• Melinda Smith

Simon Patton, writing recently in the Sydney Review of Books[1] encourages us to ‘…think of the line as a kind of gesture, a gesture which carries an expressive force’. He contrasts poems in which individual lines ‘achieve sufficient distinctness to make them memorable’ with poems of a more ‘fragmentary quality’ (such as those of Antigone Kefala, whose Fragments he is reviewing). Without valorising one over the other, I would agree that these are two possible approaches to the line. Many others are possible also — from prose poetry’s decision to dispense with the line entirely, to the opening up of gaps or caesurae within lines favoured by many contemporary poets, to formal poetry’s demand that the line contain a certain number of feet, syllables, and / or end rhymes.

For myself, as a practitioner who writes in both constrained forms and free verse, the line takes on different qualities in different poems. In this brief piece I will consider my approaches to the free verse line, and to lines in poems working against some kind of self-imposed constraint. I will close with a case study of the treatment of the line in translation using an example from Japanese poet Kawaguchi Harumi.


Free verse lines: density and pacing; momentum v derailment

In my free verse lines, I do often gravitate to the first of the models Patton describes above; that is, I aim to make the line a self-contained gesture which carries expressive force. However, I do like to vary the intensity and size of the gestures, and the pace at which they unfold, which means sometimes an image or clause will spill over into the following line. When this happens, I use the line break in different ways: sometimes to pull the reader forward, using the momentum of the previous line, into what they expect, and sometimes to pull the reader sideways, presenting them with a surprise which sends them slightly off-course. When editing a poem, I try to keep my sensibilities trained on how the reader travels through the poem over time, and I adjust the terrain accordingly.

Compare the following two examples. First, the first half of ‘Diamond Princess’ from Goodbye, Cruel[2], in which the lines mostly propel the reader forward with only an occasional sidestep:

Diamond Princess

Down at the Quay an enormity bobs and glows:
a waterborne not-quite Mall, twelve decks bottom to top,
festoons of bunting grinning with sharp little teeth

that snap in the breeze.  So much white ship
on this bright day.  Like all journeys, this one begins
as a bridge you cross, as a door you step through.  Some enter

never to return: tribes of canny grey nomads
who, having done their sums, prefer their Residential Aged Care
with a choice of five dining rooms and a nightly cabaret.

Boarding, they pass into paradise: everything and everyone
spotless, each hour with its allotted frivolity,
a revolving smorgasbord of new ears for old stories,

and the sea trundling edgelessly past
like a magical opera backdrop.  Small matter
that occasionally the trip to Vanuatu

must detour to Melbourne to avoid a cyclone,

Second, the poem ‘Do you come here often’ (also from Goodbye, Cruel) in which I deliberately stretched many of the key images across a line break, with the first word of the new line aiming at surprise, derailment and disorientation:

Do you come here often?

Sydney, you flirt, you sandstone
blonde with your wide blue
eyes, your fringes of come-hither
frangipani, your swizzle-stick
palms, your blinding white
mast-thickets bristling in the little bays.

Perched on your towering glassmetal
barstool, you apply your dainty
suction to a series of cocktail straws, draining
artery after artery.  There are always more
bodies pressing their flesh forward, jostling
to offer themselves. And you love
to swallow.

Most of the lines in my free verse poems fall somewhere between these two poles.


Lines under pressure: the effects of restriction

Lines in poems with compositional constraints (whether the constraint is rhyme, metre, syllable-count, or some other invented system of restriction) are different beasts entirely. For me, the constraint, whatever it is, has a considerable effect on the texture of the poem and the length of the line, and ideally is chosen precisely for its particular effect.

For example, the following poem ‘Zuleika, wife of Potiphar, calls Joseph the Hebrew to her’, uses syllable-count as its constraint; in this case, working with a 13-syllable line. Of course, syllabic restrictions are much used in French modernist poetry — and in English by such poets as Marianne Moore – but I will freely admit to being more directly influenced in this choice by poet and workshopping colleague Martin Dolan, who writes almost exclusively syllabic poetry and whose syllables I have been counting for editing purposes for fifteen years. It is not something I have previously done much of in my own work (apart from some 5-7-5 counting of haiku-influenced short poems) but for this poem, which explores the tension between the need to conform to social rules and the desire to break them, I was interested in the atmosphere of restraint which a regular syllable-count could bring to it. The poem is from a sequence called ‘Safina’, which retells two ancient stories of high-born women who fell in love with slaves, and who suffered (or deflected) the consequences.

To read the following poem out of context a bit of background may be necessary. The Bible (Genesis 39) tells the story of Potiphar’s wife, who fell in love with Joseph, her husband’s Hebrew slave, and when he rejected her advances falsely accused him of trying to seduce her.  In Islamic tradition she is treated more sympathetically: she is given her own name, Zuleika, or Zulaikha; her desire for Joesph/ Yusuf is sometimes interpreted as symbolic of the soul’s longing for God; and he himself is depicted in paintings with rays of light around him to signify his extraordinary beauty. One incident which often appears in this version[3] is Zuleika summoning Yusuf to a gathering of some women friends who had ridiculed her obsession with him; when he entered the room they were all so distracted by him they forgot the fruit they were peeling and accidentally cut themselves. 

