As part of the 2021 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Stuart Kestenbaum in response to a video of him reading his poem “Breaking Free” aloud. Stuart Kestenbaum wrote letters back to eight of these students; their letters and his replies are included below.
Stuart Kestenbaum reads "Breaking Free" for Dear Poet 2021.
Dear Mr. Kestenbaum,
Hello!! I hope this letter finds you well. My name is Alexa Rose. I am 13 years old and in the 8th grade. I attend Manlius Pebble Hill School in Central New York.
When my English teacher announced we would be participating in the “Dear Poets Project,” I spent many hours scrolling through poets and their accompanying poems. I read poetry that was amusing, contemplative, heartbreaking, even romantic, but only one poem struck me with a lasting impression: “Breaking Free.” Although I am unfamiliar with the majority of your work, I was completely and utterly delighted by this poem. My heart swelled at the lines “What an occasion, that above all the other scents in the world, all the other high-topped sneakers, he has found me out.” Your poem, to me, is a heartfelt message about love and the connections we make with others, especially domestic animals. I have two feline companions, and I can easily understand the connection that occurs between humans and their four-legged friends. I have read numerous news stories and articles about dogs, cats, and other creatures that have traveled long distances to reach their human companions. I believe that, just like in your poem, love will always find a way.
I have a question about the last stanza of the poem. “Go home, I tell him, go on home, ignoring / his optimistic eyes, shutting / the great wooden doors / on that part of me that is / without a collar and wild.” You chose to end the poem by “shutting the great wooden doors'' on the dog - which, really, was suppressing your wild and creative side. And, you said that the dog is the part of you “without a collar.” Although, literally, it is the dog in the collar, I agree that, as you wrote, it is the dog that is truly free, and you (the human) that is trapped. Why did you choose to end the poem this way? What was your thinking?
I am wondering whether this poem is based on a real-life experience. Did your dog, if you had one, follow you to school? If not, where did you get your inspiration? Do you currently have any “pets” (although they are so much more than that)?
I also enjoy writing poetry, particularly odes and limericks. Sometimes, however, I feel like I have to be in a certain mood to write poetry - that breathless mood, where your thoughts translate perfectly to words, which pour out onto paper. Do you ever experience this? Do you ever struggle to write poetry or to find inspiration? How do you, as a poet, get around these blocks?
I think, if I were a poet or Poet Laureate, I would want my poetry to be just like yours. Your poems, especially “Breaking Free,” are beautifully crafted, heartfelt pieces of art. I am extremely grateful to have come across your meaningful poem, and I thank you for taking time to read my thoughts!
Dear Alexa Rose-
Thank you for your thoughtful and articulate letter about “Breaking Free.” The poem did come from an experience I had in the second grade when my dog followed me to school. I remember thinking at the time that this was a special moment—like a storybook come to life. I knew some of the details from what I had observed and others from what my friends told me (like the dog jumping up on a teacher).
What I didn’t know until I wrote the poem was how I felt about what had happened. I find that when I write a poem it’s an investigation for me. I know that I may have deeper feelings, but I can’t exactly name what they are. Writing about the experience led me to the big front doors of the school. It was then I realized that there was a wilder, freer part of me that I didn’t feel I could show in school. Something was constraining me. When I read the poem now, I am sad that a young boy would feel that way. As a poet, I’m always trying to find that wilder part inside me when I write.
I have a big Maine Coon cat named Moe. He weighs about 18 pounds and sleeps a lot. When I read in the morning he sits in my lap.
Sometimes writing can be challenging for me. I wonder if I’ll have anything to say or may not know exactly what I want to write about. I find that if I just let myself write, without thinking about what the writing is ‘supposed to’ be, I can make discoveries about what I am thinking and feeling. Getting started can be the hardest part.
I hope that you will keep on writing! Your letter was so articulate and gave me new ways to look at my poem.
