Refining a Line

Lindsay Macgregor
Category: Writing

Recently, a friend invited me to write a prose poem for her blog. As I wrote it, I considered the effects of no words having any more weight than others by virtue of their position or assemblage in a line. Writing that prose poem led me to think more carefully about my default writing decisions and, in particular, lineation.

When I first started writing, I couldn’t bear to have different line lengths in my poems. I think it was a confidence thing – like not wanting to let go of the swimming pool rail maybe – but also a strange aesthetic tic. I clung to a hard right-hand edge as much as the left-hand edge. As I’ve tackled different subjects and registers, some of which have required a less controlled layout, it has become necessary to break this rigidity.

The shape of the poem is, in part, determined by the position of the start and end of the line.

I don’t pay too much attention to lineation at the drafting stage, when things can change rapidly and drastically. My main focus on lines begins closer to the editing stage, when I have a clearer idea of the feeling and “form” of the poem. Shaping lines can be a hard-won task because they impact on so many dimensions of the poem – it’s like trying to solve an impossible Rubik’s Cube. More often than not, when I tinker with one line ending, it throws out the rest of the poem: now that I’ve introduced enjambment, the pace has changed and the rhythm is not quite right; now that I’ve moved that rhyme from the middle to the end of the line, it suddenly seems clunky. 

Even if, with changes to the lineation, the refined poem still sounds fine, it may now look odd, with one line much longer than all the others. The shape of the poem is, in part, determined by the position of the start and end of the line and the resulting white space around and within the lines. Eyes and ears seem to be much more alert when deliberate lineation is apparent, computing the white space as much as the ink; picking up the tiniest pause at the end of the line, even when there’s enjambment. Meanwhile, the brain is also trying to make sense of the words which are brought into particular relationship by virtue of their isolation and association in each line, as well as how they work with the line that precedes and follows.

There is something instinctive about determining line length, line beginnings and endings, and, by association, stanzas. But I feel it has been useful to re-visit my poems in the light of writing prose poems and to re-consider some of my decisions. I have tried writing longer lines rather than my usual short lines – this has led to poems very different in feeling as well as form from those I would ordinarily write.

So I recommend that you try deliberately writing against your own preferences - long lines instead of short; concrete or prose poems; sonnets or haikus - to see where less familiar lines might take you.  

Lindsay Macgregor

Lindsay Macgregor is a 2015 NWA awardee in poetry. Her poems have been published in a number of Scottish magazines, including New Writing ScotlandPoetry ScotlandNorthwords NowNew Writing Dundee and Gutter; and, she is a founder of Platform. Lindsay is also the co-founder of Platform, a regular poetry and music night in the former stationmaster’s house at Ladybank. She also co-edits a small magazine of poetry and prose, Dundee Writes, and reviews poetry collections for Dundee University Review of the Arts (DURA).