How do you like your poems to appear on the page? Do you like short, symmetrical lines, with plenty of white space all around? Or do you prefer the weight and solid depth of prose poetry? Perhaps you enjoy visual poems, like the famous Calligrammes created by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, an interplay of form and content that are still being read and published in beautiful luxury editions today. Sadly, this latter form seems to have fallen out of favour in contemporary poetry, unless you are working with children.
If you opt for lines, you need not fear that you are choosing the conventional option. There is good reason to believe that poems were organised in lines before they were ever written down. But are lines based on what you see (the physical end of the line) or what you hear? Do you pause to take breath at the end of them, or does it whirl you on to a crescendo? We now see poems on the page much more frequently than we recite them aloud – although some of our poets do both (thank you for that, by the way, there is such marvelous and subtle difference between the look and the feel of a poem).
Do you like the symmetry of sonnets or the galloping of modern line breaks that seem to occur where you least expect them, and project you forward on to a most exhilarating, if undisciplined ride? Compare Adrienne Rich’s poem ‘Fox’, with its apparent ragged, undisciplined, wild use of different line lengths, with the discipline and evenness of Donne’s ‘The Good Morrow’.
Fox by Adrienne Rich (fragment)
I needed fox Badly I needed
a vixen for the long time none had come near me
I needed recognition from a
triangulated face burnt-yellow eyes
fronting the long body the fierce and sacrificial tail
I needed history of fox briars of legend it was said she had run through
I was in want of fox
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,Which watch not one another out of fear;For love, all love of other sights controls,And makes one little room an everywhere.Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.(Donne – fragment)
And what happens when we read poetry on an eReader, does it become more difficult to convey the poet’s exact intentions? Across all the different platforms and screens, interfaces and font sizes, poetic lines have become shape shifters. Is that causing us problems as readers, are we in danger of losing the ‘look’ and ‘sound’ of the poem as the poet intended it? Or does it give us even more freedom to interpret it the way we want?
Finally, how do you feel about punctuation or capital letters at the start of every line? Some of us use them, others avoid them altogether, while still others change the format depending on the type of poem they write. In the examples above, you have Rich’s complete lack of punctuation and many of you have cited e.e. cummings as an influence too. Do you use spaces or fun signs and what do they mean to you? I remember when I first joined the dVerse community, I was struck instantly by Claudia’s idiosyncratic punctuation – which fits in perfectly with her apparently random (and yet carefully constructed) thought associations and intimate chatter or asides. However, if I were to use them, it would look fake.