Michael Mingo received his MFA in poetry from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Spillway, The McNeese Review, Tar River Poetry, and Valparaiso Poetry Review, among others. He currently works as a proofreader and resides in northwest New Jersey.
I’m very happy to have another poem in Cumberland River Review! Their current issue features my piece entitled “On a Small Farm in Waterbury, VT,” which is inspired by a photograph by Sasha Arutyunova that was featured in The National, the Amtrak in-train magazine. The photograph was part of a larger series documenting the Vermonter route between New York City and Waterbury, all of which are worth checking out. (Surprisingly, The National is a really good magazine; give it a read if you’re ever on Amtrak.)
Thanks again to the editorial staff at CRR for selecting my work for inclusion!
You can read “On a Small Farm in Waterbury, VT” by clicking here, and you can read my previous poem in CRR, “Overland Express Arriving at Helena, Mont.,” by clicking here. If you would like to see Arutyunova’s series of photographs that I mentioned above, you find them on her website (the one that inspired my poem is the 12th in the series).
I’m very pleased to announce that two poems of mine have been published in the most recent issue of The McNeese Review: “Men Who Stand Still Are Broken” and “Luis Martinetti”. The former poem was inspired by a line someone had written on a column in the 42nd Street–Port Authority Bus Terminal subway station, and I think it’s the only poem I’ve written where the organizing principle is having a fixed number of words per line. The latter is another installment in my series of ekphrastic poems about the Edison Studios catalog of short films (which I have mentioned here and here). In this case, it’s inspired by some footage of an acrobat going through his routine. I’m rather proud of both these pieces, so I guess finding a market for them helps validate my taste in my own work.
This publication is very exciting for a couple of reasons. First, it turns out that I’m in the same issue with Jim Daniels, a faculty member at my alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University. (I never had a class with him, but I did get to speak with him a handful of times.) Second, this is the first publication that I’m actually getting paid for, so I can finally cross that goal off my list.
You can order a copy of this issue of The McNeese Review through the magazine’s website. If you’d like to see the film that inspired “Luis Martinetti” (i.e., the film Luis Martinetti), you can watch it below:
The speech tag is among the most utilitarian features in a piece of writing. Those little phrases connected to a fragment of dialogue—”he said,” “she asked,” “said the barkeep”—tend to serve exactly one purpose: making it clear who is speaking. They are as close to purely structural text that one will find in a story or an essay; they may be integrated into the main body of the text, but functionally they are more like the name labels in a script or an interview. They may assist the reader in comprehending and interpreting the text, but they don’t exactly contribute to its meaning.
A general rule of good writing is that the speech tags should not call attention to themselves, as they are boring almost by design. Oftentimes beginning writers, realizing that speech tags sound kind of dull, will attempt to spruce them up by using fancy synonyms for “said” or “asked,” or by appending needless modifiers to them. In doing so, they end up drawing the reader’s focus away from the dialogue, away from the important part of the sentence. And this assumes that speech tags are necessary in the first place. After all, if the voices of the characters are sufficiently distinct, the reader can suss out the speaker from the dialogue itself. (I’m certain that half the reason Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is a classroom staple is how well it demonstrates this fact.)
Still, I’m not happy to just take a general rule and leave it at that. In much the same way that I’ve thought about how one can effectively use inanimate objects as narrators, I’ve wondered if there are ways to use speech tags creatively. One possibility that comes to mind is to vary the placement of the speech tag relative to the dialogue. It’s standard to close the sentence with the speech tag, but one can move it closer to the middle or beginning of the quoted text to suggest, say, a pause in the speaker’s delivery or an emphasis on an unexpected word. One may even do so just to give the reader a place to mentally breathe in a long passage.
This technique is definitely useful, if for no other than that it varies the rhythm of a conversation on the page, but I’m not sure I’d call it a creative use of speech tags, per se. When the speech tag interrupts dialogue, the content of the tag doesn’t really matter, only it’s presence. One could insert a brief action or a bit of description and obtain a similar effect. No, I’m looking for something stronger: a way to make a phrase like “I said” interesting in itself.
A speech tag doesn’t give the writer much meaning to work with, granted. But it does provide the reader with one indisputable piece of information: someone is speaking. If the act of speaking is thematically important to a piece of writing, then a writer could use speech tags, could use the constant repetition of “said” and such words, to underscore that theme. In fact, I’ve come across two short stories that do precisely that: “Fat” by Raymond Carver and “Say I won’t be there” by Ali Smith. Both stories revolve around characters who are struggling to communicate something, and both use an excess of speech tags to highlight that struggle.
