Sunday, March 2, 2014

Revealing a Character's Depth Through an Intentionally Phony Tone: Kirsten Smith's Poetry as a Prompt

          People don't always mean what they say--or how they say it. Sometimes, to understand each other, we have to interpret the meaning behind the other's words, to understand that one's tone may not reflect the true feelings behind the words. How often do we hear people say, "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it that way!" And how often do we forgive those people, understanding that their intentions were good, even if their tone seemed harsh? We may even soften toward someone whom we know is trying to sound tougher or colder than he feels, because we know enough about that person to detect and sympathize with his need to cover up painful emotions.

          In writing fiction and poetry, we can manipulate tone to direct how our readers feel and respond to our characters. Sometimes, we might imbue a character's voice with a tone that intentionally belies his/her words so that readers can relish figuring out some truth about the character, without our merely telling them. This technique engages readers more fully and enables them to experience those "aha" moments when they notice clues that subtly reveal depth of character via description, action, and dialogue ("D.A.D."--my mnemonic device for painting vivid word pictures).

          Kirsten Smith, author of the poignant YA novel-in-verse The Geography of Girlhood, illustrates this technique of using tone to belie sentiments and simultaneously reveal character in the poem, "For the Ice-Skater He Loves." Writing in first person, as a girl whose younger stepbrother has revealed his first love to her, she says, "It's not like I care about him,/ in fact, he drives me crazy/ with his stories about you…." She then berates him in the poem--"He's not much to look at"--while sneaking in some of his endearing qualities in a curmudgeonly way: "but he's got shiny hair and/ sometimes he smells like cinnamon,/ and yesterday, he…bought me a pair of really ugly earrings/ that are kind of cute." The poem concludes with a tough-girl tone, threatening that "if you hurt him," she will fill the girl's locker with hate notes, snag her tutu, tamper with her blades, or poison her cocoa. The poet has masterfully manipulated the narrator's tone in a way that reveals it as the girl's cover for her fondness toward this stepbrother, a fondness which she seems to have realized in the midst of her critique of the girl of his dreams. As a reader, I found this revelation of her character endearing.

          I presented Smith's poem to a ninth-grade boy student, and then posed it as a prompt for his own poem to illustrate a tone that belies loosely hidden feelings, subtly revealed. Here is what B.C. came up with, and I found his emulation and understanding spot on! By the way, he does not have a brother, and is an only child, which makes this even more touching.

My Useless Brother
By B. C. (9th grade)

So you’re the bully.
The one who’s been
terrorizing my stupid little brother.
I mean, I get why you would.
He’s cocky, annoying and useless,
bad at sports,
and even laughs at his own jokes
I mean, he’s also nice,
cares about people,
and can make a killer sandwich.
But if you hurt him anymore,
I’ll rip your precious football jersey,
I’ll break your football catching hands,
I’ll make you give yourself a wedgie.
These aren’t just threats.
They’re promises.

IF YOU ENJOYED B.C.'s poem, please leave a comment!