Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Line length and line endings in the digital age

I've blogged previous about the relative virtues of drafting with a pen, a pencil or a keyboard (see here), so I won't be going over that old ground again today. Suffice to say I prefer a pen, as it enables me to follow the trail back to my first draft via crossings-out, red herrings, dead ends and stuff that seemed useless but becomes pivotal and requires salvaging.

No, today's post takes as its point of departure the fact that many younger generations always write poetry via a keyboard and a screen. Their typing is far more rapid than my two-fingered efforts, and a fair chunk of them don't even own a printer. This last point means that they read through their drafts on a monitor rather than on a piece of paper, of course.

The key issue is whether the above-mentioned shift in writing habits is affecting the way their poetry is functioning. There seem to be two major questions. The first is whether speed of writing encourages lines to be longer, freer, less tense. The pen weighs up every letter before committing it to the notebook, but the keyboard rushes onwards.

The second matter for debate, meanwhile, is whether trends in line endings are also altering. The argument might be that moving a line ending with a pen involves writing the poem or at least the stanza out again (and again). It entails meditated probing as to whether an experiment functions. However, on a screen, the return key encourages the poet to play around with line endings at will, changing and then changing back in a few seconds flat, spotting immediately how semantics and synax might interact with expected and unexpected line endings. 

In other words, my suggestion is that if there's a generalised evolution towards longer lines and more unexpected line endings among younger poets, it might not just be because of their aesthetic tastes but because the actual means by which they write are also different. And this is before even starting to consider poems that might have been drafted on phones...!


  1. I agree with you. It's tricky to confirm such suspicions though. If you track the stats from one magazine, you're really tracking the preference of its editors. Best British Poetry ditto. If instead you try somehow to sample all poetry, you need to factor in the fact that much poetry is now read on the [phone] screen, and might be written with that in mind.

    Plus, as poets die, they'll be fewer editors, judges and tutors who grew in a world where metrics mattered (or at least haunted). Their departure will have a cumulative effect. On Creative Writing courses, fewer presented poems will have scrupulous lines.

    In passing, I note in the most recent Acumen that Sean Hewitt uses "Short, powerfully propulsive lines whose ending cut against the grain of the syntax" (Edmund Prestwich) and that Levertov liked "writing with precise controlled musical phrasing, related very closely to the breath and its movements" (Fred Beake). To me, the extracts don't match the descriptions - a further obstacle to objectivity.

  2. I've barely drafted anything with a pen since I got my first word processor back in the 90s. The one exception was haiku, since I tend to draft them on walks, but now that happens entirely on the phone. I've never given much of a damn about line endings. I'm pleased to think that all this qualifies me as a younger poet. Now if I could just convince my white (and mostly missing) hair of that!