“Fat,” which was included in Raymond Carver’s 1976 collection Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, tells the story of the narrator’s encounter with a fat customer at the restaurant where she works as a waitress, and of the effect that the encounter has on her. When I say that it tells the story, I mean it is explicitly about the telling of it. It begins thusly:
I am sitting over coffee and cigarettes at my friend Rita’s and I am telling her about it.
Here is what I tell her.
It begins with two sentences, each its own paragraph, devoted to what at first seems like throat-clearing. In fact, Carver is setting up the story’s fixation on the act of speaking. This becomes apparent when the narrator first approaches the fat man to take his order:
Good evening, I say. May I serve you, I say?
Rita, he was big. I mean big.
Good evening, he says. Hello. Yes, he says. I think we’re ready to order now, he says.
Carver does not merely include those utilitarian speech tags; he uses way more than is necessary to get the point across. It’s not as though the reader will lose track of who is speaking mid-paragraph, so they must be serving some other purpose.
From what I see, these extra speech tags accomplish two things. First, they replicate the experience of orally telling a story with lots of dialogue. Unlike in print, the audience for an oral story does not have punctuation marks or paragraph breaks to clearly delineate whose dialogue is whose, so a good storyteller will need to remind the listener of who is saying what at more frequent intervals. Second, the repetition of “I say” and “he says” convinces the reader to pay special attention to the dialogue, even as we might be tempted to skim past all these pleasantries. The narrator certainly finds this dialogue interesting, noting that the fat man “has this way of speaking—strange, don’t you know.” Without all those speech tags slowing us down, we might not notice the fat man’s peculiar use of the royal “we,” which he ends up using consistently throughout the story.
Of course, if we pay close attention to the dialogue—and by extension, to the language the narrator uses throughout, for this whole story is being spoken—we get the sense that the narrator is not saying as much as they would like to. She has clearly been affected by that night with the fat man: by his speech, by his huge fingers, by the comments others make about him. But she seems unable to clearly vocalize just how she’s been moved. Instead she must resort to vague statements like, “Now that’s part of it. I think that is really part of it.” One senses that her only choice is to recap the entire evening, in the hopes that the feeling will shine through. Indeed, moments like the fat man’s last line come tantalizing close to an epiphany (“If we had our choice, no. But there is no choice”).
But, given Rita’s reaction to the story, it would appear that telling a story doesn’t mean conveying it. After the narrator mentions how she felt “terrifically fat” while her boyfriend Rudy raped her, she realizes that Rita has missed whatever point she was trying to make:
That’s a funny story, Rita says, but I can see she doesn’t know what to make of it.
I feel depressed. But I won’t go into it with her. I’ve already told her too much.
No matter how many times that narrator “says” something within her story, she cannot guarantee that her audience will understand. That goes not just for Rita, but also for the reader, for whom the last lines are famously enigmatic: “My life is going to change. I feel it.”
Whereas in “Fat,” the problem is that the audience doesn’t understand the narrator, in Ali Smith’s “Say I won’t be there” (collected in the 2015 book Public Library and Other Stories), the problem is that the audience doesn’t want to listen to her. As it happens, the story starts off in a similar fashion to “Fat,” with two one-sentence paragraphs that foreground the act of telling a story to an audience:
I had a dream, I say.
Don’t tell me about any dream right now, you say, I can’t listen to it right now.
And, much like Carver, Smith makes liberal use of mundane speech tags to reinforce the importance of speaking, although in her story’s case there’s a more palpable sense of frustration:
It’s not just any dream, it’s the recurring dream, I say. The one I’ve been having all year. I had it again. I keep having it.
Tautology, you say.
What? I say.
You just said the same thing four times over, you say. And I can’t hear about your dream right now. I’ve got work in a minute.
Something is obviously eating away at the narrator. They’re having trouble getting it out, though, so they just end up repeating themselves as a preface, saying that they’re want to say something. Not helping matters, they don’t have someone like Rita who is at least game for a story; the audience here is actively trying to shut down the discussion.
One thing you’ll have notice is that “Say I won’t be there” features not only a first-person narrator but also addressee, in this case the narrator’s romantic partner. The use of “you” in this context encourages the reader to place themselves in the perspective of this character, which is a rather conflicted position: both intimate (the reader is sole audience member) and confrontational (the reader-character resists being the audience). This tension, this need to negotiate between the desires of the reader and those of the reader-character, may explain why the story progresses the way it does, with the addressee insisting they don’t want to hear about this dream while they keep asking questions about it.
