Popcorn-Huffing Mouth Breathers: Or, A Not-So-Simple Answer to a Seemingly Simple Question

If you’re an English major (or an English teacher), from time to time you may hear questions like the following from folks from outside the literary-industrial complex:  “What is it with poets, anyhow?  Why can’t they just say straight out what they mean?” Such challenges imply that everyday language is transparent and straightforward, and doesn’t require the sort of interpretation that “literary” language does.

But that implication would be wrong. Everyday communication regularly requires us to follow inferences, to grasp unspoken meanings, to attend the connotations as well as the “dictionary meanings” of words and phrases. The rhetorical context may be different from that of the classroom setting, or that of absorbing a poem at one’s leisure while sitting on a park bench; but the basic properties of language—as well as the basic skills involved—are remarkably similar.

For purposes of illustration, let’s consider an actual conversation I overheard in a restaurant. It was about 3 PM on a Saturday afternoon, and in the booth behind me a couple (a man and a woman) were discussing their plans for the evening. It was mostly unremarkable small talk, until my ears perked up at the following exchange:

SHE: Well, what about going to a movie?
HE: What, and sit in the dark with a bunch of overweight, popcorn-huffing mouth-breathers?

This exchange may not seem at all like poetry, but bear with me for a moment. First, you will notice that the man has answered the woman’s question with a question—and a rhetorical one at that. Second, his response conveys both less and more information than a literal, straightforward answer to her question would have. Where either a simple “yes” or “no” would have been sufficient, he constructs a vivid hypothetical scenario, with elements of setting, character, and direct appeals to the senses (can’t you almost smell that popcorn?).

Admittedly this is a purposefully selected rather than random sample of everyday language, but if you listen closely for a day I think you’ll find some of the properties I’ve just noted in a significant amount of your casual day-to-day conversations. And while I wouldn’t call the man’s response poetry exactly, I think it displays a couple poetic characteristics.

First, the man’s way of answering the woman’s question is styled. Like a boy who writes his name while urinating in a snowbank, he is doing something more than performing a mere function, communicative or otherwise. To put it simply, he has taken a job (answering a direct question) and turned it into a kind of semi-purposeful play. As a result, his response carries what I would call a styling surplus, which is to say that he makes an extra effort to adorn, dress up, his language. This “surplus” includes both the seemingly extraneous detail of those “overweight popcorn-huffing mouth-breathers” and the formal indirection of his response—that is, answering a direct question with a rhetorical one.

Second, this way of answering (or not exactly answering) the question requires or invites an activity on the part of the listener or reader that would not otherwise be necessary: because the man has not answered the woman’s question directly (despite the styling surplus, he has given less information than the question asked for), the listener must infer his meaning from the seemingly extraneous information he has provided. In other words, the listener must interpret his response to arrive at some guess as to his meaning.

In this case the job of interpretation is not particularly difficult. We can pretty reliably infer the speaker’s preferences. But the styling surplus of his response has a curious effect: in a sense, it invites us to explore topics beyond the simple question of whether he wants to go to a movie.

For instance, his statement might allow us to make inferences as to his attitudes, values, and personality. (Most obviously it might suggest antisocial tendencies or possible prejudices regarding body types and socioeconomic class.) If you imagine yourself as the woman in this exchange, there might be enough in this brief, indirect answer to make you consider getting out of the relationship, now!

In short the manner and form of the man’s answer opens up a surplus of interpretive possibility that a more literal, to-the-point response would not have suggested.

What is more, this interpretive surplus is to a great extent a consequence of the styling surplus we already noted. By responding in a way that provides both less and more information than a literal answer would require, and by creatively shaping his response to convey a strong but implicit sense of mood, attitude, and even character on his part, he has invited us to read between (or beyond, or beneath) the lines of what he has actually said.

Now, I’m not saying that the possible inferences I’ve drawn regarding the speaker’s character are necessarily accurate; and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t trying to send the message that he is an antisocial, prejudiced boor. My point is that his vivid styling of his response creates for us a rich moment of interpretation, regardless of his intentions.  And in that sense I would say that his sentence has significant poetic or literary properties.

But is it poetry? Is it literature? I would probably say not. I would save those descriptors for texts or utterances where there seems to be an intentional, concentrated or sustained presence of the effects I have just described. But even everyday language—such as the overheard conversation I’ve been discussing here—is frequently marked by the kind of styling that engages our attention and interpretive energies in the same way that “literary” texts do.

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