“A person is smart. People are dumb.”
– Kay, Men In Black (1997)
Ah, the internet. A wonderful tool useful for a great number of things, allowing groups of people to share information across vast distances, collaborating with one another in an instant. And while the internet has brought about many positive changes in the world, there have been a few negative adjustments as well. One of those is the prevalence and commonality of Herd Mentality (more commonly known as Mob Mentality) in social media.
Perceiving themselves to be in a group with their online communities, this psychological effect can result in people taking actions (tweeting and posting) based more off of irrational emotional responses than logical thought.
Such was the case with the rage and anguish over Calvin Trillin’s poem “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?”, a satirical piece that takes the perspective of a goofy and overexcited exotic cuisine enthusiast struggling to keep up with the large influx of new types of eastern dishes being introduced in the west. Due to the poem’s lighthearted and satirical reference towards a number of eastern countries and their cultural dishes, many social media denizens took upon the work in a kind of frenzied rage, accusing it of being a poorly conceived attempt at humor that is more offensive than funny.
On April 12th, 2016, Katy Waldman published what was perhaps an overview of many of the arguments being made on both sides of this debate. The essay, entitled “Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker Poem Wasn’t Just Offensive. It Was Bad Satire”, aims to get to the bottom of this debacle once and for all, denoting time to how Trillin’s use of language, subject matter, and voice weigh into the work’s overall effect this poem is having on its readers. But there’s one poetic element that’s given far too little time: Meter. And it’s perhaps the most important element of all, as a person’s careful investigation of this poem’s meter would end this argument before it even began.
In her very first paragraph, Waldman does formally recognize the poem’s form as “rhymed couplets of anapestic trimeter”. What this means for the piece is much better witnessed for one’s self rather than explained, so I’ll give you the first two lines of Trillin’s piece as a free sample:
Have they run out of provinces yet? If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.
Didn’t that feel good to read? It’s got a very powerful and potent rhythm to it, something reminiscent of a children’s rhyme or lullaby. But not just any lullaby: A limerick, a nine-line poetic form that’s instantly recognizable through just a single example. Here’s one of the more famous children’s limericks: “There was an Old Man with a Beard” by Edward Lear.
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!—
Two Owls and a Hen, four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard.
As you can tell from these examples, the first two lines of each poem (colored green) read with a very similar sense of flow to them – in poetic terms, this would be referred to as Trimeter. For Trillin’s piece, this flow suggests that the poem is best read through a cartoonish and lighthearted lens. Similarly, it suggests that all absurd or unusual aspects of this poem are to be read in a lighthearted manner as well – It did the same for Lear’s work, as readers are quite clearly not intended to weep for this old man with birds in his beard. And while, yes, one could remove the cartoonish lens and lament Lear for writing about a poor old man whose sedentary lifestyle has allowed birds to live inside of his facial hair, one would be hard-pressed to ignore the poem’s comical metric structure, a structure that suggests the writing does not intend to make harsh statements on mature topics.
Does Waldman speak to this? Kind of. She points to it most directly in her essay’s concluding paragraph, where she admits that Trillin’s poem “reads like a good-natured poke at the snooty aspirations of wannabe hipsters” (Waldman). What’s left out is an examination of how the social media buzz around this issue unfairly shaped and distorted it, and allowed an unruly froth of rage to spew out over the pot of discussion and rational thought.
Men in Black. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, 1997.
Trillin, Calvin. “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” The New Yorker, 4 Apr. 2016.
Waldman, Katy. “Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker Poem Wasn’t Just Offensive. It Was Bad Satire.” Slate, 12 Apr. 2016, slate.com/culture/2016/04/ calvin-trillins-new-yorker-poem-have-they-run-out-of-provinces-yet-was-bad-satire.html.
Accessed 26 Nov. 2018.
Lear, Edward. “There Was Once an Old Man with a Beard.” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/ poems/45755/there-was-an-old-man-with-a-beard. Accessed 26 Nov. 2018.