This is the killer father again. I don’t know if the topic spawned so many strange sentences because my students just weren’t ready to write clearly or because they were uncomfortable writing about a young man about their own age who was shot dead for smoking a little dope.
At any rate, the student-author of today’s sentence has a credible idea about the father’s motive: frustration. But let’s go on:
“He shot his son out of frustration with his drug problem and inability to get back on his own feet.”
The part of the sentence I love is the melded clichés: “stand on his own two feet” and “get back on his feet.” Neither expression seems particularly sensible or necessary when you take a close look, but a cliché properly uttered is comfortable. The loss of “two”—or the addition of “own”—creates a strange phrase, a discomfort; and that little bump allows just enough time for the reader to think about the words, and therefore to entertain the possibility that one might get back on someone else’s feet.
Dylan Thomas had a good time with clichés, or perhaps we might call them common figures of speech, transposing elements to give the reader pause and create fresh ideas:
…a dog among the fairies,
The atlas-eater with a jaw for news,
Bit out the mandrake with to-morrows scream…
(Thus the reporter with a nose for news becomes a dog with a much-more-threatening jaw for news in “Altar-wise by Owl-Light.”)
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon…
(Here the cosmos is animated and made strange when the man leaves the moon and supplants the “west” in the wind in “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.”)
Poets can get away with this kind of serious playfulness because they are armed with intent. The reader assumes the intent and takes the time to contemplate the phrasing and its role in the meaning-making of the poem.
Students have to be more careful with similar kinds of wordplay because they cannot predict whether the reader will perceive intent or presume incompetence.
And in the case of my student’s phrase, intent is most likely not present. The rest of the essay showed no such spriteliness, and the sentence in question shows no such grace; furthermore, the melded image adds not insight but only confusion—which, I’m afraid, is probably an accurate reflection of the student’s own measure of control of the sentence.
I do find quite poignant the idea that had the young man managed to stand on his own feet instead of, perhaps, his father’s—or the guy’s who scored him the grass—he might have been less frustrating to his father: he might have been permitted to live.
A lesson to take to heart, I guess: No matter how many feet you have, stand on your own.