What Can We Steal from Jason Gray’s “CIRCUS CIRCUS”?


Title of Work and its Form: “CIRCUS CIRCUS,” poem
Author: Jason Gray (on Twitter @jasonmgray)
Date of Work: 2010
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The poem made its debut in As It Ought to Be, a very cool place on the Internet to find meaningful thought and great poetry.  The poem can be found here.

Bonuses:  Mr. Gray is the co-editor of the journal Unsplendid.  Why not take a visit to its online pages?  Here is a poem that Mr. Gray originally published in Poetry.  Mr. Gray published a book of poems called Photographing Eden.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Ambiguity

The poem is a bridge between childhood and adulthood as seen through the prism of the circus.  (If you’re a college student who is writing a paper for lit class, be sure to give me credit if you nick the previous sentence.)  Mr. Gray describes the flight of the trapeze artists and the lions bounding through flaming hoops under the Big Top, whose shadow paints the surrounding area over the course of the afternoon.

Mr. Gray begins his poem with a word that can be very problematic when used incorrectly: “This.”  Words such as these can be a big problem.  Why?  Because they represent another object, person and idea.  Confusing people can be very easy if you overuse words such as: “these,” “they,” “things,” “stuff,” “that” and “there.”  Think of it this way.  How would you feel if you got home and your significant other asked you

Why did you do that?

Would you know how to reply?  Would you be scared?  (I would.)  Instead, your significant other should be more specific:

What made you eat all of the cream cheese and leave the empty tub in the refrigerator for me to discover this morning when all I wanted was cream cheese on the bagel I toasted?

See, you can work with that.  So why aren’t we mad that Mr. Gray begins his poem with that dreaded word?  There are a couple reasons.

First of all, “This” could easily refer to the trapeze.  Indeed, I’m guessing that was Mr. Gray’s intent.  However, this is a poem.  The poet’s intent is subordinate to our interpretation of the work.  (I’m willing to bet that the gentleman agrees with me.)

Second of all, “This” could refer to the CIRCUS CIRCUS in the title.  Why can’t a trapeze be a circus?  In this way, the opening sentence is a metaphor.  “Life is a cabaret.”  “All the world’s a stage.”  “The circus is the trapeze a dream might make…”

Third of all, the identity of “This” can be far more open.  Who knows?  Why can’t the circus really be “life?”  A “marriage?”  Wouldn’t you agree with me that marriage can be “the trapeze a dream might make?”  (At least, that’s what it seems like with marriages on TV; that’s where I get my understanding of matrimonial life.)

We’re not mad at Mr. Gray for opening his page with a slippery word because, in this case, the choice opens up possible interpretations of the work.  Such a choice is wonderful in a poem…not so wonderful in a police report.

Here’s another thing I admire about the poem: the shrewd choice of verbs.  Let’s isolate a few examples:

  • “your human failures stacked together”
  • freeze the moments”
  • “you are phase-shifted to some Middle Europe”
  • “the light betrays
  • “klaxon angels that scream at you to wake”

Mr. Gray keeps our attention and crams in additional meaning with his creative use of verbs.  Isn’t it fun to think of all of our failures STACKING together?  (Geez, I’d have a pretty massive stack in front of me.)  Don’t you have a pretty solid mental image of what it would look like to “phase shift” elsewhere in space and time?

The lines would be less powerful with weaker verbs.  Compare:

  • “your human failures put together”
  • capture the moments”
  • “you are moved to some Middle Europe”
  • “the light is mean
  • “klaxon angels that speak loudly at you to wake”

See?  The lines are not as compelling.  Mr. Gray really knows what he’s doing.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ pronouns and words such as “that” and “things” carefully.  These words can create ambiguity…sometimes you WANT a slight lack of clarity.
  • Whip out unexpected verbs.  Flypaper your reader to your work by slamming down words they didn’t expect to see.