Grammar in the real world

So, I got an email this week that was just incredibly hostile, a pointed personal attack written in a strange and strained, passive voice, 3rd person construction. In describing it to someone else, I jokingly referred to its construction as the “3rd person insultive” case.

And I liked that—both because the humor relieved some of the awful sick feeling of it, and because it seemed true. So now I’m wondering what other constructions of grammar we’ve experienced. I’ll start making a list of mine, with suggested definitions. Please add to it as you discover your own!

-3rd person insultive—a personal attack written in the passive, third person “some people have been”

-1st person past invective interrogatory—a verb form of regret and/or anger, used when reviewing something that happened which, in light of what has happened since, has become enraging, hurtful, or distasteful, as in “damn it, why didn’t see that coming?” or “fuck, I should have known when she….” or the infamous “Jesus H. Christ, I can’t believe I let myself do that for her.”

-1st person aggressive—denotes the out of control use of “I feel” statements, or when these statements are used to dominate a person or group or control the outcome of a decision

-future empirical—used most often by remote, “scientific” voices calmly explaining that Y must and will happen because of X and because That Is The Way Of The World

-2nd person past imperative— the verb form embodied by “You should have!”


-1st person past regretative
—as in “I should have!”

2nd person passive-aggressive infinitive—as in “If you are going to disagree with me then there is nothing to be done/said.”

from Karen Escovitz:

-2nd person hostile projective—in which the person slings insults or accusations which are more true of themselves than the identified target

-passive accusatory—used most often by batterers, bad parents, and State Departments, as in “why do you go on making me hurt you?

-past perfect mind fuckative—where the person distorts things in such a persuasive way that it leaves you disoriented and questioning your understanding of reality (usually 1st or 2nd person?)

-2nd person victim blamative accusatory—as in “you let people take advantage of you” or “if you hadn’t been there in the first place, maybe that wouldn’t have happened”

from Sheila Allen Avelin:

-2nd-person accusatory interrogative— “How could you?”

from Adina Abramowitz:

-2nd person I know you better than you do—As in “You always . . .” used to escalate arguments, as in “you always make a mess” or “You always leave the toothpaste cap off.

from Alicia Ostriker:

-2nd person aggressive interrogative—as in “Why are you frowning?”, “Did you finish the cleanup?”, “Are you sorry?”, “Where were you?”

from Jenn Sheffield:

3rd person exculpatory—a point argued using someone else’s purported opinion to protect oneself, as in “Well, some people would say that being gay is a cop-out.” (Yes, a former teacher said this to me when I first came out to her. And I wasn’t quite with-it enough to rejoin, “But do YOU think so?” So it was a completely hypothetical argument.)

from Naomi Klayman

First Person Whinative—as in “How come I never get to … ?”(often used by small children and adults acting like small children)

Pluperfect Shithead—as in someone who accuses: “if you had only taken a minute to think about it you would have (done it my way)!” Purpose is to humiliate instead of empower.

3rd person future reclaimative—when someone says something intended to hurt you but ends up giving you the opportunity to be creative – much to their dismay.

2nd person silent pejorative eyeroll—as in, well, you know exactly what this means

from Layney Wells

1st person dismissive—as in “I’m sorry you feel that way…..But” Also known as 1st person false sympathy underminitive

and, growing from this, Elliott adds:

1st person self-justifying conjuctive— the use of the word “but” to reveal the hidden agenda, which is always to offer a clause of false sympathy or agreement and then to reveal the true intention of the speech, to say why you are wrong and the speaker is correct, such as “I’m sorry you were hurt BUT I told you so” or “Wow, that sucks BUT I think you kind of deserved it because…..” (note-while violence is never a justifiable solution, this use of the word “but” does make me want to do anything to the speaker that will make them stop talking)

from Jennie Ruby

passive sarcastic imperative—as in, “Yeah, that’ll get done.”

snortative absolute— as in, “Harumph.”

Tell/Share/Overshare—when is the line crossed?

How do I talk about my own life while respecting the boundaries of others? What if, say, I wanted to write about a relationship with someone who is an abuse survivor, and the many things I might have learned from that? Do I have the right to share details of that person’s life in order to write about myself? If I don’t have that right, is that then a silence about my own experience being forced upon me? Where is the line between sharing, oversharing, trust, and betrayal?

I wish I had an easy answer, but I don’t. The paragraphs below are from a longer essay I wrote about Chana Bloch’s book Mrs. Dumpty, in which she chronicles her painful marriage and eventual divorce, both driven by her husband’s mental breakdowns. These are first person, autobiographical poems, and they are powerful and beautiful and so well-crafted, and they left me with a lot of questions.

