The Great Poem Series: Stephanie Brown’s “Roommates: Noblesse Oblige, Sprezzatura, and Gin Lane”

Seeing people achieve things like winning American Idol or people having “perfect” lives grows jealousy in those who don’t achieve outstanding accomplishments. Reading Stephanie Brown’s  “Roommates: Noblesse Oblige, Sprezzatura, and Gin Lane” grew that idea into a reality. Inside the 2005 edition of The Best American Poetry, “Roommates: Noblesse Oblige, Sprezzatura, and Gin Lane” is a passionate poem that creates a strong emotional reaction, a quality that makes a poem great. Brown writes this poem to create an alternative reality for the reader to see into a lower American social class, a class that sees people live accomplished lives while having achieved little of the same magnitude in their lives. This grows jealously that is often constructed into people’s thoughts and feelings. Reading Stephanie Brown’s  “Roommates: Noblesse Oblige, Sprezzatura, and Gin Lane”  calls on raw emotion, human sympathy, imagery, and accessibility to craft poem that is great.

The first aspect of Brown’s poem that popped out to me was how she held nothing back. This poem is fiercely designed; I imagine a Stephanie Brown sitting down at a computer thrashing away at a keyboard with pure, animalistic emotion because of the strong language used in this piece. Brown starts the poem with this fierce feeling: “How I recall that all her friends were ‘enormously gifted’ and ‘exceedingly bright.’ I was a dim bulb.” My first reaction was wow. What a powerful, but awful statement the narrator makes about herself. Brown admits some personal connection to the poem as she wrote it after hearing her friend talk, using the terms “enormously gifted” and “exceedingly bright.” I can just see Brown having this angry passion she injects into the poem from hearing her friend with an arrogant tone. This raw emotion is what makes this poem excellent. The emotion found in this poem makes the reader feel something “real” about this poem. This is not a poem written by a scholar in an ivory tower talking about the colors of autumn, but something designed for the everyday American citizen to read, understand, and to feel the same passion felt by Brown.

A natural effect of emotion of the Brown is the sympathy felt for the narrator. We are teleported into a world where the narrator receives sympathy by her being “of a lower class” than her roommate being the “Social Register of NY” or her roommate’s friends “working on committees for political reform.” The narrator is a person has a type-b personality where the people around her and influencing her have type-a personalities and are expected to change the world. We feel bad for the narrator as she cannot live up to expectations and was not born that way. We can all think of a situation we have been in similar, if not identical, to the narrator and we sorry for her. “Roommates: Noblesse Oblige, Sprezzatura, and Gin Lane” acts more like a story about the narrator, something we can connect our human emotions to. This simplistic idea, but a very challenging task to do as a writer, is an element that makes this poem one all of America should read so all can sympathize with someone, the narrator, who is feeling a normal American feeling, a feeling of being lost in the world.

Through the sympathy we feel for the narrator, a level of imagery arises. We can connect to the narrator’s struggles and possibly have a flashback to a scene where we were in similar to the narrator’s, but a deeper, more poetic imagery is a tool utilized that encompasses the reader througher. For example, Brown describes the narrator’s boyfriend as a “train-riding-addict-hobo boyfriend.” When I read these words, a multiple images pop to mind of a man slumped against a concrete wall plastered with tattered posters, an image I see numerous times whenever I go to New York City. The imagery Brown is able to use within this poem inspires the reader to experience the thought and feelings of the narrator. Perhaps my favourite example of this inside “Roommates: Noblesse Oblige, Sprezzatura, and Gin Lane” is how Brown ends the poem, “Show off! Show off! Show Off!” This calls back to the schoolyard days where kids could call you a ‘show off’ after you do something cool. That chant heard in the poem emulates the same feeling felt when you hear that you are being a show off. This universal connection through Brown’s usage of imagery allows anybody to found something interesting in the poem, a quality that makes a great poem.

One of the most intriguing ideas Brown leaves the reader, which follows the idea of accessibility, is found not within the poem, but in the Contributor Notes section of the Best American Poetry 2005. Brown writes that “the poem’s details and distinctions about class and caste in American society I leave to the reader to discover.” This endnote opens the poem for everyone to comment, criticize, and hopefully reform American social classes. In the poem, there is the narrator which falls into a lower class and her roommate who this elevated character which allows the reader to see what class has the better side. We see that the roommate succeeding, but we can assume that this comes with its fair amount of stress and is always wanting to achieve the next goal leading to never ending stress. On the other hand, the narrator is someone we could possibly call the lowest of society and someone who does not add much to society. Wherever our opinion lies, we cannot fail to acknowledge that Brown’s poem is generally accessible to all American citizens, has fierce and relatable emotion in it, allows us to feel with the narrator, and employs superb imagery which are qualities of a great poem. If we discuss the message and start asking essential questions after reading “Roommates: Noblesse Oblige, Sprezzatura, and Gin Lane” it only elevates the poem to a level above great.

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