Writing Lessons From John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”

hiroshima

“The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote.  Nowhere do we witness this eternal struggle more movingly than in Hiroshima, John Hersey’s unforgettable account of that fateful day on August 6th, 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped.  Hailed as the “most celebrated piece of journalism to come out of WWII,” Hiroshima follows six survivors as they navigate the devastating aftermath of nuclear war.  Obliterating 100,000 lives in an infernal blast that will reverberate through the centuries as human history’s “most unspeakable crime,” the atom bomb is an unsettling reminder that the human heart is neither wholly good nor evil.

Hiroshima stands as a masterpiece of reporting for its ability to humanize the Japanese people at a time when words were weaponized as instruments of war.  Rather than reduce them to a one-dimensional demonized “enemy,” Hersey revealed Dr. Masakazu Fujii, Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, Father Wilhem Kliensorge, Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, Toshiko Sasaki, and Hatsuyo Nakamura as ordinary people: people who were staring out windows and sitting at their desks just as they had hundreds of times when their lives were forever shattered by an unprecedented act of war.  While some reporters marveled at man’s ability to harness the cataclysmic power of atomic energy (New York Times staff member William Laurence, the only journalist to witness the terrible technology first hand, wrote with wonder, “It was no longer smoke, or dust, or even a cloud of fire.  It was a living thing, a new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes.”), others focused on calculating the staggering number of lives lost or capturing the wasteland left behind (New York Herald Tribune’s Homer Bigart observed when he visited Hiroshima in September 1945 that “across the river there was only flat, appalling desolation, the starkness accentuated by bare, blackened tree trunks and the occasional shell of a reinforced concrete building.”)  Hersey took a different approach.  Hiroshima, originally published as a 30,000 word feature in the August 1946 issue of the New Yorker, is now considered a landmark of new journalism, a style of reporting that blended the impartial facts of traditional journalism with the pacing and storytelling of a novel.  By funneling the harrowing events of that historic day through the soul-expanding subjectivity of stories instead of the heartless objectivity of mere numbers, Hersey was able to demolish the barricade between ally and enemy so often erected by war.  The result is a compassionate document that- as one critic put it- “stirs the conscience” of the soul.

Hiroshima’s first line is perhaps one of journalism’s best-known:

“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”

In his instructive new book The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing, journalist and Poynter Institute senior scholar Roy Peter Clark seeks to break down this stellar first sentence so we can better understand how it works.  A curator of spellbinding sentences and lover of lively prose, Clark contends the secret to writing well is hidden in literature’s masterworks or- as Matthew Arnold might say- in “the best that’s been thought and said” in the world.  If we want to be compelling writers, we just have to crack the code.  “Cracking the code” means paying attention to how an author mesmerizes us with his words.  Like Hemingway, does he seduce us to turn the page by revealing less information than he withholds?  Or like Plath, does he create a sense of unity by repeating an overarching motif or symbol?  In much the same way authors of that endlessly edifying guide to close-reading How to Read a Book revere books as absent teachers, Clark believes literature has a wealth of writing wisdom to offer.

So how, Clark wonders, does Hersey manage to captivate us from Hiroshima’s very first line?  The sentence itself is rather simple: 63 words, 32 of which are only 1-syllable.  There is no flamboyant expression, no elaborate sentence structure, no theatrical melodrama.  Even the subject matter is mundane: other than the offhand reference to the bomb “flashing above Hiroshima,” the sentence focuses on the ordinary and everyday, particularly one Miss Toshiko Sasaki, who’s doing the most uninteresting thing you could possibly conceive: turning her head to chat with a co-worker.  So why is this one of the most riveting first lines in all of literature?  For Clark, the secret is pacing:

“This feels like a most unconventional way to begin a story.  In spite of the importance of time to the telling of all narratives, we rarely see this degree of temporal specificity in a first line.  The word exactly is not a modifier but an intensifier.  We then learn the minutes, the hour ante meridiem, the month, day, year, and time zone.  That’s seven discrete time metrics before a verb.  The rhetorical effect of such specificity is that of a historical marker.  Something world-changing is about to happen (a meteor struck the earth; a volcano exploded; a jet plane flew into the Pentagon).  Chaucer’s springtime at the beginning of The Canterbury Tales is generic and cyclical.  In Hiroshima we are about to meet a group of pilgrims who share an experience that is triggered at a specific moment in time.  

In a way, time is also about to stand still.  Clocks and watches, damaged by the atomic blast, stopped at the moment of destruction.  This symbol of the stopped watch in relation to Hiroshima is repeated as late as 2014 in the updated version of the movie Godzilla.  The original was made in Japan in 1954 and is widely recognized as a science-fiction, monster-movie allegory of the consequences of nuclear destruction.  In the updated version, Japanese actor Ken Watanabe carries around the talisman of a pocket watch owned by his grandfather, killed at Hiroshima.  The time is frozen at eight fifteen.”  