But there is a larger issue for me at play here, especially after reading the essays in section three, “Degrees of Fidelity: Ethical & Aesthetic Considerations” in After Confession—what does it mean for her husband, and for how she relates to him after these poems, that she has written so beautifully her emotional reality of their marriage? She couldn’t have written her truth without revealing his mental illness, the violence, distance, and institutionalization, but still, those are intimate, and potentially damaging, details of his life. What are the limits of how much of that story was hers to show and to tell? Did the ways that she was harmed by him grant her permission to reveal all of this, in the ways that victims have the moral right to say who did what? Or is the telling itself a kind of emotional payback with a manipulative edge? (In all of her work she seems honest and caring, so this doesn’t feel like the case with her, but god knows there are poems and memoirs that exist for that reason.) I’m struggling hard with this issue right now, as I consider what to do with my own break-up poems, the “you” of which will be furious about when or if she sees them. What, if any, responsibility do I have to share or not share with the world intimate details about her? I’ve tried to protect her (way too much, too often, methinks), to conceal her identity, to not go into stories she revealed to me in intimacy that I think explain her behavior. But, ultimately, where does our right to tell our own story violate another’s right to privacy?

Mrs. Dumpty asks this question, and doesn’t answer it in any way. These are exactly the kind of poems that make male critics lose their minds and start flinging accusations of man-bashing, of some kind of conspiracy of women writers to bring men down (to reveal the nakedness of the fathers?), a trend always at its most hysterical frothing peak when certain African American male critics confront Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. “Who is she to say these things about him?” they scream. As a woman, a feminist, I answer, “She is a writer, and compared to what men have said about women for century after century, I think men are still getting off easy.” But as a poet wrestling with my own balance of honesty and integrity, I don’t have an easy, confident, self-justified answer. And maybe I can’t, or shouldn’t.

more on the ethics of first person/autobiographical poetry

from Stephen Dunn’s essay “Degrees of Fidelity” from After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography

Poems […] that involve or implicate family members should raise certain questions for those of us who write them. Why are we writing about this particular subject in the first place? Certainly we have the entire world of experience to draw from. Why this poem about brother, or mother? Why now? And what must such a poem do to involve strangers in what’s personal to us? As the cry of its own occasion, a worthy poem ideally should suggest some answers to those questions.

My experience as both a writer and reader has convinced me that most poems about family should be put in a locked cabinet, like diaries, kept, if at all, as private data for our children to find after we’re dead. Some family poems, of course, driven by necessity and in search of the elusive properties of their subjects, deserve the light of day. For the poems to merit this, their authors need to develop new allegiances—to texture, tone rhythm(to name just a few)—as the poem evolves. In other words, pretty soon aesthetic matters as well as subject matter must be driving the poem. If not, there’ll be Trouble with a capital T in Poetry City. Beware the poet who values content more than the handling of content, a danger especially present in our most personal poems.

[…] Is a poem ever worth the discomfort or embarrassment of, say, the family member it alludes to or discusses? Certainly many poets have thought so, especially since the advent of the so-called confessional poetry in the late fifties. My loosely held rule is that if my poem has found ways to discover and explore its subjet, if it has on balance become more of a fictive than a confessional act, then—regardless of its connections— I will not be discomforted or embarrassed by it.

But to raise the notion of the fictive is to also raise corollary questions. What, if anything, would we falsify, say about our mothers, for the sake of being interesting? Do family stories, written in the first person, make a covenant with the reader that implies a fidelity to the actual? If they were written in third person, would that covenant change? Put crudely, how many among us would sell out our grandmothers for an exquisite stanza?

on the dangers of writing in “I”

from Carol Frost’s essay “Self-Pity” in After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography

There are two reasons I have avoided the first-person pronoun. First, readers encountering the “I” may substitute an interest in the affairs and concerns of a presumably real person for the experience of the poem. Second, I may be unable to finesse the language, the image, and the line to clarify the emotion and experience with sufficient variety and force to move the poem toward the universal and memorable.

The first-person pronoun seems the trickiest of all, because of the tendency, in present tense, for a persona to be created whose utterances and behaviors seem too tenderly self-regarding. [In poems with too much self-regard, when we are told the speaker feels deeply but shown no other implicit or explicit motivation] the uses of the first person—look at me, listen to what I want—provide one: this is the way I feel. And think. It’s as if the subject of the poem is the poet’s consciousness and sensitivity.

The verbal contraption Auden said a poem is can tell us as much about the writer as a chair; every turn of the lathe and every peg tells us about the woodworker, even if our main purpose is to rest there comfortably, considering our own affairs. We may ask: Is it made of burlwood or tiger maple? What rough or fine brushstrokes applied the patina of lacquer or oil? What economy, what sense of design is present? The handiwork reveals and teaches us what is essential to about the artist—the state of awareness or remembrance, feeling, intent, proclivity, reason, care, regard, trifle, judgment, and imagination; it doesn’t reveal what is non-essential—whether the trees grew in woodworker’s backyard.

