To Pause or Not to Pause; That is the Line Break

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Hello Poets,

As my universe goes whirling into a soupy maelstrom of grad school, I have found a shallow moment to ponder my favorite quirk of poetry: the line break. So humble and yet a true demonstration of the power poetry can foster. Many a man, and woman, has faught to death over a line break… or at least, I assume so, I mean, it’s a pretty touchy subject.

I remember most vividly my first experiences with creative line breaking. I was in my first poetry class at JMU, a narrow wooded room in the crooked cooridor of Keezel Hall, with one long table in the center. It felt like a meeting, or a large family dinner just before the entrees arived. The professor, a woman whom I deeply admire, passed out a paragraph. We were to cut it into little pieces, shave away the poem from that block of knotted words.

I cut them carefully, making all the sentences end softly on their toes. The words were goose feathers on a unbroken surface. I intended to make no ripples. But I was wrong. The paragraph was a poem, strong and aching–about a woman who serves fish on the funeral night of her husband. The fish, plunging rough to lower depths, was a lasting reminder of the power of linebreaks. I wish I remember the name of the poem; it meant so much to me, hearing the real line. Waiting at the end of each phrase with my toes curled.

Her tension was beautiful. I was nearly ashamed of how simply I treated the phrases. How desperately I wanted them to sit neatly on the nose. I was (still am) so young. The words, with their billowing potential, float easily on breezes I foster with foolish optimism. I have no gut for broken lines. No weighty pause.

As I began to pay more attention I noticed the forming of two camps. Those who stopped at the end of the line and those who read to the punctuation. Some readers were subtle, waiting only a moment before carrying on the enjambment. A suggestion, perhaps, a Mona Lisa smile. Others, like me, made a point of waiting, letting the line circle it’s own feet before begining another. A pause for thought, or respect.

I was reminded of the line again, some years later from the narrow room with the dinner table, where we feasted on poetry and were satiated and insatiable. While discussing poems with my Editor, I found that the word choices, the slanted grammar, was not a particular bother to me. I realized we were looking at two different poems: one with enjambing lines and one with neat little lines like arm hairs–straight up.

I think that’s why I never fuss over the capitalized first line of poems (oh Microsoft Word). So many of my colegues leer at a poem with capitals at the far left margin, standing straight up as if reading itself aloud. Sometimes I don’t notice. I’m a micro-ist. Reading the poem as a poem, and the line as a smaller poem. Gears on gears on gear, spinning.

Enjambment has become fashionable these days; everyone wants to test out their strength at the wrench. Will it hurt if I increase the tenson. How tight can I wind these bolts. I am guilty of this myself, I’m afraid. But over time I find the poem makes itself comfortable in its own break-age. The mark of a true artist lies in how gracefully one breaks the surface.

Hope that wasn’t too theoretical…
Keep writing and feel free to share your thoughts on line breaks in the comments. I would love to know how you read poetry!

–ECW

Library School Day 2

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Hello Poets!

I am tasked with constructing a blog for my library class, but thought rather than whirl down the drain of temporary cyber space, I would instead combine the process of poetry with the process of my career; as often they have been one and the same. So, for those of you following along, I have begun my studies (online of course) at San Jose State, to get a degree and be a real-live-grown-up Librarian.

Last month I wrote an article on LinkedIn about the importance of libraries in a society that seems to have forgotten them. Though my experience has been far different, I know the general consensus is the long swan song of our public bookish spaces.

Here, I want to express my love for a small but important section of the library that pangs deeply with all of us: Poetry 813. 

The Poetry Section is a Mess. 

Not just because poets from opposing centuries get different numbers, like 811.3 or 811.8 or later in anthologies 820… no poetry books in libraries (Dewey System anyway) have a certain tendency to be thin and disheveled because poetry is disheveled. We are in an age of ever changing standards. I see it all day long working on the journal [NGQ]. I find the poetry section, unlike any other section in the stacks, to be the vast tree rings of our complex theories. A rough cut crystal hastily cracked to marvel what lies inside. The poetry section makes me wonder about what was lost, pared down, purged from the ever bulking shelves. 

I think often of the poetry shelves. The paper whisp editions of temporary art. I imagine the poetry section is purged with the most frequency and the least impact. This poet out of vogue, that long lost writer in his place. And yet, we are clearing only half an inch away. Not an encyclopedia, not a novel. Five score pages, no more.

I think often of myself on the poetry shelves. 811.13 WIR

But there is no such book. Nor will there ever be. For many of us, the poetry shelves are little more than a throw back to a simpler more guarded time. Now the internet provides for us our own shelf, equipped with the whisperes of fellow poets, aspiring writers, quiet readers. We are luckier than anyone on the 813 shelf. No purging. No missing books, lost forever in someone else’s living rooms.

I think often of the tree rings of this writing generation. Millenials, they call us. I once used that term in my thesis (long before it came into common tongue) to describe anyone writing now. Not just the youth, but the longstanding veterans, who wrote to capture this moment. This tree ring.

It has grown out of itself; sprouten and sprawled into something more complicated, unruly and wild. The tree ring of this writing generation is a seed. And with that we have outgrown the poetry shelf, our humple reminder of what greatness came to a lifetime ago.

Keep Writing and Visit Your  Local Library

ECW