Warren does not specify any year or even a decade in which "Lake" takes place, nor is any particular region or state identified. The place is insignificant, but readers may make a careful, and educated, assumption about the time period. This poem is probably inspired by the author's awareness of her mother's deteriorating mental faculties due to dementia, which some critical accounts suggest accompanied the despondency and melancholy that Eleanor Clark sank into after Robert Penn Warren's death in 1989. Clark died in 1996. Given these facts and suggestions, it is safe to consider the time frame for "Lake" as the early to mid-1990s; its composition time may be the same or a few years later.
By the end of the twentieth century, great strides had been made in studying various types of dementia, particularly Alzheimer's after the former president Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with the disease in 1994. Ironically, the increased number of older people suffering from these mental ailments is commonly credited to the fact that humans are living longer. In general, dementia is a progressive brain dysfunction that leads to an increasing restriction of daily activities. A slow destruction of nerve cells in the brain causes the victim to lose the ability to function normally and to communicate thoughts and feelings effectively. Typical symptoms include forgetfulness, difficulties performing familiar activities, language problems, impaired judgment, and problems with abstract thinking.
Although data on the frequency of dementia have been more closely studied in recent years, there is no indication that the illness occurs any more or less often than in the past, when not as much attention was afforded it. In general, statistics show that its frequency increases with age, with about 2 percent of people age...
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Contemporary Free Verse
In the late nineteenth century, French poets such as Arthur Rimbaud and Jules Laforgue started a literary revolt against the long-established rules of what makes a poem a poem, which at the time were believed to be strict adherence to specific patterns of rhyme and meter. The vers libre (free verse) movement called for a relaxation of poetic restrictions, allowing the poet to compose in a more natural voice using common language to express familiar themes. Contemporary free verse simply refers to the progression of original free verse in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries toward even fewer restrictions, especially with regard to content and language usage. Contemporary free verse poets do not shy away from subjects that are sexual, violent, or controversial in nature, and descriptions are usually presented in a plain, conversational manner.
Metaphor and Allusion
In "Lake," the language is predominantly straightforward and unadorned, with a splash of metaphor here and there to add intrigue. For instance, there is a lengthy description of the subject standing in waist-high water and then coming to shore to dry off the "cranky shoulder, cramping heel tendons, [and] bad knees." These solely physical aspects are set against a more highbrow and obscure allusion to "ancient statues of Dionysus" as well as to the highly imagistic metaphor that concludes the poem. Adding allusions to...
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Topics for Further Study
- In the past ten to fifteen years, several notable people have announced that they have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Present to your class the reason(s) that you believe famous people make their diagnoses public and what effect the disclosure has on other people with Alzheimer's, on medical professionals who research and treat the disease, and on American society in general. Invite classmates to offer their own opinions as well.
- Warren is noted for her allusions to figures from Greek and Roman mythology as well as to actual writers and artists from the ancient world. Write an essay on why she might find these metaphorical references so attractive, and give your opinion on whether they strengthen or weaken her otherwise contemporary style and themes.
- Write a personal essay on where you might turn for comfort or for a momentary distraction from stress and sorrow if a loved one in your life were diagnosed with an incurable disease. Would it be an actual place, another person, a hobby, or any one thing in particular?
- Write a poem in which line breaks play as important a role as the subject or theme. Then write a brief synopsis of the process. Is it difficult to place such emphasis on line breaks? Does the construction itself get in the way of just saying what you want to say? Explain why or why not.
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- Visit the Slate magazine website at http://slate.msn.com/?id=2073776 and hear Warren read "Lake." The website features a section called "A weekly poem, read by the author." The former poet laureate Robert Pinsky is the poetry editor for Slate and the creator of the weekly audio poem page.
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What Do I Read Next?
- In a Boston Review article (Vol. 29, October–-November 2004) titled "Not Your Father's Formalism," the critic Rafael Campo offers interesting commentary on contemporary poets writing in formal verse. Campo contends that poets like Warren are not quite as strict as the formalists of long ago, but neither are they as loose as many contemporary experimental writers. Campo addresses Warren's Departure as well as new volumes by Marilyn Hacker and Mimi Khalvati.
- When Warren's mother, Eleanor Clark, was diagnosed with macular degeneration, she reacted with shock and despair. But she also used her permanently impaired eyesight as inspiration for Eyes, etc.: A Memoir (1977). Clark's near-blindness and later decline into dementia were the source for several poems in Departure, and this autobiographical book by Clark is a stirring account of the brave and determined battles she waged in later life.
- Deborah Digges, a poet and a contemporary of Warren, recently published Trapeze (2004). Her work is similar to Warren's in style and in substance—highbrow at times but also somber in addressing familiar themes. In this volume, several poems focus on loved ones who are dealing with loss and death, while others describe the rural New England landscape, with its woods, gardens, and barns.
- Margaret Lay-Dopyera offers a sometimes sad, sometimes funny, always intense account of what it is like to live...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Clarence, Judy, Review of Departure, in Library Journal, Vol. 128, No. 16, October 1, 2003, p. 80.
Orr, David, "Eight Takes," in Poetry, Vol. 184, No. 4, August 2004, pp. 305–16.
Review of Departure, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 250, No. 43, October 27, 2003, pp. 60–61.
Warren, Rosanna, Departure, W. W. Norton, 2003, p. 111.
Clark, Eleanor, The Oysters of Locmariaquer, 1965, reprint, Ecco Press, 1998.
This travelogue earned Warren's mother, Eleanor Clark, a National Book Award in 1965. It explores life in the town of Locmariaquer...
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