As writers, what can we take away from this unforgettable first sentence?  Just as Hersey uses temporal specificity to stop time and signal that something history-making is about to happen, we can decelerate- or “freeze frame”- our narrative to amplify drama and build suspense:

Writing Lesson #1 

“Stories are about time in motion.  But there are moments when time seems to stop, at least in narrative terms: when the atom bomb drops, when Kennedy is shot, when the Challenger explodes.  As a writer, you can mark that moment when time stands still.  Freeze a movie into a still frame.”

stopped watch

Hiroshima is not only a paragon of pacing- it’s a matchless example of understatement.  “If ever there was a subject calculated to make a writer overwrought and a piece overwritten, it was the bombing of Hiroshima,” observed New Yorker journalist and political commentator Hendrik Hertzberg.  When a story is as momentous as Pearl Harbor or September 11th, it seems made for the newspapers.  There’s conflict, there’s catastrophe, there’s lives lost.  But though it’s tempting to hyperbolize, a good writer will restrain himself.  What makes Hiroshima so powerful is the way Hersey lets the material speak for itself.  Instead of indulging in melodrama- say, by sensationalizing the carnage or heavy-handedly accentuating the scene’s pathos- Hersey writes in a matter-of-fact style, employing only plain words all the while maintaining a dispassionate, journalistic tone.  As Clark explains, when a story is “big,” the key is to write “small”:

“In bringing us finally to the main part of the sentence, the author puts into practice two reliable rhetorical strategies, one from ancient Greece, the other from the American newsroom.  The name for the first is litotes, or understatement- the opposite of hyperbole.  While an unwise writer might overwhelm us with the visceral imagery of destruction, Hersey chooses to introduce a most common scene of daily life: one office worker turning to another, allowing the drama to unfold.  In the face of astonishing content, step back a bit.  Don’t call undue attention to the tricks of the writer.  

A related strategy comes from an old bit of newsroom wisdom: “The bigger the smaller.”  Nowhere was this strategy used more than in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York City on September 11th.  Faced with almost apocalyptic physical destruction and the loss of nearly three thousand lives, writers such as Jim Dwyer of the New York Times looked for ways to tell a story that seemed from its inception “too big.”  Dwyer chose to highlight physical objects with stories hiding inside of them: a window washer’s squeegee used to help a group break out of a stalled elevator in one of the Twin Towers; a family photo discovered in the rubble; a paper cup used by an escaping stranger to give water to another.  

The author of Hiroshima offers readers something akin to writing teacher Robert McKee’s “inciting incident.”  This is the moment that kicks off the energy of the story, the instant when normal life is transformed into story life.  All the characters described in the first paragraph are experiencing a version of normal, everyday life- given the context of an ongoing world war- but whatever their expectations, they were changed forever at the exact moment the atomic bomb flashed over Hiroshima.”  

Writing Lesson #2 

“Given the exact nature of the news and the death toll, the author’s narrative feels somehow underwritten, in a good way.  There are no elaborate metaphors.  The author keeps the focus on the cast of characters and not on his own feelings or emotions.  In general, this is a good rhetorical strategy.  The more powerful or consequential the content, the more the author should “get out of the way.”  This does not mean that craft must be set aside.  Instead, it means craft must be used to create a feeling of understatement.”

Writing Lessons From Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar”

The benefits of reading are manifold.  For Ralph Waldo Emerson, what’s wonderful about booksthe bell jar is that a company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world, for thousands of years can make the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us” whereas for Honore de Balzac, reading acquaints us with “unknown friends.”  Research suggests reading not only magnifies our capacity for empathy and strengthens our ability to be open-minded, it promotes the kind of free-thinking on which democracy depends.  As writers, reading has the added benefit of helping us improve our craft.  Much like a blacksmith learns to mold metals by studying under an apprentice, a writer learns the elements of composition by dissecting (and imitating) her favorite penmen.  Writing is a kind of magic: it takes instruction under the tutelage of a master to become an enchantress of the craft.

The belief that we can become better writers by becoming better readers is at the heart of journalist and Poynter Institute senior scholar Roy Peter Clark’s new book The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing.  A wonderful companion to his altogether indispensable Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every WriterThe Art of X-Ray Reading surveys some of the most celebrated works in all of English letters, distilling their insights into practical lessons writers- both novice and expert- can apply to their craft.  If we want to write with the lyrical beauty of a Fitzgerald or with an appreciation of the short sentence like Melville, Clark argues we must read actively with “x-ray glasses” close at hand.  Written with a profound reverence for story-telling and an obvious love of literature, The Art of X-Ray Reading will teach you to dissemble a text so you can better understand how it works.  Though as a bookish English major I’ve read most of the texts Clark examines, I closed The Art of X-Ray Reading with a newfound appreciation for many of those tattered treasures we call the “canon.”  From analyzing how Hemingway intentionally omits information to build suspense to anatomizing how Hersey harnesses the power of understatement to emphasize the drama of that fateful morning on August 6th, Clark helps us peek behind the curtain on literature’s finest sentences, revealing good writing is the product of deliberate workmanship- not of chance:

“Where do writers learn their best moves?  They learn from a technique I call X-ray reading.  They read for information or vicarious experience or pleasure, as we all do.  But in their reading, they see something more.  It’s as if they had a third eye or a pair of X-ray glasses like the ones advertised years ago in comic books.  

