The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

“Concerning Necessity” is a narrative poem of forty-two lines, which are divided into seven six-line stanzas. Each stanza has inexact, or slant, rhymes in an ababcc scheme. The poem is written in the first person. Although authors often create a persona that is distinct from themselves, the persona of this poem is commonly seen in Hayden Carruth’s poetry: The speaker is a man (a husband and father) who is living in a difficult environment filled with physical labor. To anyone who is aware that Carruth spent more than twenty years of his life as a laborer and handyman in a rural area of Vermont, it is clear that this poem arises from Carruth’s personal experiences.

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The poem begins in the first-person plural (“we”), indicating that there are many people who live in the rural hardship described. Stanzas 1, 2, and 3 depict a work-filled, arduous existence, in which he and others live in a “kind of rural twilight.” These stanzas contain precise details of this existence, beginning with stanza 1 and its references to “hard dirt” and “difficult woods.” The emphasis on work is continued in stanza 2, with a catalog of the types of work performed. The use of cataloging, which often occurs in poetry as a list of supportive examples or statements in parallel order, works well here because it intensifies the sense of the relentless labor of these people. The work involved is very physical—for example, driving a wedge, and making a chain saw “snarl once more.” Stanza 3 shows dramatically that everything is “falling to pieces” and creates a near-despairing tone. The mood of the first three stanzas is dark and foreboding.

In stanza 4, however, the poem turns from physical description to meditation. The speaker now ruminates upon his situation, realizing that he had been deluded in thinking, like “that idiot Thoreau,” as he says, that “necessity could be saved” by the natural facts of his rural existence. He now sees his delusion in believing that the “necessity” of his life, including hard work, suffering, and, eventually, death, could be compensated for solely by the objects of nature.

The poet again uses a catalog of natural objects in stanza 5 with references to trees, bird, mountain, and stars. Carruth, a noted observer and lover of nature, often turns in his poems to such natural phenomena for solace. Yet the stanza ends with the realization that “these things do serve/ a little though not enough,” and the reader is left wondering what would be “enough.” Carruth gives the answer in stanzas 6 and 7, in which the speaker states directly what “saves the undoubted collapse/ of the driven day and the year”: He sees a woman “asleep in the field” or “telling a song to a child.” These observations of tenderness and love in stanza 7 enable the speaker to “fall in love/ all over with human beauty.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486

“Concerning Necessity” has a formal structure of seven six-line stanzas which employ an ababcc slant-rhyme scheme and a line that varies between six and ten syllables. Within this structure, the poet uses strong images and direct, colloquial statement to convey his concerns. Although this combination may seem contradictory, it is often seen in Carruth’s poetry, with the formal structure helping to “contain” the message of the content.

The slant rhymes are not exact, but each set of rhymes contains an echoing vowel or consonant. For example, the last word of line 1 “live,” echoes the last word of line 3, “giving.” This use of inexact rhyme gives the poem a structure which, at the same time, does not force it into a rigid pattern (as a full rhyme might). In the same way, the six-to-ten-syllable lines give the poem a sense of regularity without a strict syllable count. Most of the lines are six or seven syllables, and this repetition of length creates a strong rhythmic expectation, as may be seen clearly in the last four lines of stanza 2: “dig the potato patch/ dig ashes dig gravel/ tickle the dyspeptic chain saw/ make him snarl once more.”

Appropriately for a poem about the difficult lives of people living in rural areas, Carruth often uses simple declarative statements that contain colloquial words and direct, easily understood images. Since this is a poem about people working in a natural environment, the actions are fundamental ones: cleaning a hen house, cutting corn, and watching a woman “telling a song” to a child.

Images are also basic: “dirt,” “weeds,” “potato patch,” “white birch.” The strength of these images dramatically re-creates the scenes and also anchors the speaker’s meditations in the physical world. For example, the major meditation, “that necessity could be saved/ by the facts we actually have,” is followed by a catalog of natural images such as the “white birch,” “hemlock,” “baybreasted nut-hatch.” This pattern does not allow the speaker to drift off into abstraction; rather, it brings his thoughts back into the world.

Also appropriately for the simple, rural context of the poem, Carruth does not use figures of speech or thought, such as similes or metaphors. Since the poem is about the bare, unadorned lives of rural people, the poet creates a poetic language that is also bare and unadorned. Digging a potato patch, or watching a woman who is “done in or footsore,” is not like anything else, Carruth implies; the reality portrayed must be taken for what it is, and this imbues that reality with importance and solidity. He does, however, present this reality in catalogs. For example, stanza 3 contains a catalog of the deteriorating situations in which the speaker finds himself: “the house is falling to pieces/ the car coming apart/ the boy sitting and complaining.” These catalogs intensify the individual images and, through accumulation, give them a power they would not have separately.

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