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What are some of the themes of this story? What are some examples of where in the story/ how he explores those themes?

What effect is produced by the narrator’s way of writing (Ex. Leaving out “the” and “a”)? What are some of the other quirks of his writing and what is the effect they have?

What effect is produced by the narrator’s minimal usage of “I”?

What else does Saunders do well in this story?

Is there anything Saunders seems to neglect or do poorly?

Why is the title what it is?

Debra Nystrom’s poem “A Knock” utilizes conversation within the poem to create a sense of comfort in a time of disarray. The poem begins from the speaker with a few added italicized lines working in conjunction with the rest of the poem as a second voice. In the poem, Nystrom has portrayed the idea of disarray through the use of enjambment, “Vinnie Two Crow from the trailer at the school crossroads/has walked up through the snow, bringing a loaf/of pumpkin bread,” as well as the use of narrative to create the muddled attitude of the poem.

Throughout the poem, there is a confusion of the ultimate purpose. I will argue that Nystrom is speaking directly about a fire that has occurred. She writes “You up here had too much trouble,” which is where there may arise some confusion of what the poet is directly referring to in her poem, “A Knock”. I will argue this over other interpretations from her use of the dichotomy of bad and good smoke that appears in the second half of the poem.  When considering the context of the bad and good smoke, as well as, “charred toys quilt” and the native connotations associated with sage, arguably, the poem is speaking narratively about a fire that has occurred. This was created through the use of connotation with sage, the diction choice of charred, and the dichotomy of good and bad smoke.

As Nystrom utilizes the second voice in this poem, there is a sense that the disarray that has been established by the narrative of the poem has depicted clearly the muddled emotional state of the speaker. Without the confusion or aid of the second voice, the poem would have had less of an emotional purpose to the reader, and more so a matter-of-fact tone created through the narrative. The second voice allows the reader an understanding of narrative, purpose, and weakness of the context.


The sense of place is very important in this one-stanza poem in that it seems to be more of the center theme than the two ‘characters.’ Nystrom uses a third person limited when talking about Will and Ellie but mostly talks about the latter. Like stated in the first sentence, the two humans are not the main point, but of what is surrounding them: nature. Nystrom gives life to nature by personifying them by using terms such as ‘raw parched air’ and ‘grumbling then breaking,’ This makes nature feel like a third character next to her two named human characters. The single-stanza also paints one big picture rather than several small pictures. Meaning we get one scene in which we see nature unfold and then the two human characters coming into the view. There’s much transparency in the poem’s clarity, wherein the reader knows what is happening; each line presents itself in a straightforward manner.


Nystrom’s poetry uses run-on sentences to create a kind of breathlessness permeating the voice of the poem. At the same time there is something sustained and controlled about the rhythm in her poetry, particularly “pronghorn.” The repeated “A, E, U” and “B” sounds in the first two stanzas create a rhythm almost like a rap, in which the voice of the poem seems to be working against the breathlessness of the language of the poem. “less heat than the fields up top or the lower bluffs stretching out to the river,bleached grass bending east in wind, lifting up sometimes then bending again like the fur/ of bigger animals a hand might’ve just passed over.” The sustained, continuous quality of the poem also seems to reinforce the easy flow of imagery she creates, blending the images of landscape, the “elegant neck”, grass, animal fur, a human hand, moving water, and the shifting sandbar, all creating one seamless image.

Debra Nystrom’s poetry, in repeated cases in the reading assigned, features a strong narrative element that intertwines itself with an image. “The Door” is an especially interesting example of this because the poem introduces two temporally separate, though situationally related, narratives that culminate with a single recognizable image.

In describing two very personal scenes in a style more typical of prose, Nystrom is able to not only directly develop her subject matter, but also to establish a sort of historical context surrounding the subject matter. The characters portrayed in the poems are named, and/or their familial relationships to one another are articulated. This allows for the poem to operate as more of a narrative than is generally typical of poetry. Instead of writing the poem as addressed to the family or a particular family member, the poem is strictly about specific people. This choice of approaching human subjects as a “they” rather than a “you” is notable. This sense of greater context also helps to augment the narrative lines of the poem, supporting both the first person point of view and the highly personalized details. Each of these elements clarify that the poem is addressing a specific set of experiences addressed in a highly personal and experientially-based way.

