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Wanda Coleman On Line Breaks: In Response

When someone appears to be saying something very silly or obviously incorrect it is mostly only because you have misunderstood them.

This post in the Poetry Foundation’s blog ‘Harriet’ has been irking me since I read it last Friday. In the form of repeated, somewhat nasal rhetorical questions, Wanda Coleman argues that new poets have ‘forgotten’ (a nice way of implying that a certain piece of knowledge is essential) the role of the printer/typesetter in the creation of poetry in the past. She bases this on the argument that “those so-called lines and “enjambments” that some professors of poetry wax so eloquently about” are not “necessarily the work of [the] poet”, but of “those long dead book designers and typesetters”. To quote the relevant central section in full:

Does the (ah-hem) neophyte poet emerging in this century know that poets didn’t always break their own lines? Who broke them and how? Are those so-called lines and “enjambments” that some professors of poetry wax so eloquently about, truly the work of the creative writer? Or rather an editor with an eye for graphic design? Or a creative book designer? Or, more likely, a creative typesetter of eras past? Does the student or lover of poetry realize that those sainted breaths set in today’s literary stone, weren’t necessarily the work of said poet? […] Is it known that, occasionally, there are writers and poets who disdain the grunt work of breaking their own lines?

It is unclear exactly what Wanda Coleman is saying. First of all there is the idea, comforting to the struggling writer, that, despite its grave composure in the pages of a ‘collected works’, any great poem was as much the product of failure, collaboration & accident as anything else. But Coleman is making a point specifically about line breaks. If we she is only talking about the finer details of the appearance of poetry on the page — the size of indents, the alignment of one word with another, etc. — then there is certainly something about the work of the printer. However, Coleman appears to be talking simply about line breaks: when one line ends & another begins. I once read a definition of the difference between poetry & prose as being that in prose the printer chose where each line ended, whereas in poetry the poet did. Surely, whenever poets have written metrically or with end-rhymes, the point at which one line ends & another begins is obviously the work of the poet. To say that “poets didn’t always break their own lines” is, if we are talking about the vast majority of verse printed in “eras past”, quite plainly false. (So plainly false that I fear I have misunderstood & will look foolish kicking at straw men.)

There could, I suppose, be instances where line breaks are not the work of the poet. For example, Old English poetry, although metrical, was written out with the line endings decided by the scribe. In more recent times, vers libre could have printer-chosen line breaks, although only because in an un-line-broken manuscript it might be hard to tell where one line is to end & another begin. (Although not to imply, as Coleman’s argument if understood correctly appears to do, that a line break is unimportant — “grunt work”, as she calls it — ; a line is a unit of sound in vers libre just as much as it is in metrical poetry, even if the effects are less immediately apparent.)

There is a point which can be made in Coleman’s blog post if we replace ‘line breaks’ with ‘punctuation’. Whilst line breaks are quite unambiguously encoded into the text in syllables & rhymes, punctuation isn’t as clear, &, especially if one goes further back in time, is as much the work of a printer or editor as the poet. Shakespeare’s originally unpunctuated sonnets were the material for Robert Graves & Laura Riding’s, & thence William Empson’s, look at the syntactic ambiguity in poetry that became so important for the New Criticism, for instance. 

All in all, Coleman’s post is thought-provoking, although I’ve found it puzzling over anything else. I’d appreciate it if someone could point out where I have misunderstood, if this is the case (which I suspect it is).