What Can We Steal From Sommer Browning’s “It Isn’t Dead, Just Different”?

Title of Work and its Form: “It Isn’t Dead, Just Different,” poem
Author: Sommer Browning
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The poem was published by Spork Press and also appears in Either Way I’m Celebrating, her 2011 book.  You can read the work right here!  Why not do so?  The poem was also awarded a Pushcart Prize and is included in the 2013 anthology.

Bonuses:  Cool.  Here are some additional poems by Ms. Browning that appeared in Everyday Genius.  The Academy of American Poets has been nice enough to publish her poem, “The Whistler.” 

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Patterns

Discussion:
Ms. Browning’s work is a punchy little piece of narrative poetry.  The narrator and her mother enter a rest stop and have some fried chicken immediately after nearly getting into a terrible accident.  Mother and daughter “stopped dead in front of a car on fire./ Careening across four lines of Turnpike.  Backwards.”  A man wearing a hat that says “Flirt” nods at them as they enter the rest stop and during dinner, the women digest the experiencing, realizing that “You’re fucked even if you aren’t fucked.”  Then the ladies resume their trip.

We all love patterns, don’t we?  They make life predictable and eliminate a lot of the stress from our day-to-day confrontations with the world.  Interesting things happen when a pattern is broken or when we notice something “different.”  Not only is our attention captured, but we imbue the attention breaker with more importance.  Look at Ms. Browning’s poem.  All of the stanzas are three lines long…except for the second and fifth.  Why?

Well, it’s easier for me to explain the fifth stanza than the second.  The former is a punchy sentence that reinforces the danger the narrator and her mother just confronted.  Even if the driver of the fiery car manages to right the car’s direction, the woman inside is still in big trouble.  (How did the narrator know the driver was a woman?)  Ms. Browning made a great choice in allowing this sentence to stand alone.  The fifth stanza reinforces the somewhat depressing theme of the poem and allows the reader to pause after considering the potent image of an out-of-control car on fire.

The second stanza consists of only two lines, it seems, because it describes another pattern that is broken.  Generally, the kind of man who wears a “Flirt” hat winks or lets loose catcalls when the narrator and her mother walk by.  This man, in spite of the suggestive hat, does not.  The day is unusual for another reason.

Ms. Browning also made a very good choice in genre.  She could easily have written a short story about two women who share a frightening close call.  Instead, Ms. Browning seems to have wanted to concentrate on the meaning of the experience.  Poems are better suited to short and sweet expressions about the meaning of life.  Short stories are better tools to communicate what happens between characters.  Can you combine elements of multiple genres?  Of course.  It’s all about the proportion you use.  A hot fudge sundae sounds great, doesn’t it?  Not if you add a gallon of hot fudge to a thimbleful of ice cream.

What Should We Steal?

  • Break up patterns to attract attention and to put more meaning into an important facet of your work.   Single-line stanzas mean more when they’re surrounded by three-line stanzas.  A goodbye kiss means more after months of goodnight hugs.
  • Cast your work in poetry when you’re more interested in theme than story.  Each form of writing offers equal opportunity for expression, but emphasizes different elements in different proportions.

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