—in poetry, when a sentence or phrase overflows its singular line and pours into the next (and maybe beyond) before meeting with a solid pause and some kind of terminal punctuation…
As I sat in my office early this morning considering whether I really needed to teach the term “enjambment” to my AP seniors later in the day, I suddenly found myself daydreaming and spiraling away in wonder from the task at hand.
My affection for poetry runs deep. And I’m not even sure there is a tangible way to describe why. For a while, I thought it was because I simply loved the puzzle of analysis or the way writing a poem allowed me to lay my emotions down on the page. But as I began to include more poetry in my classroom–and not just poems that I was choosing because “they were important to study” (how do you even qualify that?), but poems that students sought out because they were struck by the words on the page, poems that we read aloud and then lingered over, poems that made us smile or think or pause, poems whose careful construction crafted something unexpected–in those moments, I realized that I loved poetry because it was, in fact, the greatest teacher in my life.
As a teacher of writers, poetry has instructed me to choose and arrange my words with care and how to apply punctuation in all of my writing to deepen meaning and understanding. As a teacher of readers, poetry proved to be a bridge rather than the barrier it is always portrayed to be. So often the assumption that students will hate poetry prevents us from really giving it a chance in the classroom. We relegate it to a singular unit as though it has no place in our everyday lives. Except that unit is a false metric. Poetry presents a perfectly sized challenge to our readers–all of our readers. In their brevity, poems allow us to better understand what it means to be a writer and also grants us the opportunity to better understand ourselves, the world around us and our place in it without alienating or overwhelming us with verbosity stretching from margin to margin, page after page. (there’s so much more for me to say here–but it’s not my point, so I’ll return to those thoughts another day…it’s not like I’m not writing everyday at this point…king cake is a powerful motivator!)
But, today, as I considered the word “enjambment” my brain strayed from line breaks and end marks in poetry to the moments we consider end marks in our lives–and I realized that maybe they aren’t the clearcut extended pauses we hope they will be, maybe there is nothing “terminal” about these moments we see so clearly punctuated. And maybe that’s the best possible circumstance, to live a series of enjambed lines.
The more I thought about it, this truth grew more brilliant–it would seem my life has been exactly that: an extended thought that overflows the expected boundaries.
I can’t isolate events without realizing that every moment I’ve lived, every hardship endured, every joy celebrated has influenced and shaded in some way every moment that followed. Because each one of these experiences has molded and shaped me into the person I am today. There may be a brief pause for momentous occasions as there would be to denote the end of an unpunctuated line of poetry, but then the poem keeps going, we keep on living–defined by the lines above, defining the lines to come. I like this so much better than the cliche of “starting a new chapter in life” as though you need to completely close out one period of time in order to move into the next. As much as I joke about how great it would be to just close the chapter on my inner ear illness or the years where I thought we would never have a baby, I also know that my perseverance and much of my strength emanates from having endured those years. To view healing as a complete stop and better health as a new and entirely separate enterprise would be to deny the truth of my experience, of my life…and the wisdom and compassion gained in living those days…it would deny me the continuity and movement of each experience flowing into the next.
I didn’t end up teaching enjambment today. I needed more time to figure out how to grant my students the opportunity to see it as more than just a literary term with form and function. I didn’t just want to give notes and examples. There seemed to be greater opportunities available. So we will wait.
I suppose that it might seem I was wasting valuable planning time in this wandering distraction. Yet, I feel like it defines the real reason I love poetry…it grants me the space and time to be still and to wonder. And as much as I love gifting myself with those moments of freedom as I wade around in a poem, granting my students that opportunity to think freely and for themselves and then witnessing the outcome is infinitely more valuable. And certainly isn’t an opportunity to be caged in a single unit, taught once a year.
(This one was tough to write. I knew what I wanted to say but by the time I sat down to write it, I was exhausted and the thoughts jumbled. But day 3 is done and I’m proud of that!)