Saturday, January 29, 2011

Writing Classes, and the Line-Break in Free Verse

I wrote a poem this week in which I had some line-breaks which seemed, at least to a couple of other people to whom I showed my nascent poem, dodgy.

By dodgy, I mean there was a suggestion by these good folks that 'the line should not have broken there'. In fact, I'd go further and say there was a suggestion by these early readers of my poem - a poem still very much in draft form and therefore more vulnerable to critique than if I'd finished tinkering with it - that there are 'rules' about where a line should break in free verse, and I had not obeyed those rules.

A pretty standard response to a poem-in-draft for those who frequent creative writing classes, in other words.

Luckily for me - and I say luckily, because creative writing classes represent the kind of mental and emotional torture which would bring me out in hives if I actually suffered from such nervous physical reactions - I have spent my life avoiding discussing early drafts of my poems in public. Which is an excellent thing in itself, but does mean that the horror and dubious joy of 'sharing poems' in a class situation is new to me. That is, I've taught creative writing classes, but am not used to finding myself on the other side of a critique, i.e. being the student and not the teacher.

What worries me about writing classes is the personal agenda behind some of the comments that get fired at the writer in the hot seat. And there is always an agenda, even if it's just an opinion that wants to get aired or an insecure ego that feels the need to diminish someone else's.

But due to my course structure, I thought a writing-based class would be useful for me, and so I signed up. And useful it has been, as it has generated this little discussion.

So I had these dodgy line-breaks in my poem.

I saw them as risky, yes. Unconventional, probably. But not 'wrong' in any sense. They were what they were. Indeed, I know of no rules about line-breaks in free verse, except some eminently sensible but unspoken ones like 'try not to break after and or the' because it rapidly makes a nonsense of your poem. But even those quasi-rules can be broken if the poet is confident enough and has a good reason to do so, which includes wishing to prove it can be done.

One line had two full sentences in it, plus the first word - a noun - of a sentence which continued on the next line.

It was complained that this orphaned noun should be reunited with the rest of its family on the following line, which would then contain a whole sentence, unbroken. The line above would also then contain two unbroken sentences - with no messy, raggedy word dangling over the edge afterwards.

However, I wanted the emphasis to fall on the strong verb following that noun, so I placed that verb as the first word of the next line. I also wanted to suggest continuity of idea and action, so all three sentences would be linked via this enjambement.

The other complaint was about a line, higher up the poem, which consisted of only one word. Not a sentence in itself, but a word from the middle of a sentence. A word plucked out of obscurity and used as the lynch-pin around which the poem's action and point of view would turn.

I was told - pretty much without any concession that this was opinion rather than fact - that I could not have that one word on its own line. No way, no how.

Being open to opinion, I have considered whether I should change that word for a stronger synonym. I may yet do so, since the complaint flags up a potential weakness there. But I do not consider that it can be argued that having that word on a line of its own is somehow 'wrong'.

If there are no rules in free verse, how can we possibly decide something is 'right' or 'wrong'?

I agree that many writers desperately need to adhere to some kind of rule of thumb about the sounds and rhythms of free verse, otherwise they produce nothing work heading nowhere. But what that rule might be or how on earth we are supposed to reach a consensus about it is beyond me.

So what are the 'rules' about free verse?

Are there any rules at all?

If not, why do poets bother to argue about decisions like line-breaks or sound echoes or rhythms?

Can anyone definitively state that my line should not be broken where I choose to break it (because the line-break sounds and seems to fall best at that point, in my opinion as poet) and tell me how and why it is possible to be prescriptive about something so tenuous?


litrefs said...

I've read 3 things recently that I found useful. The Art of the Poetic Line by James Longenbach (Graywolf, 2008) gives details explanations without giving judgements.
In Stress Fractures (Tom Chivers (ed)), Katy Evans-Bush's "The Line" essay just give a few "pet peeves ... combined with examples of excellence". She says "Many poetry tutors don't like to discuss [line endings] at all; there is such a taboo on discussing this most personal aspect of poetry", which ties in with some of what you've said. I've been to workshops where poets don't want to change their line-breaks but can't say why. To some people it seems that line-breaks are a personal thing - to criticize them would be like criticizing their accent or hair-style.
Iota 88 had 2 interesting comments in the reviews. Angela France said "I found the variety of shapes that the poems make on the page refreshing; a factor in keeping my interest and attention" (a view I don't share). And George Ttoouli toiled to help explain some of Elisabeth Bletsoe's line-breaks.

Kiss My Art said...

Dear Jane

I have always avoided poetry workshops like the plague. My father attended a couple and said that it was always the worst poets in the room who had the strongest opinions on prosody. My advice would be to cancel your subscription, write your own poems in your own way and ultimately let the general public determine whether you have succeeded or not.

Best wishes from Simon

Emma Lee said...

Workshop comments can be useful in that they highlight weaker areas in a poem. However, they have to be filtered through individual agendas: there will always be a grammar fantatic, someone disappointed by lack of rhyme, someone fixated by stress patterns and someone insisting that a sonnet can only be a sonnnet if it's in iambic pentameter.

It's impossible to be prescriptive about line-breaks in free verse as the whole point of free verse is that it frees the poet to structure the poem in such a way that's both integral to and dictated by the actual poem.

Sadly workshop attendees do forget that their comments are their own opinion (perfectly valid, but opinion not fact) and that they are not the poet. Comments are supposed to inform the poem, not to rewrite the poem as the commenter would rewrite if it was their own poem.

Steven Waling said...

Comments in workshops always make me look at the poem again, even if only to reject what was said; or to go even further in the opposite direction to the comments' intention.

The other thing of course, is the way that you might want to "scatter" the poem across the page in an open-form stylee (and you should try writing a line at an angle and see what they say then!)

walrus said...

Have a look at Joseph Massey's Areas of Fog -- plenty of uses of one word on a line and a wonderful ear for language. Tell everyone else to go fly a kite and write it how you like it!