Go home folks, it’s a Joke: Meter and Tone in “Have They Run Out Of Provinces Yet?”

  An angry mob      

   “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.

A cross between Angry Birds and the twitter bird shows a very peeved blue bird.

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.

 

Works Cited

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.

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Grave Rubbing: Independance and Choice in The Namesake

I was a very obedient boy – being an only child, I often had a great bit of focus placed onto me, and as such I, more often than not, did what I was told. It’s for this reason that I remember the first time I openly said no to my mom, and it was during the classic nightly call for bedtime. I don’t remember how old I was, but I do remember that this time, for whatever reason, I just wasn’t feeling it.

So I crossed my arms across my chest, looked her in the eyes, and said very plainly, “I refuse.”

What a little badass I was.

Meanwhile, in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, young Gohol’s first conscious refusal is a bit less direct but just as impactful: Asked to get rid of a number of rubbings taken from gravestones, the youngster secretly defies his mother.

“But Gohol is attached to them. For reasons he cannot explain or necessarily understand, these ancient puritan spirits, these very first immigrants to America, these bearers of unthinkable, obsolete names, have spoken to him so much that in spite of his mother’s disgust he refuses to throw the rubbings away.” (Lahiri 71)

A tombstone

While Gohol’s first refusal of his mother’s request may not have been as direct as my own, Lahiri’s description of it makes it just as mythical of a moment. It’s very clear here that something has happened — the structure makes that obvious, as Lahiri slowly works through the different sections of the deep connections Gohol feels to theses dead puritans. The focus on the “unthinkable, obsolete names” clearly attributes part of the connections to Gohol feeling closer to them due to the unusual nature of his own name, but there’s a lot more going on here, even if we don’t quite know what (Lahiri 71). The narrator’s reference to this makes that clear: as he “cannot explain or necessarily understand” the nature of his feelings, neither are we told what they are in this moment, in this peek into his mind (Lahiri 71).

But that doesn’t mean we can’t figure them out.

See, here’s the funny thing about Gohol’s first refusal: It’s not. His first refusal actually occurs in chapter 2, during the ceremony in which he is asked to choose his destiny among a number of items placed in front of him. Instead of listening to any of the urgings from the voices around him, he begins to cry, denying everybody and refusing everything at the same time. And the reason for his refusal isn’t because of him not wanting to choose any of those items, it’s because of all the voices screaming at him because he WANTS to refuse.

A man refusing

Both refusals have been desperate attempts clutching at some form of independence, the first, in chapter 2, over the right to choose his own destiny, and the second in chapter 3 over the right to choose his own connections.

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Here vs There: Do I want to go back?

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Note: I used an Ebook version of The Gangster, so page numbers may be different.

As an adult, looking back onto my childhood home is a very unusual experience. It almost seems like a magical place: I remember is as comfortable, friendly, and accessible, despite not understanding much of it. After my family moved, we’ve never had the chance to go back to that town, which has made it seem all the more illustrious and wonderful in my mind. And in lê thi diem thúy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For (TG), the narrator’s mother (Ma)  experiences her childhood home in a very similar (albeit far more intense) way.

The mother’s relationship to home is echoed throughout TG, and her struggle to deal with what she has left behind become central parts of the narrative. The book follows a family of Vietnamese refugees who come to America due to the Vietnam war. Ma has a troubled family history, as is stated on page 198 of TG: She was disowned by her parents due to her choice to marry her current husband, the narrator’s father. On page 199, Ma’s struggles with the past come to the forefront, when a single photograph of Ma’s parents arrives on the doorstep of her house: “When the photograph came. Ma and Ba got into a fight. (…)  Ma broke all the dishes. They said they never should’ve been together” (lê 199). Here, Ma struggles to confront her decision to leave that place of comfort. She curses the decision that caused her to leave – her decision to marry Ba (the father) – and also makes an active attempt to make her current place of residence seem less homely by destroying parts of the family’s current place of refuge. This destructive rampage also emphasizes Ma’s discomfort with settling into the consequences of her decisions. She dislikes her current living situation compared to her previous life in her home country, and in that longing to return, makes an attempt to destroy bits of her current place of living that gives off an impression of permanence.

