Because I wrote a few books of poetry before I wrote a book of essays, people often ask me how being a poet (one just is a poet, the way one is a witch, whether or not one is actively practicing witchcraft) informs my prose. At first I was a little bored, even a little offended by the question. To me it suggested that I’m a poet first and an essayist second, which might lead people to take my essays less seriously, to think of them as somehow precious or self-indulgent, to assume I have no sense of the sentence or paragraph or section as units, as opposed to the units of the line and stanza.
But readers and critics, I found, did not share my assumptions about poets-as-essayists. Reviewers of my essay collections frequently mention that I’m a poet, sometimes as a kind of trivia, as if it were a strange or dangerous job like crab fishing or manning a toll booth, but mostly they treat it as a special skill, an almost unfair advantage with language—as if to say, of course these essays are well-written, she’s a poet! (A writer I know has noted that people love essays and novels by poets because they don’t want to read poetry, and this gives them access to poets without having to touch poems. He once said, memorably, “People hate poets but they love ex-poets.”)
Naturally, my poet’s sensibility, my background poetness, does affect my prose, and in some ways it is an advantage. That mode of writing is in conversation with my prose mode of writing, even when the conversation is secret to me, happening in whispers off-stage or in Morse code just below my conscious perception. The lights are blinking in the periphery of that big room at NASA ground control, whether or not I’m paying attention.
Mary Ruefle once said, in an interview, that poetry is private and prose is public—prose is public language. She offered this as an explanation for why her essays have found a wider audience than her poems have. It’s almost as though the private language of poetry is a dialect that not everyone speaks. Many people don’t like reading poems because of this private language; they feel like they should understand it but they don’t understand it; it’s difficult and uncomfortable, much more so than reading prose. Even poets, as Marianne Moore famously wrote, don’t like reading poetry.
I’m rather conscious of this general “hatred of poetry” (as Ben Lerner has it), this hostility or resistance toward what I’m doing, when I’m working on a poem. I’m aware that the reader will want to abandon it. And one of the ways you can keep people reading, cheat them into staying interested, is to constantly surprise them. In that way, writing poetry is very good training for writing surprise.
Whether I’m reading or writing a poem, when I get bored, I tend to think it’s because the poem hasn’t taken the leap yet. That little move I think of as “the leap.” It’s not the same as the volta exactly, the turn you expect in a sonnet. It’s the moment where the poem kind of makes you raise your eyebrows or sit up straighter in your chair and maybe even feel a little afraid. A poem can take multiple leaps, but I love most when a poem takes a leap around the third line—when around the third line the poem suddenly becomes a lot more interesting. Because that’s right about where I would give up and stop reading if it didn’t do some little dance step or party trick, something to get my attention and remind me what poetry is for.
I always think of this poem by Jon Woodward when I think about “the leap”:
The janitor asked me how
to pronounce the creature’s name
& I said salamander for him.
He looked at it on the screen
and I looked at him.
Slide your legs into its tail I said.
I can’t he said as he did.
Dish your guts there into its cavity
of guts, I can’t he said (manifestly untrue
for he did so). Mash the thing’s
name and yours I said together into
that irreversible hole I know you keep
and he did & it broke over his face
& flowed, water from the earth,
I can’t, I can’t, he said.
The leap occurs at line 7. Line 6 is a bit of a pre-leap, but line 7 is the real leap. It’s such a simple line, seven one-syllable words. (I once heard that the best lines of poetry are mostly one-syllable words, and isn’t this true? “I eat men like air.”) But it’s astonishing, a moment when the tablecloth is pulled out from under the world. It reminds me that the next line, the next word, could always be anything.
You can take the leap in any genre, not just poetry. The leap is the unpredictable, the word or phrase or idea or action that no one could foresee. Take these lines from a Joy Williams essay about writing: “Language accepts the writer as its host, it feeds off the writer, it makes him a husk. There is something uncanny about good writing—uncanny the singing that comes from certain husks.” And later in the same essay:
Good writing never soothes or comforts. It is no prescription, neither is it diversionary, although it can and should enchant while it explodes in the reader’s face. Whenever the writer writes, it’s always three o’clock in the morning, it’s always three or four or five o’clock in the morning in his head. Those horrid hours are the writer’s days and nights when he is writing. The writer doesn’t write for the reader. He doesn’t write for himself, either. He writes to serve … something. Somethingness. The somethingness that is sheltered by the wings of nothingness—those exquisite, enveloping, protecting wings.
This essay is full of leaps, of strange unpredictable changes. Endless mystery without meaninglessness. As writers, we have to learn how to create mystery, or how to unlearn the ways we obscure existing mystery, sabotaging our own powers.
