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Impacts of Line Breaks

The way I think of the way a line spacing work is matter of timing. There are all kinds of pauses of different kinds and lengths.

For a bit of grammar to end, it causes a pause.

For a grammatical phrase to end mid-line in a caesura gives a beat of a pause with no other type of pause.

For a sentence to end there is a bit of a pause, more than the end of a phrase in a sentence.

For a grammatical phrase to end a the end of a line adds a second beat of pause when you come to end of words in a line.

For a phrase of sentence to end at the end of stanza adds a weight of a third beat pause.

Depending on the reader, the pause gets longer if there is punctuation.

The pause is stronger again if there is capitalization signaling, hey there’s a stop here.

If a comma is a half-pause, a semi-colon is three-quarters, a colon a seven-eights pause and a period full pause.

A line indent is a half or three-quarters? A physical space in a line a caesura is more or less?

Any amount of space is more time. Space can act as punctuation. It acts as a kind of lacing to change the tension and density.

To not make lines end stopped can push the reader faster. To wrap a thought across a stanza break can add turbulence to the flow.

If all the lines match grammatical stops, one can go through slowly. If none of the lines are end-stopped, the reader is rushed ahead. It can make a reader feel harried. Sometimes it works. It causes idea to get clumped up against the next idea, to make it less separate. It puts tension in different places. Sometimes it just unnecessarily troubles the meaning.

For some sensibilities, the rules are that of prose, with proper marking of capitals and punctuation, clear utterance with no ambiguity. The goal is to be accessible, sensible and direct. it is to match spoken speech. The speech is measured and the meaning and the form signals a linear progression through ideas. The pace is even. There might be an allegorical level but the surface level is clear on first read.

For some sensibilities, a line, sentence, stanza, and grammatical end marked with period and next up capitalization is to overmark the pause and make the poem end. There is a desire for a blurring of lines of what goes with what. The sensibility is to have thick, overlaid suggestions of meaning. The cheek by jowl juxtapositions are interesting. Sometimes it is productive and makes a second reading of meaning. Oblique meanings are hoped for. And sometimes it works only for speed or to chunk up the ideas so it isn’t a dense text block. It is to place with physical geography of the page. A space gives the reader time to breathe, collect what’s been gathered so far before going onto the next which may try to twist what was meant before and play with language.

For (handy to me) example (an except on the argument that feminists shouldn’t accept terms like baby, child, girl, babe from a poem I’m editing),

>the oak axe handle in the forest doesn’t assure the oak trees
>but she *wants* him to call her Babe. they cooperated on that meaning
>without meanness. a morning without eye contact
>bristles from my shoulders spearing the ceiling

Once one has absorbed the word meaning, there’s pause to absorb how the two lines relate the paradox of traitor to womankind accept the language of babe with the actual case of a feminist who has no problem with the term and it is not negative to the two people using it.

The next stanza the word mean is pulled out of meaning, underscoring a word tie to the last stanza to signal there is a carrying forward of some link. The ‘without meanness’ being in the same line as “a morning without eye contact” forces the ideas together but the period signals that they are separate. a new thought will tie with the next line.

Should the first line have a period? A comma? It already has a stop with the end of line. a period would be a redundant pause and the next line could be a continued clause. It depends on how you want to symbolize the pause.

Pretentious? Yes, I could go with that. It is a deliberate exclusion for a particular reader. You want to take away what is extraneous and leave enough to flag route.

If commas are being used to signal, this is a verse line and periods are being used to double signal, this is the end of a verse stanza. The code they are using is different than when the same symbol is used in another kind of poetry.

Commas can seem like litter when their function is already carried by some other means. If commas, for example, are needed to clarify that the line should not grammatically run to the next line, they are used. If the pause that the commas mean is carried by the end of line, then the comma would be redundant.

It is a matter of what a) code one is used to reading. b) What is one habituated to finding attractive.

It is a matter of audience in the sense that if I talk to someone who enunciates, I enunciate more. There’s a match of verbal and physical posture. If I write with someone who uses no caps, I’m likely to echo-speech that no-capitals form. If the other switches to add more punctuation, or switches register, we shift together to hear each other better.

There is not one target buyer/audience for the product of poetry, which is to say communication as commerce.

For the shape of words on page, punctuation and line lengths and line breaks, some want zen. Some want folk tole painting. Some want ornate detailing. For the shape of stanzas and poem object, some want a store they can whip thru, in and out using clear signage. Some are there to chat with clerks and customers and eventually make their way in a store – not overly minimalist and formally commercial, and not overly disorderly – to get something for the sake of getting something. Some like to poke thru a Chinese general store of dusty clutter to maybe extract a treasure.

Which convention and habit is a particular reader comfortable with? What do they enjoy navigating? What are their expectations of what constitutes ease, clutter, necessity and luxury?

So for some the use of punctuation, when it isn’t the only signal for pause, interferes, and stops the reading.

For some a lack of punctuation, interferes and stops the reading.

Both lines and punctuation are a mechanism to deliver the goods of meaning.

With some, Maurice Mireau, for instance, in his last book, Fear Not, he structured the thoughts of his poems as a sestina, but then laid them out in his book as prose. Sometimes we find people who write sonnets and lay them out as prose poems. Some pace their prose so there are small careful parcels like haiku and some are a tangled run on sentence of sermon.

Whatever visual shape, the rhythm is still registering unconsciously. The shape of thoughts still register as aesthetically pleasing sound patterns, but the form on page doesn’t reveal itself on first scan. To be able to predict the product is a disincentive to some. It’s like predicting too much of a movie from the trailer. Others like to know in advance what they are in for.