Over time, we get a rough notion of what the narrator’s dreams: she keeps hearing stories about how Dusty Springfield was being photographed in a nearby graveyard. The addressee finds this perplexing, because that sort of dream would seem to have much more relevance to their own life—their a fan of Springfield’s music and they work for a company that wants to repurpose a graveyard for commercial purposes. They playfully accuse the narrator of “filching [their] subconscious,” which brings the narrator back to an earlier period in their relationship, back when they made it a point of sharing dreams with each other. They’d write them down “because it’s really boring to have to sit and listen, in the morning when you’re hardly awake yourself, to a dream someone else has had.” In that moment, the narrator’s entire quest seems both hypocritical and hopeless.
As it turns out, the narrator is not the only one with a lot to say that they’ve been holding back. Later that day the addressee, inspired by their earlier conversation, sends the narrator a text message, an email, two voicemails, and a letter, all filled with fun facts about Dusty Springfield. It’s as though the addressee sees the earlier dream discussion as an excuse to share their interests with the narrator. Through that deluge of a trivia, though, it’s difficult to see what, if anything, the narrator takes from it—a role reversal from earlier on. This is why I find Smith decision to have “I say”/”you say” volley back and forth so crucial: it implies that the narrator and the addressee are in similar positions. We are reminded, constantly, that both characters are speaking, but never reassured that either is hearing.
From the examples of Carver and Smith, we can see that beyond structuring and stitching together dialogue, speech tags are an excellent tool for getting the reader to consider speaking as an action. Both “Fat” and “Say I won’t be there” are stories driven by and about the struggle to communicate; that struggle is where the majority of the conflict lies. Not all stories feature such conflicts, and even in those that do it may not be necessary or advisable to go to the extremes of Carver and Smith. But if you’re writing a passage of tense or uncertain dialogue, perhaps consider what those little words around the quotation marks might do for the scene.
What are your thoughts on speech tags? Are there other potential ways of using them for creative ends? Can you think of any stories which use them especially well, or poorly? Let me know in the comments! And if you want more advice on making the most of the little things in writing, you might want to check out my post on how Brave New World and Hiroshima use section breaks.
It was only yesterday I learned that Brenda Shaughnessy, one of my favorite contemporary poets, has a new collection out from Knopf, entitled The Octopus Museum. I’ve of course not read it yet (and knowing me I won’t actually get to it for another two years), but from what I can gather it’s a rather high-concept book: a dystopian future in which the world that humanity destroyed is now run by octopuses. Shaughnessy’s past collections have had strong motifs running through them—astronomy and tarot cards in Our Andromeda, ’80s synthpop in So Much Synth—but thisone sounds like it goes a level beyond that.
I have no idea how one would approach the substance of an octopus dystopia, but in an interview for Lit Hub with Peter Mishler, Shaughnessy does mention how she approaches the form of it. Mishler points out how The Octopus Museum features much longer lines than is typical of Shaughnessy’s poetry. As she explains, the longer lines are not the mere product of an evolution in her writing style, but a conscious decision related to the themes of her new collection:
Oh how I love a long prose line with no self-important line breaks! It just ends where the margin says it ends. These lyric-essay/prose-poem vignettes are the correct shape for the content—almost all rectangular, as if framed, teleological. There are some regular, stanza-ed poems in the book because they are relics: humans used to write poems in which they wasted space, breaking our lines as if it would buy us more time, give the illusion of freedom. The prose pieces say: this is data, utilitarian. It uses up all the space it’s been given; it doesn’t imagine any use for taking up extra space.
I find this perspective on line lengths fascinating, because it runs counter to my own preconceptions about them. In the best case scenario, a long prose line in poetry can have a certain ecstasy to it. Walt Whitman is the most obvious example, what with the chant-like style of poems such as “Song of Myself,” and the later poetry of Larry Levis accomplishes something similar through a whirlwind of ideas and images. But to me, long lines of poetry tend to be suspect; I take them as a sign that the poet has not been discriminating in their diction or judicious in their self-editing. Such lines waste space in a poem the same way empty soda cans and scratch paper waste space on my desk: their presence detracts from the value of their surroundings.
