The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479

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“To No One in Particular” is a poem in free verse. The title functions much like the “To Whom It May Concern” salutation of a letter that carries a message to anyone that can make use of it. It is written from a first-person perspective with nothing to indicate that the poet is speaking through a persona (a character distinctly different from the poet who functions as the narrator of the poem). Both the voice and the ideas expressed in the poem are consistent with those in many other poems by Marvin Bell, so it seems reasonable to assume that there is no philosophical difference between the “I” of the poem and the poet himself. With no stanza breaks and no extra spacings or peculiar formatting, the poem’s fifty-five lines appear on the page like one long, narrow paragraph; however, there are some easily distinguishable sections of the poem.

The first two lines of the poem, “Whether you sing or scream/ the process is the same,” prepare the reader, like the thesis statement in an academic essay, for an exploration of “the process” behind human vocalizations. The next eight lines act as an introduction to a comparative analysis of two very different types of human speech—learned and instinctive. They also point out crude aspects of the actual vocal instrument—“spittle and phlegm.”

In lines 11 through 22 the poet speculates that if one were to grab someone by the throat and beat him, someone else would almost certainly try to record the event in minute detail, right down to the individual utterances made by the victim. The problem, as the poet explains it, is that the person recording the events would embellish on what he or she had heard and would try to gloss the sounds made by the victim “in one of those languages/ revered for its vowels./ But all the time, it’s consonants/ coming from the throat.”

In the third section, lines 23 to 35, the poet focuses on the victim, “still gagging out the guttural ch—/ the throat clearing, Yiddish ch—/ and other consonants.” He then follows the victim home, where the victim in turn victimizes his wife. Once he has exhausted himself, he falls asleep and snores, and the poet tells the reader that “all the time/ he hasn’t said a word we can repeat./ Even though we all speak his language.”

In the fourth (the last and longest) section of the poem, Bell returns to the more ecclesiastical voice he uses at the beginning of the poem, questioning even the possibility of understanding humans’ most basic sounds. His questions come rapidly: “Who will write down this language?/ Who will do the necessary work?/ Who will gag on a chicken bone/ for observation?” and so on, until he concludes by telling the reader that everything of real importance in his life “occurred in another language.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

Marvin Bell is well known for creating free verse that has the deceptive appearance of prose broken into lines; however, a keen ear or eye soon recognizes that his work is pure poetry. He uses very few quickly discernable devices in this poem. The most obvious of these are juxtaposition and anaphora. The poem begins with the juxtaposition of two human sounds—singing and screaming. He states that the “process” of creating these two sounds is essentially the same and that both of them use “spittle and phlegm.” The difference stems from fear causing the throat to constrict. The juxtaposition of “consonants” and “vowels” is so prevalent that it becomes a theme of the poem.

Anaphora is the practice of repeating the same word or phrase at the beginning of lines, clauses, sentences, or stanzas. Bell makes back-to-back uses of this device in the last half of the poem. Beginning at line 35 he starts three consecutive sentences with “Even though,” and immediately begins the next four with “Who will.” Probably the single most famous use of anaphora in the English language is the Beatitudes of the Bible, nine statements attributed to Christ, each of which begins with “Blessed are.” Although Bell’s reasons for using this device may differ from the biblical author’s, the effect is essentially the same; it establishes a strong tone of authority, a voice that simply will not be ignored. Unlike the biblical use of the device as an introduction to a sermon, Bell uses it near the end of his poem, providing a dramatic burst of speed and energy.

Most of this poem’s imagery centers on the throat. When the throat constricts, “the back of the tongue/ can taste the brain’s fear.” To give someone a good beating, one should start by grabbing him “by the throat.” People try to clear their throats with “the guttural ch—,” the “Yiddish ch—.” In the morning, we feel “the toast in our throats” and “gag on a chicken bone.” The shape of the poem relies more on syntax than on lineation. Many of the line breaks ignore obvious phrasing in favor of limiting either the length of the lines or the number of stresses in particular lines.

“To No One in Particular” ends, as many of Bell’s poems end, with a personal memory, real or imagined, and a direct statement to the reader—a statement that carries some mythic or mystic message for human beings in general. “The Self and the Mulberry,” “Gradually, It Occurs to Us,” and “The Mystery of Emily Dickinson” are good examples from this same volume by Bell that have this type of ending.