And thinking about the poet as woodworker makes me think of this, from Antonio Machado’s “Portrait,” a plea to remember the vital spirit behind the craft of the poems:

Call me romantic or classic—I only hope
that the verse I leave behind, like the captain’s sword,
may be remembered, not for its maker’s art,
but for the virile hand that gripped it once.

Which I love, in spite of the overwhelming masculinity of that sword and virile hand (egads).

So two different poets, one arguing that poetry does and should reveal the maker’s art, both arguing that poetry does and should reveal the intention and character of the maker.

If you’re a writer too—no pressure or anything. Really.

Enhancing, Fudging, Protecting, Lying?

One of the big issues in writing autobiographical poetry is that, as a poet, I can rarely write only about myself. To write about and from my reality, I am inevitably writing about other people. And sometimes what I am saying about them is harsh, strong, and revealing.

So, as a writer and as a human, what is my responsibility to these other people? To be completely honest, to hide their identity, to give them fake names and false details in a kind of Poetry Protection program?

To me, the context matters a lot. I have no desire to hide the identity or protect the feelings of my sadistic great-uncle who did horrible things to children, women, animals, and other living things. Violence, I believe, must be confronted, and speaking the truth about it is vital. And the pressure to say silent, to not reveal, to lie, was part of the violence done to me and others. But what about a poem about, say, an ex-lover, someone who was an ass and a jerk, but hardly evil. To name her, to share details of her life, in the name of “getting even” is, to me, clearly immoral, petty, and well, honestly, behaving like a jerk and an ass. But I do get to write about my experience of that unfortunate affair, or to write about love and life in general driven by emotions stirred by that experience.

So where, then, is the line drawn between truth-telling and causing harm, between protecting identity and caving in to silencing?

Poet Ted Kooser, in the essay “Lying for the Sake of Making Poems,” tells the story of a woman with a step-child who wrote a first-person poem about how that’s child’s biological mother had cut his face horribly in a drunken rage. Except it wasn’t true — the child had an accident, but his mother had never harmed him, nor was she a drunk. Kooser asks, “How could somebody write something like that, I wondered, just to ‘make a better poem?’ The child’s natural mother was libeled, and who knows what damage might be done to the child to have this distorted version of history on record?”

He explores this question in many interesting ways. What I found most illuminating was his discussion of the manipulation of writing in first person in order to make ourselves look better. He writes:

I am most concerned about poems in which ‘autobiographical’ information is presented in such a way as to effect the reader’s feelings about the poet. In such poems, the speaker, calling himself or herself ‘I’ (and without forewarning the reader in any way), builds a poem around what appears to be autobiographical information, but that is untrue. [he describes a childless man writing about a tender experience with his son, and a woman writing about the suicide of a brother that doesn’t exist] Hundreds of readers may be moved by these fabrications, moved to pity the poet, moved to praise his or her courage and candor.

Ouch! And wow, yes, exactly. The “I” poem must be about something other than the “I,” or risk descending into the most shallow kind of self-aggrandizement, written only to show off how brave or wise or generous the “I” is. Jeesh, I think I’ve written that kind of poem, or at least its step-sibling, the “look how wrong he/she done me/poor me” poem.

But of course Koontz knows there are all kinds of reasons poets change details: because the poem has to work as a poem, not just a transcript; because we want to protect others; because we are writing emotional, not physical reality. He offers this advice for walking the line between “facts only” and using the power of our imaginations to create the power of the written word. “I credit my friend, the poet Bob King, with coming up with a pretty good test as to where the line should be drawn: does the poet get some extraliterary credit or sympathy from the lie? If the answer is no, the invented detail, the lie, is not bad.”

Koontz closes his essay with this: “It is despicable to exploit the trust a reader has in the truth of lyric poetry in order to gather undeserved sympathy to one’s self. Why do we permit this kind of behavior in poetry when we would shrink from it in any other social situation?”

Me, I love a poet who is willing to use the word “despicable” while discussing what it means to have ethics and morals as writers. And, although he doesn’t discuss the other end of this, the oversharing of what did happen, that can be done in a way that is equally self-serving, self-aggrandizing, and despicable.

So if you ever seriously hurt me, know that I’ll feel well within my rights to take you on, poetically.” But if you merely piss me off, I do have ethics about how much to say. Probably. But also probably best not to push how carefully I, or any of us, walk that particular boundary…

walking around the event

I don’t want to tell what is. I want to tell what is with all the radiations around it of what it could be. So it’s not simply a transcription of anything that actually happened but what actually happened, plus all the thoughts that one could think about it if one could walk around it, stop time and walk around the moment. And once you add in all that gradation of the moment it’s no longer the event. The event is just the raw material that goes into your observation of what you see when you walk around it.

Anne Carson, from Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play