How to Lineate a Poem, November 2015

The question ‘how do you lineate a poem’ is different from ‘what effect does the lineation of a poem have’, though the two are obviously linked. Analysis of lineation is common, and can lead to elegant description. However, in my experience the analysis rarely gives any indication how you can then go on a lineate a new poem. Much analysis of lineation is what I would call ‘ink blot’ analysis. That is, it is created in the mind of the analyst and bears no real relationship to the words on the page.

I think that the reason so much analysis of lineation falls down is that it is not based on a set of principles that describe how it works. The underlying assumption is that in free verse lines can be broken at any point and therefore there is no general guidance and all effects are local effects that can be analysed in isolation to the rest of the poem. I don’t believe this to be the case; I think there are underlying principles to lineation, and that these principles can help in analysing the effect of lineation as well as guiding a poet in how to lineate their own poems.

Before talking about the principles behind lineation, I should say that I think it is a relatively minor element of poetry. Language is predominately a spoke medium, unsurprisingly as we have been speaking for roughly 50,000 years and writing for only 5,000. If you only hear a poem, and don’t see it written, almost all of its meaning and effects are preserved. This means that for most poems, the lineation is adding a very small element to the overall effect, even those poems intended to be read on the page rather than performed. Like non-verbal gestures during speech, lineation reinforces, sign posts and emphasises the meaning that is already in the words.

The principles of lineation in free verse I think draw from two main sources. The first is traditional metred, rhyming verse. In this kind of poem, there are set line lengths, related to the metre, and the default expectation is that each line is a self-contained unit of meaning (ie is end-stopped). Therefore, where there is enjambment (the meaning of a line going over the line break), it is experienced by the reader as an emotional quickening, that the subject matter has disturbed or excited the speaker. My Papa’s Waltz by Theodore Roethke is a good example of how regular rhythm, rhyme and end-stopped lines brings a calm and order that contrasts with the unstable nature of the scene that is being described, that of a drunk father dancing with his son. However, at the start of the second verse the lines ‘We romped until the pans/ Slid from the kitchen shelf’ breaks the end-stopped pattern and it is at a point where the poem’s speaker is getting excited at what they are describing. It is important to note, that this is not mimicking the physicality of pans sliding from the kitchen shelf. The shift reflects the change in the emotion of the speaker, which in this case is describing a physical movement, but need not be.

The second main source for the principles of lineation is prose formatting. Within prose formatting, each paragraph should be centred round one key idea, and a short paragraph can indicate the emotional weight of that idea. So, for example, the paragraph below carries a normal emphasis:

I would like the complain about the service we received today. The waiter was rude and he took a very long time to come and collect our order. Not only that, but the food was slow arriving and when it did arrive it was cold and unappetising.

The emphasis of this can be changed through a shift in formatting:

I would like the complain about the service we received today. The waiter was rude and he took a very long time to come and collect our order. Not only that, but the food was slow arriving.
xxxAnd when the food did arrive it was cold and unappetising.

Here, there is a much greater emphasis on the food arriving cold and unappetising than in the first version. The message perhaps in the second, is that all the other issues might have been overlooked but the food itself was bad, which for the speaker was the main reason for coming to the restaurant.

Across both these sources there are some commonalities. The first is that satisfaction comes rhythm, and that rhythm comes from regularity, particularly in the lengths of units. However, too much regularity is not satisfying, so there needs to be variation within the regularity. The second commonality is that the default assumption is that units will take up roughly the same amount of time, so smaller units can be an indication to read more slowly and potentially to put in a pause. Finally, words placed at the end of a unit of meaning are often stressed a little more than they would be in the middle of a unit.

To explore these principles, I’m going to use the beginning of Ted Hughes’s poem ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’, as it is set out in the 1995 Faber and Faber New Selected Poems. The first five lines of the poem are:

A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank
xxxof a bucket –

And you listening.
A spider’s web, tense for the dew’s touch.
A pail lifted, still and brimming – mirror
To tempt a first star to a tremor.

There is a long opening line, which gives the reader contextual detail. The second short line homes in to the key subject of the poem (Frieda).  The lineation indicates that the second short line can be read more slowly and that it has a pause at the end of it (reinforced by the longer following lines). This places a strong emphasis on the importance of Frieda as the subject and her act of listening. The next three lines then settle into a rhythm, roughly the same length, the first and the third with the meaning completed by the end of the line. This communicates a sense of control and calmness, it makes the poem easy to read aloud and easy to read with the care that reflects the emotional tenor of the language. The enjambment in the penultimate line places a little extra emphasis on the metaphor, but the break is at a grammatical point where it is relatively easy to pause, so it heightens the emotion but without disturbing the mood. If the break was after ‘to’, as in ‘mirror to/ tempt a first star’ it would be very hard to pause, which would have disturbed the mood much more.

An alternate lineation is the one below:

A cool small evening shrunk
to a dog bark, and the clank
of a bucket –
and you listening.
A spider’s web, tense
for the dew’s touch.
A pail lifted,
still and brimming – mirror
to tempt a first star
to a tremor.

This feels like a more ‘poetic’ lineation to me. There is more of a focus on the individual phrases – placing ‘shrunk’ at the end of the first line invites the reader to stress it slightly more, for example. This means that the phrase ‘and you listening’ is less stressed than in the original. To me this lineation feels less effective than Hughe’s lineation, because quite a number of the end words, which encourage pauses as well as extra stresses, are ‘poetic’ words – ‘clank’, ‘tense’, ‘touch’, ‘mirror’, ‘star’, ‘tremor’. The overall effect is to make the poem sound slightly corny, which the original doesn’t.

