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Breaking My Heart

Julia Lewis

Breaking into the reader’s mind is the beginning of any piece of writing.  It might be as violent as a rock through a window or as subtle as habituation to an alarm clock.  The form of writing that specializes in breaking is poetry.  At least, that is what I, a poet, would like to argue.  In this essay, I’m going to talk generally about the role of breaking in poetry and specifically about my own breaking problem. 

Poetry is a study in the art of breaking at several levels.  Words are cut at their joints to make the prescribed syllable counts in forms such as haiku.  Other times, words are spliced into one another, my favorite example of poetic license. (Do you know what a syllaship is?)  Line breaks complicate meaning at the sentence level- raising the question is a sentence equal in meaning to the phrases set together in a line?  More dramatically, what happens when a sentence is stretched over two stanzas?  Breaking creates the fearful space in a poem, the not entirely empty white page.  The way words and phrases in poetry break away from the reader is probably why poetry is so difficult to read.  Poems are unstable beneath the reader’s eye.  In his poem, Introduction to Poetry, Billy Collins addresses readers’ desire for stability in poetry. 

“But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.”

The breaks in poetry are not always welcome, sometimes they are frustrating to readers. 

Poetry is the central craft of writing caught between linguistics at one extreme and novels at the other end.  It is a part of the whole, or the interplay of parts to the whole. Breaking is implicit in the relationship of parts to wholes (or holes).  Poems use the same tools differently than novels to make meaning.  Diction, syntax, meter, and sounds are manipulated by the poet to create meaning.  Poets play with the space on the page.  The blank empty parts, created by breaking, are as important to the poem as the words themselves.  The white portion of the page slows the reader’s progress through the poem.  It is impossible to skim a poem because shortening the time devoted to the spaces between the lines alters the ratio of text to space.  The breaks in a poem translate into physical constraints to the voice and breath when read aloud.  Perhaps even conflict between the eyes and the tongue.  The emphasis placed on words and sounds is changed in a poem read too fast.  The same words strung together without breaks have a different meaning.  Rushing through a novel does not modify its meaning.  A page of poetry usually takes longer to read properly than a page of prose. 

In poetry, the introduction of distance between words creates time.  Think of a break from work for vacation time.  Breaks are time for the reader to think, meditate, or otherwise absorb the poem.  The reader of poetry experiences time through the physical distance between the words on the page or silence between sounds.  Poems use time as a component of their structure; novels use time as a part of their content. The content of a poem is a-temporal; it does not move through time.  Narrative poetry uses time in both structure and content.  Narrative poems are temporal; they have a beginnings, middles, and ends.  This combination is a temporal story written in verse.  (I write partial narrative poems.)  The hybrid nature of narrative poetry is exemplified by Christina Rossetti’s lyric, “Goblin Market.”  Throughout most of the poem, the line breaks and punctuation function synergistically.  In places, the line breaks are redundant; the punctuation is sufficient clarification for the reader.  Like narrative poems, prose poems are a hybrid genre.  A poem without that imposing space on the page.  A poem more friendly to novel and nonfiction readers.  A poem without breaks.  Or only very minor breaks, as a paragraph is a kind of breaking.  Prose poems are tame, not breaking away at the drop of a hat.  The reader can depend on a good prose poem to place one word after the next.  These poems are well mannered. 

The ultimate break in a poem comes in the last line.  Firstly, it is the place where the poem breaks away from the reader completely.  After finishing the line, the reader too, breaks away from the poem.  The final line is both the ending and the farewell. The space on the page that follows is a place of transition for the reader.  There is a second kind of goodbye contained in last line of a poem.  This is the writer breaking away from their creation.  The author’s last reading before sending it out into the world ends here.  That is the creature writing breaking away from the writer. 

The third act of breaking is indirect; it is the parting of the author from the reader.  Though the author may never know the real reader; there is always an ideal reader held in their mind.  This singular reader is akin to an actor’s “audience of one.” (Until I Find You, John Irving)  The writer might imagine or know their special reader.  Writer Neil Gaimon explains that every comic or graphic novel script he writes is written specifically to the artist he will be working with on the project.  In fact, he goes so far, as to refuse to begin writing the script until he knows the artist he is addressing.  Despite the collaborative nature of graphic novels, I suspect that every work is really a letter to the writer’s particular reader.  Therefore, the end of the poem is the end of the letter.  In all cases, the closing line is the last exchange between poet, reader, and poem. 

Here as a writer is my problem, the last line.  My personal breaking problem.  It wasn’t always this way; it wasn’t until I started writing to you dearest reader.  Now every ending is torturous to write.  The last lines stick in my mind.  As I try to imagine breaking away, I’m crying in the coffee shop.  I wrote an essay about breaking and poetry to see if working in prose made any difference.  It didn’t.  I’m terrified of being broken and lonely.  The truth is- I still don’t know how to say goodbye to you…


I’m having preposition problems too: breaking up, breaking apart, breaking my heart isn’t even a preposition…


Me:      “I don’t know how to say goodbye to you.”

You:    “Then don’t.  I’m sure our paths will cross again.”





 “You might let some fragments or gaps lie and be incoherent, or inattentive to coherence.  You might let yourself break with "finishing."

  -Alice Lesnick



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Breaking Project Author/Creator: 
Julia Lewis