But, upon reflection, perhaps my stance on long lines would play right into the hands of the octopus overlords. When I think of a poem in a visual sense, I tend to discount the page from the picture, as though the text were floating outside of time and space (or, alternatively, on an infinite plane, which for present purposes might as well be the same thing). But on what grounds do I refuse to consider page space as a fundamental part of the poem? I might as well refuse to consider the environment as a central feature of my life. From this point of view, there is something obscenely decadent about using an entire sheet of paper to print a haiku. It’s like clear-cutting a forest to plant a few rose bushes. No matter how beautiful the buds are, the process which produced them hardly seems justified.
I have no idea whether The Octopus Museum takes full advantage of the thematic possibilities of the long line poetry, especially in relationship to its odd premise. But at the very least, I’m sure I’d appreciate a collection which so challenged my base assumptions regarding poetry. I still remember how Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary, regardless of whether or not I actually enjoyed it, taught me that poetry can deliberately sound stilted and awkward and still be thought-provoking. Hopefully, when I actually read The Octopus Museum, I’ll have similar experience to that.
Thanks for reading, and for humoring me on what really amounts to speculation. If you’d rather read my thoughts on books that I’ve actually read (and who could blame you?), my most recent post was on the role of the Missionary in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which you can check out here. In the meantime, what are your thoughts on long lines of poetry? Can you think of a book that challenged your understanding of how writing is supposed to work? Let me know down in the comments!
In my twelfth-grade English class, for the unit on postcolonial literature, I wrote an essay on the missionary characters in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. I don’t remember very much of my argument (and I’m certain that, if I actually reread that paper, I’d be embarrassed by it), but one quote that I used when defining terms for the essay has stuck with me through the years. It comes from Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony, and it concerns the nature of religious conversion. According to Mbembe, conversion is:
. . . a way of exercising violence against a state of mortality; the convert is supposed to move from death to life—or, in any event, to the promise of life. This tends to suggest that conversion always involves an act of destruction and violence against an earlier state of affairs, an accustomed state for which one seeks to substitute something different.
Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony, pp. 229-230
What strikes me about Mbembe’s conception of conversion is how it stands in contrast to how I believe we normally think of conversion. In our everyday understanding, one converts from one set of beliefs to another either through some fantastic moment of insight (e.g., Paul on the road to Damascus) or through the power of a compelling argument. The process in either case is of serious importance but is ultimately peaceful. But in Mbembe’s view, such conceptions of conversion tend to overlook an essential element of the process, namely, that one has discarded—or has been forced to discard—a previous set of beliefs and customs. The old must be destroyed to make way for the new.
That quote came back to me while reading Homegoing, the debut novel from Yaa Gyasi. One might suppose such thoughts would be inevitable when reading about the European colonization of Africa, where cultural imperialism in the form of Christian missionary work is still ongoing. But Homegoing, and specifically the chapter centered on the character of Akua, is an almost perfect embodiment of Mbembe’s sentiment, as it it highlights both the metaphorical and literal violence that comes with conversion.
Akua is the daughter of Abena, a woman who left her village while pregnant with her who and settled with a group of Christian missionaries she had met on a previous journey. Abena dies when Akua is very young, and so Akua is raised by the missionaries. Throughout her youth, Akua is caught between two competing religious systems: European Christianity, as represented by the character of the Missionary (who is only referred to as such), and the traditional religious practices of the Gold Coast, as represented by a local fetish man (again, only referred to as such).
It is the fetish man who first connects the Missionary with destructive behavior. When Akua is six years old, she hears another child refer to the Missionary as an obroni, a term that she only knows to mean “white man” but that he seems stung by. The fetish man explains that obroni derives from another expression: abro ni, or “wicked man.” And it seems this child is not alone in his appraisal of the Missionary. “Among the Akan,” he tells Akua, “he is wicked man, the one who harms. Among the Ewe of the Southeast name is Cunning Dog, the one who feigns niceness and then bites you” (location 3039). In other words, he has a far-reaching reputation for destructive actions.
At first, Akua finds such talk about a man of God to be sacrilegious, but her opinions soon begin to shift. During this conversation, she remembers how the Missionary had “snatched her hand and pulled her away” when she first met the fetish man, even though he seemed perfectly kind to her (location 3048). A few days later, the Missionary calls her into his office and begins giving her private religious instruction. He chooses to begin his instruction, though, not with the tenets of the faith but with the threat of corporal punishment, brandishing a switch “just inches from her nose” (location 3094). He tells her in no uncertain terms that she, her mother, and all of Africa are sinners and heathens, and forces her to accept these terms by reason of force. The whole affair hits right at Akua’s psyche:
After he told her to stand up and bend over, after he lashed her five times and commanded her to repent her sins and repeat “God bless the queen,” after she was permitted to leave, after she finally threw the fear up, the only word that popped into her head was “hungry.” The Missionary looked hungry, like if he could, he would devour her.
Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing, location 3104
The Missionary makes no attempt at rational persuasion or at revelation; Akua must acknowledge and cast aside her pre-Christian state of sinfulness by submission. Indeed, such violence would seem to be the only tool at the Missionary’s disposal, as seen when Akua announces her intentions to marry a local tradesman named Asamoah. His response is once again to say that she must repent her sins and to throw the switch at her. The gesture is impotent, though, as when it hits her shoulder Akua “watched it drop to the floor, and then, calmly, she walked out” (location 3134). When the Missionary loses the power to coerce, he simultaneously loses the power to convert.
So far, we’ve examples of the violence that Mbembe finds in the process of conversion, but we haven’t seen much in the way of destruction; it’s not as though the Missionary has been smashing local religious artifacts like so many biblical idols. That changes, however, in Akua’s final confrontation with him. The whole scene is charged with violent potential, as the Missionary starts off standing “in the doorframe, his switch in his hand” (location 3187). Violence is found not only in the switch, but also in how he prevents Akua from exiting the room; he is limiting, or at least attempting to limit, the options available to her. Once the Missionary realizes he has no real sway over Akua, however, he tells her the story of how her mother met her end:
“After you were born, I took her to the water to be baptized. She didn’t want to go, but I—I forced her. She thrashed as I carried her through the forest, to the river. She thrashed as I lowered her down into the water. She thrashed and thrashed and thrashed, and then she was still.” The Missionary lifted his head and looked at her finally. “I only wanted her to repent. I—I only wanted her to repent…”
Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing, location 3199
This one paragraph renders Mbembe’s conception of conversion in the most tactile, literal way possible. Baptism is ostensibly a way to be born again, a way “to move from death to life—or, in any event, to the promise of life.” But baptism is fraught with the potential for violence; even in consensual circumstances, one places oneself at the mercy of someone else’s hands. The Missionary’s attempt to impose that promise of life on Abena, to force her out of a state of supposed sinfulness, ends up killing her. In Homegoing, conversion does not merely attack the cultural traditions of the Gold Coast, does not merely do violence to an already-established way of life. It has actual blood on its hands.
We could go further with this discussion of the violence of religious conversion. In particular, one could note how Akua appears to internalize a violent conception of religion in general based on how she interprets the experience of prayer, or how the final paragraphs of the novel offer a more spiritually fulfilling version of baptism than what we see in the chapter that we’ve discussed. But I’ll leave those discussions to you, before this blog post turns into a dissertation.
That’s enough from me. How about you? Have you read Homegoing, and if so, what aspects of the novel struck you the most? Let me know in the comments! (Also, apologies for the inconvenient use of location numbers; my ebook version of Homegoing doesn’t have page numbers for some reason.)
Like I said at the start, this post was inspired by my twelfth-grade English class, but this isn’t the first time that’s happened. A while back, I wrote some fragmented thoughts on the concept of “nothing,” which in part sprung from another assignment from that same years. So thanks, Mr. LoGiudice: all these years later and you’re still making me think.
After all, there is always poetry. This month’s poem, written by William Carlos Williams, is all about the experience of being at the ballpark, with all the messiness that goes with it. It’s called “[The crowd at the ball game],” which you can read at the Poetry Foundation website. Give it a look, and then we’ll start with some background info.
Poets have long been drawn to baseball as a subject, so it’s not exactly surprising that Williams dabbled in baseball writing. But David Ward, in an overview of baseball poetry published at the Smithsonian magazine website, suggests that Williams’s poem is a noteworthy piece within context of modernist poetry. Even though baseball has had significant influence on the American consciousness, modernist poets tended to ignore the game as a subject “because it was too associated with a romantic, or even sentimental, view of life.” That so prominent a modernist poet as Williams would choose baseball as a subject is thus surprising, though Ward laments that Williams is more interested in “the relationship between the crowd and the individual” than in the game itself, which is largely absent from the poem.
