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

Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet


by Tony Hoagland

Analysis: Sound Check

The language in this poem is conversational and imaginative. One of the most noticeable things is how flexible it is, how it can shift from one scene to another seamlessly. Take a look at the difference between two lines, one from the airplane setting, one from the boat:

  • so I can lean back into the upholstered interval (11)
  • wanting to see great clouds of blood erupt (29)

Notice a slight difference? The first one feels a bit leisurely. It's got those fancy three-syllable words at the end like a little bit of upholstery, a little bit of linguistic cushioning.

Meanwhile, the second line is bare bones, almost all one-syllable, short words. All those D and T sounds at the ends of the words "great," "clouds," "blood," and "erupt" make the words jump out at you. Whereas the first line above ends with a soft L, the second line has a double hard sound—the P and T—for its end.

Throughout, the language stays nimble, keeping us interested and able to follow our speaker's otherwise erratic train of thought. It's witty and meandering as we follow our speaker's distracted thoughts, from a memory, to the flickering movie screen, to the stewardess's outfit. It's philosophical when our speaker gets more abstract, and it's bloody, vibrant, and raw when our speaker imagines holding up a glistening harpoon and tracking "the beast beneath the waves." This is a poem that knows what it's talking about, and sounds like it to boot.

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