My name is Ana and I’m a senior at Madison Highschool in San Antonio, TX. We’ve been working our way through all of the poems for this year's poetry month in my English class, which I think has struck a chord in all of us. It’s nice to sit in class- or in my case, in front of a computer screen- and talk about how words melt into our own stories. How words reflect us- often the parts we’ve been so dutifully hiding. It’s my final year of grade school, something I’m struggling to cope with- especially under our circumstances. It's easy to feel like we’re being deprived of our last, glowing bit of childhood before we turn our backs to it and deny we ever were those kids in the pictures- clad in braces and the sneakers our mother’s bought us. Now that I’m approaching adulthood it’s started to become an abstract to me- a part I must memorize and rehearse. In this in between- the purgatory if you will, childhood becomes something you have to put on a leash. Innocence becomes an embarrassment- the naive only have themselves to blame. And like shutting the doors on the sweet, expectant face of your dog- I wonder if childhood remains even after all the times I refuse it, humiliate it, shove it into a cage. I wonder if all of the girls I used to be- forgive me for being so unkind to them.
The innocence and nostalgia of “Breaking Free” created such a vibrant narrative for me. It emanates a sense of understanding childhood that I think can be rare in adults. I love it’s simplicity and its nonchalance- the language you use fits so well with the theme and imagery of the poem. It really does sound like being a kid- especially referring to the principal's office as the “ the holy of holies”- that made me smile. Is this a metaphor or did this actually happen? If it did, I love the loyalty your dog had for you and the mischief he managed to get away with. Dogs aren’t bound by our social norms- so they get the benefit of being wild- as you put it. I also relate to this sense of freedom portrayed through the dog as something that must be shunned for the sake of uniformity- or to conform to a standard of normality. I especially understand that in the context of school- and how often the education system claims to foster creativity while also de-valuing it. I also feel like the education system doesn’t properly cater to kids that learn differently, sacrificing individuals for the sake of- again- uniformity.
I also read your poem “ Prayer in the Strip Mall, Bangor, Maine” and I really related to that strange, quiet, inexplicable love we can sometimes have for strangers. I love art about real life, about finding depth and meaning in the mundane. I love seeing the normal parts of my life portrayed as worthy of being written about. I make a lot of art, and I’m trying to incorporate more of that in my work. I’m currently working on a painting of my dirty dishes in the sink. Back to the poem, I also really like how the title alludes to love being like prayer. It reminds me of how Kafka said art is like prayer, or how Gerhard Richter said that art is the highest form of hope. I think we’re all praying to something, all the time, to keep us alive. And that hope we have towards life is also love, which you convey superbly through the sweet domesticity of your work.
I’m going to college in the fall, I’m an English major (I hope you can tell), and if my dog chases me to class, I fully intend to let him sit with me. Can I ask- when you were my age, did you know you were going to write? What would you tell the kid that you were about the writing journey?
P.S What poetry books did you buy at the bookstore sale? I will also gladly accept any and all poetry recommendations, the only poetry I have on my bookshelf is Plath.
Sincerely, a half kid,
Both “Breaking Free” and “Prayer in the Strip Mall, Bangor, Maine” were based on real experiences. When I write about things that have happened to me, I want to discover what I am feeling about them. Robert Frost in his essay The Figure a Poem Makes writes “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” and when my poems succeed for me, I feel that I’ve found something that I didn’t know. In “Breaking Free” it was many years after the event, and in “Prayer in the Strip Mall Bangor, Maine” it was just a few days.
In “Breaking Free” I knew the events of the day that I had experienced and had to imagine the rest—like the dog’s journey in the hallways before I found him. It became my journey too—and I remembered the specific way that I felt about the principal’s office, the smell of the corridors, and the feeling of being judged and tested in school. Writing about that—and the physical act of opening the doors—led me to the ending of the poem. I feel most alive when I can discover that feeling of ‘wild’ that the dog had.
“Prayer in the Strip Mall, Bangor, Maine” was part of a series of poems which I saw as prayers, perhaps not in a traditional way, but in the way that they could slow time down for me and give me a sense of holiness in our everyday activities. The man really did say “I love you” and I knew from the start that I wanted to include that in the poem.
