A daily e-newsletter I’m receiving inspired my second post of phrases for National Poetry Month. Of breaking lines and cracking art projects, I sing with the chorus (the featured poet’s piece), and of the need to be gentle with oneself and one’s art, lest either one break and crumble.
The Cuyahoga County Public Library’s program “Read + Write: 30 Days of Poetry” each day presents a short poem and a poetry writing prompt at readwritepoetry.org. Today’s (April 8) featured poem is Maggie Anderson’s “The Thing You Must Remember.”
The portion that especially caught my notice emphasizes the delicate work of art making and, in a sense, the perils of a perfectionist approach to art, as that drive is grounded in fear of not being enough. (The arts and perfectionism are recurring themes of my blog.)
The passage also happens to speak directly to a major theme of the novel I’m writing for Camp NaNoWriMo this month about a young teacher’s obsessive efforts to combat bullying among her students. What a fine synchronicity of events and ideas!
With this sample of verse, I altered the format to make my usual handy grouping of five lines. My unsanctioned re-formatting raises the question of the mechanics of how to read a poem and how you can arrange the lines while writing one. I address these questions with some analysis below the excerpt.
Note: Ellipses for omitted text, brackets adding text for clarity, and slash lines signalling the end of a line as originally formatted–these are all my marks.
So here are lines 8-13 of the single-stanza, 16-line poem “The Thing You Must Remember” by Maggie Anderson, from Cold Comfort. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.
. . . When the [clay] dog’s back / stiffened, then cracked to white shards / in the kiln, you learned how the beautiful / suffers from too much attention, how clumsy / a single vision can grow, and fragile with trying too hard. . . .
The same excerpt with the poet’s original breaks of selected lines 8-13:
. . . When the dog’s back stiffened, then cracked to white shards in the kiln, you learned how the beautiful suffers from too much attention, how clumsy a single vision can grow, and fragile with trying too hard. . . .
A poem of this general form–containing relatively equal-length lines whose endings do not rhyme (free verse) and bearing punctuation at the middles and ends of lines–is meant to be read fluidly across the line breaks. It uses punctuated pauses (commas) and stops (periods) as if it were prose, as do most poems, even if those pauses and stops happen to correspond with line endings.
This “continuation of the sense of a phrase beyond the end of a line of verse” is called enjambment. The online Encyclopaedia Britannica has a helpful entry on this concept with an example to illustrate it clearly.
When we read the above poem aloud, then, we pause not after “back” (l. 8) but after “stiffened” (l. 9), and not after “shards” (l. 9) but after “kiln” (l. 10), and so forth.
Hearing the reading under such conditions, one might think this is not a poem at all, but other characteristics, such as length, word choice, point of view, and often style of voice while reading, all help signal to listeners that they are indeed hearing a poem.
Poetry is meant to be read aloud, but when line breaks don’t match pauses and stops, that doesn’t mean the break choices have no use or purpose. The visual effect can also be part of the package.
Aligning these phrases as Anderson does brings words with similar sounds (with techniques like internal rhyme, assonance, consonance) and similar appearances closer together. For instance, notice the internal rhyme of “back” with “cracked” and the consonant combination “nd” sound at the end of “stiffened” and “learned” (consonance).
Both visually and aurally, the pattern of short “i” rhyming words (assonance) lining up with each other is clearer than it would be if the commas and line endings corresponded; the cascade of the words “stiffened, in, kiln, single, vision, with, trying” all comes down the left side of the stanza in a delicate, suggestive bombardment.
The effect of certain sounds on a reader can vary, but for me, lots of short “i” words all stacked up like that suggests a sense of claustrophobia, being hemmed in and flattened like the very letter “i,” an application of pressure mirroring what happens to the clay figurine that “suffers from too much attention.” Think “squish” or “pinch.”
With this interpretation at least, form and meaning reinforce each other, and you notice these aspects more with free verse because there is no end rhyme to distract you from them. Similarly, any alliteration, repeated consonant sounds at the beginnings of words, is barely noticeable in the poem. Consonance describes matching consonant sounds at the ends of words.
Attention away from the ends, we are free to focus on the middle.
So now, you may start to see how poetic form and presentation can work together to encourage readers to take time, take it all in, and notice the clever or beautiful little convergences and connections–of word with word and word with meaning and meaning with meaning.
Once this happens, the overall message of the poem can more readily penetrate and resonate.
Check your favorite poems for enjambment, seeing how the arrangement of parts adds to the whole, and how these intentional choices of the poet communicate meaning and art.
And remember this: Treat your artwork and yourself gently, with a sense of trust and calm, so that both of you may remain whole and beautiful.
All the little clay puppies thank you for your kindness and mercy.
Image credit: clay figurine from etsy.com via duckduckgo.com search.