Nonfiction writers often rely very heavily on the section break. There’s a lot of appeal in fragments, little fun-size bits of writing that accrue nonlinearly. You can always read, or write, one more. But something islost when you write in fragments, and that’s momentum—because fragments also provide the reader with more opportunities to stop. It’s like hitting them over and over with red lights when instead they could coast.
I’ve heard people say that writers like fragments because it means they “don’t have to write transitions.” But usually you don’t have to write transitions anyway—the transitions are implied. The transitions write themselves. And if you simply remove your section breaks while changing nothing else, something kind of magical can happen between paragraphs, an invisible transition that invites the reader to participate in your thinking, to guess and play along. These gaps in explanation (we’re not exactly sure how the writer got from Point A to Point B) instill trust and fellow-feeling, like you and the reader are figuring something out together. They make your writing more open—and it’s much more surprising if you swerve in some way without signaling that change. The section break is a big signpost that tells readers you’re going to change the subject. Removing the sign makes the shift more subtle; a quiet turn between paragraphs is so much sexier. I think of what Susan Sontag wrote in her diary about Elizabeth Hardwick: “Someone said to condemn Lizzie’s prose: ‘It’s as if she left out every other line.’ A good idea.”
Once as a child, I spent the night at my grandmother’s house, in my mother’s old room. That night before bed, when my grandmother came into the room to tuck me in, she asked if I wanted a glass of water. What for?, I said. In case you get thirsty during the night, she said. And that night, for the first time in my life, I woke up thirsty in the middle of the night and chugged the glass of water.
I think notebooks are like this—if you start keeping a notebook, you’ll start having all kinds of ideas you want to write down. You’ll become a collector of interesting tidbits—overheard speech, observations that surprise you, lines you love and so on—you can sprinkle in your writing. Sometimes I write almost as an excuse to include some weird fact I’ve learned or an anecdote that doesn’t fit anywhere else. I’ll smuggle it into an essay like a drug. As a writer with a notebook, you can go to your notebook when you’re stuck—it’s a pool of ideas for your future self.
Sometimes people can shock the hell out of you with the things they say, with their real speech. Keeping a notebook, paying attention in that way, can make you more receptive to the oddities of human speech. (Here’s a great line of “dialogue” I read in a gruesome news story the other day: “I called maintenance and they said are you sure and I said blood is falling on me.”) Elizabeth Bowen, in her “Notes on Writing a Novel,” wrote the following on dialogue:
What are the realistic qualities to be imitated (or faked) in novel dialogue?—Spontaneity. Artless or hit-or-miss arrival at words used. Ambiguity (speaker not sure, himself, what he means). Effect of choking (as in engine): more to be said than can come through. Irrelevance. Allusiveness. Erraticness: unpredictable course. Repercussion.
Some of my favorite novelists uses children as wonderful vectors of surprise; children don’t yet know the rules of polite society. Take this scene from Bowen’s novel The Heat of the Day:
Robert, trying to knife the cake, said: “No, no one can say I don’t come across. The thing with you, Ernie, is that you never listen. There was nothing I would not tell you about the great retreats. —You wouldn’t think it was time we bought a new cake?”
“But that one has not been eaten,” objected Ernestine. “I’m sure Mrs. Rodney will take us as she finds us.”
“Happily for Mrs. Rodney, she does not eat cake.”
“Goodness, why?” exclaimed Anne, turning to study Stella. “Or are you always afraid it would make you fat?”
“Don’t say ‘goodness’ to someone older than you, dear. Mrs. Rodney is free not to eat cake if she doesn’t want to: that is just what I mean by the difference between England and Germany.”
Peter, wriggling inside his jersey, said: “The Nazis would force her to eat cake.”
The poet Kathryn Cowles wrote in an interview: “Once I start writing poems I already know how to write, I end up just rewriting poems I’ve already written, only not quite as well. It’s only when I try something completely new, with the distinct possibility of profound failure, that I find I am able to write my way into a better kind of thinking.”
Joy Williams, in that uncanny husk essay, wrote: “The moment a writer knows how to achieve a certain effect, the method must be abandoned… The writer’s style is his doppelgänger, an apparition that the writer must never trust to do his work for him.”
There is a sense in which a writer must abandon their knowledge to get better. Sometimes I read my old writing and think it was better because it was worse—it had the innocent genius of stupidity. Leaps are how I try to reinhabit that feeling of not knowing what I was doing, the useful confusion of poetry.
Elisa Gabbert is the author of five collections of poetry, essays, and criticism, most recently The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays (FSG) and The Word Pretty (Black Ocean). Her next book, Normal Distance, will be out from Soft Skull this year. Her work has appeared in Harper’s, The Believer, The New York Times, A Public Space, and The Nation.