The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553

Albert Goldbarth’s “How the World Works: An Essay” is a blend of vivid narration, verse essay, and meditation about the interrelation of the various cycles and circles of life, from the very large to the very small. Its form—including variation between unrhymed lines as long as eighteen or as short as ten syllables—incorporates the contrast or cycling within the poem between macrocosm, the very large, and microcosm, the very small. While also considering small incidents in the speaker’s life, the poem, a small thing in the universe, considers the grand cycles of life and death, the cosmological development and interconnectedness of life on earth, meteorology, and societal and global ecologies.

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Further, its seven stanzas, with their fourteen lines each (based on a multiple of seven), symbolize the foundation of calendar time, the week, and the biblical account of creation; likewise, the enjambment of the last line of the first six stanzas to the first line of the next stanza mimics the poem’s subjects of time’s forward momentum and the interconnectedness of things.

As with an essay, a term used in other titles of Goldbarth’s poems and reflecting his several books of essays, the poem’s title and first stanza constitute an introduction, complete with thesis sentence, of the kind to be found in an essay’s first paragraph; the speaker, indeed, uses the term “topic,” saying in his first words after the title, “That’s my topic.” Suggesting the topic’s scope and grandeur, the speaker alludes to epic invocation by summing up his large and small illustrations in the first stanza as “singing the rings-in-rings song of the planet,” repeating this reference to singing several more times throughout the poem.

Illustrations of the world’s working are provided in the second and third stanzas, from the speaker’s childhood relationship with his father to an incident of the father’s being stopped for a speeding traffic ticket in Chicago while the eight-year-old son was a passenger; in the fourth stanza, from episodes in the speaker’s later-life sexual affair with a dyslexic woman; and in the fifth stanza, with the speaker’s consideration of his father’s death, circuitously associated with the gaudy “Pimp Prince” described in stanza 1.

Like the fifth stanza’s cyclical reference to the Pimp Prince, the sixth stanza recycles the third stanza’s illustration of various symbiotic interrelationships radiating from a bull, which becomes the breakfast steak of a salesman, the occupation of the speaker’s father, in Washington State in 1929. The seventh stanza details an incident from the speaker’s late adolescence, cycling back to the traffic ticket episode, which seems a counterexample to the world’s working, illustrating “our own small breakdown days” when the speaker and the reader are “sure that nothing ever does, or/ ever had really, or ever would, work.”

When the speaker was eight years old, his father had been able to oil (“unctious functioning”) the wheels of societal working by bribing the traffic “copper,” but when the adolescent joyriding son, years later, tries in the same Chicago area to recycle this behavior, formally inculcated by his father years earlier, he ends up temporarily in jail and, after returning many hours later to the lakeshore, suffers the crowning insult of finding his car not working.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 702

Repeated contrast between the formal level of usage and abstract diction on one side, and colloquialism (even an occasional vulgarity) and specific, sometimes scientific technical diction and imagery on the other side, helps convey how grand patterns and particular individuals interconnect. Thus, details of weather seen on computer screens or on the tiles of the Islamic architectural masterpiece in Granada, Spain, the Alhambra, help “construe a grander pattern.” Further, the speaker’s humorous awareness of the ironies in the contrasts and connections in the world’s working often emerges from these contrasting stylistic components, as in the eight-year-old’s embarrassed misery that the “copper’s” motorcycle flasher was, the child thought, “calling all of Heaven’s attention” to the traffic stop.

Specific or general settings are associated with the specific or general diction in the poem, showing the interconnectedness in the world’s working. The Alhambran—the beautiful curvilinear swirls of Islamic art—weather patterns on computer screens resemble the rain patterns on the tiles of the actual Alhambra, and a poacher in Nepal kills a deer for the small quantity of musk that the Pimp Prince “reeks of” in mid-Manhattan. The speaker engages in “explaining the planet,” a general or abstract setting, to his paramour on a cocktail napkin, implying the specific setting of the cocktail lounge to which he has taken her in his earlier “days of believing repeated sex/ meant knowing a person.”

Specificity in setting also helps create the poem’s looping, cyclical pattern, as the first stanza’s implied view of the earth and its oceans on the computer screens connects with the last stanza’s exhausted, dejected speaker’s staring view of the ocean, as he is seated on the hood of his non-operating car. In contrast to his exuberant epic singing of the first stanza, the speaker can only “sit stupidly humming—not singing just humming” in the last stanza, while the description of the sea, “the first gray rhythmic swashing/ in-and-out of the water,” associates it with the cyclicity of the world’s working.

The poem’s pervasive wordplay or punning is as important as its imagery and figurative language. The word “arabesques” not only suggests the swirling patterns on computer screens and courtyard tile, related to the circular or spiral connecting patterns in the world’s working, but also suggests the medieval Arabs’ Islamic culture, originating the beautiful Alhambra, which is connected to the modern Western meteorologists at their computer screens. The word “weathering” in the reference to the “weathering eddies on tiles” in the Alhambra’s courtyards and other areas suggests not only the weather that generates the rain but also the rain’s erosion of the artifact over time. The speaker’s reference to the planet’s song as “rings-in-rings” suggests the connecting concentric circles of the world’s working; the enormous time of the world’s working, implied by tree ring growth; the chains of the Pimp Prince’s jewelry, or the different rings not really differentiating the Pimp Prince from a rival; and the play on “links” in “chlorophyl links,” the chain-like interconnectedness of the world’s working.

The ignorant malaprop of the speaker’s dyslexic girlfriend in asking whether humanity is derived from monkeys “or little/ enemas in the water” in stanza 4 punningly displays her error for the word “amoebas,” later linked to the protozoa-bull feces-salesman’s breakfast steak chain in stanza 6, as well as the scatological imagery of the mini-ecosystem surrounding the bull described in stanza 3. The speaker’s initial “ripplings” of pity when hearing his paramour’s malaprop, both in the word and figure of speech, convey not only an emotional stirring but also a backward reference to the watery locus of her “enemas.” Finally, the speaker’s statement about needing to remember the world’s “networking” or working “against our own small breakdown days” in stanza 6 plays on the meanings of “breakdown” not only as generally going badly but also, as revealed in the next, final stanza, as the episode in which the breakdown of the speaker’s car capped a day on which the world apparently did not work for him, suggested also in the malfunctioning grammar of the poem’s final two lines.

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Themes