II. Zuleika

Zuleika, wife of Potiphar, calls Joseph the Hebrew to her

I have set out the fruit, and the silver paring knives
before my gathered women.  Soon they will all see why.
Oh what a temptation has been set in this my house!
How could a slave and a Jew be so perfectly made?
Here, now he enters, obedient to my summons.
Such grace, untamed and proud.  All the women are staring,
as though the sun rises there and then in the doorway.
He speaks in his deep bass; smiles with his wise eyes, that mouth.
His hair a glossy pelt of sable, his muscled flanks
moving under his tunic as he crosses the room.
The amber skin of his hand, his arm, his strong shoulder
as he stoops to refill my cup.  The warm scent of him
bending close. I cannot move.  I feel my cheeks and lips
flushing the colour of betrayal.  To a woman
my companions neglect their knife-work, fumbling their fruit.
There is giggling.  Eyebrows are raised.      
                                                     The blades bite their hands.

The effect of the 13-syllable constraint here is (I hope) a calm, measured, and flowing line, emblematic of the elegant rule-bound world in which Zuleika must live. The split in the last line underlines the disruption represented by her uncontrollable passion for Yusuf/Joseph.

To consider another, invented, constraint: in the poem ‘not thinking about the only thing there is to think about’ I was aiming for a cinematic atmosphere, and I decided that each line should feel like a shot (or a snatch of dialogue or music or voice-over) from a filmed scene. The scene is that of a mother sitting in a café trying to process the fact that her primary school aged son has been having suicidal thoughts. Over the course of the poem, as her mind attempts to comprehend this, she keeps allowing herself to be distracted by the sights and sounds around her, as if shying away from the pain of fully understanding that the child to whom she gave the gift of life no longer wants it. The sights and sounds which intrude also become a kind of subliminal commentary on the situation.

Below is an excerpt in which you can see what this ‘one scene-beat per line’ constraint does to the length and content of the line. There is absolutely no running-on of images — each line is its own self-contained ‘beat’ (or gesture, if you will), with some much longer than others.

The bald man and his business partner shift the menus and go over the spreadsheets again,
                                                                                                                rubbing their temples

Why are the chairs orange in here?
            the duty to live, and the impossibility  of continuing to live
            his father had to sleep outside his bedroom door
It is pouring with rain, and too cold for the shorts the bald man is wearing
            i should never have had children
Shake it off... 
                                                      Always the same, darling.  The mother bears  the pain of the son.
 . . . ah shake it off, oh oh . . .

I also deliberately varied the indentation of lines in laying out this poem, setting up a spatial analogue for the instability of the poetic subject: even the starting point varies from line to line. Lines starting at the left margin are snatches of external reality intruding, lines indented one tab-stop represent the mother’s internal monologue, and right-aligned lines represent remembered dialogue from a previous conversation. Overall, I hoped to capture the fragmented, non-linear, fugal way in which our minds tend to process fraught, difficult things.

Another of my favourite invented constraints is using a quotation as a ‘spine’ to a poem, hiding one word of the quote in each line. In a poem like this, the line grows outward from the word it must contain. The following poem, ‘Incomplete’, was built around the phrase ‘words they had spoken returned always homeless to them’ from Janet Frame’s ‘The Suicides’[4] - each line grew from its ‘vertebra’ word to the point where it could join the other lines in a reasonably coherent emotional movement. Because the founding ‘spine’ was relevant to the subject matter (an ‘incomplete’, in social-worker jargon, is a person who has attempted suicide but who is still alive), I deliberately allowed it to leave a visible trace by bolding the words representing the vertebrae.


they died because words they had spoken
returned always homeless to them
                                            —Janet Frame, ‘The Suicides’

Never the right words to say why.  His parents sit with him,
active listening, like the psych told them.  They grimace
when he speaks, as if their faces had opened for a moment
then snapped shut, on something too sharp to be spoken.

Months later he returned to the tree. He had thought the police
would leave the rope there (for always, as a sacred thing, as a warning), but it was gone.  Perhaps
it is in a drawer down at the station, he thinks, perhaps  a homeless man took it, for a belt.
He wants to touch it again, aches for it with a child’s passion for a loved bear.
There are no words, there will never be words, to explain this to them.

