This Is Just To

I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast

Forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold

The final lines, "so sweet/and so cold," imply a certain spite. Marital friction. Watch how the lines defuse, however, if rewritten into long lengths:

I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me. They were delicious, so sweet and so cold.

Reads like a kitchen memo again, doesn't it? The voice suddenly sounds like a family doctor late for a house call. Worse, the darker meaning is lost so the last line seems like a consolation. The poem self-destructs.

Long lengths are for outbursts like the opening lines, say, of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl":

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, . . .

That's a howl heard across the fifties. The long line allows Ginsberg to vent his fury and feelings for generations to come. Watch what happens when we chop it into inappropriate short lines meant to dramatize a situation:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving hysterical naked dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. . . .

This sounds like a beatnik lobotomized, not a prophet proclaiming his loss in the voice of Solomon's "Song of Songs." As you can see, short lines ruin Ginsberg's "Howl," altering voice and undermining meaning and design, just as the Williams "plum" poem was ruined by long lines.

I routinely check my line lengths while polishing my verse. Here are three poems from my files, using short, medium and long lines and all dealing with the same subject —the loss of a baby:

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