In beginning the poem with anecdotes which provide both narrative and background context, Nystrom implements the strategy of taking personal experience and emotion and then making the personal more universal. In likening herself to Roy Rogers, a popularly recognized hero, she acknowledges the amount of calm she strives for in crisis. We have also seen this associational stylistic approach from Mary Ruefle, though Nystrom’s way of achieving the same feeling of greater connection is much more linear.

The Paris Review published an interesting interview with Mary Ruefle. You can read it here. Among the comments she makes is this:

I don’t have any ideas when I write a poem, and the poems don’t really have an intent—should I say such a thing? It would take me sixty pages to explain what I mean …

Poems are my inner life, take it or leave it. I don’t particularly care what the reader thinks because I’m just not invested in other people’s responses to my inner life. With discourse, with prose, it’s much scarier. There’s something built into its very nature—it’s more open and external, and it’s in exchange with another. I’m a nervous wreck when I write prose, and I’m not in the least when I write poems. If I’m writing a poem, it never occurs to me that somebody is going to read it. It’s taken me an entire lifetime to get over the fact that there are people out there who read my poems. In the beginning I was like, How did you see it? Where did you read it? I was forgetting that it was in a magazine somewhere. It’s like it doesn’t exist anymore, once I’ve written it. It always shocks me that people read poetry, even though I read it and love it and it’s my life. But it doesn’t shock me that people read prose. So I have the expectation of a reader, of a listener, when writing prose that I simply don’t have when I write a poem. When I write a poem, I’m writing for myself, the dead, and God—none of whom exist!

Discussion 3/23

In Mary Ruefle’s poetry collection Trances of the Blast, it has been seen from the first line, of her first poem, “Everything that ever happened to me/ happened to somebody else first,” that her work is an exploration of the self, but more specifically writing about those moments that everyone has experienced in some way or another. For an example of this, we will look at her poem “The Day” (Page 23).

In doing this, she is establishing themes of birth, middle age, grief, happiness, etc. She presents the mundane experience with bizarre and wild ways of approaching the idea. When reading the poems that were selected for today, there are a few themes that are a focus of these poems. Looking at “Greeting My Dear Ghost” (Page 22), “Goodnight Irene” (Page 32), “Nite Nite” 34), and “Argot” (Page 42), what ideas has Ruefle strung throughout these poems? One idea that I see strung throughout these poems is the idea of darkness/night/shadows. There are an enormous number of examples of this, these are just four poems that I believe rely on this repeated theme. What is the effect of Ruefle streaming these ideas together in certain poems? She doesn’t have these central ideas as the focus of every poem. Is she creating a structural purpose, or is it only an understanding of the experiences she is writing about?

One last point that I hope to discuss is how Mary Ruefle has established the idea of the child in this poetry collection. One the themes that she addresses is growing up. As a result, there is a returning image of a child. How is Ruefle presenting the image of childhood in the poetry? What is an example of a poem that does this? One example is her poem, “New Morning” (Page 24). This is not an obvious example of how Ruefle has depicted childhood, but this is a poem that she is comparing herself to a “little animal.” Throughout the poem, there is a sense that the speaker is expressing a figure of wounded innocence, relating to the idea of trauma and the aftermath. Come prepared with other poems for examples of this.


