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:
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.
Reading a book might not sound like an exciting topic for a poem at first, but reading that same book at 30,000 feet? Everything gets more interesting at 30,000 feet, right?
And reading Moby-Dick ups the excitement ante by a thousand. After all, the book takes place on a whaling boat, where the line between life and death is thin at best and non-existent at worst. These high stakes heighten the contrast between the life of these whalers and the life of the speaker.
On the Pequod, these men are risking their lives on the open ocean. At 30,000 feet, we're in a passenger plane, flying smoothly in relative safety. On the whaling boat, the members of the crew have hard, physical work to do. They feel the ocean under them and the salt spray in their faces. At 30,000 feet, we're sitting in a small, cushioned chair, funneling Muzak into our ears from the airplane radio. On the whaling boat, they're hunting huge animals by hurling pointy objects at them; those huge animals also have the power to smash their boat. At 30,000 feet we're… well, you get the idea. There's a huge difference between the two, and the title of "Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet" clues us in to the fact that the difference is going to be the focal point of the poem.
This poem is packed with settings. We'll start with the first one: an airplane above Kansas, en route from Seattle to New York. We're sitting in one of those seats that's cushioned and still somehow uncomfortable. We're jammed between people, yet in our own little world, alone with our imagination. There's an in-flight movie, but it's that superhero one that disappeared from theaters in three weeks because, well, it was terrible. The words of the day are: bored, distracted, dissatisfied. So we drift into a memory…
Suddenly, we're in setting number two: a backyard, looking up at the trails of jets in the sky—those puffy white lines that stay engraved in the blue, even after the plane is gone. From our point of view, which is only about four feet off the ground, the business of flying seems awesome in just about every way.
Then we're back in setting number one—the plane—and we turn our attention to this book our speaker brought along called Moby-Dick. And we're not too caught up in the story of the book at the moment, but we are drawn into the idea of being one of the crew members on the ship…
Which brings us to setting number three: the deck of a ship, rolling on a rough sea. We've got a harpoon held overhead and we're staring down at the glint of a whale beneath the water, waiting for it to surface. We can feel the wind whipping salt water into our eyes. Our blood is pumping. And then we're done.
All these settings (plus the more abstract setting where our speaker asks us to imagine a century like a long corridor) are like different channels in our speaker's imagination. They're very different, but they all relate to our speaker's thoughts on life, on modern comforts, on safety and security, and on straight lines vs. wildness and danger and excitement. And he's got the mind space to travel to them all because he's stuck on an airplane, where he's got nothing better to do than to follow its imagination wherever it may roam.
We picture our speaker as anywhere between the ages of 35 and 60. He's not really young or really old (which fits into that in-between places feeling he has in the poem). Sitting next to him on the plane, you'd probably not give the guy a second look. He's typical. Boring, even.
But hey, at least he's literary. The guy is reading Moby-Dick after all. In fact, maybe he's not so ordinary after all. We can tell from his reading that he's got quite an imagination, and it seems like that goes all the way back to his childhood, when he used to look up and admire the planes in the sky.
So sure, he may be typical, but he wants his life to be anything but. And he's got the imagination to make that happen.
Our speaker jumps around a lot, but he keeps things pretty conversational and direct, so you shouldn't find this trek too trying.
Poems in general tend to pull in a lot of different threads. They might mention a couple things that seem pretty unrelated; then, as the poem rumble along, you realize that everything starts to fit together. That's part of how poems achieve depth, and it allows them to approach things from different directions. But Tony Hoagland has a pretty distinctive way of jumping around in time, place, and focus.
The best way we can think of to describe it? Juggling. Take "Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet." He starts with one setting: the view out an airplane window. He throws that bowling pin up, and soon brings in other one—his feelings. And watching him juggle the two, we might notice that they both have to do with distance.
Then comes the next bowling pin: his childhood memory. Our focus soon turns back to the plane, and to his distraction, but we've got all three pins up now, and we're starting to see how they all relate to how he's come to be dissatisfied with the inactive, detached life he's leading (or, rather, not leading).
Then he adds the imagined scene based on Moby-Dick. And we see how it works in as a sort of opposite to our speaker's life. And then there's yet another pin: his musing on modern life as a long corridor. Still more depth, more ideas working together.
So when we focus back on the scene from his book (at the end of the poem) the other settings and ideas are still there, like pins spinning in the air behind it, adding depth and expanding our understanding of that scene.
The poem is broken into three-line stanzas, except for the final one, which has four. Otherwise it's pretty freewheeling. All the lines hang around the same length, but there still doesn't seem to be any strict rule. Some lines and stanzas are end-stopped (meaning they have a comma or period at the end). But many of them end right smack dab the middle of a phrase and so roll right into the next line or stanza. In other words, this poem makes use of enjambment. A lot. Which forces us to constantly move through the poem, without a moment's pause, much as our speaker's mind makes leaps at a moment's notice. This looseness of form fits the way the poem moves rhetorically, what with all that moving from place to place and thought to thought.
So why does our speaker break up the stanzas at all? Or why isn't it more random? Well, one possibility is that a big block of text, or widely varied stanza lengths, would just make the poem more confusing and harder to follow. Since the poem moves around in time and imagination, we need our brain power focused on following that, and not some formal aspect of the poem. Having stanzas that are the same length establishes a pattern, so that it doesn't take up too much of our attention. Plus, those three-line stanzas are practically bite-sized, or thought-sized; they kind of match the attention span of our speaker.
Our speaker has one heck of an imagination. And it makes for some really cool combinations of ideas in his description of his surroundings. That imagination could also be part of the reason for his discontent. If he didn't have such a good imagination, he might never have supposed there was another way to live. Nor would the life of the men in his book seem so vivid and awesome.
So our speaker wants to feel things. We can tell he's pretty sensitive to his surroundings and to his own feelings; his problem is that the main things he's feeling right now are boredom and detachment. He longs to feel more—from physical sensations like wind and water on his face, to feelings of excitement, awe, and power.
Okay, so our speaker definitely scopes out a stewardess—and he's not checking out her pretty face. But it's not exactly something to hide from the kiddos, so we're calling this one a G.