Sentences I Love #2

There are sentences I read that stop my heart. Used to be that’s as far as I got: “Damn, that’s a great sentence. Come on heart, get moving.” Since I’ve been studying writing, which means also practicing the art/skill of close reading, I’ve been able go a step further in my appreciation of these great sentences. So every once in a while I’m going to spend some time on the old blog looking at one of these little gems.

So, I’ve been considering writing a post about this particular sentence for quite some time. I’ve actually got a lot to say about it or, more precisely, about what else is going on before it that makes it such an effective sentence. I ran into it again just now and I’m finally gonna go for it.

First, the sentence:

“I hope the people who did you wrong have trouble sleeping at night.”

Nothing super-special about that sentence. It’s a funny understatement, perhaps, but nothing earth shaking is going on.

Now here’s why I hemmed and hawed over writing this:

The sentence isn’t from a story. It’s not even from a poem (well, not a printed poem, anyway). It’s a lyric from the song “You Were Cool” by The Mountain Goats. To be fair, I firmly believe that John Darnielle’s lyrics fall somewhere between story and poem and many of them should be recognized as literary achievements. Making it even more obscure, The Mountain Goats have never officially recorded the song—you can find many YouTube clips of live performances, but it doesn’t appear on any album. It’s hard to find and it isn’t encountered as a written sentence, so what’s it doing here, now?

In a number of the live performance videos, this line elicits a sincere cheer from the audience. The first time I heard it, I was filled with a righteous light and had to stop moving for a few seconds to come down (I was walking the dog at the time and had stumbled upon this unknown Mountain Goats’ song I just had to hear). I felt it, the crowds in many of the videos felt it, but what is “it?”

There is a lot going on lyrically in this song to grant such an innocuous sentence so much power, and looking at how Darnielle manages the build-up is, it turns out, highly instructive, so here we go…

(I’m going to collapse the various verses and choruses into sentences and paragraphs, doing away with the line breaks, in order to look at the individual sentences.)

The first sentence of the song is, “This is a song with the same four chords I use most of the time when I’ve got something on my mind and I don’t want to squander the moment trying to come up with a better way to say what I want to say.” It’s a long sentence, making up the entirety of the first verse. It is also metatextual, calling attention to the personal nature of the song—Darnielle is telling us something about himself, the songwriter. But what is [i]really[/i] interesting here is how the unadorned diction combined with the run-on quality of the syntax deny craft—this is an artless sentence. The first words we hear in this song are conversational, plain, and entirely without artifice (“squander” isn’t an exotic word for Darnielle). This sets up the rest of the song beautifully. Much like the opening of a “ghost story,” where the author needs to “make room” for the ghost to exist, this opening is making room for the conversational tone, the confessional feel of the rest of the song.

The next sentence is another long one and serves as the song’s chorus: “People were mean to you but I always thought you were cool, clicking down the concrete hallways in your spiked heels back in high school.” No metaphors, no similes, nothing. The use of the childish “mean” and “cool” though, enacts a form of mimesis—Darnielle is talking about high school, after all. The opening sentence makes this one seem more crafted, too, as is the intention.

The next sentence makes up the entire second verse, and this time Darnielle gets a little “flashy” with it: “It’s good to be young, but let’s not kid ourselves, it’s better to pass on through those years and come out the other side with our hearts still beating, having stared down demons, come back breathing.” There is tension in this sentence, between the clichés of “good to be young” and “let’s not kid ourselves,” and the staring down demons, the beating hearts and breathing. Even the phrase “pass through those years” seems more imagistic than anything that’s come before. This pivot reveals the depth of the emotion hiding underneath the plain-spoken recounting. Nothing that’s said here raises to the level of lyricism, but there is passion in this sentence that we haven’t seen yet.

The chorus reappears here, and this time, the same sentence takes on a different shade, as if Darnielle can’t believe the truth of the situation, that there has been injustice done.

The final verse breaks the established pattern of single long sentences:

You deserved better than you got, someone’s got to say it sometime because it’s true. People should have told you you were awesome instead of taking advantage of you. I hope you love your life now like I love mine. I hope the painful memories only flex their power over you a little of the time. We held on to hope of better days coming and when we did we were right. I hope the people who did you wrong have trouble sleeping at night.

The first two sentences are, again, cliché. “Awesome,” in it’s colloquial sense, operates like “mean” and “cool.” The third sentence is probably my second favorite because it is just doing so much work, altering the tone slightly, raising the quality of image, but also making sure we know this isn’t a love song—Darnielle is happy with his current life, a life without the person to whom he is writing. The fourth sentence has probably the strongest lyricism in the entire song, the idea of painful memories being able to flex their power. The fifth sentence comes back down to Earth a bit, although “of better days coming” is a slightly more difficult syntax than the average of the piece.

Then there, at the end of this final verse, is my sentence. By this point, the speaker is soaked in a combination of righteous anger and frustrated helplessness, passionately sorry for what happened “back in high school” but limited in his expression, in his actual ability to do anything. He can’t place a pox on the houses of the oppressors or curse their lineages or anything so grandiose. The best he can do is to hope they don’t sleep well because of what they’ve done, that guilt taints their rest (but doesn’t even do away with it completely, just makes it less comfy). There is a reality at work in the sentence, a feeling of absolute moral certitude (what, exactly, these people did is unclear, and therefore a more severe punishment may not even be advisable).

By building up this muted, plain-spoken sense of injustice, Darnielle imbues the final sentence with as much power as a different song that may have ended with “I hope they fucking die” or some other expletive-filled zinger. By managing the syntax and diction to show restraint and/or an inability to articulate rage, the final line feels like catharsis.

(The chorus makes one last appearance, playing the song out, and in performance, the energy is that of an anthem, a strident call to action.)

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