What do writing, drawing, walking, singing and weaving all have in common? The answer, according to Tim Ingold (Lines: A Brief History Routledge 2008) is that they all follow a line. It’s an interesting thought for someone like me who is a writer, walker and singer. Now it’s good to know that the creativity of writers is linked to that of artists who draw or weave. And of course, it would be true for embroiderers, composers and dancers and I may have left out other art forms and activities that depend on lines – tight-rope artists?
Ingold analyses two forms of line-making: traces on a surface (drawing) or traces making the surface (weaving). As a writer, I guess I am making lines on a page, either with a pen or by using a keyboard. But can we take the line-making analogy for writing and drawing any further? It seems to me that with drawing, the line is the work of art, whereas with writing, the line is simply a device which enables you to decipher the words, and it is the words that represent the work of art – except maybe for poetry where once again the line comes into its own.
Glyn Maxwell, in his book, On Poetry (Oberon Books 2013) has some revealing comments on how important the line is for poets. He advises poets to be aware of the white sheet in front of them: “Just don’t make the mistake of thinking the white sheet is nothing……for a poet it’s half of everything. If you don’t know how to use it you are writing prose.” Poets have to be aware of lines in a way that prose-writers can ignore. Maxwell continues: “ …line-break is all you’ve got.”
So those of you embarking on Art of Poetry at Level 1, writing mostly free verse, are in some ways having to get to grips with lines and their breaks in a way that is more difficult than those at Level 2 writing in suggested forms and structures. At a recent workshop I attended in Sheffield, given by John Greening, RLF Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge, he suggested that the line break is what differentiates poetry from prose “Imaginative line breaks must go hand in hand with syntax,” he wrote in his introduction to the workshop,” and it is important to maintain the sense that anything can happen.” So line breaks are how we structure our poems with regard to both meaning and rhythm and we can use them to emphasise the words that end a line or begin a new line, to increase the power of those words whether they are going along with meaning and rhythm or intentionally thwarting meaning and rhythm.
Poets can use their line breaks in all sorts of ways. Greening suggests they are the nearest thing to the film-maker’s ability to cut, pan or zoom.
Here are the first four lines from The Dog, by C.K.Williams, known as the long-line poet, and it is perhaps the length of the line more than where the break comes that is important in setting the tone and meaning of C.K. Williams’s poem. Then contrast them with John Montague’s shorter lines with unexpected line breaks from his poem, All Legendary Obstacles.
Except for the dog, that she would have him put away, wouldn’t let him die, I’d have liked her.
She was handsome, busty, chunky, early middle-aged, very black, with a stiff, exotic dignity
that flurried up in me a mix of warmth and sexual apprehension neither of which, to tell the truth
I tried very hard to nail down: she was that much older and in those days there was still the race thing.
This was just the time of civil rights: the neighbourhood I was living in was mixed.
And here is the second stanza from John Montague’s All Legendary Obstacles
All day I waited, shifting
Nervously from station to bar
As I saw another train sail
By, the San Francisco Chief or
Golden Gate, water dripping
From great flanged wheels.
So, as poets we need to take much greater care of our line-breaks. They can make or break a poem.