The Perils of Point-of-View in Writing Biographies

On this blog, I’ve dedicated a lot of energy to dissecting bits of what I consider to be solid writing, in posts where I’ve highlighted the literary techniques contained within a passage or a poem and argued that they are what make the piece a success. But there’s an important caveat to that sort of discussion that I don’t think I’ve addressed before: there are no intrinsically good techniques, only techniques that are good in some context. If this blog is to be at all useful in exploring writing, I believe it needs to acknowledge that, sometimes, writing can be sterling in the abstract but flawed in a given situation.

To that end, I’d like to look at a passage from the first volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, a book which in general is written in a perfectly fine if utilitarian manner, but at one dramatic moment adopts a far more lyrical prose style. The moment in question comes after Eleanor confronts her husband Franklin about his affair with her former secretary, Lucy Mercer, and offers him a divorce. It’s one the emotional low points in Eleanor’s life, so it’s perhaps no surprise that Cook would choose this part of her subject’s narrative to indulge in some rhetorical flair:

He made promises, provided explanations. This “golden boy,” this vibrant “apollo” who charmed everyone he met, now directed all his influence and charm toward his wife. He would never see Lucy Mercer again. Did he apologize? Did he explain? Had he been engaged in a long-overdue emotional rebellion—against being a mama’s boy who always did the right and proper thing; who condemned all departures from the proprieties of his class and culture; who had mocked his half-brother’s son’s love for a socially unacceptable woman and blamed Taddie for his father’s death; who at the young age of twenty-three had taken on the responsibilities of a wife and home? Well, he had erred. Washington was so full of temptations; he had been trying out his new power, his new independence, for the first time in his life. It was a flamboyant, fatuous time. And it was over. He cared about his wife; he loved her. He was sorry he had hurt her. There was so much at stake—so much to do, and to do together. (p. 231)

If you put this passage in a bottle, if you consider it in isolation, it’s rather impressive. In fact, you could probably give this paragraph to an AP Language and Composition class and have the students tear it apart as an exercise. The aim of the passage is to place the reader in FDR’s mind as realizes that his affair has been exposed, and every device that Cook uses serves that goal. There’s the mixture of short paratactic questions (“Did he apologize? Did he explain?”) with looping hypotactic ones (“Had he been engaged…”), both of which highlight Franklin’s excited mental state. The use of anaphora (“who had always…who condemned…who had mocked…who…had taken…”) calls to mind the great persuasive speeches of history, only here it’s directed inward, as though FDR wishes to convince himself of his good nature. Even the insertion of a discourse marker (“Well, he had erred”) is indicative of a mind at work. These devices are not especially advanced or obscure, but there are undeniably effective at achieving Cook’s end here.

But that only raises the question: is that an end worth achieving?

Let’s talk about point-of-view for a bit. We’re perhaps more accustomed to thinking about point-of-view in fiction. Fiction writers, after all, have a great deal of freedom in choosing a POV for their stories. They can use an omniscient narrator, moving from one character’s perspective to another’s, or even describing events outside of anyone’s perspective. They can adopt a quasi-objective, reportorial stance, as in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Or they can restrict themselves to a single character’s POV, whether in first person or a limited third person. As long as the writer is consistent with regards to POV, they have almost limitless options.

The reason that fiction writers have such freedom is that fictional worlds are entirely of their own creation. In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, for example, the narrator can spend one chapter in Dorothea’s mind, then one in Lydgate’s, then one in Mr. Casaubon’s, and so on, without fear of being inaccurate to the facts of the narrative, because there are no narrative facts as such. The whole story exists as it does solely because George Eliot wrote it that way. But imagine if Middlemarch were literally, as the subtitle has it, a study of provincial life? Suddenly the narrator’s movement from one person’s mind to the next would seem a bit more suspect. The reader would be compelled to ask, “How does she know any of this?”

In Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin notes that improper shifts in point-of-view are the problem that she encounters most often in unpublished (and even published) writing. That fact on its own did not surprise me when I first read Steering the Craft a few years ago, as it lined up with my own experience in writing workshops. What did surprise me was that Le Guin had found that the problem extended beyond novels and short stories:

It’s a problem even in nonfiction, when the author starts telling the reader what Aunt Jane was thinking and why Uncle Fred swallowed the grommet. A memoirist doesn’t have the right to do this without clearly indicating that Aunt Jane’s thoughts and Uncle Fred’s motives aren’t known facts but the author’s guesswork, opinion, or interpretation. Memoirists can’t be omniscient, even for a moment. (p. 70)

Le Guin frames this defective handling of POV in essentially moral terms: “A memoirist doesn’t have the right to do this.” If a fiction writer mishandles POV, the result is simply a weaker, more confusing story. If a nonfiction writer mishandles POV, the result may be straight-up dishonesty. “To use limited third person in factual narrative,” Le Guin goes on to say, “is to trespass, pretending you know what a real person thought and felt” (p. 71).

Cook isn’t writing a memoir, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that she has the same responsibilities that Le Guin assigns to memoirists. In fact, in her case those responsibilities may be even more pressing. When we read a memoir, we know that we’re getting a personal, edited account of real-life events, that we’re getting only one perspective on the complications of life. But when we read a biography, we expect the author to maintain objectivity, to follow where the facts lead and not to step beyond them.

Reread that passage from the Eleanor Roosevelt biography in this light, and you’ll start to see places where Cook strains against the limits of what can be known about FDR’s mental state after Eleanor’s offer of divorce. The rhetorical questions, which before sounded like an attempt to imagine FDR’s thought process, now sound like a way of sneaking in unfounded speculations without fully committing to them. They suggest that FDR may “have been engaged in a long-overdue emotional rebellion” without providing concrete evidence to support that claim; indeed, Cook follows it up with just further suppositions. In this brief digression into FDR’s mind, Cook has breached the biographer’s contract with the reader.

