• Owen Bullock

From Stéphane Mallarmé onwards, the parameters of the line have been manipulated in diverse ways by poets from William Carlos Williams to Charles Olson, Susan Howe and Lyn Hejinian to Michele Leggott, Alan Loney and others. Whether concentrating on the concept of the breath as a defining unit, harnessing a particular speech rhythm or responding to visual prompts – some of which reflect the internet age and new media – the poetic line is neither static nor redundant in contemporary practice. An exploration of poetic structure via the line still offers vital alternatives to prose, as well as sometimes being influenced by it. The use of the line is synonymous with the use of page space and this relationship is commented on by our contributors in diverse and individual ways.

Contributors were encouraged to comment on their own writing, since one can often do so with particular insight and authority, highlighting processes which might prove useful to other poets. This strategy was inspired by the short but insightful discussions from practitioners in Frank and Sayre’s The Line in Postmodern Poetry (1988) and continued in publications such as A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee (2013).

At Poetry on the Move 2017, Vahni Capildeo gave a workshop which seems to have had a lasting influence on participants, partly through its discussion of the line, and she has gathered some of her ideas together in a short essay for us. Her notes approach poetic innovation with reference to the work of Jamaican poet Anthony McNeill. In particular, it focusses on McNeill’s manipulation of readers’ sense-making to ‘blast expectations’. In workshops given in Canberra and London, Capildeo centred on the creations of ‘disturbing characters’ and a map-like use of page space.

Dominic Symes interrogates the very different poetries of Paul Hetherington and Ken Bolton via a discussion of ekphrasis and the use of the line to create indeterminacy. Jack Ross also considers poetic intersections with visual art through the poetry of New Zealander Graham Lindsay, ideas by William Hogarth, artworks by Louise Bourgeois and examples of his own practice. Sarah Rice offers lessons learnt via collaboration with visual artists, and Melinda Smith discusses the line as gesture or fragment with examples from her own writing and by Japanese poet Kawaguchi Harumi.

Paul Munden’s essay focusses on individual purpose with particular reference to line endings through a discussion initially framed by ideas on the line by James Tate and critiqued through a wide range of examples, including Andrew Motion, Sylvia Plath, Oliver Reynolds and his own poetry. The essay covers the influence of the psalms and cinematic writing, the tensions between the line and the sentence, and the use of page space.

Lisa Samuels argues for the existence of a soft text (potential), analogous to Lisa Robertson’s social space theory, with the hard text (said) being selected from this potential, and the hard text line functioning as a ‘unit of order’. Examples include New Zealand poet Bill Direen and some of Samuels’ own writing, characterised as ‘omitted prose’. 

Poetry by Melinda Bufton, Alistair Paterson, Sarah Rice, Melinda Smith, Jen Crawford and Mara Adamitz Scrupe highlight a range of approaches to manipulating line endings and page space in poetry. These move through disruption of an otherwise unified structure (Paterson), to parallel structures which enact content (Rice), or an engagement with line and space akin to sculpture as a metaphor for the fusion of form and content (Bufton, Smith, Scrupe and Crawford).

These writings, both theoretical and practical, offer the practitioner varied ways of invigorating the poetic line and practice in general, and provide critics with insight into how lines, and poets, might work.