The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.”

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.


(The entire section is 487 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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....

(The entire section is 516 words.)