When I was your age, I did know I wanted to write, but it took me a long time to allow myself to write with the ‘wild’ voice that was inside me (perhaps a lot like the boy in the poem). If I could speak to my younger self, I would say write without judging and allow the writing to lead you.
I can’t remember the titles of the books of poems that I bought in the strip mall, but one was a book of Mark Doty’s poetry.
Your articulate interpretation of the poems gave me new ways to see them. It’s a coincidence that both poems have doorways in them—but in a sense they are both passages to new ways of seeing the world. Now I’m thinking about your passage from high school to college. I hope that you’ll keep writing and making art.
Dear Mr. Stuart Kestenbaum,
My name is Archi and I’m an 8th-grade student of the North Allegheny school district, residing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I’m writing with much appreciation for your remarkable work which is the poem “Breaking Free.” When I first stumbled upon this, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m astonished and delighted by how profound your poem came to strike me. As I end my final year of middle school, I look forward to an exciting four years of hard work, dedication, joy, and growth. Despite the assets I receive by getting older, there are many things I lose. Your poem touched me by retroceding me to a time where I was my younger--perhaps happier--self.
The poem begins with, “I am pledging allegiance to the flag.” This line immediately brings me back to my elementary school classrooms. As someone who’s been doing online school for over a year, it’s refreshing and memorable to hear that line. The imagery provided was fantastic! Additionally, I’m a fan of the word “crewcut,” which you apply in the third line. I believe that term makes the poem a bit more personal. It also made me smile because I could picture a young boy running into class and whispering into the teacher’s ear. I find it interesting that you thought, “What an occasion, that above all the other scents in the world, --” when you found out your dog had followed you to school. I’d certainly panic! Though I’m fascinated with the approach you’ve put there. Following the last two lines of stanza 2, we have, “high-topped sneakers” this reminds me of people walking down the halls of a school. The entire poem served as a nostalgic feeling to me.
Furthermore, when you added, “the long corridors that smell of chalk dust” in stanza 4, this played as great sensory detail. I also enjoyed the, “past the principal’s office, the holy of the holies.” As children, we often have the perspective that the principal’s office is a supreme sector.
As you explain the journey with your dog, it is revealed that your dog following you to school may not be the understanding of this poem. Although it took me a while, I finally came to the realization that the dog in the poem wasn’t an actual pet, it was a part of you. (This might just be my take on it.) The last stanza, “his optimistic eyes, shutting the great wooden doors on that part of me that is without a collar and wild,” stood out to me because it seemed as if you were shutting the doors to a part of you that was adventurous and excited. The same part that followed you into school and did naughty things was the part you said goodbye to. I can relate to this because I’ve let go of my childhood innocence and playfulness. I think after I entered middle school, I was overcome with an abundance of work, stress, and it was almost impossible for me to be the way I used to be.
I’d like to not only thank you for writing a beautiful poem, but also for helping me realize and recognize who I used to be and who I am.
Thank you for your perceptive reading of my poem. I think writing about my younger self gave me a way to understand both who I was then and who I am now. The images that you mention- the crewcut, the high-topped sneakers, my friend coming into my class—helped me be able to go back to that time emotionally. I could remember being eight years old, and through the writing discover that there was some underlying loneliness or sadness—even though the actual event was humorous.
The discovery in the poem for me, which you described in your letter, is that my dog—my wild and without a collar dog—is also me. In school, I was in a world with more conformity and structure, but there was also something else inside me that I was giving up on.
You mention letting go of your own childhood innocence and playfulness. I think I let go of part of myself that was playful—that’s not the way we’re supposed to behave in school—but as a writer it’s a quality I want to retain. I think when I’m playful—not trying to behave in an expected way- I can reach somewhere inside myself that makes me feel alive. So, even though in the poem I say good-bye to that wild part of me, it’s the part I still try to stay in touch with.
