Like Walking to the Drug Store, When I Get Out

by Joyce Carol Oates
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 618

“Like Walking to the Drug Store, When I Get Out” is a letter in free verse with eight stanzas and a short, cryptic “PS.” The title of the poem is also the final line in stanza 6 and is a statement of the utter nonchalance with which the writer of the “letter” regards his impulse to violence, even murder. Although initially a confusing phrase, the title becomes a nugget of clarity when it appears within the poem. The speaker is a prison inmate, a convicted child molester, who writes a letter to the “famous” author Joyce Carol Oates, threatening her (indeed all unimprisoned, free persons) with vicious murder: “I’d just grab a baseball bat and I’d beat you/ till your brains leaked out.” The chilling aspect of the inmate’s harangue is his insistence that he “wouldn’t feel a thing.” It would be “just like walking to the drug store.”

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The poem is written in the first person in the voice of an obviously male sociopath. Clearly obsessed, deeply paranoid, and intensely bitter, the prisoner has time on his hands and vitriol in his pen. He has written to Oates five times previously, and, although he promises this letter is the last, it is quickly clear to the reader that he is an obsessed fan. He has seen Oates’s picture in the paper in Iowa City, the location of a federal penitentiary where the reader may assume the letter writer has been imprisoned for the last “6 years.” It is intriguing that, in fact, Oates the poet writes this letter/poem to herself, to Oates the famous fiction writer, in the persona of an inmate, in the ungrammatical language that an ill-educated criminal might actually use.

The letter writer of the poem is vengeful as well, despising those who have “done everything [they] want/ to [him]” and promising repayment for the insults and confinement he has suffered. He states that he has no remorse, that he feels no guilt or shame. In stanza 6, he wonders if he should not have committed mass murder—“four or five hundred people”—to make his mark on society. The reader is led to wonder if this is anguished exaggeration or monomaniacal raving. At the poem’s close, the inmate insists he is not a child molester and spits out a wild accusation, calling everyone on the outside “capitalist swine” who are molesting their “own sons & daughters” with the express permission of the Constitution! The reader cannot be sure which of the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution the prisoner is railing against, but it is clear that freedom and recognition are what he desperately wants.

The last stanza zeroes in on Oates again. The prisoner repeats that he is not a child molester, bluntly claiming that he likes grown women but that Oates is “too old” for him. The final threat is chilling indeed: “Believe me if I started murdering people/ there’d be none of you left.” The reader is left feeling no doubt that the writer of the letter would make good on this promise.

The poem ends with a cryptic “PS” that is almost an epithet: “The U.S. started World War II.” Clearly, the inmate’s anger goes well beyond Oates: The entire United States government (and the American people) are to blame for World War II and, more important, for his imprisonment, his tragic life, his crimes. The “you” that the prisoner addresses in the poem is Joyce Carol Oates, but it is also all other people who have shunned or ignored him. Oates so skillfully constructs this persona that readers leave the poem feeling that the prisoner holds them personally responsible for his fate.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 396

It is ironic that a poem such as “Like Walking to the Drug Store, When I Get Out” appears in a collection of poems Oates titles Tenderness. The poem is the antithesis of tenderness: It sits on the edge of violence for eight stanzas, each line a taut threat spit out between the clenched teeth of the angry prisoner who writes the letter. The poem begins with the salutation of a traditional letter, “Dear Joyce Carol.” The writer assumes familiarity in using Oates’s first names but, interestingly, does not sign his own name at the end of the letter. The reader must conclude that something prevents his signature, perhaps latent fear or embarrassment, or that perhaps the poet omits it intentionally. It could be anyone. Through this omission, Oates may be indicating that all people experience extreme states of mind; taking responsibility for them is terribly difficult. The prisoner’s bravado is not strong enough to allow him to reveal his identity. He is, like many of Oates’s characters, trapped by his circumstances.

He is, quite literally, in prison, but he is also imprisoned by his unfulfilled need. The lines of the poem vibrate with his frustration that his story will not be told, that he will not “make his mark.” His primary regret is not his crimes but that his crimes have not made him famous. The matter-of-fact diction, profanity, spelling errors, and awkward constructions contribute to the realism of the poem. The hyperbolic political accusations punctuate the text of the poem and contribute to the reader’s impression that these are the ravings of a madman. The run-on, breathless structure of the lines (“In my whole life I burglarized a 7-11, some nickels & dimes/ & busted open a stamp machine/ & some cars & cashed a couple checks”) conveys a desperate self-righteousness. The voice in the poem is unmistakable. The diction and syntax are chillingly realistic. There is nothing quite so frightening as a threatening letter, particularly when the author is a violent criminal, a convicted child molester, and an aspiring murderer. The absence of formal poetic devices such as metaphor, the loosely narrative structure, and the conversational (and occasionally profane) tone of the poem contribute to its realism. After reading the poem, one feels almost as if Oates has simply recopied an actual letter she received from a deranged fan.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 112

Bender, Eileen Teper. Joyce Carol Oates: Artist in Residence. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Cologne-Brookes, Gavin. Dark Eyes on America: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates: Novels of the Middle Years. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Daly, Brenda O. Lavish Self-Divisions: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.

Johnson, Greg. Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Dutton, 1998.

Johnson, Greg. Understanding Joyce Carol Oates. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.

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