The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

“Gravelly Run” is a thirty-line free-verse lyric divided into six stanzas in which the speaker meditates on a small stream, questioning the connection between the world of human thought and the world of nature. The poem is characterized by a struggle between the highly abstract thought processes of the speaker and the concrete imagery of the stream. The poem opens with the speaker wrestling with a problem. The first line sounds as if the speaker has already been pondering the problem for a while. “I don’t know,” he says, indicating the tentative nature of what follows. The speaker proposes to himself that it is “sufficient” to concentrate only on the natural world, thus losing self-consciousness in nature, in “stones and trees.”

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In the second stanza, the poet explores the reasons for losing oneself in nature. He says that it is not as important “to know the self” in an absolute sense as it is to know the self as nature (“galaxy and cedar cone”) knows it. This second way of knowing the self does not take in the notion of time, the notion that people are born and must one day die. Rather, the “galaxy and cedar cone” approach the self as it is at any given moment, without the intrusion of past or future.

Having come to this conclusion, the speaker turns to the scene at hand, the stream named in the title of the poem, which flows from a swamp and down to a highway bridge, washing the water plants along the way.

At this point, the speaker looks at the banks of the stream, where holly and cedars grow, both trees laden with religious symbolism. The grove of cedars, with their long, “gothic-clustered” trunks, makes the speaker think that they could inspire religious thought in even the coldest heart (“winter bones”). He looks at the trees and tries to evoke that religious sense, but it does not come. There is no revelation. Each distinct object, each tree, each holly leaf remains separate. The natural objects will not be transformed into something spiritual.

In the final stanza, the speaker comes to grips with the realization that the natural world is not a harbor for human emotions or thoughts. He realizes that no systems of thought (“philosophies”) can be based on nature, that God does not exist in the holly. The objects of nature, he realizes, are not conscious (“the sunlight has never/ heard of trees”). Therefore, the speaker now sees that the “surrendered self,” the self that lost itself among the “stones and trees” in the first stanza, is among “unwelcoming forms” that do not recognize it. The self is therefore a stranger in the natural world, and, since the natural world is not a place for philosophies to be built, the self must take up its burdens (which philosophies might solve) and take them back “down the road” (a human-made object) to civilization.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 516

The major device in “Gravelly Run” is the play between abstract and concrete language. The poem itself is about a struggle between the speaker’s human self-consciousness and the utter lack of consciousness on the part of the natural world.

The first three lines of the poem contain no concrete visual imagery: The language is abstract, reflecting the speaker’s interior monologue. In these lines, the speaker advances the poem, developing his thoughts. Lines 4-6, however, contain only visual imagery. Whereas the first three lines are full of verbs (“know,” “seems,” “see,” “hear,” “coming,” “going”), the second half of stanza 1 contains none (“bending” acts as an adjective). The language also slows the poem. The repetition of the preposition “of” and the increased number of hard stresses slows readers down, forcing them to dwell on the imagery.

In stanza 2, the poet reverts to the abstract. Lines 7 and 8 are dense and difficult to sort out. Line 8 repeats many of the words used in line 7, and the key word, “know,” appears three times. This spare vocabulary forces the reader to go back over the lines to make sense of them. Even readers who know the poem well often stumble over line 8. In contrast, line 9 is effortlessly clear because it refers only to readily comprehensible, concrete objects. In effect, the reader moves from the cramped, restricted space of the mind into the vast reaches of nature. Furthermore, the rhyme of “known” with “cone” gives the lines a feeling of completion. Furthermore, the repetition of “it” (referring to the self) at the end of lines 10 and 11 brings the interior monologue to a close.

Another prominent device in the poem is the use of alliteration. In stanza 3, Ammons uses alliteration and half-rhymes to give the passage the feeling of a meandering stream. The s’s and w’s in line 12 move the poem along, while “comes,” with the m and s (pronounced as a z) causes the reader to pause momentarily. The reader is then hung up again on “Run” in the next line, which forms a half-rhyme with “comes.” The ng’s and l’s in the next line-and-a-half again move the poem forward like liquid. Ultimately, the stanza comes to a halt at the harsh sound of the human-made object, the “bridge.”

A third device Ammons uses to great effect in the poem is punctuation. The poem consists of a single sentence broken into sections by colons. Ammons uses the single sentence because the poem elucidates a single thought: The natural and the human are distinct. However, the dominant form of punctuation in the poem is the colon: The poem contains ten of them. There is one at the end of each of the first five stanzas, and there are five in the last stanza. The colons in the poem function as semicolons, linking closely related independent clauses. The semicolon suggests connection, and Ammons’s poem is about the separateness of things, and so he uses a colon, an element of punctuation that marks boundaries and separated elements such as hours, minutes, and seconds, leaving “each thing in its entity.”

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Themes