Dear Stuart Kestenbaum,
Have you ever felt calm but excited to know more? That is how I felt when I read your poem “Breaking Free.” Hello, my name is Eli and I go to Sidwell Friends in Washington DC. The poem “Breaking Free” makes me think of my dog who loves to follow me wherever I go. He loves to break free just like the dog in your poem. I am writing to you because I love the way you wrote the poem where it was simple, clean, and calm. It was easy to read and it made me feel great on the inside when you said “He wags his tail when he sees me, but I am overcome with my notoriety.” I loved the story and it made me really think sometimes and made me smile and laugh at others. I am wondering many things about this poem and I hope you can answer them.
The first one is how do you create a poem with so much imagery but the poem is so simple? A good example is when you said “I see him sniffing at the blunt-toed shoes of the army of teachers who find him.” This line is so simple but has so much detail! I love this line because you tell us an image with your own line but still makes me think about it. I have one more question for you, then you can be on your way.
My second question is more about why you wrote the poem. How did you find inspiration, did you have a dog that happened to you or something like that? Something that made me think about this is when you said “I imagine his journey as he runs down the long corridors” This gives me imagery and I love that, but I am wondering why you wrote this poem.
Something else I found very interesting I found was that your poem reminds me of a poem I wrote when I was a little kid called “Let it out” this poem was about how somebody was stuck in their home for years at a time and everything was frozen in time. When you said “Go home, I tell him, go on home, ignoring his optimistic eyes,” It seemed like you froze in time with the dog and had a connection for a second. This meant a lot and it was another example of the poem being and seeming simple but having a deeper meaning.
First I would like to thank you for reading my letter. This poem is one of my favorites I have read in a while. This poem reminds me of one time when I went biking and my dog decided to follow me and not leave me alone. The same feeling of annoyance but happy and glad you get to spend time with someone or something. This poem made me think and appreciate more of life and what we are given. I would be very grateful if you could answer my questions! If you have any for me I will be ready! I hope that you have a great day.
I wrote the poem because I had a memory of my dog following me to school when I was seven or eight years old. When the actual event occurred, I remember thinking that I was having an experience that kids have. I had seen movies and television shows where this happened, and now I was living it.
The imagery came from things that I noticed when I was in elementary school—the way the corridors smelled, walking past the principal’s office, what clothes kids wore. I remembered walking down the halls by myself when no one else was around, and how that felt different from being there with a bunch of kids. When I began to write the poem, those images surfaced in my mind.
You asked how I found the inspiration to write the poem. For me, the inspiration was in the writing of the poem. As I remembered more about that day, writing the poem helped me to discover what I was feeling, what my deepest emotion was. I discovered that the dog in the poem and the poet had a connection, and that there was something wild in me as a child that I would still want to hold now.
Thanks for letting me know about your poem “Let It Out.” I hope that you’ll keep writing poetry!
Dear Stuart Kestenbaum,
After reading your poem “Breaking Free” I was wondering as a child, how many pets did you have? Hi, My name is Ellis and I am in sixth grade at Sidwell Friends School. I am writing to you today because I read your poem “Breaking Free” and I loved it. I also feel like I can relate a little bit because of what my grandpa did when he was a kid. When my grandfather was a young boy his family lived in Oklahoma and did not have enough money to send him to school. My grandfather thought that this was incredibly unfair because his older brother got to go. So every day when the kids were allowed outside to play he would take his horse down to the school yard and he would ride it through all of the kids and just cause a lot of trouble. So every day his parents would have to go down and get him because he was bothering the other kids.
I think that the poem that you wrote “Breaking Free” is perfect for middle school. I think this because it is talking about how you locked a piece of yourself away when you turned your dog away and I think that a lot of people do the same thing in middle school. I think that people do this because they all want to be popular so they all try and act like the person that they think is cool. In doing this they lock the part of themselves that makes them who they are away. I think that a lot of people do this and then they spend a lot of time later on trying to get back to the way that they were because they found out that they really liked themself. The quote that you will see in a second I really love because there is some beautiful imagery and it really makes me think about if I had ever done that to myself. I think that when you first read the quote: “his optimistic eyes, shutting the great wooden doors on that part of me that is without a collar and wild.” (Breaking Free) you do not think about it too much but then you go back and reread it and you realize that a lot of people (wether they know they do it or not) do the same thing to be cool and this part of the poem really expresses that in a beautiful way.
