Balancing Point

Inviting Guests: “Op Ed” offerings by itinerant authors –

After Considerable Pause
by Rick Kilpatrick

Dance is a sort of silent rhetoric.
– Canon Thoinot Arbeau

At the barre– most poets have had to deal with the conundrum of deciding where best to break the lines and stanzasin their poems, particularly when first starting out.

"Dancer at the Barre" Edgar Degas. circa 1880. Pastel on paper. Shelburne Museum, Vermont USA.

Perhaps part of the problem is that there really aren’t any set rules to guide a person as to whether or not the line should break after one word rather than another. However, line breaks are very important in helping guide the reader through a poem as the poet is more often than not physically absent and unable to read the poem to the reader, pausing when needed, adding emphasis to one line over another or that other line over the next. The white space at the end of each line adds a forced silence that causes the last image or thought before it to hang in the air informing the reader of the poet’s intentions.

On pointe – if three poets were given an identical sentence to break into stanzas with as many lines as they each wished, there is a good chance that you would end up with three rather different looking stanzas. While the sentence’s underlying meaning won’t change dramatically, the position of the line breaks will alter how the sentence is read and how it is understood as each subsequent line builds upon the ones that fall before it unfolding new layers of meaning to the poem as the controlled narrative of the poem is slowly revealed to the reader. Take, for example, a sentence from one of David Tucker’s poems reconfigured here without its intended line breaks:

“Class is over, the teacher and the pianist gone, but one dancer in a pale blue leotard stays to practice alone without music, turning grand jetés through the haze of late afternoon.”

The sentence is lyrically pleasing, the pauses controlled by way of punctuation and imagery placement and as simple prose its poetic beauty is undeniable. However, with Tucker’s line breaks as originally written his short poem, “The Dancer,” is strikingly more beautiful. The poem contains two sentences in a single stanza, the first of which reads as follows:

Class is over, the teacher
and the pianist gone,
but one dancer
in a pale blue
leotard stays
to practice alone without music,
turning grand jetés
through the haze of late afternoon.

Première – the first line leaves us lingering on “the teacher” and while the title perhaps hints at what kind of teacher, we can’t be sure of this until we read further. But the brief moment of thought that the white space provides us with allows us to conjure up all of the previous connections our minds associate with this image before it is appended with the new image of “the pianist,” connecting the teacher to the title’s dancer, whom we have yet to meet.  However, since “class is over,” and the teacher and piano player “gone,” we are faced with a negation of sorts as school is closed and the people we have been introduced to at this point are not even there. Even the long sounds of the “o” and “n” in “gone” hover seemingly longer at the end of line before continuing the negation on the next with “but one dancer.” By breaking the line between “gone” and “but” Tucker forces us to slow down while keeping us off guard and unsure of where he is going to take us with the dancer. He stays with her, instead, just as the dancer “in a pale blue/ leotard stays.”

Temps lié sur les pointes – we are compelled to pause at the end of each new bit of detail, Tucker never giving us enough to complete the image entirely yet what he has always vivid and relevant to the portrait he’s helping us paint. The lines so far have been sparse and limited to single bits of information, and one might feel tempted, with the line “to practice alone without music,” to insert line breaks after “practice” or after “alone.” But the combined images and the musicality of the line serve together as a crucial moment in the poem, the longer line revealing an increased pace and the focus now on the dancer “turning grand jetés / through the haze of late afternoon.” The movement of lines and breaks now mimic the movement of the dancer as she picks up speed.

Chassé – it is hard not to ignore the urgency Tucker’s line breaks have instilled into the poem. Without line breaks this urgency is less decided, and even less so when the line breaks are misarranged, as they are in one possible alternative arrangement below:

“Class is over, / the teacher and the pianist gone, / but one dancer / in a pale blue leotard / stays to practice alone / without music, / turning grand jetés / through the haze / of late afternoon.”

(Note: this is not how Tucker formatted his line breaks in the poem—see full poem below.) With the lines formatted in this manner, the poem lacks surprise, predictability is high, its musicality reduced. The poem’s natural rhythm is now choppy and consequently the images appear choppy as well. Read each version out loud and you immediately hear how Tucker’s line breaks never feel forced and the pauses never unnatural.

Seconde– the poem continues with its compelling attention to imagery in its second sentence, the language simple yet lovely and soft, the rhythm controlled, each line filled with a completeness that resembles Haiku at times—white space that arouses a harmony of sensory perceptions:



Her eyes are focused
on the balancing point
no one else sees
as she spins in this quiet
made of mirrors and light—
a blue rose on a nail—
then stops and lifts
her arms in an oval pause
and leans out
a little more, a little more,
there, in slow motion
upon the air.

Degagé – the first sentence builds slowly on a contemplation of what is and isn’t there, the absence evoking a stillness in the slow motion that is extended through the long drawn out sounds of the end words. Tucker wants us to dwell on each moment while our imaginations fill in the empty spaces:

The Dancer

"The Dancer" by David Tucker.

The words “class” and “teacher” are enough to place us in the same empty hallways and mirrored rooms of the dance school where we can see the dancer; picture the quiet room she’s in. By the time the second sentence begins we are already fully engaged in the poem, and have moved into a more internal landscape than the external one of the first seven lines. We see what she sees, even though we are told the opposite. The pace of the poem spins faster as the dancer starts spinning in a “… quiet / made of mirrors and light— / a blue rose on a nail—,” the em dash increasing the quiet on either side of the stunning metaphor of the dancer, who “then stops and lifts / her arms in an oval pause.” The images unfold like flip cards, frame by frame as the dancer “leans out / a little more, a little more”; frame by frame we can picture her dancing “there, in slow / motion / upon the air.” From beginning to end the tension is controlled, the poem tight, the end words mimicking every pause and lift and jeté the dancer makes.

Rick Kilpatrick is a recipient of the American Academy of Poets Honorable Mention, the Rachel Sherwood Award for Poetry, and the Patrons Association Award for Writing. His work has appeared in numerous literary journals. His first chapbook, A World Less Paved, was released Spring 2009 by Transcurrent Press. He has an M.A. and an M.F.A. in creative writing.


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