Laura’s line breaks: A guide to the writing life

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As both a connoisseur and writer of poems, I spend some of each day reading work by poets both canonized and contemporary. Recently, my daily reading included the works of Laura Riding (Jackson). Riding’s poem, “The Troubles of a Book” seems on its surface to be a meditative piece. It examines the life of one book, its pros and cons, and the psychology and humanity that effects texts’ perception by readers.

A more analytical look at this piece, however, yields some interesting messages. Particularly, the line breaks of the poem give some sage advice, no matter how unintentional this effect may have been. From the outset of the poem, the reader is greeted with “be nobody unwritten unread” as the final words of the first four lines. This little full-word acrostic makes a fine admonition to anyone pursuing a literary life. Certainly, authors of any genre should aspire to be both well-read and well-written. Did Riding mean for us to use these “power position words” in such a way? Maybe not, but you can bet that she recognized them as meaningful terms, and knew they fit well where they were when she wrote them.

Moving forward in the piece, the reader will notice the last three lines ending with “liveliness with bookishness,” yet another good maxim for those in the literary realm. History is full of examples of authors whose work flourished, not because they sat brooding behind a desk somewhere, but because they took Carpe Diem to heart. Hemingway ran with bulls in Spain, London froze in the Yukon, Frost absorbed culture in England, Dickinson…. oh, wait. Never mind about that last one. Maybe not every author has to mix their bookishness with liveliness, but it’s still a good idea.

One other example of Riding’s line breaks and their instructional insinuations can be found in her piece, “The World and I.” About halfway through the poem, Riding ends three lines with “sense! meaning knowing,” a statement that can be interpreted infinitely if given enough cognition. Authors of every genre should aspire for their writing to make sense, of course, and their work should provide both meaning and knowing, but beyond that checklist, this line-break message could also be seen as something of an instruction to writers: For our work to truly shine, we have to be sensitive to meanings and knowledge that others take for granted. A crooked exit sign, for example, is something more to the poet than to the electrician. Whereas Joe Average sees a problem to be fixed, the poet sees symbolic potential and possible warning.

Admittedly, I may be “stretching” the capacity of Riding’s diction here, but if we as writers can gain guidance, even if it’s unscrambled from the letters on a bubble gum wrapper, then we are better for it. Maybe Laura didn’t mean for us to read her poems like a map, but sometimes the best directions are ones that we decipher all by ourselves.

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