Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “A Woman Walks into a Bar,”
by Sian Killingsworth

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Today’s poem consists of three stanzas, each titled “A woman walks into a bar,” consisting of 23, 23, and 10 lines. Line length is variable, but in general the lines get shorter as the poem progresses. It is written in free verse, with no end rhyme or meter. The tone is flat and the delivery a bit staccato due to some very short lines and the unconventional way in which many are broken. The poem is ekphrastic; that is, inspired by something else, in this case the victim’s statement read into the record in Emily Doe v. Brock Turner. One strength of today’s poem, though, is that it works even for readers not familiar with that infamous case involving a Stanford swimmer convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious young woman behind a dumpster. Even before #metoo, sexual assaults like this are common enough, unfortunately, that readers will get the gist.

The poem uses the technique of allusion, referencing a familiar joke format (“X” walks into a bar and.  . . .) to make its point. There probably are quite a few jokes that actually do begin this way, and one thing this poem accomplishes is casting such jokes in a new light. Maybe some of them are not so funny after all; to borrow current lingo, maybe they reflect unconscious and institutional sexism or misogyny.

The poem employs a number of craft devices, but today I will focus on two: repetition and line breaks. The phrase “a woman walks into a bar” is repeated three times, as the title (and first line) of each of the three stanzas. What is interesting to me is the way our apprehension of the line changes each time we encounter it. In its first iteration, we have no context except our awareness that lots of jokes begin this way, and we are set up to expect something funny. By the end of the first stanza, though, we know the poem is deadly serious. Readers who followed the Emily Doe case will recognize some lines as being taken directly from the transcript of the victim’s statement, questions she was actually bombarded with during the trial. Details like “unconscious,” “bare breasts,” and “dumpster” add an element of menace.

Part 1 of the poem uses anaphora, in lines that begin with “Did she” or “how,” and the effect is to ramp up the stress. It feels like an interrogation, another assault on the person already the victim of an assault. In Emily Doe, the victim made this point explicitly, that she felt attacked by the legal process, and reading the barrage of questions gives readers a small taste of what that felt like.

When we read “a woman walks into a bar” for the second time, we are not primed for a laugh; instead, we feel a sense of menace and some guilt for thinking, even for a moment, that the line was meant to be funny. In part 2 of the poem, lines begin to shorten, and this increases the tension because shorter lines slow down the delivery of information. We want to know what happened, and the poem takes longer to tell us. We learn that the “bar” was actually at a frat party and that the attacker was a young man, an “athlete” and “handsome.” This stanza describes his act of taking a photo of the young woman’s bare breasts after she has become unconscious and also alludes to his defense:

he said, she definitely didn’t say no
she said nothing like no.

In the Emily Doe case, the young woman could not prove she had withheld consent because she could not recall anything that happened after leaving the party. The defendant claimed she did not verbally communicate a “no,” and that he was justified in inferring consent. (Until recently, California law actually treated rapists of unconscious victims more leniently than those of conscious victims because lack of consent is impossible to prove.) In Emily Doe, the jury did convict the defendant on three counts, but the sentencing judge used his discretion to impose a very light sentence.

Let’s look again at Turner’s defense, paying particular attention to the use of the double negative in “she said. . . . nothing like no.” In logic and grammar, a double negative creates an affirmative that means, in effect, “she said yes.” These lines are a brilliant usage of convoluted legalese or doubletalk to criticize a legal system that punishes rapists of unconscious victims less severely than those whose victims are awake. We are made to understand that the presumption in many rape cases, unless controverted by a clear “no,” is that there was consent. According to this crazy logic “she definitely didn’t say no” transforms into a “yes,” and the rapist gets acquitted.

Most of the remainder of part 2 focuses on the man taking a “titty photo” of the unconscious woman and then sending it to his friends, and at this point readers may be assuming that these acts constituted the assault. It’s an outrage, of course, beyond the bounds of any decency, and many readers will feel violation and betrayal on the young woman’s behalf. But then, in the last two lines of part 2, we are told that something worse happened:

She got raped.
He got a titty photo.

