Poetry Sunday: “Walking Through the Grass at Night,” by Ellery Akers

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This delightful free verse lyric proves the point that less is often more in poetry; in fewer than 100 words, Akers captures an experience that feels intensely personal and somehow universal at the same time. The poem distills the essence of summer, more specifically of summer-at-night, and that feeling of promise such nights hold for us in our youth and then are cherished in memory afterwards. There is something about being outside at night in the summer that always evokes for me what it felt like to be, well, young on such nights. Maybe this is because it was during my youth that my curfew got lifted and I was, for the first time, allowed to roam outside at night without my parents.

This week’s poem springs from the tradition of pastoral or nature poetry, generally considered to have begun in Sicily with Theocritus’s Idylls in the 3rd century B.C. Theocritus wrote about the lives and loves of shepherds, but over time the genre came to include eclogues (sometimes called “bucolics” or “Georgics”) and verse instruction about farming and husbandry; Virgil’s Eclogues and Hesiod’s Works and Days are prominent examples. Over its 2,000-year life span, the pastoral has been adapted by poets in ways that reflect how human beings have—through agriculture, industry, technology, migration, and war—evolved (some might say devolved) in their interaction with the natural environment. Devotional poets like Herbert, Donne, and Hopkins saw nature as a manifestation of God. Blake saw nature as visionary, capable of expanding human seeing, but he also wrote poems about a nature defiled by civilization.  For Romantic poets, nature was a wildly popular theme, often attributed with human qualities in what Ruskin called “pathetic fallacy” (discussed in a previous column here. Contemporary poetry borrows from the Romantics to offer poems that use an object in the landscape as a springboard opening out into some larger revelation.

“Walking in the Grass at Night” is free verse in 12 variable-length lines organized into two stanzas, each with six lines. Entirely unmetered and unrhymed, it relies on the cadences of ordinary speech and on image to do most of its work. The title puts readers in medias res, alongside the speaker who is wandering outside, alone, at night, first in an urban landscape, then in a field of grass. The poem opens with a remarkable series of images, many of inhuman and even inanimate objects given human qualities or anthropomorphized in a literary device called personification. A basketball hoop that not only has a face but also is “lonely” and has aggressive agency—it pushes (“sticks”) its face into the speaker’s field of vision. Two lines in, and we are already in the world of fairy tale and imaginative vision! Next, the senses of hearing (“loud”) and touch (“cold”) are triggered, as two more inanimate objects (cement and a boxcar) are, like that basketball hoop, imbued with living, human qualities. That is, we can read “loud cement” as expressive of the sound the speaker’s shoes make upon it, but we can also read it to mean that the cement itself generates a sound the speaker perceives as “loud.” For its part, the boxcar has a “flank,” like an animal or a human being does. The coup de grace of this first series of personified images comes in the last lines of stanza one when grass has human hands that can wear gloves and have the agency to “touch” the speaker. A lovely synesthesia jumbles the senses of sight (the gloves are “dark”) and touch (the speaker feels the grass’s hands upon her). Together, these images impart a quality of the speaker’s feeling affected, perhaps even assaulted or bombarded, by the stimuli—things that perhaps do not normally feel aggressive to most people but do to this speaker—coming at her.

A stanza break in a poem signals a change, and the camera pulls back as we are made aware of the sound of a car moving down the street. Again, a sound that many would not even notice here feels like an assault on the speaker’s sensibilities; “Throb” connotes a sense of urgency we don’t routinely associate with the sound of cars. What does normally “throb”? Something alive, like a heart, or a sore finger. So, there is some subtle personification going on even in this most pedestrian-seeming of images.

The departure of the car leaves the speaker alone on the street, “with one red light blinking.” Here is an example of how setup and context can change everything in a poem, for the personification in first stanza encourages me to read “blinking” in more than the obvious, surface way of a traffic light switching on and off. I see it, too, as another face with an eye that opens and closes. In a few short lines, this poet has made everything wonderfully strange and charged with meaning, even if that meaning is not yet revealed.