Yet, in all honesty, I can’t condemn Cook wholeheartedly for this trespass. See, FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer is a momentous event in Eleanor Roosevelt’s life, as any discovery of infidelity would be, but it’s an event lacking much in the way of documentation. Cook says that Eleanor “wrote of that time only obliquely, and in code” (p. 232). References to the affair in her correspondence are scant to say the least, and her memoir devotes just a passing thought to the moment of discovery described above. (Even memoirs with consistent POVs, it is worth remembering, are not 100% factual accounts, either.)

This leaves Cook in a quandary regarding the Lucy Mercer affair. She can either stick to what the documentary record and interviews with Eleanor’s surviving acquaintances reveal, and say less than what the affair would appear to deserve; or she can speculate beyond what those limited sources have to say, sacrificing strict accuracy in the hopes of obtaining a perhaps unobtainable truth. This is not a choice that I find enviable, but is the choice that a writer in Cook’s position must make. I think either decision could be justified, but one must accept the consequences in either case.


But what do you think? Are there any cases you can think of where a biography has benefited from the sort of POV shift we talked about here? Is it ethical for a biographer to make such a shift in the first place? Let me know in the comments!

If you’re in the mood for something more thought on biography, here’s a piece I wrote last month about Frank Brady’s biography of Bobby Fischer, which looks into the duties we owe to abjectly awful people. Or, if you’re looking for more on point-of-view, here’s a post on Luisa Valenzuela’s “The Sin of the Apple,” a story that can teach us how to write from the POV of inanimate objects.

And, as always, thanks for reading!

Joseph Brodsky’s “December 24, 1971”: An Analysis

In my last post, I mentioned that I’ve been working my way through a lot of large, sprawling books of late. But I neglected to mention the one that I’ve been reading for the longest time: Joseph Brodsky’s Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999. Brodsky, a Soviet-born poet who later settled in the United States and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987, is a poet with a dazzling command of the formal aspects of verse; his use of slant rhyme is particularly admired, and in my mind rivals that of Sylvia Plath’s in terms of its inventiveness.

But rather than dwelling on the poet’s technical mastery, which I am wont to do in these close readings, I’d instead like to look at Brodsky’s handling of subject matter. Brodsky wrote a number of Christmas poems during his career, and seeing that it’s December and all, I thought now would be a good time to look at one of them: “December 24, 1971,” which you can read over at the Poetry Foundation website.

The poem begins with a rather bold assertion: “When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.” As a universal claim, it’s an inherently arresting statement, but it’s also one that demands proof, and also clarification. What does it even mean to say that people are magi at Christmas? Certainly we’d want some sense of what the speaker is getting at before we sign onto their argument.

First of all, for anyone unfamiliar with Christian tradition: “the Magi” refers to a group of a nebulous figures who appear in the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. I say “nebulous” because there isn’t an agreed upon translation of the word magi: the King James Version refers to them as “wise men,” some more recent translations call them “astrologers,” and in more colloquial contexts they’re often described as “kings” (e.g., the popular carol “We Three Kings”). Whoever they are, in the Biblical story the magi, after following a star signaling the birth of a new king, bestow their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh upon the infant Christ.

From this story, we can draw out several connotations of the word “magi” that the speaker would likely wish to evoke. First, the magi are dignified people, either learned or regal (or possibly both). Second, the magi are gift-givers, and lavish ones at that: all three of their gifts were expensive commodities two thousand years ago. And third, the magi are travelers, leaving their homelands in pursuit of the wondrous and the miraculous. So: to what extent do we see those connotations in Brodsky’s poem?

Well, the gift-giving aspect is the easiest to see in those first few stanzas. The beginning of “December 24, 1971” is positively littered with material goods. Given the poem’s title, it’s not surprising to see the whole city seems caught up in last-minute Christmas shopping. People “[a]t the grocers’ [are] all slipping and pushing,” while elsewhere the crowds are “heavy-laden with parcels” (lines 2 and 5). Foodstuffs appear to be the most common purchases, as the air is filled with their various scents: “Reek of vodka and resin and cod, / orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples” (9-10). Perhaps vodka and cinnamon are the modern frankincense and myrrh. But despite all this commerce, one aspect of gift-giving doesn’t come up in the poem: the recipients. For all of us to be magi in the sense of gift-givers, we in fact need someone to bestow gifts upon. They are plenty people in the city, but as it it seems, few relationships: “[E]ach one [is] his own king, his own camel” (6).

The people of this poem don’t appear especially dignified, either. One gets the impression that this city’s streets are always on the verge of chaos. The speaker succinctly captures the mood of unchecked consumption when they say that “a tin of halvah, coffee-flavored, / is the cause of a human assault-wave” (3-4). Instead of refined, composed attire, they see “caps and neckties all twisted up sideways”(8). Even “the bearers of moderate gifts,” the people who one might think to be above the fray, “leap onto buses and jam all the doorways” (13-14). Christmastime in the city is no regal pilgrimage, but a struggle for survival.

In trying to figure out why Brodsky evokes the magi, by process of elimination, we’ve left ourselves with just the journey towards a new hope. So that’s the solution, right? Except the people of the city seem to be journeying without any purpose. The “[f]loods of faces” the speaker describes leave “no sign of a pathway / towards Bethlehem” (11-12). And even if that holy place of purpose were within sight, the people wouldn’t expect to find anything. When they get off the buses and enter the courtyards of their apartment buildings, “they know that there’s nothing inside there: / not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her, / round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold” (16-18). The whole Nativity is out of reach. There is little hope, but rather, as the fourth stanza begins with, “[e]mptiness” (19).

