Monthly Archives: May 2016

Nonfiction elements in Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Sailor Boy”

While Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Sailor Boy” is considered to be fictional, largely because of its involvement of fantastical elements, I believe the poem is rooted in the struggles Tennyson experienced in his childhood and adolescence, giving the fictional some non-fiction influences. The Sailor Boy recounts the story of a boy running away from home, and setting off to sea on his own. While some claim that the boy does this due to boredom or longing for adventure, looking at the piece from a more non-fictional perspective, the boy’s motivation can be interpreted as a need to escape due to a feeling of helplessness in his own home.

Tennyson was born the fourth of twelve children, and lived in England during the 1800s. Much of his family was plagued by mental illness, including his father, who was an abusive alcoholic, as well as several of his siblings. Every one of his siblings had a mental breakdown at some point in his or her life, some leading to drug use, and one to hospitalisation(“Lord”). Being raised in such a household would create stress, uncertainty, and a feeling of helplessness in one’s own life. These types of feelings are portrayed throughout “The Sailor Boy,” and I believe are a reflection of Tennyson’s adolescent emotions.  The poem was published in 1861, making him 52 at the time of its publication, which would make the poem a reminiscent expression of Tennyson’s decision to leave home at age 18. While Tennyson did not leave to become a sailor, he did leave to face the challenges of the outside world on his own, much like the speaker of the poem.

The speaker, like Tennyson, feels he has no control over his own life, and is helpless to stop the misfortunes that plague his family. This drives his need to escape home, as is evidenced by the lines, “But I will never more endure/ To sit with empty hands at home” (Tennyson 15-16). His hands represent action, or an ability to do something for others- as in the phrase “to lend a helping hand.” He feels there is nothing he can do for those at home, that he is useless in helping his family. Tennyson chose the word “endure,” meaning “to undergo (as a hardship) especially without giving in”(“Endure”). Doing nothing is not simply an unfortunate effect of his boring life; it is a hardship- something he must endure. He must sit and watch his family fall apart, time and time again, helpless to stop it. This helplessness, in part, convinces the speaker he must leave his home and go out to sea, or in Tennyson’s case to the outside world. He must seek a place where he has a say in what happens in his life, and where he is not doomed “to sit with empty hands” (Tennyson 16). This evidences a more non-fictional view of the poem, and shows it may, in fact, be based more in fact than in fiction.


“Endure.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 09 May 2016.

“Lord Alfred Tennyson.” Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 09 May 2016.

Tennyson, Sir Alfred Lord. “The Sailor Boy.” Poetry Lovers’ Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 May 2016.

Relative Factual/Fictional Quality of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a fantasy short story that depicts a summer festival in the utopian city of Omelas, a city whose perfection is dependent upon the eternal misery of a young child. The combination of intentionally vague and strong descriptions can make it difficult for the reader to believe the credibility of its perfection or if the city is even real. However, the narrator goes on to reveal the final element, the one blemish in order to keep the city perfect: a single child condemned to eternal darkness and despair. Many people in their lifetime, usually when they are just old enough to understand, will go to visit the child and as petrified and disgusted as they are by the mere sight of it accept its circumstance which guarantees the happiness of the rest of the city. There are citizens, however, that choose to walk away from Omelas instead, and where they are headed is left undetermined and vague in the story.

In much of the story apart from the facts known about the child, the narrator does not even know full truths about Omelas. In fact, the narrator frequently questions aspects of the city and tells the readers to imagine what it might be like if they themselves were there. Aspects of the story such as this bring in questions of the narrator’s credibility, therefore adding very fictional qualities to the story.  The narrator also frequently asks the readers to imagine Omelas as if they were there and make decisions as if they lived in the city, which in turn makes readers question what they would sacrifice for happiness and if they could live in a utopia where a perfect life is dependent upon one person’s misery. The depiction of a utopia where everyone is happy and it is “a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time” makes it seem entirely fictional and impractical just for emphasis on the true meaning of the piece.

I honestly think that every piece of writing is in at least some way based upon fact, whether it is the relationship between characters, a description of setting, or the overall plot of the story. However, I think this piece evaluates the inconceivable. Through the elements of craft, idea, and point of view, the story really is just blown out of proportion for readers to discuss morality and the possibility of a world to exist without evil. The story is written about an impossible situation with an indifferent perspective/narration which is exaggerated merely to question certain themes that can connect in some way to real life. Themes such as “Good can’t exist without evil” and “Knowledge can be more painful than physical pain” are worked into this story in a completely fictional way in order to allow readers to connect them into real life somehow.

