A Good Drunk or a Large Sandwich

I know that this blog is about examining a single piece to show how it works, but I’m going to go ahead and look at a collection.  I’ll throw on my hair shirt later.  Promise.

Barbara Hamby and David Kirby were asked to put an anthology of contemporary, funny poetry together by the University of Georgia Press.  They worked to find and select poems that are funny because of their seriousness, because of the stark truth behind the laugh.  They sought poems that “feature a central self, someone who is creating a reality through language rather than describing what already exists” (xv).  The realities in these poems are varied, even though most are from the last twenty to thirty years (the earliest are by Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg), as are their brands of humor.

In the section titled “I Was Alone When It Hit Me:  The Self,” the poem “How to Like It” by Stephen Dobyns explores the human prospect of getting up in the morning, day after day.  How do we, as humans, learn to like our lives when we are so often faced with unwanted change?  With mindless repetition?  With the desire to escape?  Dobyns compares the human condition to that of a pet dog.  The dog, when faced with unwanted change, says, “Let’s go downtown and get crazy drunk. / Let’s tip over all the trash cans we can find” (72).  While the man in the poem broods about his past, the dog says, “Let’s dig holes everywhere” (72).  When the man is faced with difficulty and with feeling like an automaton, the dog says, “Let’s go make a sandwich” (73).  The dog’s responses, while obviously simplistic and non-human, do humorously point out how, many times, we make things harder than they need to be.  Perhaps a good drunk, or a large sandwich, are indeed what are needed from time to time.

The speaker in “How to Like It” wants to get into a car and drive without stopping and without looking back.  In short, he wants to escape his mundane life.  Dobyns’ use of the dog’s simple joys as counterpoint to man’s complications make this poem funny.  Most readers see themselves in the man who, at the end of the poem, has not driven off into the night, but instead has his head in the fridge, dog at his side, searching for the makings of a late-night snack.

Another poem that tackles a serious human issue with humor is Angelo Verga’s “My Wife’s Therapist” from the section titled “The Heart is a Lonely Perineum:  Love, Marriage, Divorce, and Hatred.”  The speaker is in a therapy session with his wife and his wife’s therapist.  The reader understands from the title that the speaker is in the session against his will.  It is not his therapist, after all.  The calm voice of the therapist begins the poem.  She explains that anger is not good in a relationship, and that “Flying into tirades can cause others to withdraw” (120).  She gives an example.  The therapist had a run-in with the owner of an office she was trying to buy.  Instead of becoming angry, she “examines [her] feelings,” and she cries (120).   At this example, the speaker points out that “My wife is breathing deeply so I know she is being moved” (120).  This is humorous because the speaker obviously knows that his wife is getting something out of the session, but he himself is obviously not.  One does not have to have been to a therapist to see the dark humor in total lack of understanding, but trying to remain serious for the sake of the others in the room.

When the speaker finally seems to understand, the therapist asks what he has learned.  He says, “would you like me to go over there and fuck with them for you?  I could yell and curse.  I could make them treat you good.  I could scare the piss out of them” (120-121).  The speaker has learned nothing from the therapist because he does not want to be there; he does not think much of her methods.  For the speaker, examining feelings and crying are not options.  This gangster mentality response is funny in itself for its sheer audacity, but when the therapist responds with “No…Let’s begin again…Anger is bad. / Understand?” it is difficult not to laugh and to side, at least a little bit, with the speaker (121).  Most people do not want to be told that their way of doing things is wrong.  The speaker’s defiance is darkly humorous.  And his response?  “I nod my head” (121).

Lynne McMahon’s “We Take Our Children to Ireland” appears in the section titled “Mothers of America Let Your Kids Go to the Movies:  Family Life and Strife.”  What is funny in this poem is the cultural difference in language that is acceptable to use in front of, and directed at, children.  In America, we tend to try to shield children from all unpleasantries, for ill or for good, and if a parent swears in front of or at a child, it is considered borderline if not actual child abuse.  McMahon shows the opposite trend in Ireland.  “[T]he nicely dressed matrons / pushing prams, brushing away their older kids / with a Fuck off, will ye?” (161). She shows the Irish “mundane hyperbole of rebuke – / you little puke, I’ll tear your arm off / and beat you with it, I’ll row you out to sea / and drop you, I’ll bury you in sand / and top you off with rocks – / to which the toddler would contentedly nod” (161-162).  This is not only funny because of the little shock most Americans would feel hearing this kind of language used between mother and child, but also because she writes that these phrases will be the only things her children will remember of their visit to Ireland.  It won’t be the barbed wire of Northern Ireland, and it won’t be the castles, the things parents want their children to remember.

