Long lines or short?

Poetry’s origins are in song and chant that made their impact by sound. It remains, for me, an art of the spoken word: that it’s seen in print on the book page or the computer screen or by Kindle is a convenience but not an end. We need to hear it, in our heads at least.

I think that helps to explain why I rarely use very short lines. If anything, my lines are getting longer. Very short lines produce a shape on the page that may be pleasing and is most obviously different from prose. The shape itself may be a kind of art as in the diamond-shaped poems beloved of Dylan Thomas and lesser poets. But this is nothing to do with the sound of the words, and indeed, diverts attention from the sound. Moreover, these forms seem to me to lay claim to a kind of precious exceptionalism, “Oh, look! This is Art!”) that I want to avoid.

The issue is particularly live for poetry that does not rhyme and does not follow a strict system of syllables and stresses such as the iambic pentameter. With such poetry, you can set it out as you choose.

Sorry if this sounds dogmatic. I do occasionally use short lines and they may be the best normal form for some – but not for me.

Let me illustrate what I mean. Here’s a part of a poem I wrote recently (not yet posted here):

What is this place we have come to between the mountains

The shallow hollow just enough for a tent?

You may find a buckle or a tooth and the grey shades cluster

To answer them death, to ride away from them death,

Or maybe you dreamt them as the ravens rose in triumph

As the sun fell and the moon rose and the stars’ fire

Beckoned the wolves’ wail, quietened the hare’s breath.


Now let’s see this as some might present it:


What is this place

We have come to between

The mountains?

The shallow hollow

Just enough for

A tent?

You may find

A buckle or a tooth and

The grey shades cluster

To answer them


To ride away from them


Or maybe you dreamt them

As the ravens rose

In triumph

As the sun

Fell, and the moon

Rose and the stars’ fire


The wolves’ wail


The hare’s breath.


To me the former is easily heard with a compelling rhythm, while when you read the latter, the heard voice in the head is lost – and it would be far harder to read aloud!

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  1. Hi,

    Apologies for the off-topic comment, but I couldn’t find a contact email for you.

    I recently put out an ebook of my writing, called ‘The New Death and others’. It’s a collection of short pieces, mostly dark fantasy.

    I was wondering if you’d be interested in doing a review on your blog.

    If so, please email me: news@apolitical.info. Let me know what file format is easiest for you, and I’ll send you a free copy.

    You can download a sample from the ebook’s page on Smashwords:


    I’m also happy to do interviews, guest posts, or giveaways. Just let me know what you’d prefer.


  2. Makes me think do I veer too much to short/long?

    • Thanks, Neel. Actually on scrolling back from this post to recently-posted poems, I found plenty of short lines. I think the principle is “horses for courses” and the kernel of what I’m saying is, “never forget that like a page of printed music, this is meant to be HEARD!”

  3. Caddo Veil

     /  January 24, 2012

    I’m with you Simon–as we may have discussed, I hear my poems in my head with a music score first (generally; there are odd exceptions). So I like hearing them. Back in Aug-Sept, I tried clipping some of them back–I thought maybe “concise” was better–and sometimes I suppose it is, if you have a rather abrupt/blunt point to make. Music is nicer, gets all that lost love agony down deep in the marrow–and sometimes makes the humor stick with you longer too. That was probably more than my “two cents worth”–sorry….

  4. Hmmm. I tend to lean toward shorter lines. I don’t do it on purpose. This post has made me realize that I sometimes write the lines as I intend for them to be spoken; in short rhythmic phrases, with plenty of pauses. It may have something to do with the fact that I tend to read quickly (whether silently or aloud) and shorter lines helps me to slow down enough for listeners to be able to digest as I read.

    Something I’m going to be examining with more interest for a while now.

    • Thanks, Hines. Actually, having posted this, I looked back and realised there were more short-lined poems on the blog than I’d realised. But the principle is precisely as you’ve stated, that the lines help indicate how the words should be read, and the right way to approach it is from thinking about how the thing should sound, on to how it should be set out on a page, and not the other way around. Rapping helps remind us of that.


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