While reading R. S. Thomas' collection Not That He Brought Flowers (1968) I was struck by the peculiar typesetting of the opening poem, "Careers" (page 7), in which the poet reflects on how things have changed through his life.

Fifty-two years,
most of them taken in
growing or in the
illusion of it—what does the mem-
ory number as one's
property? The broken elbow?

The full text of the poem does not seem to be available online, but that is a faithful representation of how it is printed in my text.

What is the purpose of splitting "memory" across two lines with a hyphen? It does appear to be the longest line of the poem, but there is plenty of space on the printed page in my edition to fit the last three characters of the word. So I presume it is a deliberate choice by the poet. What does it signify?

  • 1
    One potential reason for odd word-breaks like that is to get certain numbers of syllables per line (e.g. in poems where those give the digits of a number such as pi) — but this doesn't look like that sort of poem.  (And the numbers 4 6 5 9 6 8 don't seem meaningful.  Nor the numbers of words per line: 3 5 4 6½ 3½ 4.)  They don't fit a regular scansion or rhyming scheme, either.
    – gidds
    Commented Jun 20 at 22:32
  • 2
    If the poem is read aloud, the hyphen forces the reader to pause momentarily, thus creating the illusion that their memory has faltered slightly, as if recalling a painful or difficult memory.
    – Valorum
    Commented Jun 22 at 7:27


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