A broken dish

However, many other Vietnamese-American characters do not long towards their home country in the same way that Ma does. Nam, the narrator of Nam Le’s short story The Boat, expresses a distinct level of comfort with being adjacent to yet separate from his childhood home. This is best expressed on page 9 of the story, where Nam imagines himself posing for a senior photo in traditional cultural garb: “I pictured myself standing in a rice paddy, wearing a straw conical hat. Then I pictured my father in the same field, wearing his threadbare fatigues, young and hard-eyed” (Le 9). This scene is structured in such a way as to make evident Nam’s discomfort with his past. His own mental depiction of his wear during this scene, “a straw conical hat” and standing in a rice paddy is ironically stereotypical of Vietnam, a point-for-point depiction of the American image of a Vietnamese rice farmer. And yet his depiction of his father is far more military and distinctly less friendly: “threadbare fatigues” is a clear allusion to army wear, and the combination of a “hard-eyed” gaze with youth implies a difficult life and a hardened exterior. It’s an unfriendly image, and a purposeful comparison between Nam, who spent only his childhood in Vietnam, and his father, who lived there much longer and served in the war. Similar to Ma, Nam experienced degrees of rejection from his parents, but he does not wish to return to his home. He does not hold Vietnam in the same heightened light that Ma does, and seems somewhat uncomfortable in his mental exploration of placing himself in Vietnam next to his father.

This directly contrasts much of TG; In that novel, Ma, the narrator and the family struggle on American soil and experience much of American tradition as unusual and alien, yet Nam appears to associate a return to home with a kind of alien unfriendliness, as shown through the differences between his description and description of his father.

Adrift At Sea

When I was younger, I’d get this recurring nightmare of finding myself in the middle of the ocean with no one in sight. And although I don’t remember those nightmares lasting very long, they were always quite terrifying nonetheless; The feeling of helplessness and vulnerability stuck with me for several years, leaving me afraid of the ocean until my early teens.

This fear from a hostile environment is something that Le Thi Diem Thuy very clearly understands, as her use of a ‘drifting’ image in the second paragraph of her novel The Gangsters We Are All Looking For very clearly establishes the same feeling of danger that I’d felt in my young nightmares. Thuy uses this image while describing the movements of the narrator and her family across a wide ocean expanse, as they “floated across the sea, first in the hold of the fishing boat, and then in the hold of a U.S. Navy Ship” (Thuy 3). While this fear of watery depths would translate quite cleanly to many uncertain ocean journeys, Thuy’s word choice accentuates the fear factor: The group has “floated” across the sea adds an element of survival and randomness to the trip, where describing it more directly as a ‘trip’ or ‘travel’ would have diminished that aspect.

A man floats in an ocean.

Furthermore, the same paragraph sees Thuy extending the theme of motion through hostile environments from the sea to the skies, as the narrator describes the family’s travels through airports as well: “We were lifted high over the Pacific Ocean. Holding onto one another, we moved through clouds, ghost vapors, time zomes” (Thuy 4). The theme of motion without direction appears again, this time acting in the opposite way it did during the previous quote. The family’s motion through “clouds, ghost vapors, [and] time zones”, all of which are quite expansive and difficult to move through quickly, creates a sense of blurred motion too quick and too rapid to be safe or controlled. Rather than focus on the movement through a single time zone or cloud, the quote includes all three with little consequence, giving readers a sense of the family’s rapid speed through these sequences.

A person falls down over a cloudy sky

In both situations, however, the family is being protected by a fairly appropriate form of transport: A boat through the water, and a plane through the skies. But while this is true in the physical action of these situations, Thuy takes great care to attempt to remove that safety barrier from the image that readers will create in their own minds. This is accomplished in similar ways during both images: Although Thuy acknowledges the boats later in the line for the sake of clarity, the floating scene mentions “we”, or the family, as the ones who are floating. Note the effect this has: Editing this quote as to say ‘the boat floated across the sea’ does not carry nearly the same level of weight and desperation as ‘we floated across the sea’. The same effect shines through during the image of air travel, but even more strongly so. Thuy writes, “we were lifted high over the Pacific ocean. Holding on to one another…” (Thuy 4). The careful removal of the airplane in these lines loosens the barrier between the narrator’s family and a very, very long fall. Without the plane to protect them, Thuy implies the family is forced to hold onto one another in order to keep from dropping off one by one, and that they are being “lifted high over the Pacific ocean” once again by a force not entirely within their control (Thuy 4). Using these images to disrupt the barriers to safety for travel across long and hostile environments, Thuy makes these travel far more terrifying than modern modes of transportation normally allow them to be.

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Works Cited

Lê, Thi Diem Thúy. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. Anchor Books, 2004.

Blog Post #2: No-No Brakes

You don’t need a period to end a sentence.

Well, alright, technically you do. But in the reality of the literary world, there are many other devices that can be used to simulate the use of a period without actually using one. For example, D. H. Lawrence’s work “The Elephant Is Slow To Mate” uses numerous line and stanza breaks to force the reader’s eye to slow, similar to the titular elephant’s mating speed.

A Japanese bullet train zooms over a bridge.

 

John Okada’s No-No Boy, on the other hand, reads like a Japanese bullet train.

<— Click on it.