Nonfictional elements in Russell Banks’s “A Permanent Member of the Family”

The stories in Russell Banks’s collection, “A Permanent Member of the Family,” are tied together by a common theme of divorce. The story from which the collection draws its title is told from the perspective of a father whose family, many years prior, went through divorce. The story serves as the father’s “reclaiming” of a story that happened thirty-five years ago, and has become somewhat of a “family legend.” The story in question is of the circumstances which came about after the divorce and how they, inadvertently, lead to the father’s accidental killing of the family dog. While the story was published as a work of fiction, it is likely that the author used personal experience in writing the story. Upon first reading, I questioned how fictional this story actually was, particularly after finding that Banks, seventy-three when the story was first published, would be a similar age to the narrator. Upon further research, Banks also was raised in the place which the story is set, “a shabbily quaint village in southern New Hampshire.” (Banks 81) Therefore, though the story remains officially “fiction,” there were definitely elements of fact drawn from in its creation, as I believe there are in every work. Furthermore, the story’s, and collection’s, themes of divorce and family is something that the author is intimately familiar with. In an interview with The Washington Post, Banks stated that “one thing that has struck me through the years, first as a child of divorce and then as a divorced man myself…is the incredible, powerful need we have for family, its ability to provide us with strength and intimacy, support and love — and then, on the other hand, the incredible fragility of family.” (Burns) These are precisely the struggles which the narrator of “A Permanent Member of the Family” faces alongside his loved ones. The story brings to light the need we have for family through the interaction between a husband, wife, and their children after being separated, even if only a few houses down the roles. It illustrates the “fragility of family” through the vehicle of Sarge, the family dog, who refuses to stay at the house of the mother, and follows the daughters to their father’s house every time they make the trip down the street. In the words of the narrator, Sarge “functioned in our newly disassembled family as the last remaining link to our preseparation…to a time of innocence when all of us…still believed in the permanence of our family unit, our pack.” (Banks 86) Given the connection between Banks’s responses in the interview and themes developed in the narration, it can be inferred that Banks drew much from his own life and personal experience when creating this story. His young life as a child of divorced parents, and adult live as a divorcee himself, gave him insight into the characters of not only the narrator, but the daughters as well, and therefore allowed nonfictional elements to appear in and enhance this fictional story.

Banks, Russell.”A Permanent Member of the Family.” The O. Henry Prize Stories. Ed. Laura
Furman. Comp. Tessa Hadley, Kristen Iskandrian, and Michael Parker. New York:
Vintage Anchor, 2015. 80-91. Print. Ser. 2015.

Brown, Wesley. “Who to Blame, Who to Forgive.” The New York Times, 10 Sept.
1989. Web. 9 May 2016.

Burns, Carole. “Q&A with Russell Banks about the Special Quality of Short Stories.”
Washington Post. The Washington Post, 26 Nov. 2013. Web. 09 May 2016.

The Intertwined Fiction and Nonfiction within Jenny Johnson’s “In the Dream”

In her poem, In the Dream, Jenny Johnson intertwines the fictional aspect of events as experienced while dreaming with nonfictional events of the speaker’s past. The opening line of the first couplet of In the Dream, “I was alone in a dyke bar we’d traversed before,” gives readers an immediate sense of the speaker’s tone and attitude, using dyke as a not entirely socially-accepted form of lesbian, and places the poem within a seemingly realistic setting. “I was alone in…” represents both the dreamlike-state titling the poem and a realistic life event, perhaps experienced by the speaker.

The speaker’s time spent in the “dyke bar” begins to shift from realistic and believable to the fictional state of a dream, as it states, “or maybe it was in a way all our dives/merging together suddenly as one intergalactic composite,/one glitter-spritzed black hole,” presenting the poem with its first dip into an outer-space, fantasy like fictional setting. Readers’ time spent within the “intergalactic composite” begins to intertwine the dream’s setting with imagery of a nonfiction experience, “managing to forever stabilize in space/ without a landlord scheming to shut the place down,” claiming the speaker’s time in the bar is at a standstill, particular and characteristic of dreams, yet being identified as landlord-less, tying a nonfiction aspect to the standstill within the speaker’s dream.

The aspects of the bar begin to present the most recognizable dreamlike features as the poem continues, “but the room/ had no end and no ceiling.” “Maybe the tables were spinning, too. I can’t be sure.,” but are yet again accompanied by aspects of true-to-life experience at a bar, “I could see all of our friends or exes” “three people on bar stools, who were straight/ or closeted? but more importantly angry,” continually intertwining and blurring the lines between the poem’s fictional and nonfictional elements while beginning to prepare the poem for its return to an outer space imagery and setting.

