What Can We Steal from Patricia Smith’s “Laugh Your Trouble Away”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Laugh Your Trouble Away,” poem
Author: Patricia Smith
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem made its world debut in the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of Sugar House Review.  It was subsequently awarded a Pushcart Prize and was included in the 2013 anthology.

Bonuses:  Ms. Miles shared her inspiration for the poem in a brief interview with Claire Guiton.  Very cool: Here is a poem that won Ms. Miles the 2012 James River Writers/Richmond Magazine Poetry Contest.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Rule Breaking

Discussion:
The title of this grim and powerful poem is, we’re told immediately, the motto of Riverview Park between the years of 1904 and 1967.  Ms. Smith begins the poem in a pleasant enough fashion, describing the carnival atmosphere of the park.  Gradually, the tone gets darker and more foreboding until the knockout section section.  Switching to a first-person point of view, Ms. Smith allows the African American gentleman who works the dunk tank to tell his story.  The early and middle twentieth century for a different time; this African American gentleman describes the way some folks are eager to play the game to drench a person of color.  At one point, the narrator spots a “Negro” in the crowd, “using his body/ to block his little girl’s view.”  The narrator exaggerates his old-timey African American act to draw the girl’s attention and to remind her father (in my view, at least) that ugliness is everywhere and it must be acknowledged, not hidden away.

I loved Ms. Smith’s description of the State Fair-like feeling of the park.  Ms. Smith uses language that is 10% unusual, just as that kind of environment is like reality, only exaggerated.  The “palace” has a “fried tiny to its air,” and the Pair-O-Chutes ride offers “the little public murder, a blaring grace/ so storybook gorgeous, suddenly flood in the throat.”  Ms. Smith is being “poetic” in the best of ways.  Yes, some of the sentences are “confusing” if they are placed into memos or into legal documents.  Does this mean Ms. Smith doesn’t know how to create solid sentences?  Of course not.  Ms. Smith’s command of the language is so strong that she can “paint with words.”  By breaking away from a Strunk and White understanding of writing, Ms. Smith untethers you from the contemporary world and current ways of thinking.  This switch prepares you for the move she makes when she switches the point of view in the second section.

That switch is also a bit of a broken rule.  Typically, writing teachers will tell you to keep the POV consistent in a short story or poem.  This is a good rule of thumb; you generally don’t have much time to make a complete switch, so you should usually keep the POV the same.  Why does Ms. Smith succeed so grandly in breaking the rule?  Well, one reason is that the first section does such a great job at immersing you in the feeling you had when you went to the carnival.  You had a great time!  You ate exotic food and were spun around by rides that made you feel things you had never felt before.  It was fun, right?  Well, the second part puts you in the point of view of someone who wasn’t having very much fun.  In 2013, we certainly wouldn’t condone the kind of casual racism that was so prevalent in the past.  Ms. Smith reminds us that this grave unpleasantness happened and allows us to empathize with one of its victims.  What better way to prevent such injustice in the future?

What Should We Steal?

  • Paint with words to elicit a feeling or create a tone.  You’ve heard it a thousand times, but it’s true: you must learn the rules of grammar before you can break them properly.
  • Switch point of view when it’s necessary to make your meaningful point.  Remind your reader of the general feelings we have about a general event before you zoom in and examine the thoughts of one of those folks in full.

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