The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Cumberland Station” is a free-verse elegy with nine stanzas that vary in length. The station in the poem’s title is in Cumberland, Maryland, a town at the end of the Potomac River that was once considered the “Gateway to the West.” While the station at one time served as a gateway, the poem explores how a station can change from a gateway to a “godforsaken/ wayside.” Throughout the poem, the station reflects the speaker’s moods. Like much of Dave Smith’s work, the poem is autobiographical, exploring the effect of place and history on individuals who struggle against changing times and struggle to maintain their sense of self.

In the first stanza, the speaker mentions objects that he sees as he enters the Cumberland train station: “gray brick, ash, hand-bent railings, steps so big/ it takes hours to mount them, polished oak/ pews.” These objects are fragments of a grand old station, a place of giants where “Big Daddy” once collected children for thunderous rides on steam engines, where crowds of people had food and purpose, where children rode free. The speaker identifies himself as a child who once “. . . walked uphill/ through flowers of soot to zing/ scared to death into the world.” In the first two stanzas the images and bits of narrative create a nostalgic mood—even the soot and ash are beautiful, flowerlike.

Cumberland Station is no longer a place of giants, however; it is now a deserted and damaged hall....

(The entire section is 533 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Since the speaker in “Cumberland Station” tells a story, the poem could be labeled a narrative. Since the poet uses the narrative to express the speaker’s psychological state (a state that the speaker only half understands), the poem could also be called a lyric. Finally, since the poem explores the transience of life, is reflective, and laments the loss of a time and place, it is also elegiac. The narrative style, the serious subject matter, and the elegiac form reveal the extent to which Smith draws on a poetic tradition that dates to the Anglo-Saxon period. In anonymous Old English poems, such as “The Seafarer” and “The Wanderer,” isolated speakers journey, lamenting the loss of their lords or their families. Like the speakers in those poems, Smith’s speaker also journeys, lamenting the loss of heroes and heroic times.

Since the lines vary in length and lack end rhyme, “Cumberland Station” could be called a free-verse poem. The line length is not completely irregular, however. Like “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer,” “Cumberland Station” has long lines, averaging ten syllables. Like Old English poems, there are also at least eight syllables in most lines, and the poet relies on accent and alliteration, rather than on a precise number of syllables or a precise meter, to create rhythm. Long lines usually indicate a serious subject, which is true in Old English poetry and in “Cumberland Station,” so the form and the...

(The entire section is 499 words.)