There are a number of other, purely text-based, invented constraints I like to use in my poems from time to time which I won’t consider at length here for reasons of space but which I will mention in passing. Each of them puts the line under a different kind of pressure. These are:

  • The anagram poem, in which each line is an anagram of the title and must therefore contain exactly the same letters[5]. This of course results in lines which are identical in length, giving the poem a staid, block-like appearance on the page. However, syntactically and semantically the lines have to connect to (or bounce off) each other in fairly inventive ways and I think this contrast is interesting – a little like peering through the windows of an office block to discover a surrealist performance in progress.
  • That old chestnut, the acrostic, in which the initial letters of the lines spell out a word or phrase when read vertically, and which I find a useful vehicle for meditating on a single concept. I have written both free acrostics and verse acrostics depending on the theme, with the line length tending to vary more in the free acrostics, as one would expect.
  • The seventies-style L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem (one version thereof), in which each line must contain exactly the same words, rearranged over the course of the poem into different orders[6]. A poem like this has the effect of calling into question the very idea of the line, and much else besides.   

In summary: I do not have a single approach to the poetic line. When writing free verse, I am conscious of the line break as an expressive tool; when writing constrained verse one of the factors influencing my choice of constraint is its effect on the line and how this interacts with the theme and subject matter of the poem.

The long line in translation — a case-study: Kawaguchi Harumi

Recently I have had occasion to   reflect on line length as it affects poetry in translation. Line length emerged as a very practical but important issue in the process of translating from the Japanese some poems of Kawaguchi Harumi’s for the anthology Poet to Poet: Contemporary Women Poets from Japan.[7]

There seems to be a tendency in contemporary Japanese poetry to long, long lines - long enough to turn over two or three times — and Kawaguchi is no exception. In her work the main driver of line breaks is not syllable-count but a combination of narrative pacing and cinematic-style juxtaposition of images.

In translating her, I have tried to maintain the integrity of her lines, keeping all of them in exactly the same order with exactly the same breaks (as far as grammatically possible). However, the ‘turn-over’ or ‘wrap’ points within each long line are another matter: because of word order differences between English and Japanese, not to mention the different scripts used to write them, it is impossible to have each wrap point occur after exactly the same image or statement as it does in the Japanese version. This has meant taking especial care with the proofs — while the wrapping of a long line, even in the middle of a word, does not give pause to a Japanese reader, an English-speaking reader perceives wrap points in a long line as akin to mini line-breaks. This means their placement is crucial and can completely change the impact of a phrase.

By way of illustration, consider the following lines from Kawaguchi’s poem ‘O-kaeri’ (translated as ‘Welcome Home’).


     In saying that      that time the two of us carried the long-ago broken TV in our arms to the large waste drop-off
     to throw it away, we looked back at it again and again, as if we had abandoned a child in the woods,
     and we ran, the two of us. The blue of the dawn sky lit up my skin like a broken screen
                                                                                                     and I felt as if the colour would never come off


In the Japanese version of this poem, the wrap point in line 3 was actually in the middle of the word ‘never’. Unable to place the wrap in a similar position in English, I moved it to after ‘screen’, mapping the transition from the visual image of the blue dawn sky, to the narrator’s feelings about the colour described. 

Also, for reasons of grammar and flow, the phrase ‘the two of us’ has had to move from the second line of the Japanese version to the third line of the English version.

Small decisions like this have come up dozens of times as I have worked with Rina Kikuchi to bring Kawaguchi’s unique sensibility across into English. The exercise is a difficult balance between not warping the meaning of the original and trying to avoid awkwardness which might distract the English-speaking reader. I hope it has been a useful illustration of how the line – particularly the long line — can throw up issues of its own when crossing into another language.


No one line

That concludes my ‘quick thoughts’ on the line. When approached to contribute this piece, I feared I was precisely the wrong poet to ask about ‘the line’, because Í don’t really have one. What I mean is that unlike many contemporary poets I do not have a recognisable line-fingerprint, changing my approach as I do so much from poem to poem. Perhaps the mere existence of a line-chameleon is interesting in itself.



[1]Patton, Simon, ‘In Short Measures’, Sydney Review of Books, 6 July 2017 (a review of Antigone Kefala’s Fragments) http://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/in-short-measures-antigone-kefala-fragments/

[2] Smith, Melinda, Goodbye, Cruel (Sydney, Pitt Street Poetry, 2017)

[3] See for example Haft Awrang (‘Seven Thrones’) by Persian poet Jami (1414-1492)

[4] From The Pocket Mirror (W. H. Allen, London, 1967) - used by permission.

[5] My recent collaborations with artist Caren Florance (Members Only, Recent Work Press, 2017 and 1962: Be Spoken To, Ampersand Duck, 2017) contain a number of these.

[6] The poem ‘Red language’ from Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call (Pitt St Poetry, 2013) is an example of this, rearranging the words in the line ‘Slipping on the red dress, she finds life under the carpet’ 11 times.

[7] The multi-poet, multi-translator anthology Poet to Poet: Contemporary Women Poets from Japan (Recent Work Press, 2017) was sponsored by the International Poetry Studies Institute in the University of Canberra’s Centre for Creative and Cultural Research. Enormous thanks are due to Drs Rina Kikuchi and Jen Crawford without whom the project could not have happened.