Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As the story’s title suggests, by joining two oppositional ideas—poets, or painstaking precision, with bullies or bulls, heedless or clumsy force—“A Poetics for Bullies” playfully subverts the normal usage of language. Push’s boasting is rife with puns. He says that there is “only casuistical trick. Sleight-of-mouth, the bully’s poetics.” By drawing “sleight-of-mouth” from the idiom sleight-of-hand, Elkin not only aptly and originally names the kind of verbal tricks played by his protagonist but also demonstrates the kind of violence that he, the author, will do to, or the kind of liberties that he will take with, the language. The notion of doing violence, which is a kind of bullying, and taking liberties, which is a license associated with poetry, is, of course, directly relevant to the meaning of the story. The synthesis of violence and poetry is repeated when Push chortles, “Physical puns, conundrums. Push the punisher, the conundrummer.” Puns are related to punish; and, perhaps, conundrums are related to drumming, as in beating or hitting.

Elkin gives several of his minor characters—Kraft, Mimmer, Slud, and Clob—names that invoke the gross and farcical failings of base menials in Shakespearean comedies, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595). Perhaps the most central subversion of language occurs with another title, the Declaration of Independence. It is by relinquishing his attachment to this document and the notion that “all men are created equal” that Push is able to assert his own, personal independence. Thus, Elkin ironically offers the Declaration of Independence as a barrier to independence, a symbol of social pressure to conform.