This special vision allows them to see beneath the surface of the text.  There they observe the machinery of making meaning, invisible to the rest of us.  Through a form of reverse engineering…they see the moving parts, the strategies that create the effects we experience from the page- effects such as clarity, suspense, humor, epiphany, and pain.  These working parts are then stored in the writer’s toolshed in boxes with names such as grammar, syntax, punctuation, spelling, semantics, etymology, poetics, and that big box- rhetoric.”  

In Chapter 5 “Jolt of Insight,” Clark close reads Sylvia Plath’s first and only novel, The Bell Jar.  The story follows Esther Greenwood, an ambitious young writer who earns a coveted internship at a prestigious New York magazine as a guest editor.  Though she knows her dazzling life of big city glamor and patent leather would be the envy of most girls, Esther becomes more and more disenchanted as the novel goes on.  When she returns home to Massachusetts to find she hasn’t been accepted to a distinguished summer writing program, she sinks into a debilitating depression.  An incisive and deeply disturbing account of mental illness, The Bell Jar is one of my favorite novels not only for its historical-cultural significance (never before had a book so frankly discussed such topics as the tension between career and child-bearing or the taboo subject of a woman’s desire for sex), but for the unrivaled genius of its prose.  The Bell Jar’s first line makes evident Plath’s literary virtuoso:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

With a linguist’s ear for the subtle effects of sound and a critic’s eye for socio-cultural references, Clark deconstructs this masterpiece of a first sentence:

“Before I read another word, I felt the need to X-ray that sentence.  At twenty-three words, it is a short and memorable first sentence for a novel, beginning with a subject and verb of the main clause, always an encouraging sign.  

“It was a queer, sultry summer…”

I feel a tension between the adjectives queer and sultry.  The first carries a judgement of distortion, something not quite right in the air.  The second, sultry, has the sense of something physical, hot and humid, but not necessarily unpleasant, perhaps carrying a sexual connotation, like the sound of a tenor sax.  (I’ve always felt that individual letters can carry hidden meanings. It may seem strange to say, but the letter makes me uneasy, especially that triple dose of it in the phrase “queer, sultry summer.”)  

What comes next is a shocking intrusion: “the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs…”  

A lot of things happened during the summer of 1953, when the story takes place: the Korea War ended, JFK and Jackie were married in Newport, Rhode Island; television was coming into its own.  An obsession with a New York Jewish couple executed for espionage aligns with queer and connects the collective paranoia of the McCarthy era with our protagonist’s distorted view of reality.  

[…] 

The whole sentence moves with remarkable efficiency from a season to an era to the confusion of a single young woman.”

So what can writers learn from this remarkable first line?  If you want to entice your readers to keep reading, Clark recommends adding an element of shock or surprise:

Writing Lesson #1 

“Many examples of good writing have a one-two-three quality to them: subject, verb, object.  In most cases, you don’t want the reader to stop or even pause.  My mentor Don Fry calls this effect the “steady advance.”  But there will be exceptions, moments when the writer will intrude on the reader’s expectations, even in the middle of a sentence.  Call it a bump in the road.  Plath achieves this effect with the insertion of the Rosenberg execution inside her first sentence.  What if the sentence had been: “It was a queer, sultry summer, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”  Clear and compelling enough, but not brilliant and explosive.  Most sentences you write will be A-B-C.  If you want to catch the reader off guard, consider A-X-B.”

sylvia plath torment

As readers, it’s often easier to understand “what” an author is saying than to decipher “how” it is she produces certain effects.  “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”  What is being said is clear enough but how it manages to linger in our memory- that’s more of a mystery.  Clark further demystifies the spell of this stellar sentence by unveiling the “how” behind its effectiveness.  Plath’s opening line is brilliant largely in part because it establishes the novel’s central motif of electrocution from the very first sentence:

“If something is important enough to place in the first sentence of a novel, even as a seeming aside, is it important enough to revisit?  We saw in Gatsby how the author introduced the green light on Daisy’s dock in the first chapter, how he reintroduced that light in the middle of the novel, and how he brought it back, with dozens of suggestive thematic implications, at the end.  We come to expect that type of exquisite story architecture from our favorite literary artists.  

So beyond my personal curiosity about the Rosenbergs, should I expect them to return to the stage later in Plath’s novel?  Here is what follows that first sentence:  

I’m stupid about executions.  The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers- google-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway.  It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.  

I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.

rosenburgs die

“It has nothing to do with me.”  Yeah, right.  It has everything to do with our protagonist, Esther Greenwood, a fill-in for Plath in this highly autobiographical novel, who, during an internship at a fashion magazine in New York City, is traumatized time and again.  

Sure enough, the Rosenbergs reappear on page 100 of my edition, the beginning of chapter 9.  Esther is speaking with another young woman at the fashion magazine about the imminent execution of Esther and Julius:  

So I said, “Isn’t it awful about the Rosenbergs?”  

The Rosenbergs were to be electrocuted late that night.  

“Yes!” Hilda said, and at last I felt I had touched a human string in the cat’s cradle of her heart.  It was only as the two of us waited for the others in the tomblike morning gloom of the conference room that Hilda amplified that Yes of hers.

“It’s awful that such people should be alive…I’m so glad that they’re going to die.”  

This dispiriting moment comes just before the crisis that will crush our protagonist at the end of the first half of the book, when a blind date turns into a muddy rape attempt that leaves her physically injured and emotionally devastated, so much so that she returns to her hotel and throws all her glamorous clothes she has accumulated off the top of the skyscraper.  

Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the gray scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York.  

In that dark moment, Plath offers a kind of silent convergence of the public and private.  Almost at the exact time the Rosenbergs would be electrocuted, the main character undergoes a kind of symbolic death, her clothes being scatted to the winds, “like a loved one’s ashes.”

dark black heart of New York

The sign of a true artist is her every choice is intentional.  Though the reference to the Rosenbergs in the first line seems like a passing comment, Clark realizes it has a much greater significance to The Bell Jar as a whole.  Like the Jewish spies executed during that “queer, sultry” summer, Esther will be electrocuted in a botched electro-shock treatment after suffering a mental breakdown.  Foreshadowed in that first trifling twenty-three word sentence is the most tragic, climatic moment of the novel:

“It was only after I had closed the book that I was stunned by the beauty of what Plath had created.  It was like looking at daybreak pouring through the rose window of a cathedral.  All that business about the Rosenbergs- the constant references not to their execution but to their electrocution– turned out to be a prologue to the traumatic events in Esther’s life, including a medical procedure in a facility that looks and works like a prison in which she is pinned down and wired up (like the Rosenbergs, no doubt) and shot up with electricity.  It is, at least at first, her version of the death penalty.”   

REZNICK

What makes The Bell Jar such a masterful work is how it’s so architecturally sound.  One of the greatest literary geniuses of our time, Plath establishes the novel’s principal motif in the very first line, the Rosenbergs’ brutal execution by electric chair a harbinger of Esther’s barbaric treatment by electroshock.  If stories are man’s way of making sense of the world, a good story imposes order onto the messy material of real life’s chaos.  Unlike in life, in a story, each event has meaning; every interaction, every exchange, a role: to reveal character, to establish theme or tone.  Every single line operates to form a coherent narrative arc.  But in the hands of a less adept storyteller, a novel will seem the product neither of logic nor thought: incidents, both pressing and trivial, will be included at random with no regard as to whether they have a purpose like advance the plot, an object will seem symbolically significant but only be mentioned once.  An expert storyteller, on the other hand, hypnotizes us by giving the impression that every element of the narrative performs an essential part: a dramatic change in weather reflects a shift in mood, the repetition of an object will be shown to have meaning later on. 

The Bell Jar stands as a harrowing beauty of an American classic largely because Plath’s storytelling is all method and no madness.  Though she traces one woman’s terrifying descent into insanity, she writes with a control that is rational and painstaking.  It is proof of her artistry that she is able to hint at the plot’s highest point from the first few words.  Clark suggests incorporating a unifying theme, image, or motif into our work to make it similarly cohere:

Writing Lesson #2  

“Not all allusions are created equal.  When an author quotes another author or mentions historical figures (such as the Rosenbergs), he or she embeds one narrative within another.  As we’ve seen with the opening of The Bell Jar, an apparent offhand comment becomes a much grander metaphor, taking on new contexts and connotations as the narrative builds up steam.  Most coherent texts contain a dominant image- sometimes more than one-that links the parts and accelerates the action.”

“Let America Be America Again”: Hughes & Trump’s Two Visions for America

langston hughes

Let America Be America Again

By Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,

Tangled in that ancient endless chain

Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!

Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!

Of work the men! Of take the pay!

Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.

I am the worker sold to the machine.

I am the Negro, servant to you all.

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—

Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,

The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream

In the Old World while still a serf of kings,

Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,

That even yet its mighty daring sings

In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned

That’s made America the land it has become.

O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home—

For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,

And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,

And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came

To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?

Surely not me? The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?

For all the dreams we’ve dreamed

And all the songs we’ve sung

And all the hopes we’ve held

And all the flags we’ve hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay—

Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,

America!

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

Back in November, I was terrified by the prospect of a Trump presidency.  Today, I’m even more stumped at how such a man could conceivably win.  Bigoted, racist, misogynistic, bombastic, narcissistic.  Trump is a fear-mongering demagogue who deals in divisiveness and threatens to destroy the very foundations on which our democracy is built.  If you could somehow get past his unconscionable proposals to ban Muslim immigrants and build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, if you could somehow ignore his despicable behavior towards women, if you could somehow disregard the countless allegations women have made accusing him of sexual harassment and assault, how could you possibly ignore the fact that he doesn’t have the slightest clue as to how our government works?  Trump is a business man, not a politician.  While many right-wing nut jobs (looking at you, Sarah Palin) claim that’s his appeal, it’s only logical that a man with no experience in government would have a hard time in the White House.  Unlike Clinton who proposed detailed, meticulous plans to reach her objectives, Trump only made vague promises during his campaign…and offered no concrete means of fulfilling them.  Terrorism?  ‘Ban Muslims!’  Immigration?  ‘Build a wall!’  As J.K. Rowling so insightfully noted, Trumpism is synonymous with proposing “crude, unworkable solutions” to complex problems.

