The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Albert Goldbarth’s “How the World Works: An Essay” is a blend of vivid narration, verse essay, and meditation about the interrelation of the various cycles and circles of life, from the very large to the very small. Its form—including variation between unrhymed lines as long as eighteen or as short as ten syllables—incorporates the contrast or cycling within the poem between macrocosm, the very large, and microcosm, the very small. While also considering small incidents in the speaker’s life, the poem, a small thing in the universe, considers the grand cycles of life and death, the cosmological development and interconnectedness of life on earth, meteorology, and societal and global ecologies.

Further, its seven stanzas, with their fourteen lines each (based on a multiple of seven), symbolize the foundation of calendar time, the week, and the biblical account of creation; likewise, the enjambment of the last line of the first six stanzas to the first line of the next stanza mimics the poem’s subjects of time’s forward momentum and the interconnectedness of things.

As with an essay, a term used in other titles of Goldbarth’s poems and reflecting his several books of essays, the poem’s title and first stanza constitute an introduction, complete with thesis sentence, of the kind to be found in an essay’s first paragraph; the speaker, indeed, uses the term “topic,” saying in his first words after the title, “That’s my...

(The entire section is 553 words.)

How the World Works Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Repeated contrast between the formal level of usage and abstract diction on one side, and colloquialism (even an occasional vulgarity) and specific, sometimes scientific technical diction and imagery on the other side, helps convey how grand patterns and particular individuals interconnect. Thus, details of weather seen on computer screens or on the tiles of the Islamic architectural masterpiece in Granada, Spain, the Alhambra, help “construe a grander pattern.” Further, the speaker’s humorous awareness of the ironies in the contrasts and connections in the world’s working often emerges from these contrasting stylistic components, as in the eight-year-old’s embarrassed misery that the “copper’s” motorcycle flasher was, the child thought, “calling all of Heaven’s attention” to the traffic stop.

Specific or general settings are associated with the specific or general diction in the poem, showing the interconnectedness in the world’s working. The Alhambran—the beautiful curvilinear swirls of Islamic art—weather patterns on computer screens resemble the rain patterns on the tiles of the actual Alhambra, and a poacher in Nepal kills a deer for the small quantity of musk that the Pimp Prince “reeks of” in mid-Manhattan. The speaker engages in “explaining the planet,” a general or abstract setting, to his paramour on a cocktail napkin, implying the specific setting of the cocktail lounge to which he has taken her in his earlier “days of believing repeated sex/ meant knowing a person.”

Specificity in setting also helps create the poem’s looping, cyclical pattern, as the first stanza’s implied view of the earth and its oceans on the computer screens connects...

(The entire section is 702 words.)