When I was an MFA student, I remember my professor used the phrase “proliferation of meaning” to describe how line breaks can create openings where multiple ideas can surface. We were reading a poem by Kenneth Koch, in which the second line of the poem contradicted what was said in the first, and my professor pointed out how the line breaks allow these contradictions to exist together within the poem; the poem becomes a world in which multiple ideas are true. I understood this to mean that sentences have their literal meanings, but in poetry, meaning is also created at the level of the line. What the line tells us may be different from what the sentence is saying, and this disjunction allows for surprise and the simultaneity of contradicting possibilities.
I’ve always thought of line breaks as the poem’s body language. Words might come out of the poem’s mouth, but the positioning and the arrangement of those words express their own truths. Sometimes poems tell you exactly what they mean with little ambiguity, but other times, a poem is saying “I love you” with her arms crossed, shoulders turned away. And this body language creates an ambivalence that begs for reader interpretation.
I often think about the ambivalence created by the line breaks in Robert Creeley’s “The Language.”
love you some-
take care not
to hurt, you
I heard words
and words full
is a mouth.
When I first encountered this poem, I’d read it quickly, and I thought, perhaps, that it was meant to be a love poem. The phrase “I love you” appears twice and is emphasized with italicization, so “love” stands out as the poem’s possible subject matter. However, upon second or third read, I found that the line breaks complicate the speaker’s expressions of love. The poem’s individual lines create contradictions, and moments of ambiguity, opportunities for various readings. The first sentence of the poem (without line breaks) is “Locate I love you somewhere in teeth and eyes, bite it but take care not to hurt, you want so much so little.” Here, the speaker tells the reader to search for this language of love in the body and to try not to hurt oneself, or perhaps to try to not hurt others. (The object of the hurt is left out of that sentence.) The line breaks, however, tell a different story. Each time the phrase I love you appears, it is broken. The “I” is never positioned on the same line as “love you,” which, perhaps, suggests a distance between the speaker and his beloved. The first line of the poem, “Locate I,” suggests that the speaker is not only searching for I love you, but also, perhaps, trying to find the self within language. The line tells us that the speaker might have lost the self within the love relationship, or that the speaker believes that the meaning of I love you shifts when the “you” is separated from the self.
Moreover, the individual lines, here, give us other wonderful word combinations like “love you some,” “eyes, bite” or “to hurt you.” Rather than expressing an expansive, unconditional love, the phrase “love you some” suggests that the speaker’s love is incomplete or partial. Moreover, “eyes, bite” and “to hurt you” point to, perhaps, the struggles and possible violence of romantic love. While love can be tender, it can also be tumultuous and painful. Expressions of love can result in hurt feelings, and in relationships, people sometimes compromise themselves for the happiness of someone else (which, I think, relates to my interpretation of the first line of the poem). In the fourth stanza, we find the line “little. Words,” which tell us that the speaker might view expressions of love as insufficient. These individual lines offer insight into the speaker’s feelings about love, in ways that the sentences alone do not.
In the final four stanzas, the poem engages with fullness and emptiness as oppositional binaries. When written as a sentence, the contradictions are already noticeable: “I love you again, then what is emptiness for. To fill, fill. I heard words and words full of holes aching. Speech is a mouth.” The stanza break between “and words full” and “of holes” creates a surprising moment of contradiction. This is an example of the way line breaks proliferate meaning. The poem tells us that words are both full and full of holes; both ideas are true in the poem. Similarly, the lines “aching. Speech” and “is a mouth” tell us that speech can communicate feeling—it can ache—but it is also a mouth, the part of the body that receives food and produces speech, an anatomical hole. “Speech is a mouth” suggests that language is a hole, an emptiness, that needs filling; it is a container for feeling.
When I teach enjambment in my poetry classes, I like to teach this poem. I’ve found that introductory poetry students are often baffled by the purpose of line breaks, and this poem offers many chances to discuss how poems can be arranged. In addition, its subject matter also speaks to the way direct speech can fail to communicate, the way clichés can lose their meanings. Creeley writes: “I / love you / again, // then what is / emptiness / for . . .” I interpret these lines as suggesting that “I love you,” when used repeatedly and mindlessly, can become hollow of meaning. However, the poem offers a kind of antidote to cliché. This poem shows how line breaks, this idiosyncratic way of arranging language, can offer new and fresh ways of communication. This idea that the purpose of emptiness is “to fill” comments on the potential of line breaks (which is an emptiness in the poem) to offer opportunities where meaning can proliferate.
Write a poem about a common idiom or cliché. Some examples might include: “I hope you’re doing well” or “hang in there” or “call it a day.” Use the line breaks of the poem to disrupt or question the meaning of the phrase.
A Country of Beautiful Women
There are millions of short people
in this Snow White. Short only
by comparison, which is how
the short people lived their lives:
relative to. S’s skin is lighter than Y’s
is lighter than C’s is lighter
than Q’s. Lightness, as if the dark
were synonymous with heavy.
Darkness: the dead weight
of her mother and father combined.
Take a moment to admire her
colonial derma, the white
pigment of a Spanish church.
Take a picture, it will last longer
amidst the gunfire. In this story,
mirrors reflect other people’s
furniture. Beauty is in the eye
of the purveyors of shabu
at the market. Watch as our girl
lifts her skirt to hear them howl.
And she wonders—as she presses
her dewy forehead to her stepmother’s
sun-spotted hand, as she kneels
before her figurine of the Virgin,
a white woman in a satin robe,
if a prince—any prince—will
dislodge the apple from her throat.
She asks her ginuo for a sign. He
tells her: though your sins are scarlet,
they shall be white as snow. Whiteness,
the night is heavy. Lightness:
the hands of a country lifting her up.
“A Country of Beautiful Women” by Marianne Chan printed with permission of the author. It originally appeared in All Heathens (Sarabande 2020).
Photo credits: Photo of Marianne Chan taken by Clancy McGilligan. Photo of Robert Creeley in a kitchen taken by Elsa Dorfman.
Marianne Chan grew up in Stuttgart, Germany, and Lansing, Michigan. She is the author of All Heathens (Sarabande Books, 2020), which was the winner of the 2021 GLCA New Writers Award in Poetry, the 2021 Ohioana Book Award in Poetry, and the 2022 Association for Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, New England Review, Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati.