Study Guide

Keeping Things Whole Analysis

  • Sound Check

    This poem sounds like someone coming out of a deep meditation and giving us a very vague yet thought-driven poem to chew on for a while. The heavy use of repetition gives the poem a rhythmic feel, but the repetition echoes as a sort of flashing light to identify what preoccupies the speaker.

    This poem is so short, it's almost like a poem tweet. And not only that, the speaker repeats himself throughout the poem, which means it could be even shorter if he wanted it to be. This creates a sense of unity in the poem, but also an obsessive quality in the speaker. Just like a mirror reflects an image, the speaker is constantly moving back and forth between feeling present and absent.

    Here are the words and phrases that repeat:

    •  field (1, 3)
    •  I am (2, 6, 7)
    •  always (5, 10)
    •  move/moving (15, 16)
    •  keeping things whole (title, 7)

    Just like our speaker is going back and forth, the sound of the poem moves back and forth with repetition. Check out these lines: "Wherever I am / I am what is missing" (6-7). The "I am" is split between lines but it repeats. It's like a mirror reflection, but it's also movement. The phrase moves from the end of a line to the beginning of a line.

    It's like this guy can't make up his mind, and it's that repetitive loop that the poem is trying to capture. If you take a look at the list of words that repeat, you can see what the speaker's obsession is: the field (place), and his constant need to move and keep things whole. So, a lot of this poem sounds the same when you read it aloud, but that sonic echo of repeated words mimics the speaker's dilemma in the poem.

    Keeping Things Whole Means Keeping Things Simple

    Our speaker uses bare-bones phrases in simple, accessible language. He isn't concerned with a lot of flowery descriptions about nature or sensory detail about standing in a crowded subway (we're looking at you, Pound). All our speaker gives us is, "[i]n a field." His concern is with simplicity and clarity.

    In fact, the simpler the speaker sounds, the more complex his idea seems to get, as he packs a ton of meaning into teeny, tiny lines. The doubling of words and breaking up of the lines makes him sound meditative and deliberate, almost like an ancient meditative mantra or something. What can we say? Still waters run deep.

    Finally, the straightforward tone of this poem might also be a bit of a paradox. In a way, the line, "I am the absence" is a type of paradox, because the speaker has to be present to tell us he's "the absence."

    But our speaker is so monotonous that his ideas about not existing become disturbing. What sounds calm on the surface embodies a frantic anxiety about being "absence." In fact, our speaker is so bothered by the feeling that he disrupts wholeness, and his whole poem becomes about why he keeps moving to avoid permanently being absence. So, the sonic quality of the poem, in a seemingly paradoxical nature, captures anxiety and fear in a very calm, deliberate voice.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title is taken from line 17 of the poem. Our speaker really likes to get the most out of his words. Why use different ones, when the same old phrase will work as a title, right? He's like a cheap handy man who can fix your stuff with recycled material, only our speaker is making a poem and he's recycling words.

    But we know if he's repeating something, it must be important. "Keeping Things Whole" is a brief explanation of why our speaker "moves." Only he's not moving from one neighborhood to another, and he's not talking about his dance moves. For this speaker, "moving" is how he escapes the constant danger of becoming an "absence." Like, if he doesn't keep moving, he'll die, or get swallowed by the field, or become an absence, or vanish, or something equally creepy.

    And let's not forget that our speaker could also be a bit overly courteous, as in, he keeps moving because he doesn't want to mess up his surroundings. If he's the embodiment of absence, then it's like his presence is puncturing a hole in the world. Imagine a puzzle with one vital piece missing. That missing piece would make the puzzle whole and complete. Well, our speaker is that missing puzzle piece, and when he moves, the puzzle goes back to looking complete.

    What's Really Going Down?

    So maybe his reason for moving is so that he doesn't fragment and destroy the world around him. It's another contradiction the speaker inhabits. He says he moves because he doesn't want to vanish, yet he also moves because he wants "to keep things whole." It's unclear if he's more concerned with himself or his surroundings, and that uncertainty is what adds to the speaker's uncertainty about himself.

