Poetry workshops, the ins and outs: line breaks

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This will be a slightly edited version of a post I wrote some time ago. I hope it’ll be useful.

There should be a reason why every line ends where it does.

Think about this handwritten letter, below, right. I assume it’s in sentences … Jane Austen wrote it. I wouldn’t like to proofread the punctuation, though, because the words are close together. You don’t just need space around words, but space between them. White space is punctuation, and you need white space to put those visually insignificant punctuation marks in. The more white space you have, the easier it is. Here’s a thing. Five- and six- year-olds have to learn how to write instructional texts, and the easiest way to get them started is to write recipes.


What’s the first thing?  embedded image from entry 90269

Ingredients. And equipment.

You will need.    

What comes next?    A colon.  

You will need:

What next? 

A new line.

And then you can write a list.

What comes between items in a list?


Or, even more fun,

* Bullet points.

A new line for each.

See how the white space lets you see clearly. And what next? Instructions. A numbered list, and a new line for each number.

  1. Take three eggs, and separate the yolks and the whites. (Full stop) … and so on.

You don’t need to define a verb (and I can’t anyway. I can tell you what it does). In each line, it’ll be the first word in the sentence. But the text you produce will be easy to read because there’ll be a lot of white space. The space shows you how to read. The text will look a bit poem-like, because it’ll have a justified left margin and a raggedy right-hand margin. Hold on to that.


embedded image from entry 90270 Now, a different kind of thought. Here are a couple of pages from Dickens.

One thing I used to tell A-level students (and, indeed, undergraduates) who were daunted by 500-page novels, was that dialogue moves the narrative and the plot along, so you can’t ignore it. On the other hand, a densely printed stretch of text is likely to be reflective or descriptive, and if you’re reading a 19th century novel in particular, the first sentence of the paragraph should tell you what’s in the paragraph, and you can ignore the rest. (This is just for a first reading, to get the shape and sweep in your mind, you understand … I never did synopses or Coles notes). What you rely on is the amount of empty space. If there’s a lot of it, you can’t ignore the text. This is hard on Thomas Hardy, but there you go.

"And your point …?" I hear you ask. I guess it’s that poetry is largely empty spaces round not a lot of words, and that there’s no hiding place for any word that’s not doing a job. And also that you become very conscious, as a reader, of the curious tension between what your eye tells you and what your ear tells you, and, for me, this is one of the great pleasures of poetry. One the other hand, as a writer, it’s one of the things that frightens me, because I can hardly ever explain to myself why I make a line break where I do, except that it sounds right. ‘Sounds’ rather than ‘feels’, although that’s at work too. Whatever it means.

You have to admit that working in traditional forms can often solve that problem, whatever other technical problems it creates. Iambic pentameters/ blank verse … wonderful. Close to natural speech rhythms, di DUM di DUM … five of them … and end on a stressed syllable. Line breaks? Sorted. Syllabics? Haiku? Sorted. Any rhyming poetry and you have the line-breaks for every rhyming line.

Then along comes Modernism, with its ears finely attuned to the strict rhythms of all the traditions that fed it, and careful craft apprenticeships of its inventors, so it knew just which rules it was breaking, and why.

Along comes Free Verse. There’s a seductively misleading name for you. Same in the visual arts, of course. Picasso and Braque and Matisse and the rest could all handle paint and line and perspective. They served their time and knew what the rules were stopping them doing and just how to break them and why.

If you want an impassioned and wholly idiosyncratic take on this, you could do a lot worse than spend 20 minutes with Bob Dylan’s musings on 50-odd years in the business of singer-songwriting. It’s a sort of ‘Tradition and the individual talent’ lecture, but a lot more fun than TS Eliot. Just Google Bob Dylan MusiCares speech. You will not for a second regret it. What he constantly returns to is the trope that everything he ever created he learned from repeated absorption in other writers’ work, in older traditions. Here’s a flavour of what he said … it’s even better to listen to:


These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth.  ...
I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.
For three or four years I went to sleep singing folk songs … If you sang John Henry as many times as me — “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man' … If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written 'How many roads must a man walk down?' too.


Here’s a legend (yes he is) who is clear about what’s obvious. The more you listen, the better you hear. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. The more you practise, the easier it will look. There’s no short cuts.

Problem is, of course, you may not have 50 years to spare; I certainly don’t. And that still leaves us with the business of the free verse most of us are wedded to in one form or another, or unrhymed irregular stanzas, or whatever. And line breaks. I’ve honestly tried to get to grips with it, to get beyond the intuition of the ear, and the feel of internal rhythms. Pasted into the back cover of one of my workbooks is a photocopy of an article by Dana Gioia (I Googled him),‘Thirteen ways of thinking about the poetic line’.

