I recently ran some workshops for students and was lucky enough to have Mona Arshi lead two of the sessions. Mona is a great advocate of the role of ‘form’ in poetry – consciously working on such things as line length, metre and phrasing in ways which may seem clear to seasoned practitioners, but to those just beginning to write poems can be new and demanding.
One interesting trick that Mona showed us was to hold the paper with your poem on it up to the light, turn your page over so that you are looking at the reverse, and then notice line length – anything too uneven is wanting attention – or at least justification. Furthermore you will stop looking at the choice of specific lexis, and instead start to think about the shape and fluency of the poem. To me this seemed akin to Frost’s idea about the “sound of sense”. Frost talked about listening to voices through a closed door, suggesting it is possible to understand the general tone of a conversation even when the specific words are muffled, because the tones and sentences with which we speak are coded with sonic meaning: a “sound of sense”.
The technique of looking at lines on the back of the paper is something like this, because the words themselves are not the focus of attention, instead the focus falls on the shape of the poem. Of course there has been lots written about Frost’s notion, and there is plenty to think about concerning Mona’s ideas on line length, among other things, but one neat little coincidence during the course of these workshops, was that I read an interview with Simon Armitage in which he talks about the fact that he writes poems onto graph paper, he says “The graph paper helps me plot the length of lines against each other and gauge the size of the poem as it might appear in printed form.”
I should also point out that line length is tied to syllables, clearly, so the ‘look’ of the poem is just one factor – the metre and all those fiddly things also need to go into the mix.
So, if you are looking for another check on whether a poem is working or not, consider flipping the page over and holding it up to the light, too long/disjointed/just right? Or perhaps you’ll decide it’s time to hit the stationery shop and get hold of some graph paper?
The full Armitage interview can be found here –
Mona Arshi’s collection ‘Small Hands’ won the Forward Prize for best first collection in 2015 and her website is here https://www.monaarshi.com/