In Jeffrey Harrison’s poem “Fork,” the humor is serious indeed.  Included in the section “We Who Love Precise Language:  Poems about Writing and Literature,” “Fork” tells the tale of a college writing student who is rebuked and bullied by his teacher.  She tells him that he will never become a writer, that he is worthless, all the while touting her own writing greatness.  His reponse?  He steals one of her forks.  He takes the fork to Europe, takes pictures of it with all of the great monuments, sends them to her one at a time anonymously.  He keeps the fork with him as an impetus to write, and to write well.  Bad teachers are a very serious issue.  Nearly everyone has had one, and nearly everyone has either gotten over their abuse or succumbed to it.  At the end of the poem, the speaker realizes he no longer needs the fork.  He is independently successful.  He says, “You might even say your fork / made me a writer.  Not you, your fork. / You are still the worst teacher I ever had. / You should have been fired but instead got tenure” (301).  The humor here holds a message, not only for the student – keep going regardless of what one bad teacher might say – but also for teachers.

Each of the poems in this collection creates its own reality.  The reality of the late-night escape plan, the unwanted therapy session, the kids’ memories from their trip to Ireland, and the power of the teacher in her classroom – all of these realities reveal their own, individual brand of serious humor.  It is the humor in each poem that allows the reader access to the humanity in the uncomfortable situations discussed.

Hamby, Barbara and David Kirby, eds.  Seriously Funny Poems about Love, Death, Religion, Art, Politics, Sex, and Everything Else.  Athens, Georgia:  The University of Georgia Press, 2010.

Why Surfers Can Ride Dust Storm Waves

In the short story Sales, author Judy Budnitz has taken what exists in her imagination and used concrete detail to convince readers that a world in which salesmen are treated as livestock, afternoon dust storms are the norm instead of thunderstorms, and surfers who ride waves of dirt instead of water can exist.
In Sales, a herd of salesmen are kept in a pen in the back, akin to a herd of cattle. When Budnitz writes that salesmen “jostle for spots closest to the fence” (Budnitz 158) the words bring to mind cattle gathering around a fence to see who or what is walking by. The thought could be expanded to any type of herd animal, jostling for position against a fence in any type of enclosure such as a pasture or a zoo.
Concrete detail applies to the setting as well. Wearing sunglasses and scarves, the narrator and her sister are sitting outside, but instead of sitting in the sun, they are “watching the afternoon dust storms roll past” (159). The storms are complete with waves and surfers, even though the surfers are dressed in attire that, in a normal setting, is more akin to protection against toxic waste. There are descriptions of the ocean color and a surfer wipe out that without concrete detail to anchor the story’s reality, wouldn’t work.
But even in this bizarre world, the inhabitants still deal with familiar emotions another bridge between reader and imaginary world. A lonely girl is told over and over again how men won’t find her desirable because of her looks and flat-chest; “mature women” (165) are the only desirable ones. It’s an attitude that is prevalent in our society—looks are what matter and the reader has another connection that re-enforces this story’s reality—an emotional hook. The salesmen are society’s outcasts, “pariahs” (166) that are to be avoided at all costs. The story’s attitude toward salesmen echoes current society’s attitude and the reader has another point of connection that makes Budnitz’s tale more believable.
Concrete detail is what makes this story believable, even though salesmen aren’t herded like pests and surfers don’t ride the waves in dust storms. Sales re-iterates much of what Flanner O’Connor talks about in her book Mystery and Manners, regarding concrete detail and appealing to the senses, which is why I was drawn to this particular story.

Works Cited
Budnitz, Judy. “Sales.” Nice, Big American Baby. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 2005. Print.

See what?

Narrative Distance in Anna Karenina

by Cheryl Russell

Tolstoy’s use of narrative distance in Anna Karenina allows the reader several different views of the main character and the world in which she moves. Narrative distance in this novel encompasses wide views focusing on families and society—the wealthy or peasant class—to a tighter focus that allows the reader to know the thoughts of different characters; especially Anna.  I think Tolstoy’s use of narrative distance is what makes his novel so powerful.

One of the strongest passages in the book deals with Anna’s assumption that her position in Petersburg’s high society hasn’t changed, even though she’s living with Vronksy while still married to Karenin. She decides to attend the opera, against Vronsky’s advice; he’s already deduced the reception she will receive. The narrative distance pulls back to reveal the setting at the opera house—a place packed with members of the upper classes, including Anna’s former circle of acquaintances. The grand setting it the perfect foil for Anna’s public humiliation. Anna is driven from the opera house by the actions of Madame Kartasov, a woman who speaks for many in attendance when she declares “it is a disgrace” (587) to be in Anna’s presence.

Through the use of narrative distance, the reader sees how Anna’s individual decisions play against this much larger backdrop of privileged society—clarifying why the broad scope set forth in the novel’s beginning—is necessary to the story. The narrative distance tightens in on a woman whose suspicions and paranoia are combining to destroy her sanity; “I’m going out of my mind” (802). Hints of Anna’s suicidal plans are present when she tells Dolly and Kitty “she came to say good-bye” (806). The tighter focus on Anna makes the story more powerful.

But the narration in regards to Anna is strongest when she begins to have second thoughts about killing herself;  she “tried to get up, throw herself back” (816) but isn’t quick enough to get out of harm’s way and is killed. Through the use of tight narrative distance, the reader knows Anna changes her mind about committing suicide, making her death even more of a tragedy.

