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Experimental approaches

Previous steps look at how the boundary between poetry and prose is blurred in the question of the line. Poem experiments such as ‘Quantum Sheep’ by Valerie Laws [1] appear to abandon the line altogether.

In 2002, the poet was commissioned to develop a project, which included writing a set of words on the backs of sheep. The sheep would, by going about their day to day activities (eating grass, basically), constantly rearrange the words, thus constantly creating new poems.

If you go to Laws’s website, you can see on the photos that the sheep, of course, do not arrange themselves into neat poetic lines. So what ‘s the idea behind it?

It is important to note that the original set of words Laws used includes images of clouds, and that it is in part up to the ‘reader’ to make sense of what is in front of them. Laws studied both English and Theoretical Physics. On her website, she writes:

The project was inspired by watching sheep below the Roman Wall, with coloured marks on their backs, moving across the fields like the cloud shadows. The sheep and clouds reflected each other. Quantum Sheep celebrates three main principles of Quantum Theory. Randomness, which is at the heart of the universe (the 14 sheep move randomly to create over 80 billion poems): duality (the metaphorical duality of clouds and sheep): and the influence of the observer on the observed (the onlookers making sense of the formation, creating their own versions of the poems with punctuation & line-breaks).

The use of a random element to organise their poetry is used by many experimental poets. When he became a parent, for instance, the poet Chris McCabe created a poem out of 12 odd phrases he found himself saying to his child. These were then assigned a number on a clock, and then reordered, depending on where the child pointed.

What ways can you think of introducing random element into your poetry? What other ways are there of writing a poem without lines?

(But please, please, please, do not write your poetry on livestock…)

Further reading

Chivers T, editor. Adventures in Form. London: Penned in the Margins; 2012.


[1] Quantum Sheep - a Haik-ewe [Internet]. Valerie Laws, writer. 2018 [cited 13 April 2018]. Available from: http://www.valerielaws.com/quantum-sheep---a-haik-ewe.html

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