Mary Karr Shows She’s More Than a Memoir Writer

By Levi Jiorle

Managing Editor

There are many aspects of writing that one must master to be considered proficient at the craft. Grammar and syntax are subjects that can’t be ignored to achieve good writing. They are not the showiest characteristics, but they are important nonetheless.

There are, however, some traits that are more personal than these set-in-stone rules that writers must learn to develop. A voice might be the most personal trait that a writer could show.

Read Henry James, and one will be reminded of how wealth and privilege can shape a writer’s voice. Hemingway shows the aspects of good journalistic writing, how it’s not the quantity of the words, but the quality of the sentences.

Mary Karr grew up on the oil fields of east Texas, and the lyrical intensity of her poetry demands the reader not to think, but to feel the words and to picture what it must have been like to grow up where she did.

She has gained most of her recognition from her memoir writing, but her poetry deserves to be revisited, for it is unfortunately neglected in comparison to her nonfiction.

Her book, “The Devil’s Tour” is loaded with lines that paint scenes from her past. The very first poem, “Coleman,” mentions the oil fields from her hometown: “To while away the mosquito-humming night, we crawled beneath the oil field fence, and you straddled the pump as it bucked a slow-motion rodeo. Fifteen and drunk on apple wine, hiding in your afro’s shadow, you wore the bruised imprint of your father’s palm with quiet chivalry.”

Every poet is supposed to get the most out of as little words as possible, but Karr does it, describing her town and the hardships of her childhood friend in only two sentences.

She not only describes, but also confesses in a way that does not sugarcoat any of her feelings.

In the same poem, she writes, “When I finally caught a Greyhound north, I wanted only to escape the brutal limits of that town, its square chained yards, pumps that bowed so mindlessly to earth.” She confesses in a way that is unsentimental, never using any words that exaggerate or depict her subjects dishonestly.

She does nostalgic well, too. It could be easy for poets to describe the past, and their idea of themselves in the past with a self-indulgent tone that doesn’t do their poem any justice.

Karr sticks to sharp imagery, making sure the reader’s senses are used when analyzing her poems. This is showed in her poem, “Etching of the plaque years:”

“Compare it to the prom picture in your wallet, the orchid pinned to your chest like a spider. Think of the flames at your high school bonfire licking the black sky, ashes rising, innumerable stars. The fingers that wove with your fingers have somehow turned to bone.”

What is really nice about the poems in “The Devil’s Tour” is that the reader never needs to know any extra information or do any research to understand Karr’s poems.

Poems that refer to mythology, paintings, or any other type of poetic device could be interesting, but it is sometimes more bothersome than satisfying to have to look up different aspects of the poem to fully understand it.

Karr writes from a fully human perspective. She doesn’t need any labels to describe her work. It’s just poetry—poetry that aims to satisfy our own feelings and memories. Even in her more modest subjects, she searches for a common ground between the reader and her, describing the mundane aspects of living:

In the poem, “Average Torture,” she writes, “It’s not the child’s nightmare slide down a ten-foot razor into a bath of alcohol, nor the cobra’s hooded stare suddenly come near, but the multiplying string of insignificance that’s become your life.”

She continues to show how all humans yearn for something more: “though in a small compartment in your skull you hope for finer things. At night you set aside your lists and dime-sized aches to lift its lid and find the simple room in which everything you meant to speak and shape and do is spoken, formed and done.”

Email Levi at:

lmj7748@live.esu.edu

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