The non-apology apology is a way to say you’re sorry while making it clear that you don’t mean it. The simplest form is the obviously sarcastic “Sor-ry!” There are better examples.
One is from a mediocre movie whose title I forget, where the husband, a pilot in the cockpit, is talking with his wife before he takes off. They have been arguing, and he finally says, “Look! I’m sorry for whatever the fuck you think I did.” I might not be getting the details or the quotation exactly right. Sor-ry! If you’ve read this far, you now know what a non-apology apology sounds like.
My next example is from Gone with the Wind. Clark Gable as Rhett Butler is saying good-bye to Vivian Leigh as Scarlet O’Hara. Before walking away, he says, “I apologize for all my shortcomings.” The total lack of specifics is brilliant, as is the total lack of sorrow.
The best example, of course, is from William Carlos Williams:
This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
It’s clear that the speaker is not sorry that he ate those plums. He does apologize, and he is aware of the harm he inflicted, but the last three lines of the poem show where his priorities lie, evidenced in the musicality of “so sweet / and so cold.” He’s sorry, but not sorry.
The poem resembles a briefly popular genre of poetry called “found poems” – where the poet discovers something written that is accidentally poetic and then presents it, with little or no alteration, as a poem. I found one once, but then I lost it.
For twenty years I rode my bike to school, and one day, when I went to the bike rack for my ride home, my bike was gone, and in its place, I found a note. Regrettably, I did not save it. The thief apologized for taking my bike, said he really needed it to get to the University of Michigan campus, told me where I could find it there, and even suggested a better kind of lock I should use in the future. The note was an apology, but it was so much more. I felt grateful to be part of this theft of my bike – more of a loan, really. I’m really sorry that I lost that found poem.
Some people think that majoring in English in college is a waste of time and money, but my education has allowed me to discover and appreciate the non-apology apology. To readers who feel like I’ve wasted your time with this: Sor-ry!