Considering Libraries in Their Historical Context

I would wager that most people, myself included, take a rather rosy view of public libraries. They are storehouses of knowledge, knowledge that is free for the people to access. More than that, they are community centers, places where all are welcome to bring their children, look for a job, or just find a quiet spot to read the newspaper. When Nathan J. Robinson writes in Current Affairs that the public library is “a model of what a community-run, not-for-profit, public service ought to and can look like,” I can’t help but nod in agreement. Of course, I say to myself—who doesn’t love libraries?

Before you get ahead of me: no, I am not about to argue that libraries are “bad, actually.” I probably wouldn’t even be writing this piece if I didn’t value their place in society. But I think it’s important that we consider that place in society critically, that we ask ourselves about the historical and material conditions that have made public libraries possible.

I recently finished reading Paul Krause’s book The Battle for Homestead, 1880–1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992), an academic history of the 1892 Homestead lockout. A major event in United States labor history, the lockout is most famous for the events of July 6, which saw local steelworkers and agents of the infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency battle for control of the Homestead Steel Works. The ultimate defeat of the locked-out steelworkers signaled the decline of American trade unions, who would not come back to power until several decades later.

So what does labor conflict in western Pennsylvania have to do with libraries? Well, the Homestead Steel Works were the property of none other than Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in history and the benefactor of literally thousands of libraries the world over. It’s common to see Carnegie’s philanthropic efforts as separate from or contradictory to his role as a titan of the steel industry and an embodiment of wealth inequality. According to Krause, however, the story is more complicated than that. Indeed, libraries factor directly into the history of the Homestead lockout.

For Krause, the relationship between Carnegie the robber baron and Carnegie the philanthropist is complementary. It’s not just that the wealth he acquired made his generosity possible; Carnegie could also use the promise of his charitable efforts to justify business policies that were detrimental to workers. For example, as a precondition to building a library for a town, Carnegie required that the employees of the town’s steelworks agree to adopt a sliding scale that would tie their wages “to the fluctuating market price of steel,” instead of “an annual contract that was based on the consistently higher market price of iron” (p. 236). In other words, his plan to enrich the public’s access to knowledge rested on cutting his workers’ wages.

His 1889 dedication speech for the Carnegie Free Library of Braddock makes that plan explicit; Krause quotes at length from a section in which Carnegie addresses the question of whether he had plans to build a similar library in the union stronghold of Homestead:

“Do something for Homestead?” he retorted. “Well, we have expected for a long time, but so far in vain, that Homestead should do something for us.” If Homestead would only do something for him, he would be pleased to build a library there, too. “I am only too anxious to do for them what I have done for you, . . . I hope one day I may have the privilege of erecting at Homestead such a building as you have here; but . . . our works at Homestead are not to us as our works at Edgar Thompson [the steelworks in Braddock]. Our men there are not partners.” The AAISW [Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers], Carnegie continued, had strong lodges in Homestead that compelled him to pay exorbitant wages. “Of course . . . the firm may decide to give the men at Homestead the benefit of the sliding scale which you enjoy. I know that for the success of [the] Homestead works, regarded from the point of view of the capital invested, . . . the present system at Homestead must be changed.”

Paul Krause, The Battle for Homestead, 1880–1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel, p. 237

Reading that part of the speech, I cannot help but picture Carnegie as a stereotypical mafioso, scratching his bearded throat as he offers to do a “favor” for the working class citizens of western Pennsylvania. Viewed in this light, it’s hard to see the libraries that Carnegie built in Homestead, Braddock, and elsewhere as charitable gifts at all. For a gift to be charitable, it must be freely given without the expectation of receiving something in return. At best, these libraries serve as monuments to Andrew Carnegie’s self-regard; at worst, they serve as tokens of economic extortion.

Lest one think this critique is simply a case of historical revisionism, Krause notes that there was significant skepticism and backlash towards Carnegie’s libraries in the late 19th century. First, steelworkers and local politicians understood his libraries as symbolic of his conflicts with labor, which explains why “in the thirty-three years during which Carnegie bestowed libraries, 225 communities turned down his offer,” including over 40% of towns he solicited in Pennsylvania (p. 238). Second, it’s not at all clear that libraries were all that beneficial to the towns where he built them—especially when compared to the wage cuts that accompanied them. Trade unions fought for higher wages, limits on working hours, and job security, all of which are necessary to even hope to enjoy a library. As one steelworker put it, “Carnegie builds libraries for the working men, but what good are libraries to me, working practically eighteen hours a day?” (qtd. in Krause, p. 239)

And all this doesn’t even touch on the shady way Carnegie acquired the land on which the library in Homestead was built. Krause details how Carnegie’s company colluded with the political machinery of western Pennsylvania to purchase the City Farm land for less than half of its market value (land that, perhaps coincidentally, overlooks the site of the Homestead Steel Works). Between the reduced wages of the town’s steelworkers and the hundreds of thousands of dollars lost to municipal governments, one could plausibly argue that the Carnegie Library of Homestead represented a net loss for the region.

