The Caesura Effect
Why is punctuation important? It tells us when to pause, to take a rest, and sometimes to do a full stop. It allows us to feel the impact of the moment. To process what’s been expressed.
Almost every artistic expression has some sort of pause built into its construction. In writing, we have punctuation such as commas, semi-colons, colons, and periods which all indicate different lengths of pauses for the reader. In music, every meter has rests. In poetry, we have a caesura.
One of the reasons I so appreciate old black and white films is because they provide these pauses naturally when scenes transition. For a flicker of film, the screen goes black. Though only for fractions of seconds, these pauses are important. They allow the viewer precious moments to register and interpret what has happened to that point in the film. It’s a breather, a time when there is nothing but blank space, giving the viewer time with her thoughts.
Nature demands pauses. In the midst of a storm, there is a calm. That calm exists at the eye, or center, of the storm. Even humans have a built in rest while speaking; it’s called breathing.
What happens in the breath? In the pause? In the calm? In those moments, we are afforded time to focus and truly process the world around us. We have time to reflect. That’s why rest is so important. There’s even a commandment about it: Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy. It’s the rest in the meter, the comma in the sentence, the caesura in the poem. This pause is paramount. It is an enforced slowing, a legislated lento.
Today it’s all about the rush. Rush rush rush. Everything’s instant: instant images, instant notoriety, instant fame, and that Southern atrocity, instant grits. Instant. Now. Immediate.
Society wants instant gratification. No sooner does a thought enter the mind, then the fulfillment of it is necessitated as swiftly as possible. AND if it can’t be fulfilled immediately, a sense of disappointment or frustration crops up, as though happiness has been denied.
No time is given to the process. Where once patience was touted as a virtue, now it is something not only thrown by the wayside, but cast aside violently, with the utmost disdain. It’s the roadkill of an insta-crazy society.
But Fireside poet James Russell Lowell explained why slowing down is so important:
Virtues don’t cease to be virtues simply because society is moving too swiftly and with such narrowed focus that they have forgotten them. Many things forgotten should never be. That’s why every art form, and even nature herself, has these legislated lentos.
These rests are things of beauty. Maybe that’s why they are always a joy.
I can cite one time when I saw this concept illustrated superbly. It was in the film Eddie and the Cruisers, and it deals with one of my favorite literary devices: the caesura.
Eddie and the Cruisers chronicles The Cruisers, a 1950s band enjoying an unexpected resurgence in the 1980s. Maggie Foley, a reporter, is doing an in-depth story about them, including an analysis of their work which was anachronistic for the time in which it was made. She’s talking with all the remaining band members, trying to find out where their last album- Season in Hell- is and why it was never released. In fact, the band’s final days are shrouded in mystery from the sudden death of lead singer Eddie Wilson to the inexplicable disappearance of the album tapes from the studio shortly thereafter.
The movie unfolds in flashbacks, mostly from the perspective of Frank Ridgeway, the band’s lyricist and pianist. One of those flashbacks shows the first time Frank interacted with the band. He was a busboy working after hours while the band was rehearsing in a local dive in New Jersey. In the middle of practicing a song the bassist Sal has written, Eddie calls for a stop, complaining that he has nothing to work with. Sal doesn’t get what Eddie’s talking about, and in frustration, Eddie looks around. When he sees Frank standing, broom in hand, watching them, he calls him over and asks for his opinion.
I cannot do justice to the scene in writing. It’s one of those things- like with Shakespeare. It must be watched to be fully appreciated for its greatness.
There you have it- the caesura. The perfect pause. Look how impactful those few lines are when they have room to breathe. You appreciate their unfolding on a visceral level.
That’s the purpose of a caesura. I like the way that literary-devices.com explains it:
This definition echoes Lowell’s words, and highlights a truth we all should implement more in our lives. In this fast-paced world, we need to slow down. Just like a fine wine needs to breathe so that all the subtly of flavors are revealed, we need that same room to breathe in order to appreciate the spices that flavor our lives.
So, today, at the start of a busy week, let’s endeavor to slow down. And, if you’re looking for some inspiration, here are two songs to help put you in the mood. Is there a particular song you’d recommend to help us all step back and take a breather?