My name is Mara Dupas. I am currently a Languages profile student in Dawson’s ALC program. My ambition to be able to read and write in multiple new languages is what motivates me most every day. I discovered the poem “Dropping the euphemism” during my first semester. Its emotional and literary complexity immediately fascinated me. As I move towards adulthood, I aspire to keep exploring and loving the mysterious world of poetry.
“Dropping the euphemism” or Killing a Man in Six Words
By Mara Dupas
Bob Hicok’s 1965 poem “Dropping the euphemism” is a tale of guilt and invisible violence in daily work life. In it, the reader enters the mind of a man responsible for laying off one of his employees. Although expressed with subtlety, the ensuing pain for both the boss and the clerk appears in every line of the poem. Through his use of short lines, concrete metaphors and simple images, the author proves that even a few words can have the power to break a person’s life, and that the security of routine is never assured.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word “euphemism” as “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant” (“Euphemism”). When, because of a deficit in budget or some other reason, a boss or supervisor must lay off someone who was working hard, it is likely to be an unpleasant moment for them both. Looking at the consequences losing a job can have on an individual’s life, the word “unpleasant” is, as well, a euphemism. With that in mind, the title “Dropping the euphemism” can be interpreted in two different ways. An object’s “drop” generally involves its sudden fall. Having to “drop” the news that a man is fired can be compared to having to throw a bomb on a fragile country with poor economics and politics. Hence the use of more euphemisms to soften the truth, like,
I said other things
about the excellent work he’d done
and the cycles of business
which are like
the roller-coaster thoughts
of an oscilloscope. (…) (ll. 21-26).
Each line is only a few words long, which puts an emphasis on the banality of this moment of pain.. Every word trying to soften reality becomes meaningless. In termination letters, it is indeed very common to “beat around the bush” for some time before announcing what the message is actually about. By using kinder words, the announcer is trying to make the situation more bearable to the man listening, but also to himself, by easing his guilt. “Dropping” something can also mean “abandoning” it. If the title is interpreted in that sense, Hicok seems to say “no” to the waste of time and energy caused by the use of euphemisms and favor going straight to the point, in the deadly six-word sentence: “I have to lay you off” (l.8). This poem is embracing both meanings of the verb “drop” in various parts.
Hicok also establishes a capital difference between the boss and his employee. The very first metaphor of the poem states: “He has five children, I’m papa / to a hundred pencils” (ll.1-2). These lines show that the characters do not share the same family situation. Throughout the poem, Hicok refers to the children of the worker as a precious thing, yet also a very heavy responsibility. On the other side, the boss is not obliged to keep a job in order to fulfill the needs of loved ones. That is why he ironically compares family members to objects that can be bought from a catalogue. While speaking with his employee, another comparison passes through the boss’s mind as he thinks about the wife of the shocked man in front of him. He reflects,
I saw the eyes of his wife
who had always been brown
like almonds but were now brown
like the crust of bread (ll. 27-30).
Almonds have a rich, creamy brown color, and are often a symbol of abundance and joy. On the contrary, bread crusts are scraps of the simplest meals, already foreshadowing the difficulty that this family will have feeding themselves now that their patriarch has lost his employment. This new shade of brown is a metaphor for the hardship and poverty of the times to come.
The author’s use of images that are familiar to all readers helps lead to the powerful realization that life can change drastically in a quarter of a second. For example, the newly unemployed father might be thinking worriedly about many things at the same time, including images of a past he took for granted, like “(…) his basketball team of sons, or that he ever liked / helping his wife clean carrots / the silver sink turning orange” (ll. 42-46), but. in the end, he and his boss share an acute feeling of guilt—the first man towards his employee, the other towards his family—and a desire to escape now that things have grown difficult. The poem ends with another euphemism that showcases this well. Both men are “pushing back from a bar / to go make the same noise” (ll. 56-57). Getting drunk to forget guilt or a lack of future hope is a common solution for numbing pain, though the relief it provides never lasts. Inevitably, the time comes to miserably head towards the toilet, and back to the problems and responsibilities that are still there, waiting.
Hicok’s poem is the story of a disabused man who is conscious of the fact that he is considered superior to his employee just because of his professional status. Life seems to him nothing more than “[…] a lecture series on Nature’s / Dead Ends […]” (ll.48-49) and he is unsure whether he should grin or cry in front of its instability. Regardless of his outlook, in the end, all people are equal, including bosses and employees, who are both frightfully indifferent to any misfortunes but their own.
“Drop.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/drop. Accessed October 30, 2018.
“Euphemism.”Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary https://www.merriam- webster.com/dictionary/euphemism. Accessed October 30, 2018.
Hicok, Bob. “Dropping the euphemism.” Published in Poetry www.poetryfoundation.org. Accessed October 30, 2018.
— “Insomnia Diary.” Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburg Press, 2004. E-book edition.
“MLA Format Handout 2018.” Course Handout, ICE (603-102-MQ), Prof. S. Elmslie. Montreal: Dawson College, W. 2018
Raimer, Brent. “The Paradox of Pied Beauty.” Course handout, ICE (603-102-MQ), Prof. S. Elmslie. Montreal: Dawson College, October 2018.