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Reading <em>Moby-Dick</em> at 30,000 Feet

Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet


by Tony Hoagland

Lines 1-5 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 1-2

At this height, Kansas
is just a concept,

  • From our speaker's perspective (an airplane window), Kansas doesn't seem like a real, tangible place or thing. It's just an idea, a notion. 
  • It seems like our speaker's emphasizing the sense of distance, and since we know he's 30,000 feet up thanks to the title, we can imagine him on an airplane, looking down at Kansas, six miles or so beneath him. 
  • Mentioning Kansas could also be a subtle way of heightening the contrast we get in the title (between our speaker's surroundings, and those in Moby-Dick). We mean, not only is our speaker 30,000 feet above sea level, but he's smack dab in the middle of the continent, nowhere near any ocean. How much farther could you get from being on a whaling boat?

Line 3

a checkerboard design of wheat and corn

  • The speaker tosses an image our way: the corn and wheat fields of Kansas look like squares on a checkerboard to our speaker. And that sounds about right, right? The image helps us understand how tiny the world seems from so high up.
  • The neat squares of those fields also give us a sense of control and order. There's nothing very wild or natural about perfect square fields that are growing a single kind of plant.

Lines 4-5

no larger than the foldout section
of my neighbor's travel magazine. 

  • From our speaker's window, the fields look to be about the same size as the foldout section of a magazine the person next to him is reading.
  • The image of fields as a checkerboard just got twisted in a new direction by this comparison.
  • Now we have three things being compared: fields, a checkerboard, and the page of a magazine.
  • It's cool how he can run all these ideas together, and the process gives us a sense of his view out the window and the person in the seat next to him all at the same time.
  • Isn't it weird how, from such a perspective, miles and miles of land can seem about as large and significant as the foldout section of a magazine? Ideas of distance and perspective are definitely coming into play.
  • After the first five lines, we're not detecting any regular meter or form, so we're gonna go ahead and call this puppy free verse. Check out "Form and Meter" for more on what that means.

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