The narrative distance begins to pull back from Anna’s suicide and reveals the effects Anna’s death has on those around her. Vronsky courts suicide in his own way by heading off to war; for the fighting is “something for which he can lay down a life” since he considers his own life “useless to me but loathsome” (828). Much is learned of Vronsky through his mother’s conversation with Konyshov (826-827), as the widening narrative pulls in earlier characters.

At the novel’s beginning, the narrative distance can seem tedious—why does the reader need to know about Russian society and all these different characters; for much of the novel’s first half, Anna vanishes. But the reader needs to know the society that Anna moves in in order to comprehend the ramifications of her choices—in society and on a personal level.

Works Cited
Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Bantam Books: New York. 1960. Print.

Supernatural Writing

by Cheryl Russell

My copy of Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners has post-it flags standing at attention on many of the pages and almost as much highlighting as my copy of Madeline L’Engle’s Walking on Water; i.e. much of the book now wears lines of pink or blue.

In the chapter titled “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” O’Connor says that successful fiction writers deal with the concrete and the concrete is anchored in the senses (67). Since my interests are exploring the supernatural, the challenge will be in using concrete details and the senses to show a character or setting that is the opposite of concrete.

O’Connor reiterates the importance of using concrete details and the senses in the “Writing Short Stories” chapter by saying how the “first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted and touched” (91). The attention to detail is also critical for several other reasons: fiction is experienced meaning and doesn’t work in the abstract (96) and demands the “strictest attention to the real” (96). Details are what count and what make a short story work.

Other components important in writing are mystery and manners, the “two qualities that make fiction” (103). Manners come from the environment in which a writer is familiar—I think it can refer to a childhood environment or other past environments as well as the current environment a writer lives in. Manners ground the story and its characters so the story isn’t taking place in a vacuum. Local idioms are key in giving a character a personality; to ignore idioms is to ignore a vital component of a story’s characters (104).

Character is another point O’Connor emphasizes that if a writer has “a real character, then something is bound to happen; and you don’t have to know before you begin” (106). On page 90, O’Connor states “…in good stories, characters are shown through the action and the action is controlled through the characters…” which reinforces the concrete aspect of writing—well-developed characters are what make a story worth reading and well-developed characters will have specific personalities. Interesting characters are created by using idioms, personality, and detail, detail, detail. In the case of stories that deal with the supernatural, O’Connor says that the supernatural world or characters will only work if the natural world is made real (116).

Mystery and Manners is a book that will take more than one reading to digest all that O’Connor has to say on writing. The book comments on art, short story writing, regional writing, southern writing, peacocks, thoughts on her own work, literature—specifically teaching literature–attempts at censorship specifically in middle school, Catholicism, Protestantism, and the influence of a dying young girl and the nuns who devoted themselves to her care.

Works Cited

O’Conner, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald.  New York:Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 1961. Print.

Dialogue in Poetry

Believe it or not, there are some people who think that poetry is inaccessible or even pretentious.  I know, I know.  Who would say that?  But, it’s true.  These same people argue that it is often difficult to understand poetry because the poet is too much inside his or her own head.  That poets like to be cryptic.  That poets use unnecessarily obscure words.

Rather than argue about those points, I’d like to write today about poet Agha Shahid Ali.  His poems deal with issues of place, home, loss, and identity, none of which are straightforward concepts, especially in our increasingly global world.  One of the methods he uses that makes his reader feel comfortable within the poem is dialogue.  Consider the following lines from “Snow on the Desert”:  “Each ray of sunshine is seven minutes old,” / Serge told me in New York one December night. / “So when I look at the sky, I see the past?” / “Yes, Yes,” he said, “especially on a clear day” (lines 1-4).  Ali invites the reader into a discussion of the passing of time, and the relativity of time and its passing, without alienating him or her.  Most readers can consider this concept – when you look at the sky, you are seeing the past – after reading this dialogue.  There is nothing cryptic about Ali’s presentation.

Ali does the same thing later in the poem.  The speaker is driving his sister to the airport in Tucson.  While they drive, the speaker says, “Imagine where we are was a sea once. / Just imagine!” (lines 26, 27).  The wonder in the speaker’s voice invites the reader to experience the same wonder, no interpretation required.  The road on which they are driving used to be on the bottom of an ocean.  The sheer number of years that had to have gone by to dry up an ocean clearly shows the concept of time and its effects.

Time, place, and loss are three of the themes present in this poem.  By introducing the reader to these themes early on in the poem through the use of easily processed dialogue, Ali invites his reader to consider the more personal, intimate examples that appear later.  His sister leaving on a plane, the fog closing him up in the space of Tucson afterwards; his favorite singer’s death.  The reader  is acquainted with the speaker’s thought process through his dialogue, and so it is not such a leap when, at the end of the poem, Ali compares the earth’s loss of an ocean to his own losses.  The lines “a time / to recollect / every shadow, everything the earth was losing, / a time to think of everything the earth / and I had lost, of all / that I would lose, / of all that I was losing” (lines 74 – 80) are as clear as that sky full of sun rays.

Ali, Agha Shahid.  “Snow on the Desert.”  A Nostalgist’s Map of America.  New York:  WW Norton, 1991.