What Can We Steal From Jill McDonough’s “Preface”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Preface,” poem
Author: Jill McDonough
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The poem was first published by Harvard Review Online.  Why not check out the poem right here?  You can also find “Preface” in the 2013 Pushcart Prize anthology.

Bonuses: Here’s an interview with Ms. McDonough, who seems like a very interesting woman.  Wow, and here’s a fascinating article Ms. McDonough wrote about how she gets her students to stop “writing what they know.”

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Diction

Discussion:
“Preface,” it seems to me, is a poem about the connection between the body and identity.  On one hand, we understand the world through our visceral experience with the world.  These tactile experience create powerful memories: “Jeff says to let the funneled/ force of Coors hold open my throat, a stranger/ gives me Valium when I reach for her hand/ on a plane.”  The narrator’s friends discuss pregnancy, and many of the friends discuss what it was like getting pregnant a little late in their reproductive lives.  The poem ends on a reflection of Papal Encyclicals that imply that a child conceived via in vitro fertilization is not quite human.  In her last line, Ms. McDonough delivers a left hook to the chin of that line of thinking: “And we, most of us,/ are perfect because fathers put their penises in moms.”

The first time I read the poem, I was struck by the way Ms. McDonough opened her poem and moved between different tones.  The poem begins with some beautiful and calm language about how we experience the world.  This is immediately followed by some decidedly lower diction.  Ms. McDonough switches from a somewhat abstract understanding of the sense of touch to a very concrete one.  The first three-and-a-half lines appeal to the right side of your brain and the subsequent lines appeal very strongly to the right.

You’ll notice that Ms. McDonough also modulates the diction she uses in the last couple lines.  She’s just quoted a Catholic encyclical and said some beautiful things about life and then she points out that many folks argue the beauty in life is somehow “because fathers put their penises in moms.”  Ms. McDonough emphasizes her jab at that line of thinking by shifting from high to low diction.

I’m guessing that you don’t think about it often (I certainly don’t), but it’s important that you differentiate between your narrator’s speech and that of your characters.  Most of the time, prose writers simply use the good, old-fashioned “quote marks.”  (Some prose writers omit them entirely, of course.)  Ms. McDonough made the very graceful choice to put the dialogue in italics:

Esther says kids are nice but they
do ruin your life.
  Billy’s friend announces,
out of nowhere, I am so happy with my decision
not to have children
and none of us believe her.

Why is this choice so felicitous?  “Preface” is essentially a monologue.  Instead of setting her friends’ dialogue aside or putting it into new paragraphs, she puts it into italics, which mimics the way people quote others when they are speaking.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ changes in diction to stimulate different senses and to make your points.  Tone changes are easy to make when you’re speaking, but they can also be done with the written word.  You can end a paragraph filled with beautiful language with a down and dirty stinger to drive your point home.
  • Format your dialogue in the manner that will most help your reader.  Text is potentially confusing when you’re inserting dialogue into a monologue or quoting someone quoting someone elseWhy not put the interpolated phrases into italics or in bold or make a more outlandish choice that somehow enhances the reader’s understanding?

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