Thus far, “December 24, 1971” has read like a remarkably somber Christmas poem, but that is perhaps to be expected. Brodsky wrote this poem during a period of great uncertainty in his life. As both an individualistic poet and a Jewish man, Brodsky had been persecuted by the Soviet authorities for almost a decade; he’d been sentenced to hard labor in the Arctic, institutionalized for fraudulently-diagnosed mental illness, and barred from traveling freely in his own country. By Christmas Eve in 1971, Brodsky was a candidate for exile from the Soviet Union. If the “magi” of his poem seem to wander aimlessly, it is only because Brodsky himself could not be sure where he’d be going, either.

Yet there was hope for Brodsky in 1972: his situation drew the sympathy of the Western literary establishment, and the poet W. H. Auden in particular helped to settle Brodsky in the United States. At the time of composition, the prospect of safety and security may have seemed distant. But the mere possibility of escape is a powerful hope, and it’s that hope which ultimately turns the poem:

Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
In the constancy of this relation
is the basic mechanics of Christmas. (19-24)

Particularly significant is the reference to Herod, the ruler in Matthew who, in response to the birth of Jesus, orders the execution of all male infants in Bethlehem. He is a tyrant, one whose authority must be fled. Mary and Joseph escape to Egypt with their child ahead of the massacre, and the magi, “being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod…departed into their own country another way” (Matthew 2:12, King James Version). Even the magi must flee. When it’s Christmas we’re all of us refugees—but ones who know the new king has come.

Perhaps that is not much hope to cling onto, but in a world so hectic, so somber as the one presented in Brodsky’s poem, it’s more than enough to justify the festivities:

That's why they celebrate everywhere,
for its coming push tables together.
No demand for a star for a while,
but a sort of good will touched with grace,
can be seen in all men from afar,
and the shepherds have kindled their fires. (25-30)

According to the speaker, those celebrating Christmas don’t “demand…for a while” some ostentatious miracle à la the Star of Bethlehem, but instead seek—and more importantly, find—”a sort of good will touched with grace… / in all men”. That universal kindness and acceptance may in fact be crucial for the Christmas miracle, as the speaker later makes clear: “He who comes is a mystery: features / are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may / not be quick to distinguish the stranger” (34-36). Again, one can’t help but see the parallels to Brodsky’s own situation at the time.

I’ll close this analysis with a note on the weather. I haven’t mentioned it up to this point, but as the speaker comes closer to consolation, the weather becomes more wintry. “Snow is falling” during the sixth stanza (31), and in the final stanza the “drafts through the doorway disperse / the thick mist of the hours of darkness” (37-38). Normally, we might expect this turn in the weather to signal a darkening mood, but that’s not what we get. Instead, it signals a personal transformation, a closing epiphany:

...a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
both a newborn and Spirit that's Holy
in your self you discover; you stare
skyward, and it's right there:
                                                           a star. (39-43)

It’s a wonderfully unexpected way to set up the final sentiment, linking the Holy Spirit to the cold air blowing through a house. There is something terrifying about the Nativity story, with messages from otherworldly beings and the threat of state-sanctioned murder, and Brodsky, perhaps because he can approach the subject from a non-Christian perspective, is able to capture that reality so well. The fact that he can apply that story to his own state in life makes it all the more startling.


Thanks for reading! If you have a favorite poem for the holiday season, or want to shere your thoughts on Brodsky’s piece, then let me know in the comments. And if you liked this piece, then you may be happy to learn that I write a new close reading of a poem every month. You can start catching up on them with my previous installment in this series, on Emily Dickinson’s “[The Poets light but Lamps – ].”

The Practice of Packaging Novellas

In my current reading, I’m up to my eyes in capital-T tomes. I’m about 350 pages into George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and about 350 pages into the first volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. In both cases I’ve read a substantial chunk of the work, yet in both cases I’m not even at the halfway point of the narrative. Yes, it’s great to get lost in a sprawling, richly-detailed book—seriously, Middlemarch is incredible so far—but at a certain point, I yearn for something more concise, more compressed: a good novella. Only one problem: they’re not that easy to come by.

Over at Electric Literature, Tobias Carroll discusses American publishers’ reluctance to publish novellas. He bemoans the reality that the major publishing houses prefer “bloated novels and multi-volume series” to the concise style of writing found in a shorter novel. Carroll links this state of literary affairs to the American tendency towards excess. In the land of the Hummer and the triple-bypass breakfast skillet, this line of thinking goes, why should we be surprised that the door-stoppers dominate bookstore display tables?

If one wanted a different consumer-oriented explanation for the novella’s diminished role in the American marketplace, one might argue that Americans are more likely to think of value strictly in monetary terms. There may be a sense that thousand-page novels offer a better value-per-page proposition than hundred-page novellas. People only have so much disposable income, we might reason, so of course they’ll try to stretch out their money the way that Dickens stretched out his chapters. I know I fall into this trap quite a bit. I’m often reluctant to buy new poetry collections, because I’m wary of laying down fifteen or twenty dollars on, say, sixty pages worth of poems. I heartily agree that such collections may have immense aesthetic value, but, well, one can’t subsist on that.

Now, Carroll knows that the major American publishing houses do, in fact, sometimes publish novellas, but it seems that moreso than the other major forms of fiction, publishers demand that novellas be packaged within some grander context:

When Big Five publishers have released novellas—Garth Risk Hallberg’s A Field Guide to the North American Family, or Penguin’s forthcoming edition of Ottessa Moshfegh’s McGlue—they’ve generally been new editions of older works by authors who have gone on to be widely read. And there’s also the case of novellas being paired with other novellas by the same author: A. S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects comes to mind, as does Joe Hill’s Strange Weather.

