Honors Poetry Explication 1

Marianne Moore’s What Are Years? seems an example of her early works as it utilizes complex imagery and prosodic patterns, themes of her early poetry. My initial interpretation of the poem was that Moore split the poem into three sections to reflect three stages of life (emulating themes of the “Voyage of Life Series” by Thomas Cole). I interpreted the first stanza as “innocent” childhood, the second as “struggling” young adulthood/adulthood, and the third as acceptance of “mortality” in late life. However, further analysis makes me think otherwise.

The opening lines begin with Moore’s existential, “unanswered question” of what makes us courageous. She asks why, in times of “resolute doubt” we soldier on and go about life despite the challenges before us. Her phrasing here jumps out. The word “resolute” creates such a final and sad tone that contrasts her chilling, final lines of the stanza, “in its defeat, stirs/the soul to be strong”. Her choice to separate the phrase elongates and suspends the sentence, first emphasizing the two timid descriptors, “defeat” and “stirs” then the conflicting, powerful alliteration of “soul” and “strong”.

The second stanza is the narrative of vivid imagery of seeing “deep”, encapsulating the feeling of drowning and how she wrestles with the thought of death. Her choice of the word “accedes” creates rhythm in the stanza that causes a natural slowing of the poem until it picks up speed again with imagery of “imprisonment” and panic as death looms. The poem continues at this speed with struggling until the “sea in a chasm” occurs when suddenly she is flying above worry and has a revelation that mortality is what makes life worth living, what makes “continuing” worth it.

The third stanza uses the metaphor of the “imprisoned”, “caged” bird conjuring similar themes of Emily Dickinson’s Hope Is a Thing With Feathers. The bird “steels” his form straight up once again conveying vivid imagery of picking oneself up and moving on and even “mighty singing”. “Mighty” inspired me and created a lift and pause in the poem, conveying a newfound confidence and resolution. The ending lines are my favorite, though, contrasting the satisfaction of mortality and eternal joy. This perfectly wraps up the poem. I think that she tried to convey that one can spend their whole life trying to do everything right, outsmarting mortality and feeling satisfaction. But, they may never achieve true joy that lives longer than the human life as it can only be achieved through accepting mortality and making the most of it.

The Frontier

The concept of the frontier, according to Frederick Jackson Turner, is the era of American exploration and expansion of the West with the idea that expansion results in distinct American, rather than European, territory. Although Turner’s article takes an authentic perspective and is well-argued, Turner fails to address women as important factors of Westward expansion; a topic similarly passed over in Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. While Grainier is portrayed as a hard-working, strong, self-made man, his wife is rarely mentioned and rarely significant. Gladys, Grainier’s wife, is not considered an important figure of frontier life as she is mostly described as doing mundane chores such as washing clothes and cooking (Johnson, 7). In reality, women were essential to the success of the frontier through hard-work, physical labor, and household concerns and were just as important as men.

American Parables (River of Shadows and Train Dreams)

River of Shadows

Robert Reich’s parable of Mob at the Gates shows us that power can get to our heads and since we are all trying to achieve the idealized success story of the American Dream, we “isolate ourselves from the rest of the globe” (Reich, 3) in order to protect our jobs, opportunities, and success. Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows exemplifies this same idea as Solnit describes the Golden Age of San Francisco. “The city was growing, but it was growing apart…many had woken from that [American] dream to the bitterness of institutionalized inequality, declining wages and opportunities, rising land prices and working hours.” (Solnit, 165) Solnit observes the Chinese immigrant laborers who were viewed by Americans (who were ironically immigrants or children of immigrants too) “thieves of jobs that rightly belonged to white men” (Solnit, 166). We can observe from both these examples that when we’re working toward success or are successful, we don’t want to lose our foothold and create the isolation between us and “them out there” (Reich, 3) rather than trying to disassemble the hierarchy between the successful and those still working towards it.

Train Dreams

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is a great example of Robert Reich’s parable of the Benevolent Community. The concept of the Benevolent Community is that neighbors and friends help those in need through “American’s essential generosity and compassion toward those in need”. (Reich, 3) The protagonist of Train Dreams, Robert Grainier, sits alone in his cabin only accompanied by the loud howls of wolves and coyotes that draw closely to him until he sees the wolf-girl (who we assume to be his long-lost daughter who was presumably raised by wolves after she was “orphaned”). “She lay there on her side panting, a clearly human creature with the delicate structure of a little girl, but she was bent at the arms and the legs…with the action of her lungs there came a whistling, a squeak, like a frightened pup’s.” (Johnson, 100) He fashions a splint for the wolf-girl and cares for her as best he can despite his fear and disbelief of the wolf-girl and the confusing possibility that she could be his daughter, Kate. Thus his care for her is and example of the Benevolent Community.