A clue comes in the next line, with “I am alone.” The poem is, then, at least somewhat about being alone and a speaker who conjures life into inanimate objects to populate her world. The poem’s landscape is vested with the speaker’s humanity, especially her sense of being alone. Remember that basketball-hoop face, and how it was “lonely”?  How the boxcar felt “cold,” and had a “flank,” and the grass reached out with gentle, supplicant hands? All that has come before sets the stage for this simple, straightforward utterance about being alone. At this point the speaker has not yet admitted that she is more than alone but also lonely—that revelation will happen in the last line. But the attribution of human characteristics to objects in the landscape certainly prepares us for that.

Line 9 plays again with synesthesia, blending the senses of sight (“dark”) and smell (“odor”) in the phrase “odor of dark.” Here is another example of less-is-more, because by not specifying the odor (for example, calling it the “cinnamon odor of darkness”), the poem leaves each reader free to try to figure out for herself what it is. I love the idea and can imagine what darkness smells like even if I cannot put it into words. The next line contains another image blending two senses (touch and hearing): the cicadas’ “throats are lined with water.” That feels just right for describing that liquid, pulsing sound, doesn’t it? It does what Pound says good images and poetry should do—takes something everyday and illuminates it, makes (old) things new. In general, the images create a strong dichotomy balancing negatives like “harsh light,” “loud cement,” and “cold flank” with equally powerful positives like the grass donning gloves to ever-so-gently touch the speaker and the liquid sounds of cicadas, moments of intense discomfort balanced by moments of feeling comforted, strong, and free. Part of this poem’s power is the way it holds these opposites together in suspension.

The persona of the speaker enters the poem with the pronoun “I” in line 3, and we are aware of her walking across cement, then grass, and sensing before she forms the realization that she is alone. The penultimate line adds more information: all this is taking place in the month of November, and the November, moreover, in which the speaker “is twenty.” No detail in the poem is not crucial, Roethke says, so we must assume that the age chosen matters here. Twenty is a pivotal age, perhaps the most pivotal age, in a person’s life, the year marking the boundary between childhood and adulthood, dependence, and independence. At this critical juncture the speaker has the revelation that she is “alone” in a deeply profound sense. We tend to associate being alone with loneliness, and loneliness with being a bad thing, but once again this brief poem surprises us by ending with “I swim toward this loneliness with both arms open.”

Why did the poet choose the word “swim” when her speaker is in a field, on dry land? Why does she not “run” toward loneliness? Swimming suggests a progression that is both more labored and more joyous and free than running or walking. To swim, you must pass through (rather than on or across) a palpable medium, and it takes engagement of the muscles of the whole body: arms, legs, core. It is a more deliberate and perhaps more taxing way to move forward. But think of swimming—is it not also somehow freer than moving on land? When I am swimming, especially in salt water, it sometimes feels like flying. I feel supported by the medium I have to move through and also protected, buffered from the world. Perhaps the medium here is the speaker’s own life, or time, and I love the idea of swimming through it towards one’s own future. Especially when that swimming is done “with both arms open,” an image that calls to mind an embrace, a reception, something done with willingness and joy. We do feel in those personified images some yearning for human contact. But at her core, it seems, the speaker embraces being alone. That happens to be the lot of every serious artist, so perhaps the poem is also a kind of ars poetica or record of the time when Akers first heard or heeded her calling to be a poet.

The basketball hoop, the harsh light, the cement, the boxcar, the grass, the car, the red light, the cicadas each functions here as what T. S. Eliot calls an “objective correlative” to shed light on the speaker’s inner state. The basic idea is that the poet uses nature as a repository for and a way to express human emotion. It’s a good way to avoid melodrama and sentimentality, and when done effectively can amplify and deepen expression. During the writing process, this device gives writers a way to distance themselves and gain perspective on painful things and so can liberate their expression of feeling. For readers, the adjectives and images used to describe the object in nature can open windows on the speaker’s inner state. In this poem, expressions like “harsh light,” “loud cement,” and “cold flank” signal a speaker hypersensitive to sight, sound, and touch. For such, darkness and swimming through life alone can be a refuge, and a benediction. And it can be even for people who relish sensory stimulation, because let’s face it, contemporary life and its ubiquitous technology can be overwhelming at times. Next week’s poem will take this issue head-on. Poems like “Walking Through the Grass at Night” offer brief sanctuary and remind us that being alone is not necessarily a bad thing.


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