Keeping Things Whole
by Mark Strand
Analysis: Form and Meter
Relax, everything is going to be okay. What we've got here is one of those unruly, loose cannon free verse poems.
At first glance, this poem just does what it wants, when it wants, where it wants. Meter? We don't need no stinking meter. Rhymes? We laugh in the face of them.
Making Meaning With Mini Lines
But on closer look, we can see that the poem is an organized chaos. Most notable are the line breaks. The lines look arbitrarily strewn down the page, but they're not. Let's get specific:
In a field
I am the absence
Strand intentionally breaks the lines for effect rather sticking to some standard metrical length. The line breaks add emphasis to what Strand wants us to focus on as readers: field, absence, field. Almost sounds like two people arguing, right?
That duality of being both present and absent is at the core of Strand's poem. The whole poem meditates on the speaker's relationship to his environment, his feeling of absence, his anxiety to move so that things can remain whole. But formally, the lines end on those all-important words. He repeats this technique throughout the poem, so it's worth a quick read-through to see if you can spot where else he breaks lines for emphasis.
We mentioned it above in the analysis, but check out how line 2 literally splits lines 1 and 3? "I am the absence" splits the first stanza, just like the speaker splits the air when he moves. Strand is making the poem look like what he's talking about. That's what we call the form imitating content, and it's pretty cool and something free verse can pull off because it makes its own rules.
Parallelism and Other Devices
Those line breaks and enjambments aren't the only thing Strand has up his sleeve. He also uses a form of parallelism throughout his poem to create structure and meaning. In line 2, the speaker says, "I am the absence" and then in line 7, "I am what is missing." The repetition of the phrase "I am" becomes like a mantra of the first stanza, stating what the speaker is. At first, he's "absence" and then later he's "what is missing." We'll go ahead and say those are the same thing, so the speaker is using a parallel structure to express his feelings of emptiness.
Another formal element of the poem is its short lines. The speaker likes to keep it short and sweet (just like Dirty Harry). And the speaker's limitations are exactly what he's struggling with. Just as his presence is a fragmentation of where he is, his movement keeps things whole. The short lines are fragmented sentences that break throughout the poem.
That, dear Shmoopers, is form imitating content. The speaker feels like he fragments the landscape, and this sense of breaking is imitated in the broken lines of the poem. It's true, all lines of poetry break, but the extremely short lines alternated with longer lines accentuate the fragmentation of the poem. Cool, huh?