Poetry Editing 101 – Session Six: Doing Lines

In his stage show, An Evening with Quentin Crisp, Mr Crisp was asked to define wit. He said:

Wit depends entirely on the order of the words. By nature we say the most important thing, the most urgent thing first and then we say all the qualifying phrases. And this never works. It never becomes a memorable phrase. First of all I hope we’re all agreed that wit is not a way of getting your own back on people with minds less nimble than your own. It is any comment on the human condition made in a way that is memorable. If you can refrain from saying the most important thing first then you will find that you’re able to give what you say this particular pattern, which I take to be wit.

One of the Gaiety Girls – one of the chorus girls of the beginning of this century – was asked by a televisionary whether she really thought that the beginning of the century was really as naughty as we imagine now. She said, “A peculiar morality prevailed at the time. We were allowed to accept gifts of flowers and candies and gloves and furs and jewels and houses and yachts and islands but never money.”

I open this session with that quote because it really brings us to one of the most important considerations in the editing of poetry. In last session’s Q&A, we talked about defining what is poetry. I just want to return to what I believe is the only simple definition.

The simplest definition of poetry I’ve ever heard lies in the distinction between prose and poetry. It is one of form: prose is based on the paragraph whilst poetry is based on the line.

If we look at that Gaiety Girl example we see that the most important part of the sentence is not only held back from the beginning but it is the thing left till the very last.

There’s a great deal of truth to this idea and you’ll spot it clearly when looking at a good poem, working in two very clear ways. Not only that the concluding lines of the poem should be where the wit is revealed, but also that the final word in each line should punctuate the poem with its thematic imagery. This is essential because, in poetry, the weight of each line is with its final word. Our attention naturally falls there, which is why it’s the most common place to position rhymes. You cannot hope to achieve the spectacular effects poetry can deliver to the page if you don’t get this right.

The right word at the end of a line will pound in comparison to the rest and steadily amplify your verse towards a crescendo. Place small and/or insignificant words at end of the lines and it will merely whimper to a close.

Let’s look at an example:

I take the scrambling rodent in
as Jamey slams the door behind me.
I don’t know where to run or go
or what measures to avoid
the biting teeth and scratching claws.

What I want us to note is how this makes us feel when we read. It’s a dramatic event to be sure but it’s not making good use of the end words and so doesn’t take full advantage of the power which poetry can give it. Each line, apart from the last one, seems like it fizzles. In, me, go – all very weak, mundane words which don’t match up to the feel or theme of the poem. Avoid – much better, but still not great. It’s too smooth and without texture.

How do we sort this out?

Either by rewriting or with clever use of enjambments (the continuation of a sentence without a pause beyond the end of a line). So let’s edit this to make as much use of the end words as possible.

I take the scrambling
rodent in as Jamey slams
the door behind.
Where to run,
or go, or what measures
to avoid the biting
teeth and scratching claws.

How does it make us feel when we read it now?

Each line now ends with a more powerful word and, more than that, punctuates theme into the verse itself. Scrambling, slams, behind, run, measures, biting, claws – these words give us a little prod as we read them like the spike at the end of a spear.

I can’t stress strongly enough how important this is when it comes to the editing process. It really is one of the most essential elements in poetic form and is worth spending time on to get exactly right for every poem.

This brings us to another big consideration we have to make and that is with line lengths. How long or short should they be for any particular poem?

It really depends on the feel you want to give. Poems with long lines give the reader the feeling of distance, of a panoramic film shot, as though they’re taking in everything at once. Poems with short lines give the feeling of intimacy, of a close-up film shot, and make our eye move between multiple images at speed.

I wrote some poems this week. Let’s have a look at them.


Armageddon is a poem about the horror of nuclear war. In its construction there were really a few ways I could have gone with the specific line length choice. I felt short lines would have been one possible decision, but only if I wanted to show the effects of the disaster on one person. Medium length lines would also have worked somewhat, but, again, I wanted this poem to have grand feel. In the end, the panoramic view of the terror that long lines would give me made me settle on that choice.

Let’s look at these three lines:

In the suburbs, reinforced windows shatter all the same. Frightened
families hide in basements or under hastily constructed
lean-to shelters made from living room doors.

Now it might be a fair observation to say that the horror would increase if we made these short lines and turned it into a close up, but I think the horror is already prominent within the words of the poem and this feel of taking it in all at once works much better. But I’m game, let’s see how it would read with shorter lines:

In the suburbs,
windows shatter
all the same.

families hide
in basements
or under hastily
lean-to shelters
made from living
room doors.

For me, it just seems too much to take in when presented this way. It’s so intense with its rapid frequency of end-words, it makes me want to stop reading and actually doesn’t deliver as much horror as the long lines.

This ability to deliver our images in widescreen is where long line poetry gets its power. If you feel like what you’re writing is something you want your readers to take in all at once then you should consider using this technique.

Now let’s look at the other poem I posted:


Conkers is a confessional poem about first love and first lust. I didn’t need to give much consideration to the line lengths here at all – I knew I wanted to bring the reader is as close as possible and so I went for short lines from the start.

We took walks away
from everyone
and learnt
in the inevitability
of that first smile
those kisses
and clutches
on his bed
or under
horse chestnut trees.

And looking at this we can see exactly how short lines derive their power. It is with the frequency of end-words which pull us in close as they hook us with their spikes. This is how to bring the reader in close and make them feel they’re right there with the persona.

As you first encounter these ideas, you may feel that these considerations are really only applicable to free verse and that poems written in form dictate the line lengths you must use. This is true, but it only means that you should carefully consider the form you use when writing a poem in form or strict meter, because line lengths have exactly the same effect in form poems as well. Take a look at these three examples and see how you get closer up with each successional poem.

Death, be not proud (Holy Sonnet 10) by John Donne
An Irish Airman foresees his Death by W. B. Yeats
My Papa’s Waltz by Theodore Roethke

In the next session we’re going to be talking about one of the final processes in our editing to maximise the power of our poems – conservation of language.

Before you go, please take a moment to give me a follow. It’s a great way you can help support the series and the blog. If you have any comments or questions about this session, or just want to say hello, feel free to post a comment below.

For now, go write!


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