Line Breaks the Way I See Them
by Daniel Simpson
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared in the inaugural issue of Wordgathering.
For several years, I apprenticed in writing poetry with Molly Peacock. Since Molly lives in Toronto, and I live near Philadelphia, I e-mailed her my work about a week prior to each phone conference so she could have time to look it over and prepare her response. When the lesson rolled around, I would call her on a speaker phone and tape our hour-long conversation. This proved to be an immensely useful process for me, since I didn’t have to distract myself with taking notes during our “back and forth” about the poems; I could take those notes and make revisions later.
What impressed me most about my initial talks with Molly was the kind of questions she asked me before she critiqued a single word of mine: “How did you come to write poetry? With whom have you studied? What poets have most influenced you, and how? How has your poetry changed since you started? How would you describe the poetry you are writing now?”
When we turned to the poetry itself for the first time, Molly observed: “I notice that in many of the poems you sent me, you seem to make an effort to keep lines of nearly equal length. Is that intentional?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Tell me your thinking behind it,” she said, “because I find it a little puzzling.”
I explained that Gregory Djanikian, my mentor and instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, found that even lines created a pleasing appearance on the page, and so, knowing how much I admired and resonated with his work, I took his suggestions about visual shaping of the poem into my own aesthetics.
“But that’s exactly what leads me to wonder why you would care about the visual appearance,” Molly rejoined. “Having lines of relatively the same length can make a poem look beautiful on the page, but that’s a painterly thing to do. Why do you care how it looks on the page? You’re blind, and that seems like a particularly sighted concern. Besides that, you’re a musician. Wouldn’t it make more sense in the context of your life to treat the poem and its line breaks more like a musical score than a painting?”
I had to admit this made some sense. As we talked more about it, I remembered how I always had to guess where the line breaks should come in this “even up” approach. Perhaps I wouldn’t have had to guess so much if I had been using the unabbreviated form of braille, known as Grade 1 braille, where there is a one-for-one correspondence between print and braille letters. I, however, like most braille users, write Grade 2 braille, the standard for books and all forms of communication, which is replete with abbreviations for frequently encountered combinations of letters. Thus, two lines that look even in Grade 2 braille will not necessarily come out that way in print, once all of the contractions have been expanded.
“For now, at least for your next couple of poems,” Molly said, “why not try this? Don’t worry about making the poem look pretty on the page. Just listen to your natural cadence and let the line breaks act as indicators in a musical score as to where you want the performers to breathe or to place more emphasis. And if one line sticks way out like a big shirt billowing on a clothesline, and the next line hangs like a limp little sock next to it, so be it. What do you care?”
I was intrigued. Besides, I generally take the attitude that if a mentor has agreed to devote time and attention to my development as a writer, I owe it to him or her to try his/her recommendations at least once.
Stuck without an idea for my next poem, I pondered Molly’s suggestion that week … and then it came to me: use the billowing shirt and limp sock as opening images in a poem, and let the lines containing those images reflect them in length. This is where it took me:
(listen to the poem, read by the author)
His rage hung in the house like a shirt billowing on a clothesline,
like a sock
Decades ago, unmarried,
reading upstairs, sneaking off with Sally,
or flying model airplanes after school,
his dreams, like giant streamers or sky-writing, stretched out far behind him,
accompanying him everywhere.
“We’ve heard this story a million times before,” you say.
“It’s nothing new, so why do you keep going on about it?”
Because it’s nothing new,
and some like him came back from two world wars
and everything was supposed to be put behind them like the dead family dog
but then more came back from Korea and Vietnam,
to sit in multiplex movie theaters watching
as their great-grandfathers or men just like them made sure
someone else’s wife and children got a life raft off the sinking ship —
came back to dangle from girders, cough in mines, or hack and spit
in poorly-ventilated refineries
with sophisticated shower drains
that trapped the precious platinum residue
which washed off them like water-color paints.
The conscious choice to look at line length in this way somehow liberated my unconscious mind and my slightly more conscious “formal poetic” mind to collaborate in a new way. My unconscious mind took an echo from Yeats’ “Easter, 1916” and turned it into the two shortest lines in the poem: “changed” and “utterly.” Only later, when my conscious mind looked back on these two one-word lines did it imbue them with something symbolic; their brevity came to represent the abruptness of the change that war wreaks on someone’s life. (One moment, you can walk; the next, you can’t. One moment you feel relatively innocent; the next, you are a killer.) What I call my “slightly more conscious formal poetic mind,” being a half-step behind the unconscious mind, realized, after the fact, that since I was allowing myself to play with lines of extremely varying lengths, I could consciously choose to make form follow content in a line like “his dreams, like giant streamers or sky-writing, stretched out far behind him.”
In the poems I’ve written since “Man Story,” principles of cadence and musical scoring guide my line breaks, but more moderately. I haven’t felt the need to write another poem with such acute attention to “billowing shirt” and “limp sock” lines. At the same time, I have never again concerned myself with a painterly evenness of lines.
About the Author
Daniel Simpson’s School for the Blind was published in 2014 by Poets Wear Prada. He and his wife, Ona Gritz, co-authored Border Songs: A Conversation in Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2017), and collaborated as poetry editors for Referential Magazine. The New York Times and numerous poetry magazines have printed his work. The recipient of a Pennsylvania Council of the Arts fellowship, he tends a blog at https://insidetheinvisible.wordpress.com/.