    Sure, there's a lot of anxiety in the speaker, but it's eerily stuffed beneath a calm demeanor. That internal anxiety bound inside a matter-of-fact expression is exactly what the title embodies. It sounds both calm and collected, like someone who makes a list to plan his decisions—someone who keeps his stuff together—but also like a warning, as if the speaker is talking to both himself and the reader, saying, "I must move or else I vanish."

    You could also say the title is echoed later in the poem. You know, an echo, like when you're standing in a cave, or a field, or a large open space, and you say something and then, magically, it's as if the open space repeats your own words back to you? Well, the poem does the same thing.

    The poem is a type of field for the speaker, and it's as if he's talking to himself and his internal dialogue is mapped out in lines of poetry. So, his thoughts are all about how he is "keeping things whole," and that idea is echoing in his mind just like it's echoed in the poem, poem…poem.

  • Setting

    Although the setting is hardly described at all, it plays a major role in this poem. The poem opens "In a field" and that's all we get. No description of the field, no landscape descriptions, no animals, no people, no weather, no time of day etc…just, "field." So if it's so important, why doesn't he describe it to us?

    What's important for our speaker is to create a contrast between himself and his presence with the setting of the poem. It isn't the particulars of the field that are important, but rather, how the speaker exists within relation to the field. So, while he's in a field, he takes up some space, which he refers to as "the absence of field."

    Sure, that's pretty confusing, but it's the central focus of the poem. This guy really can't get over that wherever he goes, he's becoming an "absence". In fact, it bothers him so much, he has to keep moving. Ever known one of those people who can't seem to sit still? Voilà! Our speaker is a little like that.

    So while the setting is a bit vague and unspecific, it's a symbol for all physical space. No matter where he goes in the world, the speaker feels this eerie sense of absence.

  • Speaker

    Who is our speaker? Sheesh, how would we know? This guy vanishes when he stands still.

    But in all seriousness, it's hard to say. He likes small words, short sentences, few adjectives, and no drama. Maybe he's the quiet type, or maybe he's like a wise old sage who doesn't see the point in wasting words. In fact, the vagueness of his identity reinforces the poem's theme of absence and presence. He's like the invisible man of his own story.

    We'll say he's a man, but there's nothing in the poem that suggests a gender for the speaker. We have no idea what he looks like, how old he is, where he is (aside from a field). In fact, this poem follows a minimalist style. In order to get down to the core of his "reasons for moving," the speaker tells us as little about himself as possible, but reveals a lot about how perceives his presence in the world.

    A cool way to think about this is to say that the speaker is telling us what he thinks about how he feels, and how he feels about what he thinks. We couldn't write a biography of him to save our lives, but we can tell you he's preoccupied with feelings of isolation and absence. He's a deep thinker, meditative, and thinks of himself as someone who disrupts the unity of nature. Those are big themes for such a little poem, and our speaker knows how to capture it all in just a few short lines.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    Although Mark Strand loves small words and short lines, "Keeping Things Whole" offers up pretty deep philosophical ideas about identity, wholeness, and fragmentation. It's a quick hike through this poem, but what feels like a straight line to the top can easily become a maze of reflection and philosophical investigation that goes much deeper than the surface suggests. Enjoy the journey, and don't take a single word for granted.

  • Calling Card

    Simple Does It

    Mark Strand is known for his simple diction, surrealist imagery, and narrative techniques. In other words, he writes straightforward poems that tell a little story and often use surrealism.

    "Keeping Things Whole" is no exception. The language is clear and precise and the imagery is surreal in the sense that we're trying to see a speaker who embodies "what is missing." We could also say the image of a body parting air as it walks is surreal. 

    Strand's other obsession is the double-ness of human beings. His poems often deal with consciousness and paranoia, a sense that the speaker feels alienated from himself and coexists in two different frames of mind. So if you come across a free verse poem that sounds simple, has some really strange images, and refers to a speaker who is lonely, alienated, or has a fragmented sense of self, well, you just might be reading a Mark Strand poem. And it just might blow your mind.

  • Form and Meter

    Free Verse

    "Keeping Things Whole" breaks all kinds of traditional rules of poetry: no regular meter, no rhyme scheme, no traditional form. How can this thing even call itself a poem?

    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
    of field

    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?