In this short essay, Hilton Als talks about the transformation of Michael Jackson from the start of his career to his end. Als comments about sexuality and identity through the life of Michael Jackson, two topics that are part of Jackson’s identity throughout his life. In this case, he presents Jackson as a metaphor for ostracization. Als is shedding light on a controversial subject dealing with queer black men by talking about Jackson’s image through a mixture of biography and critiquing. At the same time, Jackson himself is described as being ostracized by the ostracized group of gay black men for being a “white girl.” Als calls Jackson a white girl, possibly because of the bold and vivacious way in which he constructs his image. Als gives examples such as a quote by James Baldwin where he talks about the existence of freaks and their treatment by the general population because they “echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires” (Als 183). Therefore, Michael is considered a ‘freak’ because of not only his physical imagery but also of his lyrics. His lyrics which suggests a kind of queerness in its wording are there in Als’s essay to introduce to us that Jackson has no qualms about ‘coming out.’ Nor does he exhibit some type of embarrassment when he is called a white woman by the gay black community. Als ends the essay with a comparison between Jackson and Prince. Unlike Jackson however, Prince hides his femininity side through adapting into a female persona named Camille. This further exemplifies the issues of being a queer and black feminine man.

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Hilton Als starts this piece in the way of telling a third person story, “One night in the spring of 1993”. The piece takes a very narrative structure with Als telling the story as an onlooker with first hand knowledge of Talley and the moments and circumstances he depicts. He claims to understand everything about the atmosphere in which the story begins down to the way in which John Galliano accompanies Talley to the Gaiety Theatre, “rather like another accessory”. He makes use throughout the narrative of a “official bio” type of writing, “currently the creative director of vogue….Andre Leon Talley is, at forty-six, fashions most voluble arbiter….and promotor of glamour” (190). He also uses a listing technique at least twice creating a slick combo of narrative description and and essayistic quoting which reads almost like a series of flashbacks, “He finds moments in other people’s impulses (“I can tell you were about to have a moment”), work (What Mr. Lagerfeld and I were after in those photographs was a moment”)…” (190), Etc. The Majority of the essay is written in the present tense as if he is explaining it as it happens, and he makes use of dialogue quite frequently to show Talley’s extravagant and strange way of speaking with a combination of slang, and a French and British accent, and the demanding and somewhat rambling way in which he addresses his inferiors at work. Als also seems to pay homage to Talley’s diva-like superiority by referring to him consistently by his full name. The extravagant language Als uses in his descriptions and the flamboyant dialogue eventually exhaust the reader to a point of viewing Talley as a shallow diva, but Als catches the reader at exactly that point and takes a step back, moving out of the present and into the past to tell us a bit about Talley’s origins and youth. Als is able to then re-humanize Talley through his descriptions of Talley’s youthful infatuation with vogue and the sweet childish image of him imagining vogue encompassing his grandmother’s fashion sense. Even the idea of Talley speaking with a French accent is shown to be somewhat justified in that he has received a degree in French as apposed to being someone who simply puts on the accent because he views it as romantic and sexy (although that may be part of it) but really knows nothing about France or French culture. We also see a glimpse of what he would have had to endure to get to his place in the fashion world with his peers making comments as nasty as, “He’ll never be an editor-in-chief. How could America have that dictating what the women of America will wear” (201). Overall Als creates a seemingly full picture of a highly emotion-filled, passionate, and entertaining character of a man who manages to make standing out from the crowd an art and a career.

Hilton Als: Michael

Als describes Jackson as a calcified figure towards the end of his career. Never again to become more than what shaped him. Als classifies Michael as white girl because of the sexuality he alluded to in his earlier work. Als cites the fact Michael would “date” young starlets and trail around singers such as Dianna Ross and embody their personalities. They were him in a sense and it is this Als goes further to explain why he is calcified.

While reading this essay I had a difficult time completely following his argument. I thought back to the album XSCAPE, released in 2014 after his death and the somewhat emotional yet lyrically empty song featured on it “Love Never Felt So Good”.  I agree that this example was evidence of a artist at a standstill while still moving forward but the aforementioned song was also a draft not meant to be released to the public. As a person Michael was seen as eccentric and odd but also childlike. Though there is mention of his possible inappropriate relationships with children nothing is made out of it. I often thought one of the most interesting aspects of him as a person was the child-like persona he meticulously crafted both in his high-pitched voice and with his Neverland estate.