The opening lines present us with a thesis statement on the nature of the crowd, a direct account of why people have chosen to gather at the ballpark:
The crowd at the ball game is moved uniformly
by a spirit of uselessness which delights them— (lines 1-4)
The second stanza offers us the first surprise of the poem: the fact that the crowd can find the “uselessness” of watching a baseball game delightful. In Ward’s account, this is because baseball is “a time out from the hum-drum grind of daily work,” but I don’t find this answer satisfying. It might be a sensible response to James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” which I’ve written about before. Wright’s poem is haunted by the imagery of the post-industrial Midwest, so of course in that poem sport functions as an escape from a laborious life. But there really are no such references to such work in Williams’s poem, so Ward’s analysis is purely speculative. I think we need to take Williams’s speaker more literally: the useless of the ball game is delightful not in contrast with something else, but in itself.
We might expect to find that delight in the action of the game, in the same way that the people in “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” find release in how the high school football players “grow suicidally beautiful / At the beginning of October / And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies” (lines 10-12). But Ward is correct in saying that baseball is not the actual subject of “[The crowd at the ball game].” The description of the game that the crowd is watching is hopelessly vague:
all the exciting detail of the chase
and the escape, the error the flash of genius— (5-8)
Compare this description of baseball to, say, Williams’s description of a fire engine in “The Great Figure” or a barnyard scene in “The Red Wheelbarrow”. Those poems are not exactly lush in their language, but they are precise in their details and remain evocative after multiple readings. But in “[The crowd at the ball game],” the words are inexact (“the chase / and the escape” from what?) and tend to lean on abstraction (“the flash of genius”); if we weren’t given the subject in the first line, I would never have guessed it from these stanzas.
This description is so uncharacteristic of Williams’s work that I can only conclude that it’s a deliberate irony: there is no “exciting detail” in the game itself, because that’s not where the excitement actually lies. The speaker may go on to tell us that these aspects of the game are “all to no end save beauty / the eternal” (9-10), but that’s only to set up the poem’s next twist: the crowd is the poem’s true site of beauty. The parallel is explicit in both form and content: “So in detail they, the crowd / are beautiful” (11-12). Williams’s choice to repeat the word “detail” and to reemphasize aesthetics with the word “beautiful” keeps the reader’s mind focused on the same ideas even as the subject shifts.
Granted, given how limp his description of the ball game is, this may also prime the reader for a further disappointment. While repeating “detail” and “beautiful” gives the poem’s argument cohesion, it also highlights how little has actually been said so far, how little detail and beauty we have encountered. And truth be told, there is little beauty to be found in the poem, at least in the conventional sense. The speaker says the crowd “is alive, venomous // it smiles grimly / its words cut” (14-16). It’s menacing, this crowd, although just how is unclear. Is this a harmless, playful fury, the sort that lies in the call to kill the umpire? Or is this a mob out for blood?
As we get more details of the crowd, its nature becomes both more worrisome and more ambiguous. The speaker highlights the diversity of people in the crowd, and how they relate to the greater collective:
The flashy female with her mother, gets it—
The Jew gets it straight—it is deadly, terrifying
It is the Inquisition, the Revolution (17-22)
To paraphrase “The Red Wheelbarrow,” so much depends upon the meaning of “gets it”. One possibility is that the women and the Jew “get it” because they are the recipients of the crowd’s abuse, the people who the crowd’s “words cut”. In this interpretation, the diverse elements of the crowd are an unwelcome sight to the rest of it. Williams’s invocation of the Inquisition becomes rather loaded in this reading, as the Inquisition was an especially dark chapter in the history of antisemitism. To call the crowd “deadly, terrifying” in this context borders on understatement.
But there is another possible interpretation of “gets it,” and that’s to say that the women and the Jew understand the sentiment of the crowd and embrace it. They are included in the general passion; their words cut just as well, their smiles are just as grim. All members of the crowd are equal members in the Inquisition and the Revolution. You will note that this is still a rather sinister scenario, though at least the victims of the violence have been elided from the poem. In either case, we seem to be a long way from the sense of brotherhood one finds in “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” Williams does not resolve this tension as the poem progresses. It is a tension that the reader must accept from start to finish.
But while the nature of the crowd remains ambiguous, the poem does develop the notion of beauty that Williams has in mind here. The speaker once again asserts that “beauty” can be found in this scene, but it’s not the sort that one can appreciate the way that one appreciates an artwork. This beauty “lives // day by day in them / idly” (24-26). This beauty is a potential that goes untapped the vast majority of the time, but can be unleashed in certain circumstances. (Ward may have overextended himself in linking this feeling to “the hum-drum grind of daily work,” but he was not completely off-base.) The occasion of the ball game allows something, specifically the passion of the inquisitor or the revolutionary, to express itself. It’s not for nothing that the speaker remarks on the time of year, as it connects the moment to something spiritual: “It is summer, it is the solstice” (29).