This next example has the line breaks coincide exactly with the meaning breaks.

A cool small evening
shrunk to a dog bark,
and the clank of a bucket –
and you listening.
A spider’s web,
tense for the dew’s touch.
A pail lifted,
still and brimming –
mirror to tempt
a first star to a tremor.

It has a certain rhythm, which is quite satisfying and avoids too much emphasis on ‘poetic’ words – there are some plain nouns at the end of the lines near the beginning (bark, bucket, web), which feels like it gets things off to a solid start. The first four lines feel like they work OK to me, but then as the stanza continues, the regularity because metronomic and the whole thing just sounds deadly boring, particularly as the repeated sentence structure (a [noun], [description sub-phrase]) is emphasised.

The following example has some imposed regularity, with the breaks every three words irrespective of the sense break.

A cool small
evening shrunk to
a dog bark,
and the clank
of a bucket –
and you listening.
A spider’s web,
tense for the
dew’s touch. A
pail lifted, still
and brimming – mirror
to tempt a
first star to
a tremor.

I think this version is quite effective. There isn’t an overly poetic focus on particular phrases, and because the sense breaks sometimes coincide with the line breaks and sometimes don’t, to me there’s a pleasing sense of rhythm with variation. This is helped by the fact that where the line breaks and sense breaks don’t coincide, it is not too much of a gap. The line break that stands out is at the end of line nine ‘dew’s touch. A’, which is quite odd.

This final example takes the sense of oddness much further. The line breaks were chosen by rolling a die, and so vary completely randomly from one word to six words.

A cool small
evening shrunk
to a
dog bark, and
the clank of a
bucket – and you listening. A spider’s
web, tense
for the
dew’s touch. A pail lifted, still
and brimming – mirror to
tempt a
first star to a

I quite like this effect. It makes the words feel slightly abstract and makes the whole thing harder to read out loud. There is a feeling of hesitancy, like someone is interrupting themselves because of some underlying tension that’s not related to the words, and the total lack of rhythm gives it a disturbed feeling (post-apocalyptic would be taking it too far, but it would be quite effective used in a poem set in a post-apocalyptic world).

Alongside the major effects of lineation in terms of affecting rhythm, pauses and stress, there are some minor, local effects. Trying to get words to reflect the physicality of action is generally very dull, partly because the power of words is that they are abstract symbols that several different feelings and meanings can attach to, and this is what makes them so potent. However, occasionally lineation is used to reflect something physical and even more occasionally it works aesthetically. William Carlos Williams’ ‘Poem (As the cat)’ is one example where the very careful, controlled line breaks within a single sentence do give a sense of a cat carefully stepping among and in flower pots. In my own poetry, I’ve used this effect once in a poem called ‘Hey Presto’, where I have an elephant ‘shifting his weight from side/ to side,/ and curling his trunk like an ammonite’. The break after the first ‘side’ is meant to recall a shifting of weight, and the break after the second ‘side’ implies a pause of uncertainty that the gesture is communicating.

Another local effect is when the break has the effect that a line momentarily seems to mean one thing, but in fact means another. An example of this is in the song ‘50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’ by Paul Simon. One verse goes:

She said why don’t we both just sleep on it tonight
And I believe in the morning you’ll begin to see the light
And then she kissed me and I realized she probably was right
There must be fifty ways to leave your lover

The phrase in the penultimate line, ‘I realized she was probably right’ initially seems to mean ‘I realised that she was probably right that in the morning I’d begin to see the light’, but in fact means ‘I realised she was probably right that there must be fifty ways to leave your lover’. The effect of this is that initially we think the singer is looking ahead and imagining that in the morning they’ll have worked out what they will do, but in fact we realise at the end of the next line, that the singer has already made up their mind and that now they are simply deciding the best way to leave their current partner.

The question I started with, was how do you lineate a poem, and I think the principles described above help you do that. However, it is worth reflecting on the process of how you do it, not just the principles. You could write out the words of something you wanted to become a poem and then cut them up. That’s not how I write, and I imagine it is rare for other poets to do that. Instead, I think poets generally do one of two things. They either have a form in mind (I want to write a poem with long lines like the bible) or they start an idea and the first few lines or some key lines suggest a form (these first few lines are short sentences or feel like they suit being laid out in short lines). Then the key is to adjust the writing – the words and phrases – to fit the form.

So if you start out writing short lines and want a short line form, you actively look to continue short sentences and phrases (to set up a rhythm), but also look to where you can break the rhythm for variation and dramatic effect. This would in fact be the same if you wrote something out as prose and then cut it up. If you find a form that fits (long lines or short lines), you then make adjustments so that the sentences fit the pattern (where you want them to fit the pattern). If, for example, you were using a three word line like the example above, I would probably want to re-write the poem slightly to that the word ‘A’ is not stuck on its own at the end of the line, as the shift from the pattern isn’t effective, and also makes some less obvious adjustments to the second half of the extract, which doesn’t feel like it fits the three word pattern quite as effectively as earlier. I’d probably not have every line made up of three words, again to vary the pattern a bit without losing a sense of rhythm.

In my experience when I’m finding it difficult to lineate a poem, and end up trying lots of different approaches, it’s not the lineation that isn’t working, it’s the words. In this situation, what I need to do is re-write the substance of the poem not just lineate it differently. And I think it is this kind of editing that makes a free verse poem into a formed poem rather than just being cut up prose.

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