A related technique that I’ve seen is to package a novella as part of a short story collection. Examples of such books include Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, and the English translation of Luisa Valenzuela’s Clara. In all three cases, the novella is the collection’s title story, so perhaps moreso than the methods Carroll mentions, this format may be suited to highlighting the novella in specific. In the reprint method, the novella is a selling point secondary to the author’s name, and in the multiple-novella method, two rival books must vie for attention. But in a short story collection, the novella takes the undisputed top billing.

The benefits of packaging novellas alongside short stories should be apparent. First, readers can be more confident that they’re getting a sufficient quantity of writing in exchange for their limited book-buying resources. Second, reading a novella in the context of an author’s short stories can give readers a better sense of the writer’s body of work; they can look at both the novella and the short stories and compare the author’s plotting, characterization, style and so forth when working in different formats. Maybe the author feels freer to explore scenery in the more expansive novella, or leans on shorter sentences when compressing a plot down to a short story.

However, I can also see a potential downside to this arrangement, and it has to do with the nature of collections of shorter works. If you have a collection with multiple forms of writing in it, such as a novella and short stories, and either category is stronger than the other, one may get the feeling that the weaker category is purely there as filler. Sure, a poetry anthology or a short story collection may contain pieces of highly variable quality, but in such cases one questions the author’s skill or the editor’s taste; one does not suspect that the publisher has watered down the whiskey, so to speak. But if a strong novella comes packaged with lower-tier short stories, or vice versa, the reader is more likely to be dissatisfied with the work as whole.

I felt this sense of dissatisfaction most acutely when I read a translation of Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties, which came packaged with two of Kawabata’s short stories: “Of Birds and Beasts” and “One Arm.” The novella, I remember, was a wonderfully crafted and often unsettling reflection on aging and lust; the old man’s inner thoughts stuck with me for days after finishing it. The short stories, on the other hand, seemed rather slight by comparison. “One Arm” evidently left so little an impression on me that, when I later reread it in a different anthology, I didn’t even recognize it. (Considering the premise involves borrowing a woman’s arm and sleeping with it, that’s saying something.) It didn’t help that, by page count, the novella was about 5/6 of the book; that fact alone made the short stories seem really tacked on.

But what do you think about this? How would you package novellas to help boost their presence in the marketplace? Can you think of any novellas which benefited or were harmed by how they were packaged? Let me know in the comments, and as always, thank you for reading!

Something You Swear You’d Never Say Again: Guster’s “Lost and Gone Forever”

Guster are among popular music’s most underappreciated tunesmiths. Their brand of jangly, acoustic guitar–driven pop has proven to be surprisingly versatile over the years, perfect for cheeky kiss-off songs like “Amsterdam,” heartfelt love songs like “Satellite,” and whatever the hell “Red Oyster Cult” is about. The fact that they’ve never had a real hit song à la Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom” never ceases to confuse me.

Still, while Ryan Miller et al. are phenomenal at crafting catchy hooks, I’ve never thought of them as particularly great lyricists. They have some sparkling lines here and there (e.g., “Stay right where you are / You’ll be half of who you were” from “Homecoming King”), but for the most part their lyrics are secondary to the tunes. That’s why it came as a surprise to me when, as I was re-listening to their 1999 album Lost and Gone Forever, my mind became fixated on a certain, and appropriate, lyrical motif: how difficult it is to say something meaningful.

On Lost and Gone Forever, communication can often seem nigh impossible. Sometimes the speakers have been holding back their thoughts and emotions far more than is healthy. The speaker of the break-up song “So Long,” for example, is “blue, but from holding [their] breath,” while the voice of “Center of Attention” brags that no one will catch on to their self-centered attitude if they can “keep [their] mouth shut tight.” Other times, they’re resentful to be hearing anything at all, as on the chorus to “Fa Fa”: “You were always saying something you swear you’d never say again.” (It’s not for nothing that the song’s title consists of non-lexical vocables.)

Now, an entire album where people refuse to have authentic conversations with each other could get frustrating pretty quickly; there are only so many ways to say you would rather not speak. But the album finds a way to get around that limitation, finds a way to say something without actually saying anything: quoting phrases associated with childhood. The album’s title comes from the folk song “Oh My Darling, Clementine,” which people are most likely to hear as children. Both “I Spy” and “What You Wish For” incorporate ritualistic lines from children’s games. And “Happier” (probably my favorite song on the album) includes a extended riff on fatherly advice.

Why resort to phrases from childhood? I can think of at least two reasons. First, these songs about failed communication are implicitly about a failure to act like adults; one of the hallmarks of maturity is the ability to solve conflict through language. Invoking childhood gives one the impression that the subjects of these songs are emotionally stunted, that they’re locked in a perpetual preadolescence. (This is, as it happens, a recurring theme in Guster’s discography, e.g., “Homecoming King” and “One Man Wrecking Machine.”) Second, because these phrases are the sort that come to mind automatically, without conscious thought, they function a sneaky ways of shutting down discussions. Rather than allowing the speakers to indirectly confront their problems, they allow the speakers to sidestep them.

Let’s take a look at two songs in a little more depth. The first one I’d like to talk about is “I Spy”:

The scenario of this song is a bit vague, as there are not that many lyrics to analyze. We know that the speaker and the addressee are at “the May Parade,” and that the speaker wants to tell the addressee something, but just what that something is and why the May Parade is significant remain unclear. One reason why it’s hard to say anything concrete about the song is that the verse changes slightly with each repetition. Did they go “down to the May Parade” or “down at” it, and was it “we” or “it” that went down? Were “mumbled words” or “bitter words” under the speaker’s breath (or was it just “alcohol”)? Is he “meaning” or “dying” to tell you something? It’s as though the speaker is subtly rewriting the events of the song as they’re singing it.

