Thursday, 23 August 2012


“How an edge creates tension or loses it” - this phrase leapt out at me from Edmund de Waal’s fascinating family memoir The Hare with the Amber Eyes.  Edmund de Waal is a potter and the phrase is in the context of ceramics.  But it could just as easily refer to poetry.  Edges – the beginnings and ends of lines.

It made me think of Paul Muldoon’s poem “Why Brownlee left”.
Brownlee disappeared one morning while ploughing his land.  By noon his two plough horses were discovered still standing patiently

Shifting their weight from foot to
Foot, and gazing into the future.

The line-break enacts the meaning of the words.  The poem shifts its weight to the next line just as the horses do – and surely there is a concealed pun on the sense of foot as a unit of scansion in verse.  Look at the first edge of the first line, “shifting”, and the last edge, “to” and then the next line “Foot” which chimes with the last word of the poem, “future”.  Perfect edges.  Incidentally, can anyone tell me why Brownlee left?

I’ve recently discovered the work of American poet, Kay Ryan.  She is known for her narrow short-lined poems.  “Edges are the most powerful parts of the poem.  The more edges you have the more power you have”, she says in a Paris Review interview.

The edges of a poem are particularly exposed in free verse.  Good free verse is not chopped up prose.  Getting the line-breaks right is vital.  Glyn Maxwell, in his new book On Poetry, writes of free verse: “Line-break is all you’ve got, and if you don’t master line-break – the border between poetry and prose – then you don’t know there is a border.  And there is a border.”  Line- and stanza-breaks are “a form of punctuation, but a white not a black one.”

In Kathleen Jamie’s poem “Landfall” (The Tree House) we are walking along the shore and looking out across the waves.  When we see

            a single ragged swallow
            veering towards the earth-
            and blossom-scented breeze,
            can we allow ourselves to fail

That’s how the poem ends.  Look at the power in that line-break after "earth-":  the swallow is veering towards the earth, its landfall after a long migration.  But in the next line we find it’s drawn by the earth-scent and blossom-scent of the breeze.  Two meanings for the price of one.  Then there’s the final edge of the poem

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