So how has this man rallied such passionate, borderline frenzied support?  Trump’s ascendancy can no doubt be attributed to a widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, a general feeling that the system is rigged against the little guy.  Trump sticks an unrepentant middle finger at social niceties: when he’s not calling his opponent a “nasty woman,” he’s telling Access Hollywood how he “grabs women by the pussies.”  Though such comments should be appalling, many Americans appreciate Trump’s particular brand of brash frankness.  To those disillusioned blue-collar workers in Trump Land, the Republican candidate’s refusal to succumb to modern standards of political correctness is part of his charm.  His reviling comments are even a badge of his honesty.  “Look what he openly says about minorities and women!” Trump nuts must think, “he won’t pussyfoot around the issues!”

The kinds of people Trump attracts are just one of the many ironies of last year’s election season.  Trump is a titan of the 1%, a New York City billionaire, not a self-made man but the product of generational nepotism, yet his campaign won the allegiance of millions of Trump soldiers from the lower middle classes.  Why?  Trump-of all people-won’t represent their interests; if anything, he’ll proceed to represent his own.  In office, you can bet he’ll slash taxes for the rich and continue an onslaught of dangerous economic reforms that will line the pockets of the elite and make the poor poorer.  Clinton has been a champion for the lower classes her whole career yet the white lower classes refused to vote for her.  She’s “untrustworthy,” “dishonest,” “power-hungry,” they said.  How, I wondered last November, how could people be so stupid?  How could people so blindly, willingly, enthusiastically vote against their own interests?!?!  

Because Trump stands as the master of the most effective political tactic of all: divide and conquer.  According to Karl Marx, father of the communist movement, the ruling class protects its power by pitting the lower ranks against each other.  Trump has been taking a play from the Hitler playbook all along.  Like the infamous furor, Trump capitalizes on the fear and discontent of average men to garner support for his cause.  And much like Hitler, Trump has found a convenient scapegoat to blame for all of America’s problems.  Whether it’s illegal immigrants or possible terrorist Muslims, Trump exploits the blue collar, white American fear of the foreign other…and the particularly white fear of losing their long-standing power.

Trump campaigned on the promise to “make America great again,” a promise many have interpreted to mean once again make America white, racist and exclusionary.  Like many of his conservative predecessors, Trump took advantage of a kind of widespread nostalgia, a yearning to resurrect our former national glory.  And like many, he exploited the inherent ambiguousness of the term “America.”  What does it really mean to be American?  What is America?  For the conservative, America is capitalist industry, rugged individualism, free markets; for the liberal, America is equality of opportunity, multiculturalism, diversity.  What, exactly, America is remains open to debate: it’s a relative term whose meaning shifts depending on the dictionary.

Unlike Trump who yearns for an America long past, poet Langston Hughes believes America is a dream that has yet to be fulfilled.  Though there’s a nostalgic quality to his longing (in the first line, he wistfully pleads, “Let America be America again” in a way that eerily echoes Trump’s campaign slogan), there’s equally a sense that America is an ideal we have yet to achieve.  In what will become a pattern in the first third of the poem, Hughes punctuates the end of the first stanza with a parenthetical aside:

“America,” he confesses, “was never America to me” (Hughes 5).  

Here “never” poses a logical contradiction: how can America be itself “again” if it “never” existed in the first place?  

Hughes may employ the romanticized images of our national history-the dauntless “pioneer,” for example, settling the rugged, untrammeled frontier-but he does so to reveal them as mythos.  Just as our history books conveniently rewrite the genocide of millions of Native Americans as the glorious fulfillment of manifest destiny, we cherish the American dream as truth when, for many, it’s nothing more than a fairy tale.  Hughes’s parenthetical speaker reminds us of this unsettling fact.  Though we pay lip service to democratic notions of tolerance and equality of opportunity, the fact that the speaker is syntactically ostracized by parentheses proves that “liberty and justice for all” ironically only applies to a privileged class.  

One of Hughes’s many narrative talents is his ability to shift perspectives.  Later in the poem, he adopts the voice of mainstream America, an America who’s shocked-even a little offended-that someone could make such a claim:

Say who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?” (Hughes 17-18).  

Here, the presence of italics indicates the intrusion of another voice, one we haven’t heard before.  Because these lines are phrased as questions, we can assume they’re directed at someone.  But who?  Hughes’s choice of words might provide some insight.  The people to whom the speaker refers are not expressing themselves loudly or confidently but “mumble” which suggests they’re silenced and marginalized.  “Darkness” furthers this idea as those he addresses are literally rendered invisible by ignorance and denial.  If we consider the context of the poem, it makes sense that the voice is responding to our earlier parenthetical speaker:

“There’s never been equality for me

No freedom in this ‘homeland of the free'” (Hughes 15-16).

For most Americans, the realization of their country’s hypocrisy is too devastating to bear.  Who, they wonder, would draw such a “veil across the stars?” (Hughes 18).  If stars are proud symbols of American patriotism, the fact that such accusations draw a “veil” across them implies America’s legacy of exclusion diminishes the speaker’s national pride.  The word itself carries solemn connotations, evoking doleful images of attending a funeral.  However, the only thing that’s died is our speaker’s aggrandized portrait of America.  Turns out the “dream” he’s treasured so dearly is just that, a dream-it only exists in the abstract.

So “who,” to return to our earlier question, is our speaker addressing? who is “mumbling in the dark”?  The answer comes in the following lines:

“I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars

I am the red man driven from the land

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek” (Hughes 19-22).  