Peter Riley, in Greek Passages (Shearsman Books, UK, 2009), organizes his poems into prose shapes, but in his solution to lineation, he compromises. He wants a soft break between ideas, not as hard as a line break. I don’t think the leaps between thoughts are inaccessible. For example, his poem p. 32 (They run on a narrow page. Email is wider but I will keep his line breaks).

But you will turn, in the end / and look back across
the silence waters, the / roaring gap / / deep and wide,
perfect justice / on the other side. Listen. Small bells.

He uses conventional symbols of line breaks and stanza breaks to act as code, but reveals the code rather than to make the actual space on page give physical time gaps as it takes our eyes to return from line end.

I’m curious about his choices and how it impacts the poem. Would it read differently if he did, instead of indicated, the same line breaks? That would look like:

But you will turn, in the end
and look back across
the silence waters, the
roaring gap

deep and wide,
perfect justice
on the other side. Listen. Small bells.

What are the effects of what he could have done versus what he did?

If seems the poem holds into a regular shape and therefore something soothing of regular lines, as he put it rather than a ragged shape.

What does this indicate about the emotional tone or emotional state? Does the block correct or count the lengths of thoughts?

The line breaks would look like broken up prose. He has no absolute meter, and no rhyme. He doesn’t attempt to claim it is line poetry by the page payout.

In the version 2, which he didn’t do, ‘perfect justice’ gets a huge weight put on it and ‘deep and wide’, a set phrase also gets a lot of weight to bear across its short phase. Neither phrase attract attention within the block of text. Is the block of text acting to obscure the weakness of phrase? Or is it allowing us to rush on with the awareness of the time intended to be the focus of the poem? For me the last line is so different in length draws attention to itself when structured as in the second case.

What are the alternative places for the shape of the end thoughts on the page? It would seem quite marked and drawing attention to itself if “Listen” were on a line or stanza to itself or if “Small bells” were set apart. It might seem pretentious issuing a command to the reader to hear what we physically cannot from out distance through the page. As is, bunched into a stanza, it sounds more like the writer talking to himself, pulling himself out of the waterfall’s mist, out of the visual of rushing water and tuning his ear to the temple bells or church or court bells, across the river.

Does his use of lines make it harder to know what goes with what, unneccesarily? In his line breaks, ‘deep and wide’ is pulled closer to the roaring gap and away from the justice.

Why ‘the/roaring gap’? Why ‘silence’ instead of ‘silent’? Why those conscious choices?

If he were a college freshmen I would assume he was being arbitrary to be edgy or that ‘silence’ was a typo, but since he has been publishing collections since 1969, I have to assume it is a considered choice to an intended effect. So what might that be? The stranded ‘the’ seems to enact the teeter before the gap. it puts another awkward pause inside a silence and a gap which seems to fit meaning. If it were ‘the silence waters, the / roaring closure’ the impact would be different. What relationship between ‘waters’ and ‘silence’? The waters are loud, not silent. They are not a silencing opaque white noise since small bells can be heard past them. They are waters where you find a contrasting silence from whatever unmentioned has been going on outside the poem.

Why should the lines be broken across phrases instead of with? For clustering but also for sound? For ‘across’ to be the end of line suggests a line break acting as an unwritten colon. For L2 to end with ‘wide,’ the comma moderates the line break pulling L3 a smidgen closer, shoved outward towards L3 by having the // before it. It changes the cinching and gaps.

To a degree, the length of line mandates when you can breathe and fast you have to go to get to that point again. To go back to the words of Riley, his 3 set lines tell what to anticipate — long connected thoughts to be evenly paced.

But you will TURN, in the END / and LOOK back aCROSS
the SILence WAters, the / ROARing GAP / / DEEP and WIDE,
PERfect JUStice / on the OTHer SIDE. LISTen. SMALL BELLS.

Stress would depend on how he intones. Maybe ‘you’ or ‘will’ and ‘back’ are stressed. Maybe ‘small’ isn’t. But it is fairly regular.

The sense of regularity shifts if we were breaking his lines down the page. It takes as long to say each of lines with 2 beats regardless of number of words or syllables, (the SILence WAters, the) (ROARing GAP), (DEEP and WIDE) and (PERfect JUStice) but his last line is double-length in syllables and in word stress.

[aside, not quoting]

English is a stress-timed language. The stressed syllables are said at more or less regular intervals, and unstressed syllables shorten to fit this rhythm. For Cohen’s example in suprasegmentals we take about as long to say ‘HORSes EAT GRASS’ as to say ‘The HORSes might have been EATing the GRASS.’ Unstressed syllables (grammatical words and unstressed syllables in a word) are using schwas and going faster, maybe even using elision (Whaza time? – Quar t’ t’ four!).

The last line has a different rhythm and speed. (on the OTHer SIDE LISTen SMALL BELLS). It is a small amount and perhaps not statistically significant sort of amount, but there’s a speed up thru the other side and then a slow down with ‘small bells’, an irregularity like water, and a slowing that comes with new awareness to a stop. After bells, there is page silence which feels appropriate. Do the line breaks amplify the effect?

As a block of text (and as a habit I tend to read down the right and left margins of a poem looking for easter eggs of randomness or planted) we get a right margin echo of text of ‘across wide bells’. Is that a little more satisfying miniature version of the poem in a second reading than ‘end across the gap // wide justice [*] bells’.

[*] line length gap

I like what the prose version does for the clustering of meaning. I don’t see any difference in sound’s effect. The timing is better with text dense to my eye. But then, I like my text dense.

Perhaps that all pulls the text into more analysis than it was ever intended to bear. It’s more a matter of seeing what the effects are than the conscious or unconscious attempt, which is a separate matter.

Fittingly enough as I post, the Parliament’s noon bells are off in the distance as I am pulled from the whitewater of thoughts to other blocks and gaps in the day.

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