Into this guessing game of a narrative, the speaker throws in a literal guessing game. It would seem that the speaker has been meaning/dying to tell the addressee that they’ve “been so damn sad / ‘Cause [they] spy something red.” This could be a private symbol for the speaker, but from the audience’s perspective “something red” could be basically anything. It’s not a reason for the speaker’s sadness, but rather a substitute for a reason. In fact, the language of I Spy suggests that the addressee is supposed to find that response enigmatic, because when playing the came, one wants to pick a object that will be difficult for the other players to spot.

Alas—or should it be thankfully?—the speaker cannot keep up this obfuscation for long. While the verse leans into ambiguity, the chorus is far more direct. Direct, and bitter:

You don’t know how far you’ve gone
Or recognize who you’ve come
How’d you grow to be so hard?
Sick of playing my part

(Granted, the speaker can’t entirely escape the urge to rewrite things: the second version of the chorus changes the question in line 3 to “When’d…?”)

Whereas “I Spy” uses the language of childhood to put-off answering an important question, the same technique in “Happier” sounds like a more sincere attempt to articulate an emotion (though, spoilers, it also ends in bile).

The emotional narrative of “Happier” is a scattershot series of accusations and insults, of passive-aggression and plain old aggression. The voice of verses (sung by Adam Gardner) wants out of the relationship, while the voice of the first half of the chorus (sung by Ryan Miller) tells their partner to “go on, if this’ll make [them] happier,” before the two voices sing over each other in the second half of the chorus. If Lost and Gone Forever has a centerpiece of poor communication, it’s this song.

The childhood language appears right at the midway point, at the end of the second verse. Instead of a phrase borrowed from a time-passing game, Gardner’s voice brings up a saying from Miller’s voice’s father:

Like your father said,
“Just do what was done unto you, always”
In your father’s steps
You’ll do what was done unto you
It won’t be hard to start again

This is arguably the most tender-sounding moment of the song, where the instruments quiet down and Miller drops his shouty, harmonized vocals. On a musical level, this sounds like a comforting passage. But the more I think on it, the more vicious it seems. First off, the father’s advice here is a perversion of the Golden Rule. For the father, tit-for-tat is the proper ethos for getting through life. That much is clear from the get-go, but the framing is really what sells it. Putting that destructive worldview in a friendly package conceals the true venom of those lines. It’s less an excuse to avoid speaking and more an excuse to speak horribly.

Second, what the speaker offers the addressee here is not consolation, as might be expected when mentioning someone’s father. Rather, the speaker is predicting that the addressee will continue this cycle of retribution. Indeed, by linking that future to the addressee’s father, they make it sound like it’s an inherent part of their character. And really, after all the bile spewed in this song, what should Miller’s voice do but further inflict that pain? They’re damned right it “won’t be hard to start again.”

I feel I could apply a similar lens to just about every song on the album, from the self-consciously immature “Center of Attention” to the celebrity-stalking “Barrel of a Gun.” And I feel that this exercise has shown me something about Guster as songwriters: they may not be wordsmiths, but they are more than capable of carrying a lyrical mood from track 1 to track 11. That’s not going to win them a Pulitzer any time soon, but maybe they deserve more credit than I’d been giving them.


Thanks for reading! If you have any thoughts on Guster’s Lost and Gone Forever, or another album which uses borrowed language to great effect, let me know in the comments. And if you’d like some more lyrical analysis, I recently talked about Lucinda Williams’s song “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” which you can read here.

Emily Dickinson’s “[The Poets light but Lamps –]”: An Analysis

Something that makes Emily Dickinson a poet worth revisiting is the sheer quantity of her output. In his 1998 edition of Dickinson’s complete poems, R. W. Franklin identified 1,789 different poems to include in the collection. Even if most of her poems are on the short side—the piece we’re going to look at today is only eight lines long—that is a vast amount of material for the reader to appreciate. Once one gets tired of “[Because I could not stop for Death –]” and “[I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –]” and all the other classroom staples, there’s still so much more of Dickinson’s work to discover. And the fact that so much of her poetry has survived for our enjoyment has some bearing on the poem I’d like to look at now.

In Franklin’s numbering, this is poem 930; if you prefer the older Johnson numbering system, it’s 883. Either way, this is a slightly lesser known entry in Dickinson’s bibliography: “[The Poets light but Lamps –].” Let’s give it a quick read-through before we start pulling it apart.

            [The Poets light but Lamps –]

            The Poets light but Lamps –
            Themselves – go out –
            The Wicks they stimulate
            If vital Light

            Inhere as do the Suns –
            Each Age a Lens
            Disseminating their
            Circumference –

If you know anything about Emily Dickinson, you’ll know that there were two big ideas that possessed her, that she returned to time and again in her poetry: death and immortality. We see both of those obsessions on display in this poem, as the speaker grapples with the question of how, or whether, art can endure when the ones who create that art are mortal beings. And, if you’ve been following my poem analyses for the past few months, this problem should be a familiar one.

Back in July, I covered Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias,” and I made much of how his poem complicates the traditional narrative of achieving immortality through art: the statue of the great king Ozymandias is a near-ruin, and the speaker’s account of the monument is filtered through multiple layers of hearsay. The reader is thus denied the consolation that comes from a poem such as Edmund Spenser’s “[One day I wrote her name upon the strand],” which promises that one may live forever through verse.

