How long should a line be?

Because they seem to be getting longer.

I mean lines of poetry, of course. Lines of prose are not lengthening. In fact, in the last century they have shortened because books of prose are designed with ease of reading in mind. If the block of letters is too wide, the reader will founder and the book won’t sell. So novels are printed in upright rectangles and the lines inside are between 54 and 70 characters in length (including punctuation and spaces between the words).

I’ve just counted two modern novels sitting beside me. One averages 67 characters per line, the other 54. The one with the shorter line is designed for a younger reader, so I infer that a shorter line is easier to read. It also feels easier to read when I read it.

In terms of page format, novels are fully justified. That is to say, the text sits in blocks with a straight right and left hand margin. So generally you don’t think much about how long the lines are. You just read them.

Most UK poems, on the other hand, are left justified. They don’t have to be, but they mainly are (flick through any mainstream poetry magazine and check it out). So the left hand margin runs in a straight line and the right is ragged. But it’s a feature of poetry that it can mess with the presentation of the text on the page.

Prose doesn’t mess with the text. Not normally. Prose wants you to be less aware of the reading process than what it is you’re reading about. (Yes, these are generalisations, with exceptions.)

Cue digression: one of the pivotal moments of my life came in my early days as a college tutor. I thought my role was to teach, rather than learn. (I learned.) I was holding forth on the differences between poetry and prose when a man in his early thirties raised his hand, ‘What is ‘prose’?’ he said.

I had to stop. It hadn’t occurred to me that people could not know what ‘prose’ was. Prose is the thing that isn’t poetry. Prose is just . . . words, in lines. The origin of ‘prose’ (the word, I looked it up later) is interesting. It’s middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin prosa, from feminine of prorsus, prosus, straightforward. First known use: 14th century. Why did they start using the word ‘prose’ in the fourteenth century? Don’t ask me. I don’t know. I’m the one who didn’t even know that people didn’t know what ‘prose’ was.

So ‘prose’ is straightforward. Poems are not. Thank goodness the chap didn’t ask me ‘what is a ‘poem’?’. We would never have made it to lunch. That ‘prosody’ should mean the study of verse structures is simply unkind and unfair. But the point my questioner made (innocently) was that we assume shared understanding of what we’re saying and doing. We assume too much.

So (digression over) here I am asking questions to which the answer ought to be obvious. How long should a line of poetry be? It can’t be longer than the size of the page, unless you make the font very tiny indeed. But pages are getting wider. Or some of them.

b2ap3_thumbnail_the-beautiful-librarians-9781447287513.jpgLast week I was in Toppings bookshop at at the St Andrews launch of Sean O’Brien’s new book The Beautiful Librarians. This volume, like Jen Hadfield’s Byssus, is in the new Picador format. It is 153 x 197 mm, as opposed to the 130 x 195 of Lorraine Mariner’s Furniture, so 23mm wider. It’s not that Lorraine doesn’t have long lines. She does. ‘Adam’ (on a left hand page) creeps right into the middle of the book with barely 15mm to spare. I make her longest line 62 characters, though in prose terms that’s not long, so I guess it looks long because the book is thin.

Back to Sean O’Brien. Most of the poems in The Beautiful Librarians are the usual shapes of Sean O’Brien poems. But there are some with long lines that may explain the decision to give him a book that looks square-ish as opposed to the old thin rectangle of The Drowned Book and November.

So I asked him. ‘I see you too have some poems with really long lines,’ I said, ‘and they’ve given you the Picador wider book format to fit them into. So why are poets writing poems with longer lines these days, do you think?’

He hesitated. ‘Maybe it’s because they’re stretching the form?’ he said.

Stretching the form. Maybe they are stretching the form. Poets are supposed to stretch forms.

In O’Brien’s The Beautiful Librarians, ‘Another Country’ is one of the new long-line breed. It has a peculiarly apposite (for this blog) epigraph from Auden ‘Get there if you can’, and lines of up to 81 characters. But the metrical form is a stretched ballad or folk song. The poet has run the roughly four-beat lines together and presented the result in couplets. Here are the opening two:

Scattered comrades, now remember: someone stole the staffroom tin
Where we collected for the miners, for the strike they couldn’t win.

Someone stole a tenner, tops, and then went smirkingly away.
Whoever did it, we have wished you thirsty evil to this day.

If you read it aloud, you can hear it might once have looked more like this:

Scattered comrades, now remember:
   Someone stole the staffroom tin
Where we collected for the miners,
   For the strike they couldn’t win.

Someone stole a tenner, tops,
   And then went smirkingly away.
Whoever did it, we have wished you
   Thirsty evil to this day.

So why? Why the long lines? Here, they are not breath-units, like Ginsberg or Whitman. They are lines that work against the metrical reading, and that make it (arguably) harder on the eye. Or maybe in this case, they slightly disguise the underlying form. Long-line couplets are in. Rhyming quatrains are out.