Every now and then I have the feeling that I sort of get it, but more often I have the same sense of hopelessness I got from Euclidean geometry when I was 11. I got the first couple of axioms, but when I tried to see how they all interacted they turned into wool. It’s still worth struggling with it. Line by line it all seems like commonsense. Have a go. See what you think. I like number 4:


There should be a reason why every line ends where it does.


Yup. I’ll vote for that. Also for number 13:


The line break is nearly always audible (and always visible) even if only as a tiny pause or echo.


I really get that. It’s that business of the tension between what your eye and your ear are simultaneously telling you. It says you have to listen.

What else? I’ve had workshops with Mimi Khalvati and with Jane Draycott, both of whom seem exquisitely at ease with the technicalities of form and line. Mimi even startled me by counting the lines of one of my poems, and declaring herself happy to find there were 26. I still don’t get it. At the end of the day, for all the elegance of their analyses, what I carried away was the awareness that it was coming down to the fact that they had more finely attuned ears than mine, that they could spot the tiniest of bum notes when I couldn’t. And perhaps that Dylan has it right. You just have to get on and do it and listen as hard as you can to as much poetry as you can.

But here’s a game you might like to play. It comes out of my genuine puzzlement about prose poems, about my inability to see what they’re for. (I guess Carrie Etter would put me right on that).  One of the reasons for this is that I’ve been reading a lot of Hilary Mantel of late, and have been struck, again and again and again, how much of her prose actually seems to be veined with what feel and sound like poems. How about this?


The Giant: ‘If only I could get a good poet. Somebody to recite at him. A good poet can recite a man to death. A poet takes a person’s earlobe between his finger and thumb and grinds it, and straight away that person dies. With a wisp of straw and a cross word they drive a man demented. They chew flesh and set it on the threshold and when a man steps over it he drops to his knees and expires.

The poet has his memorial in repetition, and the statesman in stone and bronze. The scholar’s hand lies always on his book and the thinker’s eyes on canvas travel the room to rest on each human face; the rebel has his ballad and his cross, his bigot’s garland, his wreath of rope. But for the poor man and the giant there is the scrubbed wooden slab and the slop bucket, there is the cauldron and the boiling pot, and the dunghill for his lights; so he is a stench in the nose for a day or a week, so he is a no-name, so he is oblivion. Stories cannot save him. When human memory runs out, there is the memory of animals; behind that the memory of the plants, and behind that the memory of the rocks. But the winds and the sea wear the rocks away, and the cell-line runs to its limit, where meaning falls away from it, and it loses knowledge of its own nature. Unless we plead on our knees with history, we are done for, we are lost. We must step sideways, into that country where space plaits and knots, where time folds and twists: where the years pass in a day.

Hilary Mantel, The Giant, O’Brien  [Fourth Estate, London, 1998]


Just take that first paragraph, and think what happens if you put line breaks in it. Like this:


     A good poet


     can recite a man to death.

     A poet takes a person’s earlobe

     between his finger

     and thumb

     and grinds it

     and straight away that person dies.

     With a wisp of straw

     and a cross word

     they drive a man demented.

     They chew flesh and set it

     on the threshold

     and when a man steps over it

     he drops to his knees and expires


Why those line breaks?   What changes if you make the lines longer?


     A good poet


     A good poet can recite a man to death.

     A poet takes a person’s earlobe between

     his finger and thumb and grinds it

     and straight away that person dies.

     With a wisp of straw and a cross word

     they drive a man demented. They chew flesh

     and set it on the threshold

     and when a man steps over it

     he drops to his kness and expires.


What have you got that the prose hasn’t? What have you lost, if anything, that the first version had? I think it’s flatter. Less engaged, more ‘reasonable’, less angry. Or try the second paragraph, or at least part of it:


     But for the poor man and the giant
     there is the scrubbed wooden slab
     and the slop bucket,
     there is the cauldron
     and the boiling pot,
     and the dunghill for his lights;
     so he is a stench in the nose for a day or a week,
     so he is a no-name,
     so he is oblivion.
     Stories cannot save him.


Maybe it’s because most of my first drafts come from writers’ workshops where I write flat-out in continuous ‘prose’, that I feel comfortable with this kind of game. Except that it isn’t prose, any more than these extracts from Hilary Mantel are prosaically prose. There must be some kind of governing rhythm in there that comes from things like repetitions of all kinds. Maybe it’s a question of learning to listen for it and its tricks. Anyway, if your Sunday is lacking spice, have a go with this game. At least, unlike Milton and Browning and all the other indefatigable toilers, you’ve got a word processor that lets you create version after version at the touch of a key. Aren’t we the lucky ones?


◄ Negative of a Group Photograph: Azita Ghahreman, trans. Maura Dooley, Bloodaxe

She meant to go places in it: camp in its back seat and cook on its stove ►


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Wed 8th May 2019 21:36

Thanks muchly Mr. Foggin. A stimulating and enjoyable read. Yea! let's hear it for lines, whitespace and that Dylan man.

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