Like the speaker in Shelley’s poem, Dickinson’s speaker is not content with the easy comfort of that traditional poetic narrative, but I think her argument is more optimistic than the one we find in “Ozymandias.” One would not suspect as much, though, from reading the opening lines. We are told that “[t]he Poets light but Lamps” (line 1)—and as it turns out, a lamp is a complicated metaphor for poetry.

On the one hand, lamps are a source of illumination, of literal enlightenment, which is just what readers come to poetry to find. They even have some divine connotations, as seen in the Beatitudes: “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house” (Matthew 5:15, King James Version). On the other hand, lamps are a fleeting source of illumination. True, they provide a more sustained source of light than an uncontained flash, or a stray spark from a flint. But candles are only so long, and fuel, when it burns, is spent. It would seem, that from the starting premise, the immortality of art is in doubt.

What’s not it doubt is the mortality of the poets, for “Themselves – go out” (line 2). To say that they “go out” is, I think, a surprisingly stark way of putting it. They are not “put out” or “snuffed out” by some external force. There is no dramatic, violent end to the poets’ lives, in the way that the statue of Ozymandias makes for a striking ruin. Nor, if there is no external force at work, is there any obvious way of preventing their demise. No, the lives of the poets simply cease when the last drops of life energy are used.

So, if the poets “go out” and their works are “but Lamps,” that is, if neither is immortal, then how can one say that Dickinson’s poem is optimistic? The key is that the speaker, after laying out these rather bleak premises, finds an unexpected continuation to the argument: “The Wicks they stimulate / If vital light // Inhere as do the Suns” (lines 3-5). Dickinson has set up a whole domain of images around the theme of illumination. On the one side, we have the temporary “Lamps” and “Wicks,” and now opposing them, we have “Suns.” At least relative to all human affairs, “the Suns” are an everlasting light source, and are themselves divine rather than being symbolic of it.

Perhaps your first response is to say that Dickinson’s speaker has just contradicted herself: the poets cannot both “light but Lamps” and have those “Wicks they stimulate” be like “the Suns.” But the speaker might respond that she is not stumbling into a contradiction, but is rather setting up a deliberate tension.

First, let’s take a look at that word “Inhere.” “Inhere” is the verb from which we derive the more common word “inherent,” a synonym of words like “intrinsic” or “essential.” Grammatically, “inhere” requires an adverbial complement: X does not “inhere,” but rather “inheres in Y.” Yet Dickinson’s poem does not present us with an obvious adverbial complement for the verb; Dickinson is never one for unambiguous syntax. We know that the wicks inhere “as do the Suns,” but that describes the manner in which they inhere, not what they inhere in.

I would be most tempted to say that “vital light” is part of the intended adverbial complement here, with the word “in” elided for the sake of the ballad meter. This reading has a certain appeal. To call light “vital” not only says that it’s important, but also that it’s life-sustaining (especially given the context of “the Suns”). If the works of the poets inhere in that light, then perhaps it doesn’t even matter if their work will never be immortal, for it will always be necessary. That would, in a sense, be its own kind of immortality.

I find this reading a little unsatisfying though, and that dissatisfaction hinges on one word: “If.” That word presents two potential problems for what I’ve suggested in the above paragraph. First, the more natural reading of lines 3-5 is something like, “If the Wicks they stimulate are vital light, then they inhere as do the Suns.” This reading still leaves the adverbial complement of “inhere” unclear. Second, the phrase “if vital light” is conditional; there is the logical possibility that the light may not actually be vital. But if the light’s vital nature is conditional, then how exactly can it be an essential or intrinsic feature of anything, whatever it’s supposed to inhere in?

The effect of lines 3-5 is to unsteady the poem, as well as the reader’s progress through it. The pat message suggested by lines 1-2, that poets and their work are both immortal, no longer seems tenable, at least so baldly stated. But the rebuttal that lines 3-5 appear to offer, that the poets’ works will always be life-sustaining, proves illusory, because the speaker presents that suggestion in conditional and ambiguous language. There are only three lines left in this poem, and we seem to be further from the answer than when the poem began.

Here’s my proposal for how to proceed. That whole business about finding the adverbial complement for “inhere”? That was a feint, an act of misdirection on the author’s part. In addition to poems about death and immortality, Dickinson was also fond of riddles, and a good riddle needs to temporarily lead the reader astray before they find the solution. In the case of this poem, the word “inhere” makes us consider inherent properties. We’re tempted to ask questions like, “What property of poetry might make it immortal?” or “What property of light might make it vital?” As it turns out, those questions are simply of the wrong sort.

Lines 6-8 are where the riddle makes it last-second, clarifying snap. Instead of thinking about an object’s inherent properties, we need to think about its relational properties. What matters is not what poetry or light is like, but what they are like in relation to something else: the observer, the audience. “Each Age,” the speaker tells us, is “a Lens / Disseminating their / Circumference.” In the same way that a lens will focus or disperse sunlight, “Each Age” (i.e., each generation of readers) will interpret the poets’ works in its own way. Something of the original intent may be lost through these interpretations, but the speaker’s use of the word “Disseminating” reminds us that something survives the process, too.

In the end, Dickinson’s poem is neither the celebratory ode to immortal art seen in the traditional narrative, nor is it the ominous counter-narrative that we find in “Ozymandias.” Rather, it’s an acknowledgment of the importance of poets’ readerships in preserving their work. To perhaps extend her metaphor beyond its purpose, the poets’ lamps may go out, but maybe the audience can replenish the oil. Dickinson’s own work, it’s fair to say, has survived in the exact same manner.


But what do you think? What are your thoughts on “[The Poets light but Lamps –]”? Do you have a favorite Dickinson poem that you wish got more attention? Either way, feel free to share in the comments!

