The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“You Are in Bear Country” is a poem of seventy-three lines parodying a bureaucratic guidebook with futile warnings about bear attacks, which, for some reason, seem much more frightening to people than the threat of mass human violence such as nuclear annihilation. Maxine Kumin is a teacher, wife, mother, and author residing in Newton, Massachusetts; a collection of her poems, Up Country: Poems of New England (1973), won a Pulitzer Prize. Whether writing in verse or in prose, Kumin strives for the precise image, a lucidity of insight, and an economy of language.

The epigraph of “You Are in Bear Country” sums up the humorous content of the first sixty-five lines, which provide a satirical exemplum for the poem’s concluding message; according to the epigraph, it is “advice from a pamphlet published by the Canadian Minister of the Environment.”

What follows is a tongue-in-cheek parody of the Canadian pamphlet’s directives to avoid contact with bears, even to the point of stifling the sound of one’s own whistling, which it claims is too much like the siren sounds of bears mating. The implicit advice may be, ironically, to steer clear of joy and beauty springing from an unguarded immersion in nature.

The next verse paragraph continues the nonsensical advice and makes the vaguest of distinctions between grizzly and black bears—so vague, in fact, that it renders the advice useless and makes the bureaucratic speaker a fool. The third and fourth verse paragraphs express ironically the culminating stupidity of bureaucratic advice about ensuring one’s safety around bears. Nothing ultimately guarantees safety: Running away does not work; climbing a tree will not help; playing dead might not protect one against mauling or worse.

The final stanza is the poem’s reductio ad absurdum—the climactic absurdity of the previous catalog of tidy and futile advice. It is a moral commentary on the absurd fears of human beings. Death in nature is far less of a threat than death by human inventions that by the early 1980’s (when this poem was published) had created a nuclear capability of killing every man, woman, and child on Earth.

You Are in Bear Country Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“You Are in Bear Country” is a satire with four verse paragraphs that waver between irregular iambic meter and free verse. The use of curt, staccato lines with insistent end rhymes (many of which are feminine, or weak, rhymes) and approximate end rhymes (the repeated final sounds being inexact but musically close) are reminiscent of the Renaissance satiric techniques of John Skelton, whose “Skeltonic line” capitalizes on short iambic beats and on insistent ingenious rhyming for comic effect. Like Skelton, Kumin uses a cascading catalog of absurdities in this poem to drive home the overwhelming absurdity of humanity’s creation of nuclear weaponry capable of humanity’s destruction.

There is a severe economy of language. The diction ranges from the simplicity of “your clatter” to the scientific bureaucratese of “a small horribilis/ is difficult to distinguish/ from a large americanus” to the final eloquence of “Cherish/ your wilderness.” By omitting the word “the” before any use of the word “bear,” Kumin interjects the humor of primitive childlike intimacy into the vapid voice of the bureaucratic speaker (“bear may not hear your clatter,” “Bear can outrun a racehorse”). The delicious irony of this linguistic anomaly is that the bureaucrat is warning against making the primitive contact with nature that is captured in his own childlike expressions of familiarity with “bear.”

The poem is a satire, a literary form ridiculing human vice and folly for the sake of providing humanity with moral instruction. Crucial to this poem’s success is the pervasive use of irony in having the bureaucratic speaker make a series of stupid statements when, in fact, the opposite is true. Contact with nature, however dangerous, is a much safer option than confrontation with artificial implements of violence and annihilation.