Study Guide

A Thirst Against

by Linda Gregg

A Thirst Against Summary

Introduction

In her poem “A Thirst Against,” Linda Gregg presents modern readers with an age-old philosophical dilemma: human beings strive to find order and logic in the world around them, but at the same time find life to be empty without the intuitive or emotional experiences that defy logic. To illustrate this logicdefying thirst, she draws examples from nature, and also includes an extended comparison to the characters in William Shakespeare’s drama Hamlet. While Shakespeare’s characters had trouble finding the right balance between intellect and emotion, Gregg’s poem ends by stating a certainty that God exists in the most unlikely places, such as on a frozen, abandoned city street in the middle of winter. The dichotomy between logic and emotion is therefore appreciated as a good thing in this poem, and the thirst against logic is seen as being just as important as the hunger for it.

Gregg is considered an original, noteworthy modern American poet. “A Thirst Against” is characteristic of her work in its concern with ancient questions and its desire to relate them to familiar contemporary situations. The poem can be found in Gregg’s 1999 collection Things and Flesh.

A Thirst Against Summary

Lines 1–2
The opening lines of “A Thirst Against” establish the poem’s central dilemma. It identifies the human desire for an orderly and intelligible world, characterizing that desire with a metaphor so familiar that readers might not even notice the poet is using figurative language. To say that people “hunger” for something is a reference to the basic need for food, as if the need for order were just as necessary to human existence.

The use of the word “hunger” allows Gregg to use hunger’s parallel, thirst, to connect the two lines while introducing the concept of opposite desires. She does not identify whether the opposite of order here is chaos or nature (which would be the opposite of imposed order) or intuition, but instead she indicates it with the truncated phrase “a thirst against,” leaving readers to stop and put together the pieces of her fragmented sentence before they understand her point. Using the word “thirst,” Gregg shows that the thing that opposes order is every bit as significant as the drive toward it, but that it is a drive in the opposite direction.

Lines 3–4
In these lines the speaker asks readers to wonder about the relationship between reality and the mind. Things created in the imagination generally are free from rules of the physical world that cause decay over time. The poem gives the example of a flower here. Generally, a flower created by the imagination will not age or decay, because the mind is not limited by the laws of physics that rule common reality. What Gregg asks the reader to consider is what would happen if the laws of reality did affect things that exist in the mind. The poem implies that if logic, or order, had the same effect on a flower created in the imagination that it has on flowers in the real world, then it would “give it away to time.” The flower that once was free from time’s effects would have to age.

Lines 5–6
These lines emphasize the aging process referred to in line 4. Gregg uses the repetition of the words “by” and “leaf ” to help readers feel the process of a flower in decay, rather than just reading about it. A common way of showing a process like decay would be to repeat each noun, as in “leaf by leaf, petal by petal.” By abbreviating this structure to alternate the words “leaf” and “petal,” the poem achieves two distinct objectives. First, it saves space, conveying the same idea with fewer words, leaving more room at the end of line 5 to begin the thought that will carry over to the next line. Also, this unusual way of phrasing the passing of time displays the poem’s main point at the same time its words are telling readers about it. The ordinary construction of this phrase would be familiar and thus would conform with the reader’s desire for order, but Gregg’s point here is to show that there are some things in the world that do not fulfill the human desire for order, yet are nonetheless worthwhile in and of themselves.

A blotter is a paper that writers used to use when inks were less absorbent. It was rubbed onto a paper with writing on it, to sop up the excess ink so that the ink would not smear. Just as the blotter would not have the original writing on it, but instead would show backwards copies of what was written, so too a world where the rules of natural order were followed within the mind would be one with faint and corrupt copies that do not necessarily make sense on their own. Gregg uses the term “soul” in line 5 to mean virtually the same thing to which she referred earlier with “mind”: changing to this new terminology helps emphasize the spiritual nature of the inner life, drawing a wider distinction between it and the orderly ideas that usually dominate human thought.

Lines 7–9
In lines 7 and 8 the poem uses several words as unusual synonyms for “this world,” which was referred to in line 6. The meaning of “the greater” is obvious; it is talking about the entire natural universe, and its greatness can hardly be understated. “The wetter” gives readers a subtle reminder of the sensory properties of the world, appealing to the sense of touch in order to evoke the experience of reality. It is also a...

(The entire section is 1744 words.)