 

But it does so with a purpose. Rather than speeding along to compensate for having nothing interesting to say, Okada establishes this frenzied pace to both help the reader insert themselves into the mind of main character Ichiro Yamada and to characterize him as a neurotic person who exhausts himself for every moment he spends inside his own head.

One of the best examples of this pacing technique in motion (no pun intended) is a section of the novel’s third chapter, where Yamada thinks over his experiences with the American educational system:

“To be a student in America studying engineering was a beautiful life. Where was the slide rule, he asked himself, where was the shaft of exacting and thrilling discovery when I had needed it most? If only I had pictured it and felt it in my hands, I might well have made the right decision, for the seeing and feeling of it would have pushed out the bitterness with the greenness of the grass on campus and the hardness of the chairs in the airy classrooms with the blackboards stretched wall-to-wall behind the professor, and the books and the sandwiches and the bus rides coming and going.”

(Okada 49)

Whew. Take a deep breath. Now, I’ve got a few questions for you.

  1. Did you notice the perspective shift?

That’s the most immediate goal of this rapid-acceleration flow of consciousness style:  This quickly-paced design refuses to allow the reader enough time to understand they’re being shoved into Yamada’s mind. The shift occurs during the above quote’s second sentence, where Okada writes, “…he asked himself, where was the shaft of exacting and thrilling discovery when I had needed it most” (Okada 49, My Bolding).  But there’s no time to halt and question perspectives, because, by the next sentence, the reader is blitzing through Yamada’s mental stream at the same rate as the character himself.

2. Did you like that long sentence? Do you want to read more of them?

These ‘dips into Yamada’s mind’ happen at multiple points during the novel, and serve to aid in his characterization. Hyper-extended lines like these can be exhausting, so Okada spaces them out to make the read more enjoyable. But there’s a catch: Yamada doesn’t get these breaks from his own mind. He’s in there 24/7, and every time we’re forced to join him, we get a brief reminder of how exhausting his thought process is. By imagining the numerous instances of these worry-rants and regret-rants Yamada pushes upon himself, the character’s harsh reactions to certain actions by other characters become more understandable.

By forcing the reader into Yamada’s mind, Okada places them in a position to understand the emotional exhaustion that often results in aggressive reactions towards those around him. Since Yamada’s struggle is very much internal, this process is nearly invisible to other characters, who see Yamada only as a high-strung individual. This further contributes to a reader’s ability to associate themselves with the character and to understand the disconnect between the reality of his emotions and how they are perceived by the outside world.

Works Cited

Lawrence, D. H. “The Elephant Is Slow to Mate.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 4 Sept. 2018, www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/elephant-slow-mate.

Okada, John. No-No Boy. University of Washington Press, 2014.

Doing Their Part

Aerial View of the Twin Towers

I was four years old when the twin towers fell. I remember sitting on the couch in my TV room watching my father cry while he watched the newscasters cry. He lost a good friend in the attack. He’d get depressed in the weeks that followed, which made me sad, which made him want to cheer me up, which cheered him up. I didn’t know it, but I was doing my part.

Suheir Hammad doesn’t tell the reader how old she was or where she was in First Writing Since, a poem recounting her thoughts and emotions during the days following the 9/11 attacks. But Hammad does discreetly talk about her ‘part’, which comes to her in the first stanza of the fifth section. This stanza uses the repetition of the phrase “one more person” on its first and third lines to convey a tone of anger and frustration from Hammad, and suggests her role is to contain that anger.

Although it is not written in the text, the “one more person” lines easily complete themselves in the mind of the reader with, ‘and i swear i’ll…’, or a similar declaration. This aura of anger is aided by line 5.2, which replaces “person” with “motherfucker” when the individual in question expresses doubt of Hammad’s family’s integrity.

Used in this way, the phrase “one more person” typically implies that the speaker is daring the offenders to continue and wanting an excuse to release their anger. However, this stanza’s structure suggests the opposite. The repetition of “one more person” doesn’t actually begin until line 5.3; lines 5.1 and 5.2 use the phrases “one more person” and “one more motherfucker” respectively, which conveys an escalation of aggression. The de-escalation back to “one more person”, a phrase said twice in 5.3, suggests that Hammad fights to keep her anger at bay rather than searching for an excuse to release it.

This contradicts her statement in line 5.4, where she denies that she represents a people. Despite this statement, her actions and work to restrain her anger suggest she understands that, at this moment, she does represent a people. She performs great emotional labor to withstand these accusations, understanding that a harsh reaction on her part would reflect badly on her and anyone who looks anything like her.

A woman holds the Palestinian flag above her head.

She was taking the heat so her brothers didn’t have to. She was doing her part.

Works Cited

Hammad, Suheir. “First Writing Since.” In Motion Magazine , 7 Nov. 2001, www.inmotionmagazine.com/ac/shammad.html.

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