For Hughes, it is the presence of the working-class man, the Indian and African American, that indisputably proves the American dream an enticing but ultimately untrue fiction.  His use of Whitman-esque anaphora proves the defining feature of the stanza.  Each beginning with the emphatic repetition of “I am” before listing yet another class barred access to the American dream, these lines reflect Hughes’s vision for his homeland.  In much the same way that each line originates in the same place but ends in difference, in Hughes’s America, each person is bound by a common identity but permitted the freedom of their own distinct individuality.  The poor white man, the Negro, the red man driven from his rightful home: though at the time this poem was published such minority groups were still struggling for self-determination, Hughes believed they had an equal right to sit at the American table.  Today in the era of Trump, this same struggle continues.  While Hughes’s America is expansive enough to accommodate a multitude of voices, Trump’s America seems terrifyingly restrictive.  

But when the future of our nation seems bleak, as it does today, we must not despair.  Rather we should remember Hughes’s rousing words: though he says it “plain” that “America never was America to me,” at the end of the poem, he swears a triumphant oath that “America will be!”

God, Hubris & Fate: Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain”

The Convergence of the Twain

By Thomas Hardy

(Lines on the loss of the “Titanic”)

I

In a solitude of the sea

Deep from human vanity,

And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

II

Steel chambers, late the pyres

Of her salamandrine fires,

Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

III

Over the mirrors meant

To glass the opulent

The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

IV

Jewels in joy designed

To ravish the sensuous mind

Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

V

Dim moon-eyed fishes near

Gaze at the gilded gear

And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?”

VI

Well: while was fashioning

This creature of cleaving wing,

The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

VII

Prepared a sinister mate

For her — so gaily great —

A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

VIII

And as the smart ship grew

In stature, grace, and hue,

In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

IX

Alien they seemed to be;

No mortal eye could see

The intimate welding of their later history,

X

Or sign that they were bent

By paths coincident

On being anon twin halves of one august event,

XI

Till the Spinner of the Years

Said “Now!” And each one hears,

And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

titanic maiden voyage

In his cool, philosophical poem “Convergence of the Twain,” Thomas Hardy meditates on the futility of acquiring material wealth. The poem opens in “a solitude of the sea” where the Titanic-Britain’s crowning glory and so-called “unsinkable” ship-came to rest over 100 years ago.

The remote, dark depths of the Atlantic serve as the setting for the rest of poem where the once magnificent testament to human will now sits at the bottom of the sea. A deeply inhuman environment, the ocean in Hardy’s poem represents mystery and darkness, a place where all things will be forgotten and eventually meet their end. This idea is reinforced in the second line when Hardy describes the sea as a place “deep from human vanity” (Hardy 2). The fact that the ocean is “deep”-or removed- from human vanity suggests pride and appearance have little meaning after death. In the next line, Hardy claims the “Pride of Life” planned the magnificent ship (Hardy 3). The aggressive capitalization of the word “Pride” proves the human belief in our own infallibility; however, our “plans” reveal themselves ludicrous when the Titanic, the “unsinkable” ship, flounders and sinks 3 days after it sets off from London’s harbor. By personifying man’s plans to construct an indestructible ship, Hardy mocks the ridiculousness of such an endeavor as man’s ambitions mean little in the face of destiny.

Since her tragic demise in 1912, the Titanic has become a devastating symbol of man‘s hubris, or over-reaching. In the third and fourth stanzas, we witness the futility of man’s worldly power: “Over the mirrors meant/To glass the opulent/The sea-worm crawls-grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent” (Hardy 7-9). Here, mirrors-which were “meant” to house “opulent” jewels-now serve as playgrounds for sea-worms. Though they were originally intended to protect something beautiful, mirrors themselves are extremely delicate, which points to human life’s fragility. Both stanzas follow the same structure: in the first and second lines, Hardy outlines an object’s original purpose; in the third, he reveals the uselessness of that purpose now that the Titanic is rotting six feet under. That jewels-emblems of glamor and social status-now “lie lightless” suggests that lavish wealth is meaningless in the face of mortality (Hardy 12).

Syntactically, the poem’s immediate undermining of each object’s original purpose proves two things: 1) man is very intent on being in control and 2) the desire to be in control is not only impossible-it’s pointless. Though these stunning jewels were “designed” to “ravish the sensuous mind,” life interferes with those plans when the Titanic meets her “twin halve” and crashes into an iceberg (Hardy 10-11).

titanic unsinkable ship

“If you want to make God laugh,” the old saying goes, “make a plan.” Thomas Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain” is a cruel reminder of our inability to ever be fully in control. In fact, the only thing that seems to possess absolute governance in the poem is God, whom Hardy describes as the “Spinner of Years” (Hardy 31). Man might imagine himself as the subject of his syntactical destiny; however, it is God who appears over and over again as the actual one in power. In the sixth stanza, we see this image of God reinforced grammatically:

“Well: while was fashioning/This creature of cleaving wing,/The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything/Prepared a sinister mate/ For her — so gaily great” (Hardy 16-20).