Broadsheet sized magazines like The Rialto and New Walk have encouraged long-liners. They can accommodate them easily and without dog-leg turnovers, and still surround them with white space. They need that space.

In Mariscat Press’s most recent pamphlet, Arroyos, by Timothy E.G. Bartel, the format is far wider (150 x 230 mm) than the fat Picadors. Bartel uses the ‘sijo’ form, consisting of three lines of 14 to 16 syllables with one or more caesurae (rhythmic break, here marked by a gap) in the line. So yes, some of his lines are very long, over 80 characters. But they aren’t hard to read because the wide page allows for masses of white space, and the space gaps (caesurae) act almost like line breaks for the eye: a most interesting effect, though hard to quote in a single column blog. Here’s the second stanza of ‘Spring Sijo’ as an example:

Has the light-pole in St Patrick Square   always looked like a pike?
New chimneys seem gun-barrels bundled by nines.   What stealthy saints
have lately worked this peace?   Who beats our swords to streetlamps while we sleep?

It is not a bold innovation to have long lines. Allen Ginsberg’s in ‘Howl’ were as long as his breath lasted. The best minds of Ginsberg’s generation can only be fitted inside this page when I reduce the size of the font dramatically, because the width of the blog column is designed for the eye, not the poet’s lungs. But they were the minds

who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night
     after night

with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls,

incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada
     & Paterson, illuminating all the motionless world of Time between

I think poetry, albeit inadvertently, follows fashions. There is a bit of a fashion (I except Timothy E. G. Bartel from this) for a longer line just now. It is quite an annoying fashion for type-setters.

And for people who find poetry hard going to start with, long lines are not friends.

But neither
short ones.


14 thoughts on “HOW LONG SHOULD A LINE BE?”

  1. [i]And for people who find poetry hard going to start with, long lines are not friends.//But neither/are/very/short ones.[/i] – which rather ties in with the “Human perception” part of

    I think more psychology experiments need to be done before too much can be concluded about line-length. Though as you say, maybe a study of markets and fashions would be more useful. My guess is that poetry layouts have been getting more prose-like (with more lines of equal length).

    And a line-break is a concept that needn’t be denoted by a carriage return. I think in the old days, because vellum was expensive, the concept was denoted by a red dot in unbroken text. With some current prose poetry, full stops act much like those red dots.

  2. And the current issue of Poetry Review has open-out pages to accommodate some pieces with longer lines. I was completely thrown by these until I read Maurice Riordan’s editorial in which he refers to his decision to trial these – I hadn’t realised they opened up and thought I had a duff copy 🙂

  3. Thank you, Tim. I was thinking about you while writing this. Like the bit about the red dot. Yes.

  4. And oh [i]yes[/i], Elizabeth — I had forgotten all about the pull out pages in PR. Good point!

  5. I like a shortish line. One of the joys of poetry is that when you have said enough, you can drop down. In prose you have to plough on. A few years ago, the wonderful Doog Wood asked me if I was writing longer poems now. I was, but it turned out he meant wider poems.

  6. The heart might have a[i] very[/i] long line . . . it might not fit in the book at all. Also you might not be able to to [i]tell[/i] where the line came from. It might look like the heart but really be the head after all. And the head has some pretty good lines too. 🙂

    But I am being difficult with you, Gemma. It does no harm to give some thought to the effect of layout on the reader, and whether (or to what extent) that may damage the interests of the poem. I am not suggesting there are rules.

  7. John Redmond’s book ‘How to Write a Poem’ has a chapter called ‘Long Lines’. Here’s what he has to say: ‘Long-line poems often tend to be superior to their short-line cousins in conveying a narrative because there is more room within the long line for connective parts of speech, for coordinating qualifications and clarifications.’ He goes on to say that long-line poems are favoured by poets with idiosyncratic poetic voices. There’s also a chapter on Short Lines.

  8. Thanks for posting your article, and thanks for the aside, too. Yes, poetry is the thing that [i]isn’t[/i] prose. Prose is merely [b][i]about[/i][/b] something, whereas poetry [b][i]is[/i][/b] something, and line breaks and line lengths play a significant role in the difference. I’m still learning ways to work both into my poetry, and your article gave me a few more tools for doing so.

  9. I was going to say that ‘less is more’ and that longer lines are no friends of mine, but when thinking about it from an experimental point of view – never say never.

  10. Interesting reflections – I like short lines and struggle with longer ones. Coincidentally, I’ve just tried Prompt 5 from NaPoWriMo (reworking an Emily Dickinson poem) and ended up with a long skinny poem.

  11. O’Brien’s tug-o-war Ballad couplets, dragging tetrameters into octameters, seem worse than useless to me; a kind of disguise, as you say, but a flimsy one. No point in stretching a form unless its extra width serves some purpose. Stretch limos are ridiculous looking but at least they accommodate hen parties.

  12. This is not too useful for me as I’m searching for more information for poems, but this is very interesting and I read it till the end. Thxx!

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