This month, I am returning to one of the most pervasive experiences my students share, one that occupies the better part of their bad days. I mean, of course, break ups. Educators are tasked, more and more, with making content relevant to our students. Though I often use poetry as a catalyst for discussions about sociopolitical issues, I like to include some unifying themes to remind students that they have points of similarity no matter how different they appear. Even those who have not personally experienced a bad breakup likely know someone who has, or have held a friend or sat with a parent in the wake of letting go.
When it comes to breakups, it’s easy enough to build an entire lesson with pop favorites like Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo. I won’t lie: I do have lessons that draw on both, and students are often very engaged throughout. Sometimes, though, the class benefits from encountering literature with more nuance, more depth, more vulnerability. Two pieces that perfectly balance the personal with the universal are “On Breakups,” an essay by Hanif Abdurraqib, and “In the In-Between,” by Sierra DeMulder.
Pairing these two pieces offers students an opportunity for comparative analysis across genres while also engaging deeply with poetic devices. Though Aburraqib is perhaps most recognized for his incredible skill as a prose writer, he is also an accomplished poet and his mastery of language is immediately evident in “On Breakups.” He also begins the essay with a strategic admission: “During my craft talk about poems and sound, I play small parts of songs or music videos. I’m giving away the secret here, but it’s to distract from the fact that I don’t know what I’m talking about.” This statement ensures that poetry and poetics will linger in the background as Abdurraqib vacillates between analyzing a song by Haim and describing his most recent breakup.
Both DeMulder and Abdurraqib center how silence functions before, during and after breakups. Abdurraqib actually includes a quote from poet Frank O’Hara to help explain what he means by “silence and the things we deem as percussion.” He shares how he teaches the concept in his workshops:
Percussion can be even the gentlest interruption. Here’s a concrete example I give: two people on the telephone, near the end of a conversation, when the line between them falls into the depths of soundlessness. Even one person saying the words “I love you” is percussive. All our affections, coming on the backs of drums.
One of the things I love about this example is that it gives students a strong foundation to analyze the function of silence in DeMulder’s poem. While the central metaphor compares her relationship to a boxing match and evokes sound repeatedly, the moment that marks the end is notably devoid of sound. “I woke midday to the sound//of stillness, nothing, and knew where//our love lives now.” Silence coincides directly with her literal and figurative awakening, emphasized in the way DeMulder extends the moment across three separate stanzas. Visually, white space dominates this moment in the poem, framing the precise moment of realization entirely.
In his essay, Aburraqib notes that “the breaking itself can be sudden, with an entire world of grief to stumble into after,” especially when the relationship does not include children or assets to divide. DeMulder, in the closing of her poem, floods the reader with an alternative history “where the baby/isn’t a stillborn, where the deer runs off…where the boxer//just gets up punch after punch…” The irony, of course, is in the juxtaposition of these lines.
The first image, wherein the baby survives, first resonates as a moment of relief and joy. However, as Aburraqib notes, having a child complicates a breakup. DeMulder seems to anticipate the potential outcome if she and her lover stay together to raise their child, and that future is anything but pleasant. Yes, the deer survives, but it does not escape the brutal violence of being struck by a car. Yes, the boxer rises again and again, but only to endure repeated blows.
DeMulder characterizes the relationship as abusive and toxic from the opening lines, comparing their love to a “red-faced boxer, lips ballooning, eyes//disappearing inside themselves.” It is clear that both people in the relationship are nursing their wounds, succumbing to repeated trauma in a desperate attempt to stay together. Students indubitably connect with this impulse, and this is an excellent place to open discussion to what motivates us to stay in situations long after we understand they are toxic.
Both Abdurraqib and DeMulder explicitly address the desire to maintain a relationship that is dangerous or harmful. DeMulder admits that “Some part of us wanted to stay,” despite all the allusions to violence that precede the breakup. Abdurraqib leans back into his analysis of Haim’s song before shifting to perhaps the most vulnerable moment of the essay:
If someone has done you wrong—and I mean truly done you wrong—there can be shame in wanting that person back. I don’t know how to best articulate that, so I’m hoping that you have perhaps felt it. I am hoping that you are not feeling it now, but have felt it before.
After my last large breakup, I found myself there. Someone did me wrong, and then departed. And yet, in the moments after their departure, I still longed for them. And I know, people would tell me that I was not longing for them, but for the space they once occupied. But I am certain that, even briefly, it was for them.
What I love most about this moment of reflection is that Abdurraqib appeals directly to the reader and their experiences, evoking hope that he and the reader can recognize a shared sense of shame that he does not have the language to describe. In breaking the proverbial fourth wall, Aburraqib signals that he is writing toward an active reader, one willing and able to connect with him over moments of grief.
For students, this realization is essential, as it helps them to reorient themselves as readers and the expectations they have when entering a piece of writing. There is often an assumption that writing is static, distant, finite. While students may recognize poetry as an intentionally emotional genre that requires readers to invest themselves in the experience, they rarely transfer those expectations to prose. Pairing Abdurraqib’s essay with DeMulder’s poem helps to combat this, opening students’ minds to the essay as something more than a source of information.
Bridging these two pieces in particular creates a space for numerous outcomes, from creative output to formal essays. Below, I’ve included some potential discussion questions and writing prompts depending on your goal for students.
What is the effect of comparing love to a boxer, and how does it work to characterize the relationship for readers?
How does DeMulder’s allusion to a “shitty novel or a board game” relate to what Aburraqib says about he has “known exactly how relationships would end, and [he] entered them anyway?” Can maintaining a relationship feel like work in the same way finishing a dull book or long game might?
Describe how both DeMulder and Aburraqib address the cycle of abuse and how difficult it can be to remove yourself from harmful situations.
What is the difference between quiet and silence? Give some examples of what might feel percussive in moments of silence.
Creative Writing Prompts
Use DeMulder’s poem as a template to write your own poem about a breakup or a moment when something important to you ended. Note how she alternates between couplets and single-line stanzas. Try to use structure in your own poem to emphasize the push and pull between what was (the couple, for example) and what will be (being single, for example).
Draft a creative nonfiction essay using “On Breakups” as a title. Use DeMulder’s poem and Abdurraqib’s essay as a guide to create something that is both deeply personal and relatable for the general reader. Try to incorporate one or more extended metaphors that characterize the nature of the relationship without being too specific; this will help evoke empathy without comprising the universality of the experience.
Write a comparative analysis in which you address how DeMulder and Abdurraqib work to humanize the impulse to stay in relationships that are obviously toxic and/or harmful. Be sure to draw from both pieces, emphasizing points of similarity in each piece as well as how the authors diverge in how they discuss the issue.
Analyze the structure of either DeMulder’s poem or Abdurraqib’s essay, paying special attention to how the author arranges the stanzas/paragraphs and how each layers the information they share about their respective breakups. Include direct quotations throughout to support your analysis.