Skip to content

Haphazard Poetry

Haphazard Poetry

Life forms illogical patterns. It is haphazard and full of beauties which I try to catch as they fly by, for who knows whether any of them will ever return?
(Margot Fonteyn, Prima Ballerina with the Royal Ballet)

I love that quote. My favourite poems are the ones that capture a moment of time that has never been viewed exactly that way before. That is probably the most significant impact of my sight loss — the photon of light that travelled at 669.6 million miles per hour to strike a dew drop caught in a spider's web is something I cannot see for myself and makes no audible impact that my ears can discern.

I also love the word haphazard ... it implies things that have come together with neither rhyme nor reason. But haphazard can sometimes be an unwelcome visitor.

Hard and Soft Editing

This week I was asked to look at a selection of poems which were behaving haphazardly on the page. A line started on the left and then, out of nowhere, there'd be a word or two right over on the right margin. A 24 line poem was spilling over onto two pages.

Mulder: I'm taking it seriously. I just don't understand why we're on it. It's our first catch back on the X-Files. This isn't an X-File.
Scully: Sure it is. It's unexplained. What do you want, aliens? Tractor beams?
(X-Files series 6 episode 15, Arcadia, from Wiki Quotes)

The first thing that was fairly easy to spot was that the poem cascading over the edge of one page and onto another was happening because each line was ending with a hard return.

In my own poetry this is something that took me a long time to get the hang of, and it was only through the help of a publisher did I understand what was going on. It all boils down to the formatting of line breaks in Microsoft Word. Although pressing the enter key does move to the next line, it does so with a blank line’s worth of space in it. If you press the down arrow cursor on the first line you'll indeed move onto the second line, but that first line is occupying two lines of physical space on the page — effectively double spacing your text.

Pressing the enter key is known as a hard return. They work perfectly for stanza breaks but what you need for a line break is a soft return. A soft return involves pressing shift + return (the return key is also known as the enter key). The soft return puts the next line of text immediately below the previous line, turning the poem back to single spaced. In the poems I was investigating I simply pressed the end key to go to the end of the line, pressed the delete key to bring the next line up and then pressed shift + enter to nudge it back onto the next line. Any time I came to a stanza break I left the hard return at the end of the last line of the first stanza but then continued with no additional blank line. (This is likely to be much easier for sighted people to spot because you can see the amount of space being created, but I used to find this tricky because my screen reader doesn't indicate the amount of space, so a soft return sounds exactly the same as a hard return and the only way to detect the difference is to look at the very last character on a line and listen to whether the screen reader says, “Carriage return,” or nothing at all. The carriage return is the hard return with the blank line’s worth of space, and the silent one is the soft return with no built-in extra space.)

The Never Ending Poem

And tracing the labyrinthine ways of your mind, the haphazard vagaries of your thoughts at ease, the odds and ends of your mental surplus you carelessly throw at the world, one wants to be at a loss, in a maze; amazed, and amazingly unabashed.
(Adam Zagajewski, poet)

The more puzzling question was why some words were over on the right hand side of the page even with the alignment set to be left aligned. Sometimes poets want to position words at certain spots on the page, such as in a concrete poem where the shape of the poem is part of the poem and they might use tab stops at specific measurements to do this; however these were not concrete poems and no tab stops had been used.

So, I started at the end of the line and worked my way backwards with the left cursor key. I kept track of each letter in the word until I reached the first letter, and then I found a space ... I then found another space ... and many more spaces until I got to the end of the last word that should have been on that line — always with the intention of trying to dictate the layout on the page. I might even have done something similar back in the days when I was using Word 97 and didn't have any clue about headings and styles and page brakes versus section breaks. The effect of all those spaces is that you can type the first word of the second line right after the last word of the first line, and then press the spacebar until the word drops over onto the next line. I shudder to think of that approach now because it assumes so many things. It assumes the editor of the magazine is going to publish the poem on the same size page as your submission, using the same margins and the same font and the same font size. A minor change to any of those formatting options and the words no longer fall onto the desired line. If a poem was submitted in 11pt Tines New Roman but the magazine uses 12pt Times New Roman, then the words that should be on the first line will still be there, but all those spaces each have a size and now they're 12pt size the word that neatly fell at the left hand edge of the second line will now appear a couple of inches to the right of the margin ... and it's a compound effect, each letter and space occupies a larger amount of space so that by the time the last line of the poem arrives the text is all over the shop.

Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
(from Try to Praise the Mutilated World by Adam Zagajewski, translated by Clare Cavanagh)

Walk the Line

I've always liked a formal layout and informal planting," she explained. "First get the structure right, like the bones in a face, then plant it like a crowded shoe. If you have a strong layout, you can let the plants seed themselves all over the place. Haphazard, unexpected... I like to be surprised by a garden.
(Nancy Lancaster (interior designer, interior decorator, socialite)

Nancy Lancaster Perkins standing in 1916

(photo from Wikipedia).

There was one final minor niggle with the formatting, and it's something I regularly encounter when I'm reading PDF copies of novels. Imagine the last paragraph of a chapter is halfway down the page. The PDF file then has something like a dozen blank lines so that the next chapter starts on a new page. It's the same thinking as using spaces to orchestrate the start of new lines. It just doesn't make sense! Use the page break (in Word it's on the Insert ribbon, shortcut key Alt + i) ... if I were editing a magazine, and every accepted submission needed all those blank lines and spaces removing, I'd have pulled my hair out long ago! As Nancy Lancaster said, first (before sending a poem into the world) get the structure right :)

(All quotes containing the word haphazard sourced from

Admin Note:

Next week's post will appear on Monday 19 February :)

#Editing #Formatting #Haphazard

Published inblindnesscompetitions and submissionsPoetrytechnology

One Comment

  1. Frances Browner Frances Browner

    This is so informative, Giles, I had never heard of soft return, should I use it at the end of every line of poetry? And line break at the end of every chapter in a novel?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

© 2021 Giles L. Turnbull · All rights reserved

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: