The Great Poem Series: Joshua Beckman’s “Untitled”
Joshua Beckman’s “Untitled” was first published in Let the People Die, a series which approximates a sonnet cycle, and I found it in my edition of Best American Poetry 2008. He wrote this poem while traveling on the Staten Island Ferry. The poem does have a title: it is literally called “Untitled.” I’m not sure whether Beckman intended this to convey a sense of mystery or if it’s just another element of the poem. Maybe that is what makes the poem great, or maybe it’s the short, choppy, format that provides a suspenseful feeling. “Untitled” is a fast-paced poem about an alcoholic and the diminishing relationship with his friends.
My favorite attribute of this poem was Beckman’s use of short choppy sentences. Though the poem is only fourteen lines, there are 26 periods. While some may consider this a little much, the poem would not be the same without them. The periods have a central role in contributing quickness and suspense to the poem. Most of the sentences in the poem consist of only two words: “the” and a certain object. To me, each object has a certain meaning: for example “the canal” represents the straw giving “the liquor” a passage to the drinker. Though the poem itself is short in length, the sentence structure plays a two-faced role: the short phrases and sentences simultaneously make it seem as if the poem is both never-ending and can be read in ten seconds. Beckman has perfected what, in my mind, many poets have tried to do: create a poem that appears unconventional but still makes sense. It’s a controversial element of art that many may perceive as not being art, but I think that’s what makes poems and articles like this so special. Because there is no right or wrong, they are enjoyable to both write and read. If there’s one message I take away from this poem’s structure it’s to write how you want. There’s no stopping one’s imagination.
The repetition in “Untitled” produces an effect similar to that of the sentence structure. Some the aforementioned “objects” that keep appearing throughout the poem are the canal, the friends, the pile of wood, the jets, and the bank. Some of these occurred more frequently than others, but they were all repeated at least once, which provided great imagery. I saw “the pile of wood up against the bank” as the pile of ice in a glass of liquor, hugging the sides of the glass. “The little anger growing inside them” made me visualize a group of friends venting about their problems while trying to find a solution. Beckman’s use of a variety objects to portray a relatively simple image— someone taking a sip of a drink through a straw— was utterly creative. It gave me a clear picture after only the first read.
The poem’s lack of title has a significant effect— there really is nothing you can call it. I think that Beckman left it “Untitled” because it’s fairly easy to grasp the poem’s meaning after reading it a couple times. A title would have given the meaning of the poem, eliminating the need for careful reading. Beckman probably felt that people would not have read the poem with great attention if they already knew the scenario from the title, and I agree with him on this. Had I read this poem already knowing what it was going to be about, I probably would not have noticed the minor details, such as the imagery of the objects. The missing title added an element of disguise to the poem, making the reader dig for answers.
I think what I like most about this poem is its ending. It’s busy; there’s a lot going on. We see the word “speaking” used between between “liquor through a straw” and “a little anger growing inside them.” This is first indiction of some sort of of communication. From then on, the poem continues with two-word phrases until it concludes with“a little anger grows inside them.” I interpreted this ending as an unsuccessful intervention: the friends approached the drinker, and he thought nothing of it— he only grew more sick (“the dead”) and his friends got angrier.