Interestingly, the first line of the stanza is missing a proper subject. The sentence sounds so odd, in fact, one might think it’s a typo. However, Hardy intentionally drops the subject (man) to imply man is not a subject at all, but rather an object at the mercy of God’s will. Humankind may outwardly appear like a God (for instance, in these lines he fashions “creatures” much like God in the biblical origin story), but he nevertheless remains an object of the “Immanent Will.” God’s status as the only named subject in these lines hints at the overall moral of Hardy’s poem: compared to God, who is mighty and omnipotent, man’s ability to influence fate, it seems, is painfully limited.

Death & Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

robert frost

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

By Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.   

His house is in the village though;   

He will not see me stopping here   

To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   

To stop without a farmhouse near   

Between the woods and frozen lake   

The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   

To ask if there is some mistake.   

The only other sound’s the sweep   

Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   

But I have promises to keep,   

And miles to go before I sleep,   

And miles to go before I sleep.

Have been beginning my mornings by reading a poem from The 100 Best Poems of All Time, a lovely collection of classics my grandmother gave me years ago. Today, read Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Never been a big lover of Frost: his poems are too monosyllabic, too simple; I much prefer the lyricism of a Plath or Fitzgerald. But just so I don’t spent hours debating which poem to read, I turn to a random page and let the fates decide; today, I landed on page 129, Robert Frost’s classic. I had read this poem once before with a student but my memory was muddled. Reading it again today, I felt the familiar frustration of encountering Frost: the poem seems like the retelling of a man’s brief stop in the woods, nothing more. I feel the same way reading Hemingway. Though I can appreciate the groundbreaking cultural significance of Hemingway’s lean, athletic style, I myself am a traditionalist: a prefer writing to be poetic, lavish, adorned.

But in a way, simplicity is genius: though a piece by Hemingway or Frost may seem forthright and straight-forward, their simplicity usually conceals a far more complex machinery operating underneath. Take Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” as an example. Reading it a couple of minutes ago, the poem seemed like an uncomplicated story about a man pausing to admire the beauty of a dark wood; however, upon closer examination, deeper themes revealed themselves.

If we investigate the rather plain title, we notice that the poem’s name immediately situates us in time and place: in the woods on a snowy evening. Taken alone, this doesn’t seem noteworthy; however, if we look closer, we’ll notice Frost doesn’t set his poem on any evening but a “snowy” one. Snow, and more generally the bleakness of a cold winter, universally represents death just as spring points to rejuvenation and renewal.

Though Frost’s poem presents itself as an accessible series of events-a man who craves to escape from the responsibilities of his ordinary life finds peace in a nearby wood-some scholars have theorized this poem carries a more sinister meaning and that the speaker is actually contemplating suicide and meditating on the nature of death. Such a reading finds support in several instances of the text: in the last stanza, for example, the speaker seems hypnotized by the enchanting forest, calling the woods “lovely, dark and deep” (Frost 13). The woods-like death- are made “lovely” by the very fact that they’re “dark” and “deep”, or removed from the commotion of civilization. Throughout the poem, our speaker longs for the quiet peace only death can offer, using soft, lulling words like “easy” and “downy” to describe the sounds of the restful wood beyond the lake.

However in the next line, the contrasting conjunction “but” indicates his affair with the snowy night is only temporary. No matter how enticing it may be to give up and surrender to the tranquility of death, the speaker realizes he has “promises to keep” and “miles to go” before he can metaphorically slumber. The repetition of “and miles” in the final two lines hints at the distance he still has to travel before he can meet death. Such an ending suggests our speaker has had an epiphany of sorts: though life can be disappointing, our speaker realizes the escapism embodied by suicide is ultimately irresponsible.

Petronius’s “Doing”

petronius statue

“Doing”

By Gaius Petronius

Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;

And done, we straight repent us of the sport:

Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,

Like lustful beasts, that only know to do it:

For lust will languish, and that heat decay.

But thus, thus, keeping endless holiday,

Let us together closely lie and kiss,

There is no labour, nor no shame in this;

This hath pleased, doth please, and long will please; never

Can this decay, but is beginning ever.

In “Doing,” 1st century A.D. poet Petronius urges us to restrain our physical desire.  The first lines portray “short pleasure” as the dirtiest and most depraved:

“Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;/And done, we straight repent us of the sport;/ Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,/ Like lustful beasts, that only know to do it:/ For lust will languish, and that heat decay” (1-5).

To put it in more modern terms, Petronius isn’t the guy who’d chug a beer, slur a brash, unromantic “want to have sex?” in your ear before fucking you in the fastest, most unimaginable way.  No, he’d be a sensualist-the quieter, more amorous guy that understands seduction begins with mystery, with the withholding of gratification.

Ironically, in “Doing” the “doing” itself offers no lasting pleasure. If “doing” is a present participial verb representing eternal action, the actual consummation of desire (sex) is both “filthy” and “short.” Meaning improper and obscene, “filthy” portrays sex as sinful. But before you go assuming that Petronius was a prude who advocated for celibacy and chastity belts, we should make one thing clear: it is not visceral desire that Petronius so stalwartly rallies against-it’s the ways in which we approach sex. When we simply “do” sex like we would do a homework assignment, we miss the rapture and excitement real intimacy can afford.