The mental immaturity is not explored by Als and this is not a critique of his not exploring it but it made me more think more about that aspect of Jackson. I think it would not have fit in the narrative but I also think it is also fair game of evidence that Jackson was calcified. I would argue he was calcified long before as a child and I would argue Neverland and his apparent need for young companions is proof. Als focuses on his music that was once an anthem for many gay men had then become more popish and devoid of the undertones it was known for because Michael was not Michael without a +1.

Hilton Als’ use of form in “Michael” is intriguing in the way that it allows for the form of the essay to enact its content. Als numbers his sections in this essay, which is not exactly an original or uncommon form for an essay in general, but is the first (and only) time the device is implemented in White Girls. This is useful in drawing a parallel from the Michael Jackson Als describes in the text to Als himself.

Als uses “profile” style essays throughout White Girls in ways that allow for him to discover and state something about his own identity as a black, gay man. “Michael” is more obvious about this statement of identity than some of the other included essays, though not because the content is more specifically applied to Als. As in most of the essays, Als plays a very small role in “Michael.” Instead, it is the specificity of the form that articulates how Als sees threads of himself in Michael Jackson. Als discusses Michael’s evolution from reflective artist to “man who said no to life but yes to pop,” insinuating, for a lack of better term, Jackson’s sort of selling-out in order to be perceived as successful in his art, while eliminating a crucial reflective element of his art that was originally a sort of driving force behind its creation and expression (182). It is this selling out that not only changes Michael’s artistry, but also his sense of identity.

The numbered sections of “Michael” paired with the more typically seen essay structure of narrative and discursive alternations could be seen as Als mimicking this sort of change in artistry. In using more conventional or common structure in the essay, Als likens his art to that of Michael Jackson. This could perhaps indicate a feeling of loss or confusion of identity on Als’ part as he sees it expressed in the progression of his own art. While there are hints of reoccurring themes and certain structural ideas that fit “Michael” in with the rest of White Girls, its structural differentiation from the others ought to be noted, as it contributes to another level of understanding Als’ points of identity.

André Leon Talley

Michael Jackson, “Ben”

Hilton Als dives right in with a description of a scene from O’Connor’s novel The Violent Bear it Away followed by an excerpt of the scene. He gives readers his perception then allows them to observe the scene for themselves. This is the format which the rest of the piece employs as well, drawing upon evidence (letters, excerpts from her works, events in her life) which is preceded by Hilton Als’ own interpretations of the works and of O’Connor’s character. Early on he identifies “race and faith” as O’Connor’s themes and locates her in time,”less than a hundred years after Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and just a decade after Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.” By giving the readers these brief, broad, grounding ideas up front, he is able to go on with a somewhat more subjective narrative about who he interprets, through research, her to be. He describes her work as possessing a “lyrical flatness….and wildly leaping humor” and he depicts her as a hyper-critical reader (117). Als keeps us engaged by providing in-depth and poetic descriptions of O’Connor’s person and spreading out the practical points. For example, we don’t get a description of her physical appearance until the 7th page, almost halfway through, and only after we have been able to establish our own sense of O’Connor are we given a longer list of what Als identifies as her themes, growing from “race and faith” to “the skewering of tradition, the erosion of one world that, disastrously, comically, is the weak foundation of the next, and the spectacle of blacks and whites regarding each other across a divide of mutual outsiderness” (120). By this time, he has already established himself as fully credible through his “idea – example” setup.

This essay can be read as a ‘biography’ and half an analysis of some portions of Flannery O’Connor’s of her life and of her work. In the essay, Hilton Als perceives O’Connor as an intelligent, sophisticated, fickle, but ultimately complex woman who writes works relying on her religious viewpoint, the place in which she lives (the setting), and strange characters that she writes about. He departs from his usual narrative approach by giving the reader a chance to view the thoughts of O’Connor via story samples. Along the same line, he also gives examples of direct quotes from O’Connor herself that gives the reader a clue on her as a person. Much of the essay has an analytical note about O’Connor’s style and own self, such as Als describing her way of writing humor in her stories and her ability to talk about the bourgeoisie.