After learning about just how his libraries came into existence, I certainly take a more cynical view of Carnegie’s philanthropy; I see the man less as someone torn between noble and acquisitive impulses and more as someone who served the public good merely incidentally. (I say that as a beneficiary of his legacy: I earned my undergraduate degree from Carnegie Mellon University.) Yet I cannot deny the fact that those libraries remain a benefit to the public. Last July, I wrote a short post about the theft of rare books from Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The news that those books had been stolen and sold for profit enraged me, and I stand by that sentiment. Libraries belong to us—even when they’re imposed on us.

If there’s any takeaway I’d like to offer on this, it’s that no institution is pure, even an institution as noble as a public library. They are all subject to the social, political, and economic systems that produce them. Just be aware of that history, and maybe use the library’s resources to understand it better. Case in point: you can find a copy of The Battle for Homestead at the Carnegie Library of Homestead. What better use of a library card is there than to learn something critical about that library’s history?


I hope you enjoyed this post, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. In particular, how do we properly engage with a public institution like a library when we’re aware of the troubling history of how it came to be? I certainly wish I had a definite answer for that!

If you’d like to read more of my musings on libraries in their broader context, I’ll point you to this piece I wrote on the OCLC Library 100 list, and what that list tells us about literature and society. And as always, thank you for reading!

Classics Club #4: “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula K. Le Guin

When reading The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1971 novel about dreaming and altered realities, it can be difficult to find one’s footing. The novel is often described as an homage to fellow science fiction author Philip K. Dick, and while Le Guin’s prose style remains largely unchanged, in terms of subject the work has more in common with Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik than it does with, say, Le Guin’s 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness—which is to say, it’s far more surreal than her usual, quasi-anthropological stories tend to be. At some point, and by design, the novel’s story becomes impossible to track.

Still, while following the plot of The Lathe of Heaven may be a daunting task, it is possible, and not that challenging, to follow the novel’s thematic content. This is especially true if the reader pays close attention to a particular symbol which crops up time and again throughout the novel. Seeing how the novel approaches this symbol will doubtless make for a more coherent and fulfilling reading experience. So with that in mind, let’s talk about Mount Hood.

Mount Hood first appears as a concept, if not as an object, in the first paragraph of Chapter 2, when the narrator describes the office of psychiatrist Dr. William Haber. Hanging prominently “on one of the windowless walls was a big photographic mural of Mount Hood” (p. 6). On its own, the mural would be a solid detail for the setting, adding a degree of verisimilitude to ground what will become an otherwise disorienting story. (Think of how many waiting rooms across the country feature framed photographs by Ansel Adams.) But in the context of the scene, it serves as much more than mere set dressing.

The narrator mentions how Haber looks at the mural while speaking with his receptionist, who informs him that his next patient, George Orr, has arrived. The mountain is an object of desire for Haber, largely because, as the first sentence of the chapter tells us, his “office did not have a view of Mount Hood” (p. 6). It’s somewhat unusual for narration to begin a scene by noting what is not present in the setting, which draws the reader’s attention, paradoxically, to the act of perception. Haber cannot experience Mount Hood directly, so instead he must content himself with a simulation. To drive the point home, Haber spends kills time while waiting for his patient to enter by contemplating the nature of that simulation:

Now Penny was going through the first-visit routine with the patient, and while waiting Dr. Haber gazed again at the mural and wondered when such a photograph had been taken. Blue sky, snow from foothills to peak. Years ago, in the sixties or seventies, no doubt. The Greenhouse Effect had been quite gradual, and Haber, born in 1962, could clearly remember the blue skies of his childhood. Nowadays the eternal snows were gone from all the world’s mountains, even Everest, even Erebus, fiery-throated on the waste Antarctic shore. But of course they might have colored a modern photograph, faked the blue sky and white peak; no telling.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven, p. 7

This paragraph accomplishes a number of things for the novel. First, it serves as world-building for the near-future society depicted in The Lathe of Heaven. Climate change has ravaged the planet such that in just forty years the “eternal snows” of mountains the world over have melted. Second, the paragraph encourages the reader to be skeptical of what is presented in the novel, not to take things at face value. Haber cannot be certain that the photograph is an accurate depiction of its subject, that is, of Mount Hood at the time that the photograph was taken. An artist or technician would have the tools to alter the causal process that produces a photograph; they could impose their own vision onto the image.

