The Quality of Sprawl

by Les A. Murray

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Themes and Meanings

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The theme of this poem is the resilient spirit of the individual who refuses to be rendered helpless by the norms of society. Despite Murray’s disclaimer that “Sprawl is really classless” (stanza 7), this poem is very much about class. The hero is the “little person,” the average citizen who does not normally control fate but who, on occasion, seizes a chance to make a forceful personal statement. The unspoken villain is the establishment, which evokes conformity to rules even when they are meaningless or makes decisions on a scale that negates individual preference.

Murray presents sprawl as inherent in certain types of actions regardless of motive or consequence. The first story, for example, is clear, but many details are left out. One can imagine that there is some reason, such as a dispute or the age of the vehicle, behind the transformation of the luxury motor car into a mundane truck, but such background detail remains unnecessary. The degree of success achieved by Hank Stamper’s response is similarly irrelevant. The emphasis is on the largesse of spirit that connects such diverse acts as “farming by aeroplane” and going far out of the way to take home a hitchhiker.

From the outset, there is no attempt to offer a concise, dictionary-style definition of “sprawl” as used by the author. No exact synonyms are given. Such a verbal approached is avoided. In its place, a lively, often satirical, extended definition is formed, example by example.

“Sprawl” here is a noun of adjectival fullness, describing and defining a certain group of actions and reactions that will seem immediately familiar to most readers, even those who do not engage in such behavior. Its application is to any nonroutine human response that blends the grandly inelegant with the forcefully expressive once-in-a-lifetime gesture. “Sprawl” colors human actions in glaring neon hues that break through the routine sameness and the dull everyday necessity to “fit in.”

Murray begins and ends by applauding sprawl. Sprawl is noticeable but not showy. It may be inelegant, but it is not disgusting. Inventiveness and practicality merge with stubbornness and independence in sprawl. It endures because it encourages action and makes people feel good about themselves.

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