End of the line

February 7, 2013 § 6 Comments

Sharon Olds’ success in winning the TS Eliot Prize and the expanded readership for her work which will follow will no doubt reinvigorate debates about poetic form – in particular, the line ending.  Many commentators have found Olds’ preference for putting articles and prepositions at the ends of lines difficult; others find the prosiness this confers on her poetry liberating.  Olds herself has talked about the living quality of poems, likening their structure to a tree (or in fact half a tree), with the beginning of lines forming a trunk.  As such, this is where she stacks up verbs and nouns, rooting meaning – so that lines can stretch away, more naturally in keeping with thought and speech.

It’s an interesting approach: and one which seems to contrast with Glyn Maxwell’s demands, in On Poetry, that line breaks have a weight borne of their intermediary nature – their emphasising of both utterance / existence and silence / void – which renders them of primary significance: they are at the core of a poem’s sound and meaning.

We might throw in some gender politics here, too, positioning Maxwell’s masculine, even monotheistic cry (In the Beginning was the Word…) against Olds’ feminine, organic poetry.

Personally, I still feel my way forward, only dimly aware of what’s at play – which is something between breathing and mechanics and impulse, knowing how all of these have to contend – in some way taking an idea, or glimpse, or motivation, dragging it out of the cave and into a real, imperfect (yet hopefully suggestive and resonant) place.


§ 6 Responses to End of the line

  • Maggie Butt says:

    I love the idea of breathing, mechanics and impulse!

  • Line endings, like poem titles, can be difficult. For me it’s a balance between the space the ear demands and the shape the eye craves.

    • Rob Hindle says:

      And both are intimately connected, I think. Interesting (and, to me, encouraging) that you focus on the physical / aural, Carolyn, rather than the grammatical (though, again, grammatical construction affects the way poems are spoken). But that’s very well put.

  • Rosemary Badcoe says:

    Interesting to hear Old’s reasons for her line breaks. I tend to think the end of a line carries some weight by forcing a pause, so she doesn’t entirely convince me. I’m not sure I find gender politics relevant here – I’m not even sure what I’d class as ‘feminine’ poetry.

    • Rob Hindle says:

      I’m kind of on the fence with the pause issue, Rosemary. I find my own arrangement of lines does indicate that I’m trying to offer something that can be read – on the page and in the air – simply: I don’t like having to disentangle elaborate or complex language structures, or even just long phrases / sentences, before engaging with meaning. On the other hand, Maxwell’s insistence on the primacy of the line ending is a bit restrictive for me: so long as there is integrity and balance and purpose, a line can extend down the page sometimes.

      I take your point about gender. It was an absurdly reductive comment, I know, and perhaps I was just taken, slightly, by some readings of Olds’ approach which have made similar suggestions. Perhaps it is more appropriate just to keep the ‘organic’ label?

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