I noticed that in a couple of your poems they are about changing yourself for other people or coming back to yourself after you changed for someone else. I was wondering about that. Did something happen to you when you were younger? Or was there just a lot of that going around at your school when you were younger? I think that there is a lot of that in your poems because in both “Breaking Free” and “How To Start Over” it is talking about how you lock a part of yourself away and then how you bring it back. In your poem “How To Start Over” I really liked the line about the silver light and shaking evergreens. I really liked it because I could see it in my mind and it sounded really nice. I have always really loved nature so I really liked this line a lot. I can see it in my mind really clearly and I can think about all of the mystery surrounding it. This line “and in the silver light the evergreens were shaking slightly.” (How to start over) is probably my favorite line that I have read. I find it really beautiful and I think that it shows that there is beauty in the world. You just have to look for it.
In conclusion thank you for reading my letter. I really like your writing style and can not wait to read more by you. I have one question for you, If you could go back to that moment where you locked a part of yourself away,would you change the way you did that? Thank you for reading my letter!
We had one dog when I was very little named Patches and then our family got Poker, the dog I wrote about in “Breaking Free”. Poker slipped out of his leash a few years after that time he followed me to school, and never returned. We didn’t have a pet after that.
Thanks for letting me know that my poem reminded you of the story of your grandfather when he was a boy. I think poems can evoke our own memories and sometimes we remember things that we had forgotten. All of our experiences are connected, and it helps us understand one another.
You wrote that you thought my poems were about changing myself for other people or coming back to myself after I’d changed for them. I don’t think that I’ve changed for another person, but I do think that we are changing all the time and can be influenced by other people. In all my poems I’m trying to find a center—a place in me that is truest to who I am and what I am trying to say.
I’m glad that you liked the description of the shaking evergreen and the silver light in the poem “How to Start Over.” It was something that I had noticed long before I wrote the poem, and I remembered the image as I was writing.
Thanks for writing. Your letter gave me a new way to look at my poems.
Dear Mr. Kestenbaum,
After reading your poem “ Breaking free,” I can’t help writing you a letter telling you how I feel about school, childhood, and pets. The poem finds me warmly in the line ‘the dog has followed me to school” since it is precisely what I wanted to do when I was in primary school. Like the boy in the poem, I have a dog too. She is a very lively brown teddy, cute, sweet, and docile. She is emotionally attached to me. Whenever I am around her, she will get ecstatic and exhilarated like William Wordsworth’s little daffodil swaying along with the gentle breeze, which is exactly the same as the dog in your poem, as he “wags his tail when he sees [the boy].” Moreover, he overcame many obstacles and hardships in order to see the speaker like “above all the other scents in the world, all the other/high-topped sneakers.” It’s an arduous journey for a little dog. I bet my little Teddy would also do so to get closer to me. However, the speaker is not so happy with the dog’s determination and shoves him out of the “wooden door” because the dog’s abrupt visit has disturbed his social activities in school with other peers and teachers, which is absolutely inappropriate and unwelcome, especially in a place like a school. Yet, compared with the speaker, I used to daydream that I can hold my little daffodil-like teddy in my arms during the class as she can comfort me and calm me down so that I could be more concentrated on what the teacher said.
My parents used to work overtime all the time when I was little. They couldn’t give me sufficient company and basically all my friends lived very far from my place. Teddy had always stayed with me, playing with me, and more importantly taking care of me. For me, She is more than a pet but a loved one of the family. In the poem, when the speaker shoved his dog out of the door, I felt desperately sad, because in the boy’s mind the dog just broke free of his collar and escaped.