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In Hilton Als’ “This Lonesome Place,” he utilizes the life of another author, Flannery O’Connor, to point out the struggles of being a minority, looking specifically at the marginalization of characters in the literature of the American South. He expresses the struggles of being a black man in America in his previous essays; however, in this essay, he is approaching a similar idea of segregation and marginalization of Southern American culture but through the minority of gender, sexuality, and race. These points have been hinted at in his earlier essays, but in “This Lonesome Place” Als is taking on these themes from a broader angle. Instead of writing about his own personal experience, as he has done previously, he is attacking the issue by using Flannery O’Connor’s life and experience to exemplify his argument.

Als begins by taking the reader through short stories of O’Connor’s life experiences to bringing in some excerpts of her own writing. In utilizing Flannery O’Connor, Als is allowing the reader to understand that the marginalization that he has discussed in several of his other essays runs deeper than just race. He is expressing an idea that the America we are living in has been a place of lonesomeness created by marginalization. But why? When Hilton Als quotes O’Connor, both from her work and letters to friends, one can understand the impact of segregation. The material she wrote was plenty worthy of glory, as Als portrays it. Als represents Flannery O’Connor’s femininity and the harsh reality of oppression that she has also felt in her experiences, to be comparable to his own blackness. In conclusion, the question that is raised by Als simply focuses on the necessity of creating these marginalizing groups in America. Why is there a need for this, and why do we continue to do this? This is just one argument that he is fighting throughout White Girls.

O’Connor’s was not the shifty, reactive, and merely local variety that passes for irony today: sitcom irony, skinny-jeans irony. It was vertical and biblical: the irony by which the mighty are lowered, the humble exalted, and the savior dies on a cross. And she would shortly be required to submit to it herself, in full.

Here is an essay from The Atlantic on Flannery O’Connor that might be compared to Hilton Als’ essay. And here is another one from The Atlantic; it ends this way:

To decode her fiction for its doctrinal or supernatural content is to render it dreary, even false, because whatever her private purposes, O’Connor was above all faithful to a baleful comic vision derived, surely, from an ancient, artistically wholesome tradition of misanthropy. Nonetheless, a spiritual drama is playing out. Only it is not the one put forward by the self-explaining author, in which she figures as an onlooker occupying the high ground of piety. On the contrary, Flannery O’Connor’s criticism reveals her as scarily belonging to the low world she evokes. She was touched by evil and no doubt knew it. That is what makes her so wickedly good.

Hilton Als continues to use the life stories of others to describe greater social points in “This Lonesome Place,” as he does throughout the entire text of White Girls. In “This Lonesome Place,” Als uses both excerpts from the fiction of Flannery O’Connor as well as quotes from her actually documented interactions with others. In doing this, Als not only establishes himself as someone with enough research credibility to be telling the story of another person, but also enables himself to use the two forms of O’Connor’s communication in contrast to one another.

The essay is cleverly disguised as a sort of biography of an author, where she grew up, and how she became such a glorified artist. However, within that biographical narrative there is a heavy concentration on the intimacy of particular settings. Using O’Connor, a well-known writer of fiction which often reflects Southern culture, as an example of this significance of setting was a particularly strong point of connection. Als, while addressing the importance of a person’s geographic background, manages to incorporate the idea that much of the importance of an area has to do with the people in that area, and how their similarities and differences impact the existence of others within that same place. In this explanation of people and place, he says something deeper about social divisions, which are not always purely based on race, without stating the point explicitly.

Discussion questions:

How does Hilton Als structure the narrative? in what ways is this effective in providing a picture of O’Conner and her work?

What techniques does Hilton Als use to keep the reader engaged?

What image of O’Conner as a writer and person do we come out of reading this with? Why?

Do we have any critiques of this piece? Is there anything you would change?


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