These two implications of the photograph—that society has declined and that one can impose a vision onto reality—combine to lay the groundwork for the entire plot of The Lathe of Heaven. Once Orr enters Haber’s office and reveals his dilemma, the story can begin in earnest. Orr has been taking drugs that suppress dreaming because he occasionally has what he calls “effective dreams”: dreams that alter the past, and everyone else’s memory of it, to radically reshape the present. Haber is naturally skeptical that such events are possible, but decides to test this hypothesis by intentionally making Orr have an effective dream.

He hooks Orr up to a device called the Augmentator, which allows a patient to rapidly enter the dreaming stage of sleep, and gives him the hypnotic suggestion to have an effective dream about a horse. Once Orr awakes, he asks Orr to recount his dream, and it’s here that the reality of Orr’s powers becomes hauntingly clear:

“A horse,” Orr said huskily, still bewildered by sleep. He sat up. “It was about a horse. That one,” and he waved his hand toward the picture-window-size mural that decorated Haber’s office, a photograph of the great racing stallion Tammany Hall at play in a grassy paddock.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven, p. 23

Anecdotally, I can say that this passage caused me to doubt my own memory of what I’d just read. “Was that picture always there?” I asked myself. “Wasn’t that a picture of Mount Hood before, or is this just another mural that hadn’t been mentioned yet?” The fact that Haber doesn’t immediately react to the change only intensified my confusion. It’s not until Orr broaches the subject that the reader can regain confidence in their own senses:

“Was it there an hour ago? I mean, wasn’t that a view of Mount Hood, when I came in—before I dreamed about the horse?”

Oh Christ it had been Mount Hood the man was right.

It had not been Mount Hood it could not have been Mount Hood it was a horse it was a horse

It had been a mountain

A horse it was a horse it was—

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven, p. 24 (emphasis original)

We can see in Le Guin’s abandonment of punctuation Haber’s efforts to reconcile his two memories: one of the world before the effective dream, one of the world the effective dream has caused. Orr’s powers have shaken him profoundly, and though he tries to play it off in the immediate aftermath (a psychiatrist must maintain composure in front of his patient), it’s clear that he has some deep thinking to.

The picture of Mount Hood is the perfect object on which to have Orr demonstrate his powers. First off, changing the photograph’s subject from a mountain—something traditionally thought of as eternal (cf. “eternal snows”)—into something as dramatically different as racehorse without Haber noticing unprompted proves that Orr’s powers have staggering implications. Second, it calls back to Haber’s doubts about the authenticity of the photograph in the first place. If Orr’s dreaming has changed the photograph and Haber’s memory of it right now, who is to say that a previous dream had not done the exact same thing before?

But it’s the third reason for the image’s power that really gets Haber thinking. If Orr’s dreams are capable of changing a photograph of Mount Hood, why can’t they change Mount Hood itself? Haber realizes that Orr’s dreaming could be used to fix all of their present society’s problems: not just the loss of Mount Hood’s snows, but also overpopulation, racism, nuclear war, and so forth. Orr’s dreaming unlocks the potential that Haber subconsciously was hinting at when contemplating the photograph: the potential for Haber to exercise god-like powers on reality.

Throughout The Lathe of Heaven, as Haber uses Orr’s effective dreams to impose his vision on the world, Mount Hood appears time and again as a reflection of how that project is going. Most notably, as the new society that Haber is guiding grows more unstable and dystopian, the volcanic activity of Mount Hood keeps increasing. It’s a striking manifestation of Orr’s concerns regarding his abilities. One cannot control the eruptive power of a volcano, and neither can one control the disruptive power of effective dreams. As Orr thinks of Haber’s office building in one of the new realities: “This building could stand up to anything left on Earth, except perhaps Mount Hood. Or a bad dream” (p. 136). Really, are the two not the same thing?

I don’t want to give the impression that understanding how Le Guin uses Mount Hood as a symbol will “solve” The Lathe of Heaven, like it’s a cipher in need of a key. Indeed, to come to a definite conclusion about this particular novel’s story and themes would be to read the novel in bad faith: everything is in constant flux. Instead, one can use Mount Hood as an anchor in the plot’s turbulent waters. One will never get a sure grasp on the story in its totality, but one can still can find a moment-by-moment calm within it.


What are your thoughts on The Lathe of Heaven? Do you think that latching onto a symbol like Mount Hood is a good way of understanding the novel, or are there some drawbacks that I haven’t accounted for? Let me know in the comments!

This post is part of my Classics Club project. If you’d like read my previous installment on Elfriede Jelinek’s novel Wonderful, Wonderful Times, click here; if you’d like to see my master list of books and get a sense of what the future holds, click here.

And as always, thanks for reading!

Recent Publication: Cumberland River Review

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).

Recent Publication: The McNeese Review

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 Art of Excessive Speech Tags: Raymond Carver and Ali Smith

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.

Some Short Thoughts on Long Lines of Poetry

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!

The Missionary in Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing”

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.