Deep night blue cover with an apple shape floating and 'Ten Lines' written around its edgeTen Lines or More Than Just Love Notes, Sarah James

The School of Arts, English and Drama, Loughborough University, 2022. 
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Ten lines of light

Every poem in this pamphlet (winner of Loughborough University’s Overton Prize 2021) is ten lines long. Sarah James chose this constraint partly to mark the ten years since her first poetry collection, and partly as a tribute to Michael Symmons Robert’s use of a 15-line format in Drysalter.

I like short poems and was intrigued to see what the possibilities and limitations of ten lines might be. I began thinking about the significance of ‘ten’. I thought about fingers, toes, and the decimal counting system. I thought about ‘religious tens’: the plagues of Egypt, the ten lepers, decades of the rosary and the ‘ten directions’ of the universe in Buddhism. I thought about the Tarot ten card — the Wheel of Fortune. I thought about 10, Downing Street… and decided it might be time to stop thinking!

But I did wonder if there was a recognised ten-line form in poetry. It seems there are several, including the dizain, the décima and the decastich, with various rhyme schemes, syllabic rules and metres. Sarah James (probably wisely) keeps to free verse, but she does vary the poems skilfully by changing stanza breaks and by including a concrete poem, a specular poem, a found poem and a visual pun.

Many poems are about a relationship breakdown; others concern parenting, illness, and aging. The themes sound heavy but are held with lightness and a sense of hopefulness: light itself is a recurring motif.

The best poems combine a meditative quality with a strong central image; and the brevity of the ten-line format helps keep us focused, as in ‘Making Breakfast’, where we hold a quiet moment, almost literally, in the palm of our hands:

Take the day like a warm egg
in nestling straw. Cup its quietness
in your hand before breaking.

My favourite poem was ‘Post Dive’:

At depth, I finally open my eyes
and realise how much light
floats below the broken surface.
I glow like a strong filament
in a liquid lamp-bulb.
Anything could pass through me
and sparkle, even the sharp shock

of existing without him.

Annie Fisher