a dialogue between Jendi Reiter and Bruce Wilkerson
This month, we're departing from our usual format to share some insights from one of our subscribers about stylistic choices in free verse. In the May and June critiques, I said that poems with very short lines (one or two words) often didn't work for me. I've found that beginning poets overuse them as a shortcut to making prosaic diction look poetic without sufficient attention to the cadence and meaning of the phrases. Not every word in a poem is important enough to carry a whole line by itself.
Newsletter subscriber Bruce Wilkerson felt my criticism of this technique was over-broad, and sent one of his poems along with an eloquent explanation of how he used line breaks to enhance the meaning and sound of the piece. We appreciate his allowing us to reprint the following correspondence.
From: Bruce Wilkerson
...I've been reading through your critiques and I do find them very intelligent and insightful - I've even become convinced that you are truly human. You can't know how much of a relief that is! I hope you don't mind if I say though that you make one affirmation that I have trouble fully accepting; I'm not so sure though that I agree with you concerning the "super short verse" (the May 05 critique) which certainly has the inconveniences that you mention but which does have some advantages (well I often like using it). As far as trying to sound profound, whatever the length, a "poet" - if you like the word - that wants to sound profound, generally comes across as some two-bit prophet. I hope to God I never sound profound! Please tell me if I do.
...Here's a poem I took out and tried to dust off, it has still got a little grime under the fingernails though. I know it's in a style that is very different from what you seem to like but it's the one in which I used the most one word lines. If you are interested in a few reflections about why I like them, you can go down and read after the poem - but don't say I didn't warn you.
once in the dark
camouflaged under my cover
from dangers imagined
I would ring my haven
with tigers and bears
until the relief of day
let me bolt from my bed
believing all was
be together with my
so I lie here waiting
the clock has rung
recalling those monsters
that would scare me
the lights went out
my head under my pillow
hoping they might pass
to where they roamed
they rule the world by day
and so must I
hide my face
under my brow
knowing I will be
to this cold morning
the alarm has sounded
when I only want
to rest in peace
I like using [short lines] because they interrupt the syntactic chain, and thus the phonemic one, giving the reader the choice to interpret the word as an isolated element, the notion(s), or one whose scope is dependent on the other elements in the chain of speech (sorry about the jargon). In other words, it's a nice way to underline the polysemy of a word or eventually bring to mind homophones of the same word. For example, if you add a pause after the word "once", its meaning is quite different from the word "once" when it is integrated into the melody of the phrase. Another example is the preposition "to" in a sentence, the vowel will be realized as a schwa, whereas isolated, it will become a long U sound like in the words "too", "two".
To: Bruce Wilkerson
Thanks for your poem and thought-provoking "defense" of the short line. You make a good case! I've taken aim at this stylistic choice lately because I see less-experienced poets relying on it too much to break up their prosy phrases into something that looks like poetry. I'm trying to provoke them to listen more closely to verbal rhythms; they may still end up with short lines, but hopefully will have put more thought into why the lines break where they do.
In your poem ("once in the dark...") the short lines generally worked for me, because the rhythm is tense and taut, fitting the subject matter. I initially questioned whether "to" deserved its own line in the first stanza. But after reading your explanation, I went back and realized that the sounds "won" and "to" in the first stanza were punning echoes of the "once" and "twice" in the next stanzas. Clever.
I was going to take a vacation from "critique corner" in July, so I wonder if we could mix things up a bit in the newsletter and reprint this exchange between you and me (plus your teddies poem of course). I liked the high-level theoretical way you defend your stylistic choices. I'd also be interested to hear about writers who have influenced you.
From: Bruce Wilkerson
Thank you, I would be very honored if you reprinted it and feel free to do any editing you wish.
Excuse me if I avoid the question of influences - I can't pinpoint anything neat and precise. I would like (egotistically) to believe that it came purely from artistic necessity, some skimpily clad muse sitting by my shoulder, but more realistically I realize that we all have "a virtual library" in our head, often very badly cross-referenced like mine, from which we borrow most of what we utter or write without realizing it.
On the question of line length, I do have to agree with you that cutting up sentences like sausages doesn't make poetry, even if we could come to an agreement on what poetry really is. I find choosing the right length very difficult though; what you gain on one side you often lose on the other. So, if you don't mind, I'll add a few quick reflections and you can keep what you want. If you ever have any responses to my questions, I'd love to hear them.
I like longer, more lyrical phrases too but what I often find difficult with long lines (and with short lines for different reasons) is the division of the sentences or phrases into intonational groups, something the reader will do naturally anyway. Unfortunately these more chewable pieces don't often correspond to traditional punctuation and a change in the intonational group, or a displacement of the nucleus, can alter the message radically. How much do I want to guide this segmentation and impose one interpretation? Short lines can often be too restraining. On the other hand, if I leave it to the reader, (s)he will choose the most obvious. I don't know how well it works but I sometimes isolate a word between two lines with the hope that this will make the reader click out of automatic pilot. You'll notice that the interpretation of the word "once" has to do with the choice of intonational groups. If I had put it with line above, we would have had one thing, and with the line that followed, yet another. The problem was similar with "…a dream/now/they rule…" in which the scope of the adverbial remains ambiguous. I'm just not sure that this sort of thing would work well with longer lines and I’m not even sure it's understood here. I'll give it some more thought myself but I'd love to have other opinions too.
All the best,
[End of excerpt]
Bruce's poem illustrates an effective use of frequent line breaks to create ambiguity and multiple meanings. For instance, in the first stanza, the one-word line "still" could signify different things depending on whether the reader connects it to the preceding or the following line, or sees it as a separate adjectival phrase. "From dangers imagined/still" foreshadows the later part of the poem where the speaker is still tormented by nighttime fears, whereas "still/I would ring my haven" treats the word as equivalent to "nonetheless" (despite the camouflage, he also needed the teddies to protect him). "Still" by itself describes the child lying motionless. A similar effect takes place in the lines "they rule the world by day/and so must I/hide my face", where the first two lines set up an assertion of adult mastery that is exposed as make-believe in the third line.
During the process of writing, you may be someone who chooses images and techniques in an intuitive, subconscious way, or someone more analytical. I'm not suggesting that every word choice should be the subject of conscious internal debate. But as an exercise, during either the writing or the revision stage of a poem, try to explain to an imaginary other person why you chose a particular method of expressing yourself. Why was the sunset "red as a rose" and not "red as a tomato"? Why was your love poem a sonnet and not a limerick?
Look back over a selection of your poems. Are there words, topics or sound patterns that you return to as a matter of habit? Write a piece that deliberately shuns these familiar tools. Whether or not you like the result, you will have increased your awareness of your own thought processes as a writer, which will help you develop more control over your material.
If you discover something interesting, send us your poem and brief "self-critique" (150 words maximum, no attachments), and we might publish it in the newsletter.
This dialogue appeared in the July 2005 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter. If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.