These lines use syntactical anaphora, repeating the same sentence construction (She got, he got) at the beginnings of its lines. The slant rhyme of “titty photo” makes music, but it is a music that makes us squirm. A term in common usage, “titty photo” connotes something off-color, louche, worthy of a snicker. Juxtaposed against an act of rape, it takes on a more sinister aspect.

In the Emily Doe case, the photographs were never found, but their existence was inferred from text message responses to the defendant sent by his friends. This seems like a good time to remember that poetry is art, not fact, and is not meant to offer a reporting of actual events. The poem may have been inspired by the Emily Doe case, but it is not limited by those facts, and its intent, as evidenced by its use of the iconic joke form, is to present something more universal.

The third and final part of the poem employs the shortest lines yet, attenuating the agony of the unfolding details of the story as well as the reader’s discomfort in hearing them. Here is where the poet, for the first time, confronts the reader directly:

you think this is going to be
a joke, right? Well.

These lines ask readers to examine their own assumptions and expectations. Maybe jokes about what happens to women in bars are not so funny after all. Maybe they include an element of that assumption I was talking about earlier, the idea that rape victims are “asking for it,” and maybe those jokes allow that kind of thinking to be validated and perpetuated. “Well,” this speaker says, she is not going to allow that to happen. The gut-punching “punchline” of her joke is that the woman “gets raped in a parking lot.” Then, the speaker takes the time to dissect even that construct:

Gets. Like it’s a gift.
He gets

off.

The message here is that even our language—our words and the way we use them—is shaped and tainted by the power hierarchies in our society. The poet uses punning to make her point, showing us how the word “gets” implies passive—even willing and welcoming—reception. Like—you got it—the way rape prosecutions are hindered by the widespread tendency to blame the victim, to assume that she consented or “wanted it.” Another pun, enhanced by the line break, is at work in the last two lines quoted above. “He gets off” refers to the tendency of rapists to get acquitted and perhaps to Brock Turner’s light sentence. It can also refer to the act of orgasm or ejaculation. The woman gets raped, and the man gets his rocks off.

Line breaks are an important craft element in poetry and indeed are often what people use to distinguish poetry (except in the case of prose poems) from prose. In prose, sentences continue all the way to the right margin. In poetry, lines can do this as well; Whitman famously uses very long lines. Most poetry, though, uses shorter lines and pays attention to where they end. A metrical or end-rhyme pattern will often determine where lines break; if you want five beats per line, you will break the line after the fifth stress. In free verse, line breaks are more flexible and can accomplish other goals. Some poets strive for strong end words, concluding each line with a noun or verb.

Line breaks occupy a spectrum ranging from conventional and expected on one end to highly experimental and unexpected on the other. The most conventional place to break a line is where the speaker would naturally pause to take a breath. In prose, such pauses are often marked by punctuation: commas, colons, semicolons, and em dashes for soft stops, and periods, exclamation points, and question marks for hard stops. Such pauses are called caesuras, and in formal poetry, it is not uncommon to see a mark of punctuation at the end of all or most lines. Mid-line caesuras are a characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Lines concluding with a mark of punctuation are called closed or end-stopped, and they represent the extreme, most conventional place to break lines.

The next most conventional line breaks are those coinciding with where a reader might naturally pause, even where no punctuation is present. When we talk or read things aloud, we tend to chunk words into phrases and to pause in places that make syntactic sense. For example, in the sentence “He went to the post office and store,” a reader needing a breath would likely take it after “office” because stopping there completes the idea of the subject (“he”) going someplace. Breaking the line anywhere else in this sentence makes less syntactic sense, and if it is done, the poet ought to have a good reason for doing it. Good reasons exist, as we will see below.

In general, it is more edgy to break a line after conjunctions like “and” and prepositions like “at” or “to”:

He went to the post office and
store

He went to
the post office and
store

Can you see how the line breaks above leave the reader hanging, wondering for a few seconds what comes next? A poet wanting to create suspense at exactly that point in the poem might choose to break the line in this way. On the other hand, someone not really thinking about line breaks could derail their poem by creating suspense where it is not needed or even appropriate.