The “three people on bar stools” begin to exhibit unfriendliness, as they are “not here to love/with jawlines set to throw epithets like darts/that might stick or knick or flutter past/ as erratically as they were fired./ You could say their hostility was a swirl/ nebulous as gas and dust,” yet again intertwining a realistic exhibition of “hostility” with a dreamlike-outer space feel and setting.

In the Dream begins its conclusion with perhaps the most obvious nonfictional element, a description of an elementary school event as a comparison to the “hostility” of those on the “bar stools,” “Like how when I was shoved in grade school/ on the blacktop in my boy jeans/ the teacher asked me if I had a strawberry/ because the wound was fresh as jam, glistening/ like pulp does after the skin of a fruit is/ peeled back clean with a knife,” recounting specific details and dialogue and furthering the speaker’s inclusion of nonfiction.

In the Dream strays from its use of couplets in one instance where the speaker asks, “I said: Do you realize where you are?,” a question enhancing the intertwining nonfiction and fiction ideas present within the poem and suggesting that the element of confusion regarding the factual basis of the poem provides a question of location touching on both the retelling of a childhood event and the setting of the bar within the speaker’s dream.

Elements of both fiction and nonfiction are evident within Johnson’s In the Dream, and work to enhance the intertwining of a dream and factual events experienced by the speaker.

Nonfiction Elements in “Love Innings” by Devin Kelly

“Love Innings” is a nonfiction story written by Devin Kelly. It uses the idea of a baseball game as an objective correlative to talk about different aspects of life, including growing up and romantic relationships. The narrator sits through the innings of the game, which are used to section the piece, and grapples with inner struggles as he comes to term with his recently ended relationship. One of the strongest analogies to baseball to life, in my opinion, comes in the section “3rd Inning” when Kelly writes, “It is a game laced with imperfection, one you can only master when you realize that certain things are not in your control” and goes on to show how a well-hit ball can still be caught and a weak grounder can somehow manage to evade the fielder for a bloop single. I think that is a very important point in the piece because it connects baseball to something larger.

When talking about fact vs. nonfiction, there are certain craft elements that lend itself to a nonfiction reading. First, there are clearly given names of places, such as “Hagerstown, Maryland” in the beginning, which are characteristic of personal essays. The content of the story reads like a true narrative. The reader is supposed to, and does, believe that this narrator is sitting at this minor league baseball game with his father and his brother, and that he recently got out of a pretty serious relationship. The observing nature of the narrator also contributes to the sense of nonfiction that pervades the piece. He watches the Little League kids, the boy with his mother in front of him, and the trucker who by the end of the game has consumed six beers (we know that because the narrator has counted).

On some Facebook photo that was shared by a friend who is an English teacher, there was a mug with the saying “Creative Nonfiction: True Stories, Well Told.” At first I laughed, thinking that was such a short, concise definition that must be too easy for all the discussion we’ve spent analyzing the differences between fact, nonfiction, and fiction. However, the more I thought about this saying, the more I saw it as being a pretty decent definition. When I think of straight facts, newspaper articles come to mind, and this essay is not written like a newspaper article. If it was, it would read something like “On a June day in Maryland, the named narrator attended a local baseball game, where the home team lost (insert score) but his mind was distracted with thoughts of his ex-girlfriend…” “Love Innings isn’t written that way, even though all those events I mentioned before do take place. Creative nonfiction enters a realm where the aesthetics of the story are just as important, if not a little more so than the true facts. Sometimes facts need to be sacrificed for the sake of the piece. For example, the narrator’s mother might not have run away on the family the way she did, but including it in the story like that shows character while also establishing the importance of baseball in the narrator’s life. This example of nonfiction really is a “true story, well told” even if that is a simple definition.

Nonsense and Non-fiction: Lewis Carroll’s The Jabberwocky

Making sense of it all …

When it comes to categorizing writing, people oftentimes like to sort them into two categories: fiction and non-fiction. “Fiction means fake, and non-fiction means not-fake,” my third grade teacher would always remind us after our readings. However, as we have learned, these terms are not so black and white. There can be both fictional and non-fictional elements in a single piece. Sometimes the specific actions are fictional in that they did not really happen, and yet there could still be a non-fictional aspect to them in that they were based off of real events that happened to the author, only these events were perhaps exaggerated or altered to make a better story.

When you bring poetry into the mix, the issue expands further. It is a commonly accepted notion that poetry is neither fiction nor non-fiction; rather, it is a category on its own that can contain fictional and non-fictional elements. I would like to push back slightly on that notion and argue that poetry is simply a matter of convention. Unlike prose writing where the words go from margin to margin, poetry has less stricter forms and more freedom with the arrangement of things, including white spaces and structural appearance. I have heard arguments that all poetry must be fiction, yet this cannot be true because many poems are autobiographical and deal with real events that someone experienced. The greater message here is that it is difficult and a bit futile to assign a label to a piece of writing, because I think that all writing contains some degree of truth, whether that truth applies to the reader, the author, or the speaker and other characters. What makes writing engaging is incorporating that element of reality, even if the reality is hidden by a thick layer of nonsense and absurdity.

