Yesterday I published a poem here on the blog – Freedom – which I’ve also written a ‘reflective analysis’ about. This is a form of literary analysis which involves the writer going back and thinking about the choices they made – often on a subconscious level – as a way of better understanding their creative impulses.
I began the poem with dignified, respectful, bland imagery. The first two lines are middle-of-the-road stuff, the kind of language you might hear on a news report. This flows into the trope of killers being treated differently dependent on the colour of their skin – which I initially took too far (“hang the unbeliever”). I changed this for the tamer, slightly euphemistic “seal the borders”. This is of course, less overtly racist, but still positions the gun violence problem as something foreign, something imported…despite the number of deaths from guns being higher in America than anywhere else in the world.
I initially had the final two sentences the other way round. Because of the contrast the two lines are paired with each other, but my decision was to go with a 1-2 punch or a 2-1 punch. As you’ll see from my handwritten version of the poem, I initially went for a 1-2, but on reflection felt that the 2-1 punch would be the choice that had the bigger impact, putting the more powerful phrase first.
The opening stanza’s movement from dignified and respectful to bluntness should hopefully cause the reader a little discomfort because of the disconnect, while taking the reader along because of the flow of the language.
The change to the opening line – the final change to the poem – was a grammatical correction that passed me by initially. I think that the grammatically correct version would be “Once a month the people of the nation bow their heads”, but that would have been significantly longer than the other lines in the opening stanza, and thrown off the flow. I wanted to write something with a flow to it, and considered this more important than perfect grammar.
“Thoughts and prayers” is an expression commonly used in the aftermath of tragedy, particularly used to console relatives after death. A quick look on Twitter will show the phrase being used after sudden and natural deaths, and also after non-fatal illnesses. But the phrase has been so commonly used in the aftermath of gun deaths that a common secondary use is to argue that opponents of gun control are using it to avoid any concrete, tangible actions to solve the problem of mass slaughter.
Language is full of phrases filled with these kinds of multiple meanings. It’s possible – especially in poetry where each word should be carefully chosen and contemplated by both the writer and reader – to shift quickly from one into another, causing an emotionally powerful collision by pointing out the disconnect.
The fourth line is one that I played around with a bit, as you can see in my notes. All the versions used meant essentially the same thing, with the changes being considered for the sake of the sound of the language, and to make sure that the words flow.
I’ve not yet read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but I’m aware that the novel has the personification of ‘modern gods’, including Media, as characters. This inspired my idea of Freedom as a god, with Americans willingly sacrificing their countrymen, women and children to this holy cause.
This poem was written in half an hour on a November morning, but fragments had been floating around my head since the Vegas shooting a month earlier. The “1200 feet” was a reference to this – I think I picked the figure up from news coverage as the distance between the shooter on the 32nd floor and the crowd.
I used blunt, violent imagery to bring the reality of the situation home to the reader, while staying aware from gore that could make the situation appealing and entertaining.
I used capitalisation to draw a difference between freedom, the noun, and Freedom, the god, with repetition used to emphasise what freedom actually means in the context of American killers. When the backgrounds of individual killers are revealed it seems common that they were men with personal problems, unable to control their demons and with a history of lashing out violently against wives or girlfriends. It’s often a case that the killers want the notoriety of being a mass murderer, sometimes leaving manifestos to help them “become important”.
The fourth stanza builds on the themes in the third – of Freedom as a god and human sacrifice – becoming more blunt, more angry. “One nation under Freedom” rewrites the phrase “One nation under God” from the American pledge of allegiance. The intent is to make the reader consider the nature of the god who America rallies behind – is it the tolerant, peaceful nonviolent Jesus of the New Testament, or something more primal and amoral?
The fourth and fifth stanzas were originally written as one, but were different enough in style that I decided to split them up, to give the reader a moment’s pause between the two.
My aim was that this stanza would deliver a horrific message in jingoistic, uplifting language – as is often the case with the American gun lobby’s messengers and apologists. I intended for this to act as a summary and sign-off for the poem.
The first two lines of the final stanza are intended to call to mind the famous phrase “a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage” – which my research now suggests was falsely attributed to President Hoover. Nevertheless it’s become an iconic staple of nostalgiac Americana – referenced in many places including the Simpsons episode Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish.
The idea of requiring every teacher to carry a gun is as stupid as anything I can imagine – there’s the obvious potential for confusion, and more carnage as a result. However this has been seriously suggested, and Colorado have put a lighter version of this plan into action. When reality goes that far, the only place for satire to go is surrealism, hence “a sniper in every tree”.
“All men shall be free” apparently comes from a version of the lyrics to Pomp and Circumstance (also known as Land of Hope and Glory in the UK, and the Graduation Hymn in the USA). I’m not sure whether I was subconsciously drawing on this or if the usage was coincedental, but it may well have been tucked away in my subconscious. The more patriotic (British) cultural context of the song makes more sense in the context of the poem, which shows off my British bias, and arguably doesn’t fit the poem given that it focuses on a specifically American scenario. I like it though.
I’m not much of a poet so the above isn’t intended as a lecture from a position of expertise, or even a recommendation, just an exploration of my own writing methods. My handwritten version shows that the poem was physically written down over a course of 27 minutes, but the creative process had been going on before that, often in idle moments when my mind drifted. It’s over three months since I wrote this poem so my memory has faded a little, but I know the human sacrifice motif was an idea I’d be turning over in my head, and Neil Gaiman’s idea of modern gods was something I’d mentally filed away at some earlier point. I made minor alterations in the months since when I looked back through my notebook, but I was relatively happy with what I’d written.
All in all, I’m quite happy with the end result.