Caesura and the Deforming Poem: Rupture as a Space for the Other


How does poetry deal with disability? At the level of theme and voice, Australian poetry – including the theorising and criticism of it – has rarely given overt priority to disabled experience. This essay seeks to contribute to a correction of this neglect by adapting the philosophical approach of Emmanuel Levinas, who wrote of the phenomenological preeminence of the Other. It considers how disability – defined expansively as a bodily otherness which also implicates the self – might become apprehended not only within thematic content, but through the disruptions of poetic form.

The essay examines recent poems by Sarah Holland-Batt, Natalie Harkin, Kevin Gillam, Dan Disney and Lindsay Tuggle, and suggests that caesurae can open up a space for the Other to appear. Here, caesura is also defined expansively – that is, as not only a metrical break in the middle of the line, but including interruptions of voice, of form and of the page – to show how the ruptures or silences of these poems are not empty, but are in fact reflections and amplifications of the disruptiveness of our encounter with the Other. In other words, in contemporary Australian poetry, the Other appears through a failure of appearance, their defecting.

The US poet Cole Swenson writes, ‘brokenness is at the heart of the line’, the poem ‘organized around a fracture’ (Rosko and Vander Zee 241). In this view, the constant threat of interruption is what transforms any text into a poem, a body which is vulnerable at every point, not only at the ending of a line. The poem even continues remains intact, while also being interrupted. This threat – or this promise – comes from the caesura, from the Latin caedere, to cut. The Princeton Encyclopedia defines caesura as ‘a rhetorical and extra-metrical pause or phrasal break within the poetic line’ (‘Caesura’ 95). The resultant interruption can range from almost indiscernibly subtle to violently jarring – a minute pause for breath, an extended white space between words, punctuation marks or lines which separate phrases, a shift in the tone or register of voice, or the sudden arrival of…

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Published 23 May 2022 in Special Issue: Writing Disability in Australia. Subjects: Australian poetry, Disabilities, Natalie Harkin.

Cite as: Jackson, Andy. ‘Caesura and the Deforming Poem: Rupture as a Space for the Other.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 2022, doi: 10.20314/als.834de5ea11.