The Break / On Poetry and Humanness

In an interview, Jericho Brown said that line breaks in poetry have a lot to do with doubt. They are about getting to the end of a line and doubting your ability to know what comes next. What is wonderful about line breaks, he says, is “you only think you know what’s going on.”

If this is true, then poems are about moving toward doubt, always pushing to the next line where you, at the break, are faced with your own humanness. The act of reading poetry opens you up to your own limits. In a good poem, you peer over the line break and then fall into something surprising, something that you, yourself, could have never conceived.

I have been thinking about how life feels like reading a poem. It is about doubt. It is about reaching the end of a day or week or a month or a year and facing the doubt—the knowledge that we are, in fact, so fixed within our present-ness, so limited in knowledge, that we can only, at best, think we know what comes next.

We only think we know what’s going on.

Doubt, as I learned of it in church as a kid, was a big, bad thing. Doubters were not strong in faith. Doubters backslid. Doubters likely went to hell. To doubt was to be weak. It was something to be thwarted at all costs and an entity to defeat by sheer willpower and faith. In this way, doubt was monstrous. It was so powerful, so external to the human, that it could have been a god. And so, doubt was a paradox—something that signified weakness and yet a force so strong it could break even the firmest of faiths.

But doubt is not something out there. It is something that resides within us. And doubt is not weakness. It is the strength of moving forward toward the next line.

In saying that life is about doubt, or that maybe life is doubt, I am saying that doubt is not a force external to the human, but that to doubt is to be human. It is to understand our limits, to throw ourselves against them, to mourn them, to imagine ourselves out of them, and to always arrive again at the break and still face our unknowing.

Jericho Brown goes on to say that doubt is also about fear. And so, when we read poetry, we become involved in an “embrace of fear.”

As I have grown, I have begun to make space for both doubt and fear in my life, to embrace them. This is not to say that I experience them now more than I did as a child, but that I now attempt to cultivate intentional space for them. Doubt and fear are no longer the gods from which I must protect myself. They are instead, a part of me as much as my breath or my skin.

I doubt and fear many things, so many I could not even think them all. Some are so small they hide in the tiniest cracks of my being and arise when I am unaware. Others are so large I must walk through them every day. And I am learning to accept this. When I practice reading poetry, I practice accepting these parts of my limits.

To be a human within the twists of time is to always encounter the break: the doubt, the fear. This is where we live.

Philip Larkin wrote:

“What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?”

I wonder, where can we live but in and with and through the doubt and fear each day brings? And if we cannot be anywhere else, then why not get comfy? Why not make a little more room?