have any recommendations regarding Christopher Ricks, of whom I haven't heard before.
I've found this subject interesting, and it has greatly informed my reading, and potentially my writing, of poetry. It has extended beyond this forum - I've emailed and asked various poets about their approach, and it is becoming clear to me that it is actually quite popular to write by instinct rather than with painstaking attention to detail. More than once, poets have said they had never previously considered the reason why they shape their poems the way they do, and the line endings are purely coincidental. This is the complete opposite to the way I would ever have thought about writing, and the significance of stanza shape and line ends has always been one of the things which, for me, differentiates poetry from prose, but it is food for thought, nonetheless, and worth exploring more.
Tue, 16 Apr 2019 07:26 pm
message box arrow

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse, you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

Find out more Hide this message