Anatomy of a Line
My four-year-old has been refusing to eat dinner lately.
Sometimes she tells me that she’s too tired to eat, sometimes she protests the tiny specks of color that somehow made it into her meal. Once she tried explaining that some people are eating people and some people are not.
At first, I thought I’d let her suffer the natural consequences of her actions. But once I realized that the natural consequences of her actions involved her waking me up at 2 a.m. to ask for a bowl of cheerios, I figured I needed a new strategy.
The other evening, I threatened to cancel dessert for the rest of her childhood if she didn’t eat something for dinner.
Fine, she said, staring me down. I want water with nothin’.
And as I sat there pondering my next move, I realized that my four-year-old might have very well just uttered a near-perfect line of poetry.
The ear is the only true writer, wrote Frost, and this line highlights the relationship between music and meaning.
The first half dances with an alliterative trifecta of w’s – want, water, with – that deceives you into thinking that the line is going to be filled with pleasantries.
But said alliteration is undermined by the dramatic repetition of trochees – water, nothin’ – and those stressed/unstressed feet stomp down like an insolent child.
However, the true beauty of this line is in the way that it plays with familiar patterns of language, manipulating a sentence structure that we normally associate with kids’ meals: I want peanut butter with jelly. I want noodles with sauce. I want ice cream with sprinkles.
The first half of my daughter’s request fools us into thinking that she is going to follow this pattern – I want water with lemon, we half-expect her to say. Or I want water with a fresh sprig of mint.
But instead of following I want water with a complementing garnish, she doubles-down in order to escalate things to a point of absurdity.
And this deviation suddenly changes the meaning of the first half of the line. Water is no longer a cold and refreshing drink but a defiant proclamation of asceticism.
Poetry can communicate before it’s understood, wrote Eliot, and even before I sat down to consider the formal dimensions of my daughter’s comeback, I found myself simultaneously troubled and delighted by it – realized that I was up against a budding master of prosody and craft.
If only I could convince her that she need not be a starving artist.
Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters. www.ben-berman.comSee other articles by Ben Berman