Maybe he wants the world to know that he’s grown up, becoming a civilized adult, whereas he is departing his childhood. In this case, I will never ever do this to my dear Teddy, who is my friend and family rather than uncivilized or wildness.
Is growing up so cruel and ruthless? Is it ok for me not to let go of the childhood ignorance and innocence? I just don’t want to be an indifferent adult.
I am also wondering how you captured the inspiration of this poem and turned it into such a wonderful piece of art.
I think that pets can be a great source of comfort and love. I remember crying when I was young and my dog (the same dog who I describe in the poem) licking my tears. It could have been he just wanted the salt water, but I’d like to think he was worried about me.
When I began to write “Breaking Free”, I didn’t know how it would end. For me, writing the poem is a way to discover what I’m feeling, and the imagery and events lead me to that discovery. I was surprised that there was a sadness to the ending—a young boy shutting himself off from the wildness of childhood.
I have always loved the way that dogs’ eyes look when they’re trying to figure out what humans are going to do next. For the dog in my poem, life was one adventure after the other. Even back in second grade, I thought that school was serious business, though there was something wilder inside me, something open to experience and joy. The dog in the poem gives me hope that I can still access those feelings, that I can still be ‘without a collar and wild.’
Thanks for writing!
Dear Stuart Kestenbaum,
Hi, my name is Rebecca and I am a freshman in high school. I have been writing poems in my free time since I was in the third grade, and I thought your poem “Breaking Free” was such a perfect balance of everything a great story has, fit into one poem.
At first glance, I saw your poem as a funny story about a dog following a child to school. But each time I re-read it, the more all of the things that make it great spoke to me. The smells of the chalkboard and the institutional cleanser brought me to the school, watching your dog run down the corridor. I, as a writer, often have problems showing more than telling. My stories and poems are sometimes hard to read because I try to over describe everything, I was wondering if you had any advice on balancing the amount of imagery and description used, because I think you handled it wonderfully.
Another piece to your poem that I love is the end, the shift in tone and all the themes you can take away. The symbolism of the wooden doors closing, having to hide parts of yourself to not feel singled out. I relate to that a lot, closing off the parts that are without a collar and wild in order to be like everyone else, to feel like everyone else. I liked how in such a happy poem, there isn’t a happy ending. The whole poem is funny and crazy and filled with child-like wonder, but the end reels it back in. It makes you feel sad, but also content because it's realistic and relatable. The balance of humor, to sadness, to thematic statements and symbolism might be my favorite part of your poem.
As a writer, and a lover of poetry, I do have some questions. Is this a true story about your life? If so, how old were you when this happened? If not, what inspired you to write this story? Do you have any advice for a young poet/writer like me?
It was so fun getting to read and analyze your poem and I am so glad I have the opportunity to write to you. I look forward to reading more pieces by you, (I recently read “Holding the Light” and I thought it was beautiful) and writing some of my own as well!
The poem did come from an actual experience of my dog following me to school, and I was in the second grade when it happened. I remember thinking at the time that it was like a storybook or a movie scene. I didn’t realize the deeper emotional part of the poem—the shutting the doors on the part of me that is without a collar and wild—until I wrote the poem. Looking back at my childhood gave me the opportunity to recognize or discover the underlying emotion that was there at the time.
The images that I describe as those of my dog wandering in the school were my most visceral memories of elementary school. I have other images, but the smell of the institutional hallways and the principal’s office where the records (like test scores) are kept conveyed for me a sense of loneliness and judgment. One way I think about editing is to ask myself if a particular image needs to be there to contribute to the overall impact of the poem.
You asked for advice about writing. From your letter, I can tell that you are a perceptive reader and articulate writer. I find that reading makes me a better writer—every writer uses different strategies to say what they need to say—and I can learn from them. Writing is a practice. The more that I am involved in writing, the easier it is to access what’s inside me. When I’m attempting to write about any topic, I try to write at first without judging myself, so that I’m not limiting the way that I’m thinking. Once I get those ideas and images on paper, I can edit to shape what I’ve discovered.
