Animals Are Passing from Our Lives Analysis

Philip Levine

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Philip Levine’s often anthologized “Animals Are Passing from Our Lives” consists of six stanzas of four lines each. The first stanza is a discrete statement of self-description, followed by five stanzas that express the thoughts of the speaker in anticipation of the termination of the speaker’s existence. A mood of mordant irony is established from the start as the reader learns from the speaker’s self-portrait that the poem is an expression of the flow of consciousness in the mind of a pig destined for slaughter. “It’s wonderful how I jog/ on four honed-down ivory toes,” the pig proclaims, both contradicting the common perception of a pig as merely gross and clumsy, while introducing an element of reflective awareness that challenges the concept of animals as dumb beasts that lack, as William Shakespeare called it, “discourse of reason.” The tension between the standard image of a pig and the sensitive, socially attuned speaker creates an intense kind of energy that illuminates the pig’s predicament and introduces a strain of poignancy that evokes a degree of sympathy beyond the natural sadness of an animal’s death.

After the personal introduction, the pig tersely asserts its situation in a blunt factual statement—“I’m to market”—and then anticipates a fateful inevitability by projecting with a sensory vividness the smell of the “sour, grooved block,” the “blade” and the “pudgy white fingers” that constitute...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

During an interview in 1999, Levine commented that “if you’re going to say something difficult or hard about the nature of our experience, the reader will resist, and so you have to involve the reader shrewdly.” Levine said that one of the techniques he used to do this was to “catch readers off balance, entangle them.” In “Animals Are Passing from Our Lives,” by placing the poem literally and directly within the perceptual and reflective consciousness of a pig—albeit one whose capacity to feel and speak corresponds to that of a human being—Levine has devised a method that is extremely effective in entangling the reader so that resistance to the unconventional can be overcome.

The confessional address to the reader that starts the poem, with its self-mocking reference to the pig’s means of motion, not only establishes a recognizable and appealing voice but also offers the first in a series of vivid images that leave an indelible impression on the reader’s mind. As the poem proceeds, these images continue to accumulate, alternating between the senses of sight and smell in terms of the pig’s appearance prior to and after its arrival at the market. Levine draws the reader further into the action of the poem here as the pig envisions the uneasy interaction between product (pig) and consumer (reader) in terms of a reciprocal avoidance and baleful confrontation.

Levine also mentioned in an interview how important it is for him...

(The entire section is 552 words.)