Bend or Break

Child, Mongolia.jpg

Jacob Aue Sobol/Magnum Photos

Mongolia, 2012

“Break a carrot if you will, but a turnip will never bend.”
New York magazine, submission to a contest for meaningless proverbs, 1990

Ah, the World Cup, and another avalanche of commentary about flopping. Is it bending the rules or breaking them? “It sucks for Croatia, that’s what I think,” the splendid American goalie Tim Howard said of the Brazilian attacker Fred’s theatrical flop in the penalty area. “But that’s part of the game.”

In art, it is generally more interesting to bend the rules (bend them like Beckham) than to break them. Bend is evolution. Break is revolution. In retrospect, however, what once seemed revolutionary (Whitman, Impressionism, Duchamp, Cage) often turns out to be evolutionary instead.

“She broke my heart.” In retrospect, she only bent it.

Robert Frost in “Poetry and School” (1951): “For my pleasure I had as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.” And yet, when I was a kid, we hit tennis balls back and forth in the road. (It was flat. It was Indiana.) Maybe it wasn’t tennis, but it was fun. We had to make new rules to keep it interesting.

The history of free verse: establishing the rules for playing tennis with the net down.

In free verse, something other than a rhyme or a final metrical foot has to happen where the line breaks. The line break has to be justified in other ways. In this respect, writing convincing free verse can be harder than writing convincing traditional verse.

Enjambment can turn a line break into a line bend. Consider James Wright’s famous free-verse enjambment, from break to bend, in “A Blessing”:

Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

Taoism: an aesthetics and a politics based on bending rather than breaking. “Men are born soft and supple; dead, they are stiff and hard,” according to the Tao Te Ching. “The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail” (section 76, translated by Stephen Mitchell).

Hitler’s rigid salute.

Ju (softness) as the basis of jujutsu and judo (the way, do or tao, of softness). Learning to use the opponent’s strength (rigidity) against him.

Lack of softness: “France being ours, we’ll bend it to our awe/Or break it all to pieces” (Shakespeare, Henry V).

So many of the metaphors of bending, in the Bible and the Iliad for example, come from bending a bow. Odysseus bends the bow as Arthur draws the sword from the stone.

The rainbow as covenant. Noah: friend of the wild things, planter of vineyards, master of softness.

Frost’s “Birches”: bending the tree rather than breaking it. “When I see birches bend to left and right/Across the lines of straighter darker trees…” A metaphor for straight lines of poetry versus bent ones. Frost again: “The possibilities for tune from the dramatic tones of meaning struck across the rigidity of a limited meter are endless.”

That gorgeous metaphor, like something out of Gauguin, of birches bent down by young swingers of birches:

Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

But it had better be a birch. Beware of alders.

James Wright’s “A Blessing,” with that bit about breaking into blossom, appeared in The Branch Will Not Break (1963). In the second of Wright’s “Two Hangovers,” a blue jay springs up and down on a branch: “I laugh, as I see him abandon himself/To entire delight, for he knows as well as I do/That the branch will not break.”

Some commentators think that “Rock-a-bye Baby,” first published in Mother Goose’s Melody (1781), is American in origin, alluding to the alleged Native American practice of hanging birch-bark cradles in the trees so that the wind rocks them. The rhyme would seem to cast doubt on the safety of the practice, thus besmirching hardworking Indian mothers, who presumably had other things to do than rocking a cradle day and night.

And why exactly was the cradle hung in the tree-top? Were the lower branches already taken?

Others believe that “Rock-a-bye Baby” is a political allegory of the Glorious Revolution. Alarmed when the Catholic James II produced an heir to secure the Stuart succession, Protestants dreamed of infanticide. “In the nursery rhyme,” Michael Vestey wrote in The Spectator, “the baby on the tree-top is the heir, when the wind blows it is the Protestant wind that will blow the fleet of William over to Britain, and when the bough breaks… down too will come the Stuart monarchy.” (Dismissing such “fanciful and ingenious” explanations, Marina Warner suggests that the tree in the song is the family tree, and that the broken bough refers to “the death of parents and its effect on children.”)


With lullabies like these, it’s amazing that babies survive.

As we baby-boomers get older, we become more brittle, more rigid, at least physically, in our limbs, our boughs and elbows. Hence, the cult of yoga, the art of bending to avoid breaking.

The Cobra, the Downward Facing Dog, the Lotus: metaphors to keep the mind limber.

Donne’s prayer to a yoga instructor, multi-headed like a Hindu god, to be broken, bent, and forever young:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

Easy to imagine Donne straddling (the literal meaning of enjambment, throwing a leg over) these lines and bending them into shape. “Bend” at the end of the third line flirts with first-person intransitive—“That I may rise and stand…and bend”—before embracing second-person transitive instead, “bend your force.”

With poetry like this, so gnarled and muscular and wrenched, the reader can feel like the one who is out of shape.

Virginia Woolf: “Great writers often require us to make heroic efforts to read them rightly. They bend us and break us.”

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