Normally, there is where I’d link to another post of mind of that is tangentially related to what you just read, but in this case, I’ll just point you back to that analysis of “Ozymandias” that I linked above. I spent weeks thinking my way through that poem before I felt comfortable analyzing it, and the result is one of my favorite posts on this blog.

And as always: thanks for reading!

2 Good 2 Be 4-Gotten: Lucinda Williams and the Country Music Tradition

This week, Lit Hub reprinted the introduction to Gone Country, a collection of interviews with country artists edited by Jesse Montgomery, Peter Nowogrodzki, and Alex Spoto. Given the title “On the Complicated Legacy of American Country Music,” it’s an essay that I had to read the moment I got the chance, because I’ve got some complicated thoughts on the genre. On the one hand, I adore country music, broadly construed. When I was living in Pittsburgh, listening to WYEP’s “Roots and Rhythm Mix” was my Sunday afternoon tradition, and most of my favorite artists are a least a little rootsy. On the other hand, I rarely call myself a fan of the genre in conversation, and I find contemporary Nashville country to be borderline unlistenable. So, yeah: right up my alley.

Montgomery, Nowogrodzki, and Spoto hit a lot of interesting points in their piece, so you should definitely read it for yourself. But one paragraph towards the middle of the essay caught my attention more than anything else. The authors argue that country music is

in the running for the most secretly self-obsessed, borderline neurotic form of popular American music. It turns history over and over in its head, venerating heroes, commenting again and again on progressions and digressions, berating itself for a failure to live up to the myths the tradition has created, and never getting to the bottom of any of this. As a genre, it’s rivaled only by rap for a tendency to sing about itself and evolution, to take itself as its own subject and find the emotional resonance of something like a style or a tradition.

It’s not that other genres don’t value their traditions and lineages; I wrote a whole post on how latter-day folk music has rewritten a 16th-century murder ballad. But country music is especially overt about it, with songs that name-check the genre’s greats as though they were figures from Scripture. And all of that got me thinking more critically about an all-time favorite of mine: Lucinda Williams’s “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten.”

Released as part of her 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” is a song soaked in country music’s evolution. The instrumentation features both plucked and strummed guitar strings, light hints of accordion that whisper of the genre’s distant past, and an almost mechanical drum beat to kick-off the track. (And that’s to say nothing of the title, whose spelling is incredibly of the 1990s.) The song is so many different kinds of dated that the track actually ends up being timeless, a quality that the best country music strives for.

Lyrically, the song is equally beholden to the past, and I find this song’s particular reference to tradition especially compelling. Now, Lucinda Williams has never shied away from invoking the musicians who have come before her, and she has an uncanny ability to select the right artist for the song’s mood. For example, the depressed speaker of “Ventura” listens to Neil Young, in a song that sounds like it belongs on side two of On the Beach. By contrast you have a song like “Metal Firecracker,” a warm yet bittersweet reminiscence on a former relationship, which has the speaker and her partner “put on ZZ Top and turn ’em up real loud.” She’s got tunes, and she knows how to use them.

Still, the context of Williams’s musical references tends to be pretty straightforward: the speaker is listening to a recording of a song. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” on the other hand, presents something more complicated. The first verse ends by mentioning how “Mr. Johnson sings over in a corner by the bar,” and that he “[s]old his soul to the devil so he could play guitar.” These lines refer to blues musician Robert Johnson, and like the Neil Young and ZZ Top examples I’ve mentioned above, his music fits the mood of the song well. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” is a song of heartbreak, so the writer of “Love in Vain” is the perfect choice to underscore the sentiment. But I think this reference does even more than that, because the speaker seems less interested in the music itself than she is in the music’s context.

The speaker opts to close the couplet that references Johnson not by describing his performance, but by invoking the legend that surrounds him. Tradition holds that Robert Johnson met the devil at a crossroads one night, whereupon he sold his soul to become a blues virtuoso. It’s well-trod ground, invoking this myth; I dare say the story overshadows Johnson’s music in the public imagination. But I like how Williams treats the legend with some understatement. She doesn’t make it out to be a monumental event, even though she could totally cast it as the origin story of the blues. Instead, it’s an interesting bit of trivia, just a background detail to help paint the scene.

And just what scene is that? “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” takes place at the “Rosedale, Mississippi, Magic City Juke Joint,” with “juke joint” meaning a kind of establishment that catered to African American patrons in the Jim Crow–era South. It is the exact sort of place where the real-life Robert Johnson would play his blues songs, so it’s no surprise to find him “over in a corner by the bar.” And it’s also the exact sort of place that country music has had a tendency to erase from its history.

Country music, as Montgomery, Nowogrodzki, and Spoto note, is the product of artistic and commercial forces that have combined and flattened a wide variety of influences, from the ballad tradition to gospel music to zydeco. But if you were to judge from the demographics of country music’s fanbase and most of its prominent artists, you would assume the genre’s origins were entirely of white America. This state of affairs is not the result of happenstance, but of calculated decisions from within the industry. “We might say country forgot its debt to the blues,” they write, “when executives drew a color line between hillbilly and race records for ease of sale to white audiences in the 1920s.” By writing a country song that breathes in the origins of commercial blues music, Williams offers up something of a corrective to that history.

Of course, I’m making that effort sound like an intellectual exercise. In Williams’s hands, the world of the Magic City Juke Joint is lively and personal. It’s a place that is always on the verge of a little anarchy, where “[t]here’s no good, there’s no bad.” (Not for nothing, the speaker keeps listing off the establishment’s countless rules for behavior.) It’s a place of religious devotion, where a Pentecostal man “says he wants to take up serpents” and the “[b]athroom wall reads, ‘Is God the answer? Yes.'” But most importantly, it’s a place where the speaker can find solace.