This brings me to perhaps the greatest nonsense poem in the English-speaking world, The Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll, which was included in his novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. While the majority of the poem is fiction in that it is made up, it still succeeds in incorporating non-fictional elements that bring the reader to reality. Carroll’s is famous for his fantastical and whimsical writing, his ability to fashion made-up worlds that are so absurd yet so real to the reader. Indeed, there is a layer of complexity in Carroll’s work that appeals to all ages. Although the rhyming, nonsense words like “galumphing” (20), and made-up creatures like the “Jubjub bird” (7) and the“Bandersnatch” (8) make the poem feel like a children’s book your parents would read to you as a kid, there is much more beneath the surface. Carroll blends fiction and reality to make a sophisticated point about the real world, about facing one’s demons and taking the hero’s journey.

Upon reading the first stanza of the poem, the reader might feel as though he or she is reading another language:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

  And the mome raths outgrabe.

Carroll uses language as his chief means of conveying the feeling of being in a different, completely nonsensical world. From the very beginning, he is trying to give the reader the impression that he is trying to say something serious; the structure of the lines in the opening stanza feel like traditional, non-fictional poetry, yet the several nonsense words are unusual to us. In making up words and creating portmanteaus using actual words (e.g. slithy = slimy + lithe), Carroll succeeds in creating a fantastical world that almost feels like our own. Through his fictional elements, we are able to find a sense of non-fictional reality.

The Jabberwocky is an absurd poem that mirrors the absurdity of the world we live in, filled with unknowns and uncertainty. Each one of our lives mirrors the life of the son in the poem, who comes face to face with something he fears and, in the end, vanquishes it. The non-fictional world is full of Jabberwocks and the “vorpal blades” (18) we need to slay them. The fantastical aspects of the poem that makes it feel like fiction serves the purpose of revealing the very real human curiosity and fear of the real world.

Fact vs. Nonfiction in [as freedom is a breakfastfood]

“[as freedom is a breakfastfood]” is a poem written by ee cummings that embodies his eccentric style of writing, which I find incredibly interesting. Its meaning is not very straightforward, and honestly after multiple readings, I’m sure there are levels to this poem that I have yet to understand or explore. However, I believe that the craft lends itself to the ideas of fact vs. nonfiction well. For example, I think there are factual events that sparked the writing of this poem (although I’m not sure on exactly what they were- there are some thoughts that it was written about the Great Depression, but I can’t be sure about that). The concepts of the ups and downs of life are quite real, there is no dispute for that, but I believe that the style of this poem lends itself to a very whimsical reading, which I think is more closely related to nonfiction, even fiction, because there aren’t clearly defined actions with specific details.

The rhyming and slanted rhyming throughout the poem contributes to the sense of fun, as does the seemingly absurd comparisons that make up the majority of the piece. For example, “and every finger is a toe” lends itself to an almost childlike reading, putting the reader into a world of play and fantasy. This particular reading can also be supported by the made up words of “dingsters” and “dong” in the third stanza. Also, the repeated use of conjunctions throughout the poem makes me think of a kid telling a story and telling every single detail of it. The idea of childlike imagination blurs the line often blurs the line between fact and fiction, where nonfiction lies, and I think this piece mirrors that. This effect is also achieved in the typical, and in my opinion classic, style of ee cummings. The lack of punctuation or capitalization again reminds me of a younger, more naïve narrator (although the ideas and thoughts in the poem seem to come from a much older, more experienced person). There is a contrast here that I think is very natural for cummings’ poetry. There are many times where I have difficulty with it, yet he remains my favorite poet. Another technique that leads to the absurdity of this poem, leaning it away from a factual reading, is the inverted syntax. Certain lines of this poem need to be read more than once to be understood. For example, the line “or molehills are from mountains made” uses very odd grammar.

Finally, at the “line level” there is one line in this poem that is directly related to the difference between fact and nonfiction, even though it doesn’t sway me to believe that the poem is written as definitively one or the other. The second line of the poem “or truth can live with right or wrong” reminds me of a discussion we had in class. Our definitions of nonfiction included the idea that sometimes the events described didn’t actually need to have happened that exact way, but it just needed to be believable that they could have. I think that interesting idea is played with here by cummings. Of course, in such a specific discussion “truth” might not be synonymous with “fact” but nevertheless I thought it was an important line to address on this blog.