Thanks for writing to me!
My name is Sean, and I’m a senior at Arlington High School in Arlington, Massachusetts (just west of Boston). Your poem, Breaking Free, is a beautiful story about the drawbacks of conforming to expectations, and I’m writing to you to express my appreciation for the poem and offer my interpretation of its many complex details.
The imagery of the dog plodding through the school initially comes off as a comical, innocent scene. The dog is completely unaware that he is violating any unspoken rules, and remains content even as he “[muddies] a teacher’s dress” and passes through “institutional cleanser”. He’s even reported to be “cantering past the principal’s office,” which you describe as the “holy of holies.” At first, I felt bad for the dog, whom I considered to be cute and naive. Yet upon reading the poem again, I realized that the dog is not the one I should be pitying, as he is by far the happiest character! Instead, it is the narrator and his peers who seem miserable in their situation. The students are trapped in the school, perpetually concerned about maintaining their appearance and pleasing authority. However, the dog is unphased by artificial social norms and expectations, and simply chases after his goal--to reach his owner--ignoring any obstacles in his way. Indeed, the dog’s carefree lifestyle should not be looked down upon, but rather imitated by those who want to relieve their anxieties and chase after their true aspirations without regret.
The images of authority throughout the poem are also intriguing. There are many details in the first stanza that help capture the dreary and obedient atmosphere of the school, such as the description of the “basement classroom” and your “crewcut friend”. Even in the first line, the boy is “pledging allegiance to the flag,” willingly declaring himself to be ruled by someone else--a stark contrast to the freedom of the dog. This comparison emphasizes how constrained the students are, even if they may not realize it. Furthermore, when you describe the principal’s office as the “holiest of holies” and the group of teachers as an “army”, I interpreted that as a reference to religion and the military. This connection is especially clear in the lines “I see him sniffing/at the blunt toed shoes of the army/of teachers who find him.” The line break after “army” makes it seem momentarily as though the dog has actually run into the military in the school. Religions and militaries are organizations that are built on tradition and that people are supposed to respect. Even in the face of these daunting institutions, however, the dog remains content and totally independent of their influence. This reminds the reader that even such intimidating organizations are simply manmade systems, and they only control our lives if we let them.
The end of the poem is a depressing, yet realistic, finish. Up until the final stanza, the readers share the dog’s optimism that the boy will let him stay in class, or at least give him a friendly pet before sending him off. Instead, the boy kicks him out of the building, “ignoring/his optimistic eyes, shutting/the great wooden doors.” At this point, the readers realize that the dog will not get what he wants--but, more importantly, that the boy is unwilling to embrace the freedom that the dog represents. He doesn’t celebrate the part of him that is “without a collar and wild”, but instead feels a sense of “notoriety” when it is revealed, as though his aspirations are dirty secrets. Like many people, he prefers to hunker down and blend in with his peers, sacrificing his personal ambitions for the sake of being socially accepted.
Breaking Free is a wonderful poem packed with intricate details, complex ideas, and vivid imagery. I admire your work on this poem, as well as your unique ability to transform complex ideas into writing.
Thanks for sharing your response to “Breaking Free.” You were so aware of the use of imagery in the poem. When I was writing “Breaking Free” I started out wanting to describe the memory of the day my dog followed me to school. Before I wrote the poem, I remembered the event, but didn’t know exactly how I felt about it.
Writing the poem helped me see that day again with new eyes. I remembered the details of elementary school—the way the corridors smell, the silence of the principal’s office, the big front doors—and using those descriptions helped me remember more deeply.
Even though my school didn’t have many tests, I think I felt that school was a place where I was evaluated or judged. Writing the poem, I could feel the impact of that on a young child. The ending surprised me. Writing it helped me realize that in that moment I had closed myself off from the wilder part of me. I’d like to think that my dog is still outside the school waiting for me now, and we can run somewhere together.