After all, the speaker enters the song with a very bleak assessment of life: “You can’t depend on anything, really / There’s no promises, there’s no point.” But for the first two verses, the speaker keeps the source of this despondency to herself. Montgomery, Nowogrodzki, and Spoto mention the tradition of country songs “about struggling to articulate heartbreak,” and “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” belongs in that conversation. Williams’s breathy delivery in the final verse, where the speaker reveals her dramatic break-up, sounds exactly like someone finally getting something off her chest. Just listen to how that accordion soars after that last verse; it’s the sound of someone having an epiphany. It’s a wonderful moment. And it took a “dirty little joint” and the music of Robert Johnson to let her reach it.


Thanks for reading! If you’re looking more of my music writing…well, I don’t have all that much, but I do have a post about Steven Hyden’s Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock that I’m fairly proud of. You can check it out here if you’d like.

Dictionary Marketing and the Love of Language

A few weeks ago, in an effort to stave off the ever-looming threat of student loan collectors, I started working for the editorial department of a company that does consulting and advertising for pharmaceutical firms. Most of my job consists of proofreading, but every once in a while I’ll be tasked with ensuring that certain documents aimed at international audiences use British spellings of words rather than American ones. I have to make certain that, say, a program on tumors and leukemia is really a programme on tumours and leukaemia.

Being an American, it can’t be too surprising that British spellings don’t quite come naturally to me. I doubt that, if I weren’t looking for deviations from a pattern, I would even notice if someone wrote “traveled” (American spelling) instead of “travelled” (British spelling). As such, I find it useful to consult the list of British/American spelling differences on the Oxford Dictionaries website, using it as a sort of checklist when working on a file. I ask myself, have I accounted for every cancer centre, every licenced physician, every adverse event of diarrhoea?

The other day, once I’d gotten to the end of that checklist, I saw a link to a blog post by Lynne Murphy, asking “How do British and American attitudes to dictionaries differ?” That’s the exact sort of question that catches my attention: I hang out with language all day, I fashion myself a poet, and I spent an entire blog post here exploring my fascination with the word “paratext.” So, when I had some downtime, I gave it read.

It’s a short piece, but it hits on some intriguing cultural differences between British and American readers. For instance, American judges cite dictionary definitions in their decisions orders of magnitude more often that their British counterparts. I’d always assumed, from reading Supreme Court jurisprudence, that referencing nineteenth-century dictionaries was just part of the judge’s job description.

But the difference that I found most illuminating was in how dictionaries market themselves (and not just because it’s another example of paratext). To quote Murphy:

[A] look at the way dictionaries are marketed betrays their local histories, the local attitudes toward dictionaries, and assumptions about who is using them. One big general-purpose British dictionary’s cover tells us it is ‘The Language Lover’s Dictionary’. Another is ‘The unrivalled dictionary for word lovers’.

Now compare some hefty American dictionaries, whose covers advertise ‘expert guidance on correct usage’ and ‘The Clearest Advice on Avoiding Offensive Language; The Best Guidance on Grammar and Usage’. One has a badge telling us it is ‘The Official Dictionary of the ASSOCIATED PRESS’. Not one of the British dictionaries comes close to such claims of authority…None of the American dictionary marketers talk about loving words.

I think I’ve been subconsciously aware of these divergent tendencies in British and American dictionaries for some time now. If I wanted to know about a word’s etymology, or to look up the myriad meanings of a word in Middle English, I knew that I needed to consult the Oxford English Dictionary to do so; Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary was going to be of little help. And I’ve been in that position fairly often, needing to research the intricacies of a word’s history. In undergrad, for example, I was inspired to write an essay based on playwright Thomas Middleton’s use of “blame” as an adjective, roughly meaning “blameworthy.” The OED would see that usage as a interesting feature of 17th-century English; Merriam-Webster’s would suggest it’s merely wrong by not even acknowledging it.

On the other hand, I understand there’s a need for clear standards for a language in certain contexts, where confusion and ambiguity can have negative consequences. I work tangential to the medical industry, where unclear communications between drug manufacturers and doctors, or doctors and patients, may seriously harm or kill someone. Having an agreed-upon standard, even an arbitrary one, helps reduce that risk. In that case, the curiosities and trivia in the OED are at best distractions; give me the dry definitions and spellings of Merriam-Webster’s.

Even if I sort of knew about it already, it was still enlightening to see that division between American and British dictionaries laid out like that. And I was happy to come across a piece written by Lynne Murphy, who is the author behind the blog Separated by a Common Language, which is dedicated to exploring differences between American and British English. But I best remembered her for the time she was on the YouTube channel Numberphile, talking about how Americans and Brits abbreviate “mathematics”:

Most of the video is dedicated to debunking arguments for why “math” or “maths” is the correct or more logical abbreviation for “mathematics,” but the part of the video that interests me most is the brief history of how those abbreviations came to be. Namely, both the American and British abbreviations derive from print sources, and only later entered the spoken language. Prior to those written abbreviations, there’s little evidence that people abbreviated the word “mathematics” at all.

That brief bit of context is a demonstration of how language can evolve from the most mundane sources. I’m reminded of a line from Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”: “nor is it valid / to discriminate against ‘business documents and // school books’; all these phenomena are important” (lines 17-19). It’s the sort of history that one would completely miss if all one cared about was utilitarian usage. So if British dictionary marketers are representative of the country, count me an Anglophile in that regard.

But what do you think? Do you consult dictionaries for linguistic trivia or practical guidance? Are there any words or etymologies you find especially interesting? Let me know in the comments! And as always, thanks for reading.