It was a date — not our first. Wax and I met at a small bar near the Common after I was done teaching for the day, but I was energized, feeling the teaching endorphins, that excitement that comes from the interaction between eager student and passionate teacher. My students were on fellowship, a group of exceptionally talented writers in Boston for three weeks to study craft. And I was their lucky teacher. Blessed. Amazed. As a group, they were the best I’d ever had.
“How was your day, dear?” It was Wax’s joke. Parody the long-married, even though we were just dating.
I must have told him what we’d done in class that day, or he pressed, but I found myself explaining enjambment to a physicist. Given that I’d patiently waited through explanations of trapped protons and surface wave experiments, I assumed Wax would want to learn something about my world, one that he knew very little about. He was smart — the Ph.D. in physics leaves no doubt — but he didn’t know much about poetry.
“If I had to essentialize poetry, I’d focus on diction, sound, and line. And line makes enjambment possible, the breaking of the syntactical unit.” And if you doubt I talk like this in real life, remember I’d just come from four hours of expounding on the technical underpinnings of poetry.
And then, just as I’d told my students earlier in the day, I told Wax the story of James Wright and Donald Hall, two important 20th Century poets and close friends. Hall was sitting bedside with Wright who was in the last throes of terminal throat cancer. Wright had been communicating via a legal pad, writing things down. But so far, according to Hall, Wright hadn’t broached any serious topics. No big end-of-life declarations.
And then Wright indicated he wanted to write something down on the legal pad:
and Hall thought, finally, we’re going to get real here. And then Wright continued on the next line:
for a bowl of ice cream.
The first line gives us the intake of breath at the weight of the topic. The second line expands the meaning of the first, changes it but it doesn’t erase it. Enjambment allows for the moment where there’s the first meaning, then the second, the pause between the two, and the awful beautiful complexity of the constellation of meanings.
It’s a powerful story, one that gives a sense of Wright’s dark wry humor (like a sandwich!) but also gives a sense of how enjambment can work. It’s admittedly elementary, but when written on a whiteboard in front of students while telling the story, it always gets a gasp. It’s clever; it’s apt. It’s not the entire universe of line in poetry any more than an orange and a plum are actually the sun and earth in a classroom demonstration. They’re there to give an approximation. Just as the James Wright story does for enjambment.
“It’s a punchline!” Wax exclaimed.
“Enjambment is a punchline. Got it.”
“It is. I got it. Enjambment is a punchline.”
“Punchline,” Wax hummed, very pleased with himself. He was done.
I had been mansplained.
I wish I could take credit for the word, but it comes from Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things to Me,” a must-read. If you’re a man and do this, it might enlighten you. If you’re a woman, it will confirm that it’s not all in your head. Mansplaining is real.
After a 30 second lesson, my date, the physicist, was an expert on enjambment. He ended all discussion. He insisted on his perverted definition. My how clever I am! After all, how tough could this poetry thing be?
I lost track of how many times he cut me off. I finally stopped trying to say anything. I stopped saying anything at all. We stopped dating not long after this event.
What does this have to do with sex?