“And done,” he laments, “we straight repent us of the sport.” Here, the religious word “repent” indicates such lovemaking is a serious sin against God worthy of profound regret. “Sport” further reinforces this image. Rather than depict sex as a blissful communion of both body and spirit, “sport” trivializes the act as if it were just another means of amusement. Such an attitude toward sex represents a devolution to our lower animal nature: like “lustful  beasts” who possess no reason or rationality and simply rely on the impulse of their instincts, the man who sets out to merely fulfill his carnal longings will miss out on a whole other dimension of intimacy-he’ll have sex but no lovemaking.

For Petronius, the problem with lust is it doesn’t last: desire will “languish”; heat “decay”. Both words depict the consummation of sexual longing as intense but ultimately fleeting. To obtain the object of your desire, it seems, is disillusioning. It’s like The Great Gatsby. Though he’s spent years building a fortune in hopes of finally winning back Daisy, the long lost love of his life, when he finally attains her, he feels disenchanted: she was better off as the green light, a hazy, faraway ambition made appealing by its being inaccessible.

The only way for ardor to be sustained over the long-term, then, is for fulfillment to be postponed…at least for a little while:

“But, thus, thus, keeping endless holiday,/ Let us together closely lie and kiss,/ There is no labor nor no shame in this” (Petronius 6-8).

If a holiday is a magical time when one can temporarily vacate their life and take some time off, Petronius is asking his lover to indulge in a brief respite from the world. But their respite is not gratifying their fiery desires-it’s delaying them. Often once you attain the object of your desire, your appetite for them deteriorates; it is only the pursuit of longing that makes sex exciting-not its actual fulfillment. Petronius, the first master of seduction, was well aware of this. By deferring the consummation of their passions, he knows their relationship will remain a blissful honeymoon instead of disintegrate into the all-too-common convention of marriage as hopeless tedium.

Sylvia Plath’s “Magnolia Shoals”

Sylvia Plath on her first day at Mademoiselle.

Magnolia Shoals

Up here among the gull cries

we stroll through a maze of pale

red-mottled relics, shells, claws

as if it were summer still.

That season has turned its back.

Through the green sea gardens stall,

bow, and recover their look

of the imperishable

gardens in an antique book

or tapestries on a wall,

leaves behind us warp and lapse.

The late month withers, as well.

Below us a white gull keeps

the weed-slicked shelf for his own,

hustles other gulls off. Crabs

rove over his field of stone;

mussels cluster blue as grapes :

his beak brings the harvest in.

The watercolorist grips

his brush in the stringent air.

The horizon’s bare of ships,

the beach and the rocks are bare.

He paints a blizzard of gulls,

wings drumming in the winter.

Just read Sylvia Plath’s lovely poem “Magnolia Shoals,” a charming little poem about the deception of summer.

The poem begins with an anonymous “we” leisurely strolling along the coastline:

Up here among the gull cries/ we stroll through a maze of pale/ red-mottled relics, shells, claws” (Plath 1-3).

Meaning an object surviving from an earlier time, the word “relic” suggests the “shells” and “claws” are so remote to the speaker that they belong to another era entirely. The fact that Plath applies this word to rather ordinary objects found on a beach indicates the world has undergone a major historical shift without much outwardly changing at all. “Magnolia Shoals” traces this subtle shift from summer to winter as the speaker observes her surroundings, feeling betrayed as she realizes summer has deserted her and left her with a bitter winter. Throughout the poem, the landscape will give the appearance of summer-the season of leisure and unhurried reflection- only to conceal its true character as winter:

Through the sea green gardens stall/ bow, and recover their look/ of the imperishable/ gardens in an antique book,” the speaker complains, “they [the gardens] leave behind us warp and lapse” (Plath 6-12).

Here, the hypnotic quality of the repeated “g” sound (“green sea gardens”) hints at a greater deception underlying the poem: though the verdant gardens appear radiant and full of life, the fact that they have to “recover” their “look” implies their appearance is not reality-it’s superficial. Like models carefully posed and air-brushed in a fashion spread, the gardens project a distorted image of reality: while they look “imperishable” as if they’ll endure forever, their impermanence is merely constructed like an “antique book.” The words “warp” and “lapse” further this theme of delusion, revealing the speaker and her partner have been duped. The external world may appear static and unchanging, but such security is false: just as summer must fade to winter, all things in life must decay and end. Pretty red magnolias wither and droop until their petals shrivel and rejoin the soil; squirrels frolic around for a time but eventually pass on. The very setting of the poem-a beach somewhere-hints at the inevitability of such change; waves hurl themselves against the shore; coastlines erode, recede.

Magnolia Shoals” follows a young woman who grapples with this transience and explores the bitter betrayal she feels when she realizes the world has deceived her. In the beginning of the poem, the speaker personifies summer as a duplicitous traitor who “turned its back” on her, which reveals the extent of her feelings of abandonment (Plath 5). Though seasons are impersonal forces of nature with no motives or agendas, the speaker attributes the coming of winter to the treachery of summer, as if June, July and August could somehow be responsible. Such assignment of blame to a season points to a larger human dilemma: though we want to think of nature as a benevolent force sympathetic to its impact on human action, the world of this poem does not possess the capacity for thought (or deceit) as the speaker imagines-rather, the universe appears indifferent and unconcerned with the affairs of man.