Accessibility 11: Who Broke My Lines?

Andrew Macdonald Powney
2 min readJan 31, 2023
Unlock your writing so that everyone can read it: picture of pen, keyboard and padlock.

Years ago I came across a poem of mine online. I did not recognise my own poem at first. This was the early days of ‘online’, and all the line breaks had gone. A magazine had done it; it had been written for print. It wouldn’t happen now. The text had ‘reflowed’, on account of the way it was put in, and it had entirely lost the shape I had imagined for it.

The way I was taught, shape was everything (or nearly everything). I don’t mean concrete poems, or even George Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’, which looks like a butterfly made of words (and is Jacobean). I mean that it was tacitly accepted that reading a poem aloud meant pausing very slightly at a line break — and poets sought to exploit that.

That pause and the end of a line is a poet’s chance for magic. It is the point at which the reader pauses over all the things that they think the last word of the line could mean, and cannot help but guess what other words grammar will be urging them on to at the start of the following line.

This is your chance to change everything. You can change the meaning of a two-word phrase in an incredibly suggestive way, by building it over a line break. In fact, the poet and academic Drew Milne is a Marxist who makes his whole discourse ‘dialectical’ by dodging the expected at every next word, revealing the hidden contradictions of a text like those of the commodity.

e.e. cummings did it all the time — subverted readers’ expectations, that is (as he did by his plays on capitalisation: what had seemed Important turned out to be not so important after all). Yet today, when an app will reflow your content for you, so that it fits all manner of screen widths, you, as the writer, may no longer be in charge of how the cadences fall.

It was a decade ago in The New Yorker that Paul Muldoon reviewed a book on e.e. cummings in which Muldoon canvassed Apollinaire’s idea that then, in that period, the 1920s, it was the era when cinema and the phonograph had taken over from typography: really, that era is now. Accessibility means reading for information, and getting the ‘cognitive value’ of words across to all readers rather than some, but it also has subtle effects on what we expect from communication.