  • Absence

    Not showing up is our speaker's favorite pastime. No matter where he goes, he's not there. And not only that, but his presence interrupts the "wholeness" of wherever he happens to be. The speaker is meditating on his relationship to space and his presence in the world. He seems to be under constant threat of vanishing if he doesn't keep moving. The reoccurring image of "being not there" reinforces his fear and underlying anxiety of being both present and absent at the same time.

    • Line 2: The cool thing about this line is how it does two things at once. The speaker says he is absence, or not-being-thereness, yet he has to be somewhere to say that. Doesn't make any sense, does it? How can you be the absence? The speaker will flush his idea out a bit more as we go through the poem, but he gets this in there early. All of line 2 is a presence in the poem, but it's stating the opposite, and this duality preoccupies our speaker. 
    • Line 7: The speaker repeats himself here, using the same "I am" paradox as line 2, but here, he is "what is missing." Why repeat that you're not there? What is he trying to get at? Basically our speaker is trying to articulate his feelings of fragmentation and dislocation. No matter where he goes, he is "what is missing." So, he can't ever really be anywhere, in a sense, or can never fully be present. Not only that, but wherever he goes, he takes away from that place's wholeness. It's like this guy is a splinter of nothingness breaking up the world. Oh joy. 
    • Lines 12-13: The speaker doesn't mention absence here, but does tell us about his body creating an empty space and pushing air out of the way. When he moves, "the air moves in / to fill the spaces / where my body's been." It's another cool way he gives us a physical description of being present and absent at the same time. But so what? Is he just rewriting the same thing over and over again in the poem? In a way, yes, because the idea is that every time he arrives somewhere, he vanishes. In the same way, he keeps repeating the idea that, "I'm not here," but by doing that, it keeps him present. Just like he eventually says he moves to keep things whole, his poem repeats to move from line to line. 
  • Nature Imagery

    "Keeping Things Whole" isn't the most flowery poem in the world. In fact, it's the opposite. It uses a minimal amount of words, few adjectives and almost no detail whatsoever. Well, there's detail, but the speaker stays vague, especially when talking about nature. However, in such a short poem, the presence of both "field" and "air" play vital roles in accentuating the speaker's feelings about his existence. They're backdrops against which the speaker defines himself, but in a funny way, because he's the part of nature that is missing.

    • Line 1: Nothing spectacular there except that it's the first image of nature we get. The speaker wants to place us somewhere in the poem, so we know where we are, although we're not in a particular field, just "a field." It's vague, but intentionally vague, because the speaker uses the field as a physical manifestation of his absence. In other words, he needs to give us something concrete to imagine so that he can create the contrast of "absence." 
    • Line 3: Here's a variation of line 1. What's interesting is that the speaker has placed the statement, "I am the absence" in between lines 1 and 3. So, just like his presence is the absence within nature, line 2 splits the image of a field into two different lines. But his line "I am the absence" wouldn't make any sense, or would seem less powerful, if it weren't sandwiched between two lines about "field." The image of the field is necessary for the speaker to describe his "absence" and so he's tied to the natural world even though he feels separated from it. 
    • Lines 8-9: The speaker carefully chooses the word "air" because it's natural, something necessary for life, something we're tied to, something that goes both in and out of our bodies as we breathe; yet, for him, the air moves out of the way as he walks. This is another contrast the speaker uses to emphasize his feelings of isolation. The speaker feels invisible, and yet the invisible parts of nature move out of his way. It's like the natural world is rejecting the speaker, but the images also give us a strong sense of why the speaker eventually says, "I move / to keep things whole."
    • Lines 11-12: Think of a stage with curtains. The curtains part, a man appears and the curtains close. Now imagine the curtains are invisible because they're just air. And imagine the speaker walking through the parts in the curtains that are just air and then watching those curtains close behind him. Now reread lines 11-12 again because Mark Strand's version is so much better than ours. But really, the speaker is like this empty space that moves through the world, pushing the world away as he goes. Even the air flows around him. But, the speaker uses the contrast of his body as an absence within the natural world to create startling, concrete imagery that embodies his feelings of isolation. 
    • Steaminess Rating


      No sex. Dude's invisible.