Jean Bleakney

Breaking the Surface by Jean Bleakney

‘Breaking the Surface’ by Jean Bleakney is about the “art of skimming,” an extended metaphor for the art of writing poetry.

‘Breaking the Surface’ is written by contemporary Irish poet Jean Bleakney and was published in her first collection of poetry, The Ripple Tank Experiment (1999). This poem is about Bleakney’s childhood obsession with stone skimming, taught by her father. She elaborates on the technicalities of skimming using physics terminology. The act is implicitly compared to the art of versification that also demands an attentive selection of the right topics in order to make them float or work.

Breaking the Surface by Jean Bleakney


Summary

‘Breaking the Surface’ by Jean Bleakney is about stone skipping or skimming, a childhood obsession of the poet.

The poem begins with a brief description of the poet’s childhood vocation, which is stone skimming. She describes how she failed to pick the right stone and make them float. As she grew up, she mastered the art right from the very beginning, that is the selection of flat-bottomed stone. Then she goes on to talk about the art of stone skimming itself. Using jargon, she puts forth how a stone should be thrown and how it settles down, remembering the gravitational pull. By the end of the poem, Bleakney admits that no matter how she tries to magnify her childhood obsession with applied physics, the audience could understand that it is her “panache” or “primitive desire” to rearrange the shoreline the way she could.

You can read the full poem here.

Structure and Form

The text of Bleakney’s poem, ‘Breaking the Surface,’ consists of five quatrains with no set rhyme scheme or meter. It is composed in free verse. Each quatrain presents a complete idea. There is no spilling of the content onto the next stanza. Bleakney precisely talks about the art by maintaining an economy of words. She writes the technical aspect of stone skimming in italics to make them appear distinct from the rest of the text. In this piece, Bleakney uses the subjective, first-person point of view.

Literary Devices

In ‘Breaking the Surface,’ readers can find the use of the following literary devices.

  • Enjambment: This device is used throughout the poem. Each quatrain begins with a controlled yet hurried pace that halts by its end. For instance, the first quatrain begins with “I have gone beyond the childish delight,” and this line is enjambed to “of plumping the heaviest stone.”
  • Personification: In the third quatrain, Bleakney personifies the stone. She invests it with the human act of remembering.
  • Metaphor: The fourth stanza presents a metaphor in the line “sound release reduced to a whispering skiff.” The slow pace of the stone above the water is compared to that of a small, one-person boat, which is known as a “skiff.”
  • Alliteration: The repetition of an initial consonant sound in neighboring words can be found in “pure panache or my primitive.” Here, the consonant sound, “p” is repeated.


Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

I have gone beyond the childish delight

of plumping the heaviest stone

into the shallows, and yet,

distance throwing has defeated me.

In the first stanza of ‘Breaking the Surface’ by Jean Bleakney, readers find how the speaker (the poet) found happiness in her failed attempts at stone skimming. As a child, she used to throw heavy stones into the shallows. She could not throw the stone far. In this stanza, the poet describes how she has gone beyond the mere “childish delight” of stone skipping. She has mastered the art and employed the technique in writing poetry. In the second verse, she uses the term “plumping” which resonates with the sound of heavy stone splashing into the water.

Stanza Two

Head bowed, I clamber the scree of the shore

(…)

tentatively flipped before selection.

In the second quatrain, Bleakney talks about the precise and scientific selection of stones. She keeps her head bowed and attentively finds the right stones. She clambers the scree or stone cover of the shore in order to find the right pieces. Then, she collects the “loose change” (a handful of stones). Before putting them in her pockets, she flips each stone carefully for final selection. For stone skimming, one needs flat-bottomed, even, and light stones, not uneven, heavy ones. Therefore she has to be cautious in the final round.

Stanza Three

This is my talent – a whiplash from the hip

(…)

it stops and languidly slews before anchoring.

In a confident and boastful manner, the speaker declares that the art of stone skipping is one of her talents. In order to reinforce her idea, she italicizes the word “This.” She uses kinesthetic imagery in the first line to describe how a stone is thrown. While releasing the stone, one needs to imitate the action of “a whiplash from the hip.”

After a right release, the stone skites above water. It makes innumerable tangents on the water surface and then takes a final glide to the depths. In order to describe the final glide of the stone, Bleakney personifies the stone. She describes how the stone remembers the laws of gravity and halts monetarily. Then like a weary person, the stone languidly plunges into the water before anchoring to the seabed.

Stanza Four

One facet of the art of skimming, I say

(…)

thus reinforcing the attenuated decay of energy

The fourth stanza of ‘Breaking the Surface’ is written entirely in italics except for the part, “I say.” This stanza kinesthetic images of the stone skipping above water. The speaker describes one important aspect of the “art of skimming.” She describes how the stone overrides a big splash after a sound release. Then the energy is reduced gradually. The slowed pace of the stone is comparable to the movement of a skiff, a kind of small, one-man boat. In this way, the stone reinforces the “attenuated decay of energy.” The movement of the stone above water is comparable to one man’s journey from childhood to old age. The final part of stone skimming is implicitly connected to the concept of memento mori.

Stanza Five

I take it, from your broadening grin

(…)

to rearrange the shoreline – in a minimalist sort of way.

In the final stanza of the poem, Bleakney addresses the audience. Throughout the poem, she has been glued to her art. In this stanza, she talks about how others could feel while reading about her childhood obsession. She describes how others would smile at her attempt of gilding the “art of skimming” with applied physics. She admits that no adulatory words can possibly hide her panache or primitive desire to show off. Finally, the poet describes how art is nothing other than a minimalist way of rearranging the shoreline. She shifts from the description of the art entirely and talks about how the activity helps in rearranging the shoreline, apart from making her happy.

FAQs

What is the poem ‘Breaking the Surface’ by Jean Bleakney about?

Jean Bleakney’s free-verse lyric is about the poet’s childhood obsession with stone skimming that was taught by her father. In this poem, she takes great pleasure in describing the art of skimming to readers.

What type of poem is ‘Breaking the Surface’?

This poem is written in free verse. There are a total of five quatrains in the poem. The overall poem is a lyrical piece as it is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker about a topic close to the poet’s heart.

What is the main theme of ‘Breaking the Surface’?

The main theme of Bleakney’s poem is the art of stone skimming. In this piece, she describes how stones should be selected for the game, how a stone has to be thrown, and why a stone floats above water after a sound release. Metaphorically, the activity itself is comparable to the art of writing poetry.

When was the poem ‘Breaking the Surface’ published?

This poem was published in Jean Bleakney’s debut collection of poetry entitled The Ripple Tank Experiment in 1999. It is one of the earliest poems that Bleakney wrote.


Similar Poetry

Here is a list of some poems that tap on similar themes present in ‘Breaking the Surface’ by Jean Bleakney.

You can also explore these incredible poems about childhood.

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A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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