Even edgier is breaking a line between a modifier and the thing it modifies, in this case between the adjective “post” and its object-noun “office:”

He went to the post
office and store

Whether or not they register it consciously, readers will experience discombobulation here, being used to seeing “post office” as a unit. Even in the case of words not seen as a unit, it generally feels odd to see the modifier separated from its object. Of course, if discombobulation or surprise is precisely the reader reaction desired, a poet might make the decision to break the lines as shown above. Or she may have another reason, such as the desire to emphasize the word “post” because putting a word in the “last” position in the line gives it special weight.

The desire for such emphasis can stem from a number of reasons, but primary are musical, dramatic, and semantic. For example, you might want “post” at the end of a line to emphasize its echo with another similar-sounding word in the poem, and this can be true in free verse as well as in verse with a formal end-rhyme pattern. Well-chosen end words can also add drama to a poem. In the examples above, putting “and” at the end of a line creates suspense.

Lexical flexibility is, to me, one of the most interesting aspects of line-break decisions. In the examples above, breaking the line on “post” allows the reader to read the first line, “he went to the post,” in more than one way. You can read that line as meaning either he went to “the post,” as in a military post or even a wooden post in the ground, and then when you get to the word “office,” you can read it again as “He went to the post office.” So, line breaks can proliferate meaning, and in this, W.S. Merwin is the master. His extremely flexible and open lines can sometimes be read forwards and backwards, as their own independent units, or as units comprising previous and ensuing lines. This is a powerful tool in poetry, which at all times seeks compression, because it enables meanings to be expanded and complicated with an economy of words.

At the extreme, edgiest end of the spectrum come lines that break between an article and its noun or, going yet further, break up actual words as in the two examples below:

He went to the
post office and store

He went to the p
ost office and store

I could imagine a situation where a poet wanting to communicate fracture or lack of fluidity might decide to employ a line break like these; I did so once in a poem about my heart murmur. The rule of thumb is that any line break works so long as the poet has a solid reason for doing it. What does not work is to break lines randomly, with no reason or plan. (Unless, of course, randomness is the effect the poet is going for.) Some poets break lines willy-nilly because it looks cool or edgy, a strategy that is rarely effective.

With all this in mind, let’s look now at the line breaks in today’s poem, focusing on lines 6-19 in part 2:

6    He wanted to take her
7    picture, but she said no,
8    she claimed she didn’t want a stranger
9    to have her
10    photograph.

11    Later, after, he took one anyway,
12    she wasn’t complaining anyway,
13    he said, she definitely didn’t say no
14    she said nothing like no.

15    He sent the picture to his friends,
16    so they could all see too, they could see her
17    bare breasts, just her “nice tits!”
18    He cut off her head
19    in the photo.

The break at the end of line 6 in part 2 allows it to be read in at least two ways. We can read “he wanted to take her,” in the romance novel sense, that is, sexually, and that seems to state one truth of the poem. The next line clarifies that what the man wanted to take was the woman’s “picture,” but the line break allows the poet, first, to introduce the idea of sexual conquest by force. In the same way, line 10’s break after “to have her” evokes sexual violence before we get to the next line and learn that what he wanted to have was “her photograph.” In a more conventional arrangement, the subliminal text about sexual aggression would be lost.

In the next stanza, the word “no” appears in the power position at the ends of two lines:

he said, she definitely didn’t say no
she said nothing like no.

Notice how repeating a word at the ends of consecutive lines underscores it, so that what we hear is “no / no.” The poem does what the woman, being unconscious, was not able to do. And it also says a big fat “NO” to the BS legalese that the rapist is offering up for his defense.

Another striking example of a powerful line break happens in lines 18-19:

He cut off her head
in the photo.

The break gives us the very disturbing image of a decapitated woman at the same time it reminds us that pornography often presents images of female body parts without the humanizing detail of a head or face.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to hear the words “A woman walks into a bar” or “titty photo” again without feeling something very far away from a snicker. Today’s poem is a wonderful example of political poetry at its most effective, changing my way of seeing the world on this small, crucial point, and perhaps paving the way to some deeper thinking on the way things as basic as humor and language are shaped by existing power hierarchies—and how important it is for women to find and use our voices, not just for change, but every chance we get.

 

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