Critically analyze Marge Piercy's "Breaking Out."

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Piercy's "Breaking Out" holds meaning in terms of its technique and thematic elements.  Both aspects contribute to the poem's overall meaning of activism and the need to forge a statement of defiance in a world where conformity is expected and enforced. Piercy's poem is one of transformation, where individuals can envision what they can be as opposed to what is expected of them.

From a structural point of view, there is no definite convention to which the poem must adhere.  Stanzas of four lines and three lines alternate. There is no defined rhyme scheme.  In its openness of form, Piercy seeks to give articulation to the condition of freedom that the subject of the poem, herself as a child, experiences at its end.  Piercy delivers a poem from a narrative point of view, reflective of her own growth from a child to an adult.  The experience of the ruler and the discipline she experienced at its hand becomes the critical aspect of the narrative frame.  

The surface meaning of the poem is a reflection about how Piercy as a child experienced discipline in the form of beatings with a wooden yardstick.  From this, the sensory imagery utilized in the poem brings out the narrative frame of reference from the child's point of view.  The initial sight of the closet doors, "leaning together like gossips," establishes the exposition for the entirety of the poem.  The description of the vacuum bag as "stuffed with sausage" is another example of the sensory imagery in the poem, as is the detail of how she responded when she was beaten with the meter stick as one who "bellowed like a locomotive."

The imagery of the poem is one that combines a sense of oppression with liberation.  Both dynamics are critical to the appreciation of the poem.  The oppressive tendencies can be seen in the images of domesticity.  This is evident in the description of the speaker's mother's life with lines such as "to see my mother removing daily/ the sludge the air lay down like a snail's track" or "housewife scrubbing/  on raw knees as the factory rained ash."  This inward imagery of domesticity is contrasted with the extroverted pictures of liberation that is evident in the lines, "red and blue mountain/ ranges on a map that offered escape" and "I could travel to freedom when I grew."  In utilizing images that represent oppression and liberation, it becomes clear that Piercy is suggesting that her childhood was positioned between the world of expectation and conformity, representing the silencing of voice, and one of liberation and transformation, involving a departure from it. The poetic devices in the poem help to enhance the poem's thematic function.

The poem's themes reside in the struggle towards liberation.  The titular concept refers to a forcible repudiation of a contingency that silences voice. This repression is seen on two levels in the poem.  The first is the repression of women in the form of imposed domesticity.  The speaker of the poem reacts with intense rejection towards a life where she is told what to do and how to live:  "... as if weary of housework as I,/ who swore I would never dust or sweep." Her reaction is an indication that the predicament women face is one where they are forced into a life of domesticity with limited opportunities for freedom and voice.  It is an existence tethered to routine, denying freedom, and steeped in monotonous repetition.  The invocation of Sisyphus from the school lesson is reflective of how the speaker perceives domestic life.  The second level of repression exists in the parent/ child dynamic.  The child speaks of being beaten by both parents with the "wooden yardstick." Her breaking of the rule enables the speaker to move into "power gained."  The ability to assert her voice in the face of parental repression represents her voice authenticated and her narrative validated.  She has clearly established that she will not be Sisyphus in her act of breaking the yardstick.  It is this in which the "breaking out" element is most demonstrative. 

Piercy describes her writing as emerging from a singular vision.  It is a vision that she believes unifies her process and products of thought:  "I don’t really differentiate between writing a love poem or a poem about a blue heron, or a poem about a demonstration or a poem about a Jewish holiday. To me, it’s all one vision.”  This vision is one where individual voice is revealed.  This is evident in "Breaking Out."  Bill Moyers argues that Piercy's gift is evident when she "forges imaginative communities centered in day-to-day mature relationships and on the awareness that human capacity cannot be separated from specific individual circumstances."  The transformative moment in which Piercy breaks the ruler and breaks out into a world of "power gained" becomes central to the poem.

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