Broadly construed, both the spirituality of a solstice rite and the pastime of a baseball game are forms of play. Both occur in what the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga would call a “magic circle,” a metaphysical space where the ordinary rules of society are temporally suspended, whether for the purposes of law, religion, or entertainment. This goes back to the notion that the ball game has “a spirit of uselessness”: it happens outside the normal world. But just because it is useless does not make it worthless, in the same way that the “play” of ritual is still a serious matter. Just look at how Williams ends the poem:
the crowd is
cheering, the crowd is laughing in detail
permanently, seriously without thought (30-34)
For as difficult as it is to figure out the nature of the crowd, for as difficult as it is to see what it is about baseball that makes this moment possible, for all of that—the sheer exuberance of the moment comes through strongly. Whatever the experience has done to the crowd, I believe the impact has been tremendous, that they have been “permanently, seriously” moved.
What are your thoughts on “[The crowd at the ball game]”? Do you have a poem or a story that puts you in the mood for baseball season? Then sound off in the comments below! If you enjoyed this deep dive into a poem, then you’ll be happy to know that I write one of these every month. Most recently I analyzed Tracy K. Smith’s found poem “Declaration,” so why don’t you start there and start exploring?
First things first: Wonderful, Wonderful Times is a deeply unpleasant book. Elfriede Jelinek’s 1980 novel (translated from the German by Michael Hulse) is a tour through the various depravities of 1950s Vienna: unmotivated crime, unenthused sex, unrepentant Nazism, and so forth. I do the vast majority of my reading on the bus these days, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so self-conscious about reading a book in public. Granted, I do have something of a moralistic streak that’s been bubbling up on me of late, but Wonderful, Wonderful Times is so unrelenting in its grime that it borders on the lurid.
To take just one example: there’s a scene in which one of the main characters allows (encourages?) a man on the tram to grope her so that her friends can filch his wallet. That about sums up the book’s moral universe: even the victims are perpetrators, and vice versa.
Despite all that, despite one’s natural revulsion at the novel’s content, I find myself agreeing with Richard Eder’s assessment in the Los Angeles Times, in which he detects in Jelinek’s work “a hint of delicacy and lyricism” and “a measure of perverted innocence.” I attribute a fair amount of this effect to Jelinek’s narration, which blends every character’s dialogue and inner thoughts into a single voice that almost tears itself apart from its own incoherence, but it’s more an artful melange than a morass of text. It takes a few sections that get used to it, yes, but there’s something mesmerizing in watching it unfold speaker by speaker. But even more than the prose style, it’s Jelinek’s character crafting that gives the novel its odd beauty.
Wonderful, Wonderful Times tells the sordid stories of four young adults in post-WWII Austria. At the novel’s center are Rainer and Anna Witkowski, a pair of twins from a middle class family with ties to the Nazi power structure that their abusive father remains proud of. Rainer is self-styled poet who builds his life around the philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, a young man who envisions himself as the leader of a revolution of thought as he paraphrases other people. Anna, by contrast, is a promising student and musician given to prolonged periods of absolute silence, when she’s not lashing out with absolute rage. Joining the Witkowski twins are Sophie Pachhofen, a rich athletic girl with tons of fight and nothing to actually fight for, and Hans Sepp, the son of a Communist activist who longs for Sophie’s sort of luxury. Together, these four have made it their job to terrorize the streets of Vienna, because what else is to be done?
The novel opens with the four in action, beating the living daylights out of a random passerby out for a late night stroll. The assault is already underway, which has given the narratorial voice enough time to start pontificating on the nature of violence. “Particular courage is required,” the voice informs us, “if you are to scratch a man’s face while he is looking full in your own (though he cannot see much since it is dark) or indeed try to scratch his eyes out. For the eyes are the mirror of the soul and ought to remain unscathed if possible. Otherwise people will suppose the soul is done for” (p. 7). The reader is forced to accept the nature of this novel from the first paragraph: its characters will aim for your eyes, will try to extinguish your soul and whatever hope you may have for it. In its sheer bluntness, the opening assault functions as an initiation rite, signalling what you’ve agreed to read.
