The Poem

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419

“Angle of Geese” is an elegy in six four-line stanzas. The poem presents an initial obscurity to the reader, for the subject and occasion are not immediately clear. The author evidently recognized the reader’s potential difficulty; according to Matthias Schubnell, N. Scott Momaday wrote to his friend and mentor, Yvor Winters, that he proposed adding an epigraph to the poem: “For a friend on the death of his child.”

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In fact, the poem alludes to two separate incidents in the author’s life. The first three stanzas express a plural “we”: The occasion is the death of a child, and the speaker defines an intimate sympathy with the grieving parents in voicing the impossibility of finding words that “we” may find adequate to this moment. Words are not adequate; they are only superficial decoration for such a profound and inexplicable event as the death of a firstborn child. Custom and manners provide both a means and a barrier to the expression of feelings. The speaker feels almost able to comprehend the parents’ grief; he attempts to sound the depth of their loss but is hard put to achieve any reconciliation to it.

The last three stanzas move to an earlier event in Momaday’s life, the recollection of a hunt for wild geese. On that occasion, as the poet wrote about it elsewhere, he witnessed the calm but alert wariness of geese resting on water, then the rushing chaos as, at the first gunshot, they ascended from the water, and then the sudden, astonishing beauty of their flying formation. One goose had been hit, and the young man held it as it died. It is this event that is recollected in the elegy for his friend’s child. The ancestral goose recalls the clan emblems that related the tribal peoples of America to their history and to the natural world; the great size of the goose also indicates that it is both real physical animal and spiritual ancestor from the early days of creation. The wedge formation of geese in the sky represents visually the intersection of time and eternity that is death. The speaker remembers that the goose fell awkwardly out of the sky, disrupting the perfect symmetry of the flying wedge of vibrantly alive animals. The animal died calmly, perturbed by neither expectation nor emotion; it was a full participant in its own being even in the act of dying. Its gaze lay fixed on the distant flock with neither longing nor regret until its end.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604

“Angle of Geese” is written in syllabic meter: The first and third lines of each stanza are each of five syllables, the second and fourth of seven syllables; there is no fixed pattern of accent (in contrast to metrical verse, in which a pattern of feet composed of stressed and unstressed syllables prevails). Syllabic verse is a favorite form of the author, and it is one that subdues the verse of a poem to a more proselike uncertainty of rhythm.

Further deemphasizing the verse form is the subtlety of the rhyme. The first and third lines of each stanza rhyme, but the second and fourth do not, reversing the more common pattern of the four-line stanza in English verse. The third stanza does suggest an off-rhyme in the second and fourth lines ending with “loss” and “repose,” respectively, which is echoed in turn by the ending of the fourth line of the next stanza with “goose.” The use of such near rhyme is characteristic of the poetry of Emily Dickinson, whom Momaday greatly admires, and who also wrote very movingly on the subject of the fundamental enigma of death. These suggestions of closing rhyme, however, remain tenuous and extremely subtle. The lack of rhyme to end each stanza correlates with the acknowledged inability of the speaker to come to any definitive statement of the meaning of so profound an event as death. The rhyme scheme supports the lack of closure, the ambiguity, that the speaker feels.

Other sound qualities in the poem are also extremely subtle. An example is the judicious use of alliteration. The device is notable in the first three stanzas. Stanza 2 contains six words that alliterate on the letter m, including “more” at the end of the second line, which is repeated immediately at the beginning of the third; the sound echoes again in the following stanza in “almost” and “mind,” bridging the transition from the plural “we” to singular “I” as the speaker gropes for the “mere margin” of rest or acceptance of the event. One could speculate on the effect of this nasal consonant as a humming or murmuring sound appropriate to the muted emotions and desire to comfort that is expressed in the poem. The second half of the poem does not show sustained repetition of consonant alliteration, but subtle paired words: “so” and “symmetry” in the fifth stanza; in the sixth, “hope” and “hurt” in the first line, followed by “held” in the second; and “dark” and “distant” in the last line.

“Angle of Geese” is an example of the plain style identified in the work of Renaissance poets such as Ben Jonson and continuing through the tradition of English poetry down to twentieth century exemplars such as Louise Bogan and Thom Gunn. The style is characterized by controlled emotion—which may nevertheless be extremely intense—by precision of diction, and by little or no rhetorical ornamentation. Momaday even announces plain style as most appropriate to his subject in the first lines of the poem, which question the propriety or adequacy of language to “adorn” an event so profound as death. In keeping with this philosophy, the poet uses precise but measured language: Indeed, the term “measure” appears, as the speaker acknowledges the impossibility of determining the extent of such a loss. There is one brief exclamation, but that refers to the precisely ordered formation, the “symmetry,” of the flying wedge of geese. The poem’s only outright metaphor is the brief simile comparing the angle of the geese in flight as they disappear into the sky with the meeting of time and eternity that is death.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 180

Barry, Nora. Review of Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. MELUS 16 (December 22, 1989): 115-117.

Douglas, Christopher. “The Flawed Design: American Imperialism in N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 45 (Fall, 2003): 3-24.

Isernhagen, Hartwig. Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong: Conversations on American Indian Writing. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Owen, Louis. Other Destinies: Reading the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Roemer, Kenneth, ed. Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s “The Way to Rainy Mountain.” New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1988.

Scarberry-Garcia, Susan. Landmarks of Healing: A Study of “House Made of Dawn.” Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.

Scenters-Zapico, John. “Cross-Cultural Mediations: Language, Storytelling, History, and Self as Enthymematic Premises in the Novels of N. Scott Momaday.” The American Indian Quarterly 21 (June 22, 1997): 499.

Schubnell, Matthias. “Locke Setman, Emil Nolde, and the Search for Expression in N. Scott Momaday’s The Ancient Child.” The American Indian Quarterly 18 (September 22, 1994): 468-480.

Stevens, Jason W. “Bear, Outlaw, and Storyteller: American Frontier Mythology and Ethnic Subjectivity of N. Scott Momaday.” American Literature 73 (September, 2001): 599-631.

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Themes