For the first third of the novel, the prose and the luridness were enough to pull me along, past scenes where Herr Witkowski forces his wife to pose for pornographic photos and scenes where Anna initiates sex in a school bathroom with all the passion of ticket-taker. But while I had been initiated into the circle of these characters, I still felt like I was at more-than-arm’s distance from them. They were more intellectual constructs than people, more forms of pointless rebellion than rebels. The turning point for me happened at a different point of initiation, when Rainer decides it’s time to officially initiate Sophie into their little band of mischief. The four protagonists head out into the Vienna Woods to engage in some old-fashioned animal cruelty:
What distinguishes the group from other groups who are out and about dressed for a ramble is that they are not dressed for a ramble, but instead they are carrying a basket containing a sack tied shut. There’s an amount of scratching and whimpering going on inside the sack. This is because there is a cat in it. They caught the cat. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Age of Reason is a character who wants to drown his cats, and so today they are planning to drown this cat too, though this cat also has a right to live. Rainer says that he himself has an equal right to non-existence, just as this cat does, the cat which he is going to assist on its way to non-existence before it can count to three. The cat has its suspicions. Hence the brouhaha in the sack.
Wonderful, Wonderful Times, p. 88
Here is where I started to see that “perverted innocence” that Eder mentioned. Take out the part about trying to drown a cat, and what you’ve got is a scene about four young adults enjoying a nice day out in nature, looking to recreate something from a novel. They seem like overgrown children here, play-pretending with something that will, in fact, have consequences. More than anything, I’m reminded of Tom Sawyer’s role in the final chapters of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, cooking up an absurdly elaborate plan to rescue Jim from a shed inspired by all the adventure novels he’s read. Never mind that Jim is a human being and not an excuse for a quest; never mind that “this cat also has a right to live.” The perverted innocents will let nothing get in the way of their fun, for what is fun is serious business.
The cat-drowning attempt is also the point at which the romance elements of the novel begin to center themselves. Rainer is in love with the Sophie, Anna is in love with Hans, and because fate is cruel, this whole initiation is what drives Hans and Sophie into a romantic pairing. Throughout the scene, events highlight the divide between the Witkowskis and their friends. One example: whereas Sophie and Hans are at ease traipsing through the forest, Rainer and Anna “are not altogether in their element. Their lungs are rattling. They have none of that fitness and stamina” (p. 91). When the scene ends with Hans kissing a soaked and bleeding Sophie, the narrator bothers to point out the obvious: “This little scene leaves two people satisfied and two unsatisfied. It is always like that in life. Fifty-fifty. Which makes things fair” (p. 93).
The remainder of Wonderful, Wonderful Times, it often feels, tracks the fallout from this initiation scene, as Rainer and Anna struggle to win back the objects of their affection. What once appeared to be, to use the title of Eder’s review, a “cuckoo Clockwork Orange” turns into young adult novel. The characters’ concerns suddenly seem much more teenage: worrying about university, trying to escape parental influence, and of course how to resolve these overlapping love triangles. Several times, as some aspect of this heightened high school drama gave me pause, I had to remind myself of where this novel started, i.e., with our heroes engaged in a for-kicks beatdown.
Rather than lowering the stakes, though, the result is that Jelinek has a chance to give her characters greater depth, to turn grotesques into people. We see that Rainer’s penchant for philosophizing everything is a smokescreen for his cowardice and his self-doubt. We see that Hans, the one who has entered the working world, wants to define himself in opposition to his mother’s quixotic fight for social democracy is an increasingly consumerist Austria. Anna in particular comes alive in the homestretch, as she struggles with her personal demons and gets to experience one of the novel’s few moments of ecstasy before everything is taken away in an explosion of violence. There’s a possible world where she’s the relatable, troubled heroine of a contemporary young adult novel, and what I wouldn’t give to see what exactly that world looks like.
There’s a lot more in Wonderful, Wonderful Times that deserves scrutiny, particularly the character of Herr Witkowski and how he and what he represents factor into the moral rot that helped birth our protagonists. (Let’s just say that the line “After 1945 History decided to begin again from scratch and Innocence, after much hesitation, forced itself to take the same decision” [p. 94] is just dripping with evil.) But I think I’ll leave things there, and simply encourage you to seek this one out—at least those of you who can stomach this sort of novel.
Those are my thoughts, but what’s your take? Does a novel like Wonderful, Wonderful Times hold any appeal for you? Can you think of other works which explore this sort of “perverted innocence”? Let me know in the comments!
If you’d like to see what’s on the horizon for my Classics Club challenge, you can view the master list here. And if you’re interested in more general thoughts on the classics, I recently wrote about OCLC’s Library 100 list, which you can read here.