The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 586

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“Living Alone” is a fairly long poem (165 lines); it might appear at first to be in free verse, but actually it employs several types of rhyme, rhythm, and formal lineation. Excluding the epigraph and dedication, the poem is divided into seventeen sections, several of which are further divided into stanzas. The poem is dedicated to John Cheever, an American prose writer, and begins with an epigraph taken from one of Cheever’s works. In this epigraph an observer on a ship sees a Ping-Pong table washed off the ship’s deck because the helmsman made a miscalculation. Watching the table bobbing in the ship’s wake, the observer is reminded of the plight of someone washed overboard.

The first section of the poem is a single stanza that acts as a backdrop for the melodrama that follows. The narrator of the poem sees, through the insulated window of his apartment, a solitary chrysanthemum, the last one of the season. As wind and ice tear at its head, a gull cries and hovers above it. In the second section the narrator compares his pain to that of a “snake run over.” It is not until the third section that the reader learns the source of his pain and shock: He has been expelled “from her house” by his “successor” and is now living alone—thus the title of the poem. Although the reader learns that her name is Rachel and that the speaker probably knows her grandmother, he never identifies her as wife or lover. He simply states that he was “Jettisoned in one night” and that he felt as if he were “falling as a parachutist might/ in vacant air, shocked/ in the silence, nowhere.”

In subsequent stanzas readers learn that, in addition to his emotional misery, the speaker is physically ill. He compares the way he feels with having a bad cold—possibly pneumonia, flu, bronchitis—while in a strange town with no one he can call and a fever that, along with the winter sunset, brings thoughts of mortality. At one point he talks about both fearing and seeking death as other men have done. He adds that women must have felt this way too, but then expresses doubt about his ability to make any judgment regarding women: “I disclaim/ whatever knowledge I thought once/ to have of them.”

In the first of the two tercets that make up the fifth section of the poem the narrator expresses his belief that “Experience is unique” and implies that he will not compare his plight with others who may have suffered similar fates. In the second tercet he makes an immediate turn by crying out to François Villon, Spartacus, and others who have suffered similar indignities. As the poem progresses he sarcastically complains of the “endless joy” of housekeeping; complains of thin apartment walls that inundate him with a mother’s cruelty to her child, the ubiquitous flushing of toilets, and children screaming; complains of pins, tacks, and glass in the wall-to-wall carpeting; and in general complains of the squalor and boredom of living alone in an apartment.

In the end the narrator turns his troubles and his energies toward the blues—that art form that seems specifically created as a refuge for the lonely and the spurned. Readers who know of the music of Charles Ellsworth “Pee Wee” Russell may have a special insight into the last two sections of the poem, but Carruth’s faith in the power of jazz shines through regardless.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 613

The first obvious device used in this poem is the epigraph from an unnamed work by John Cheever. It sets the tone for the entire poem. The “I” of Cheever’s piece feels powerless in the face of the sea. Even the ship is out of his control, in the hands of an erring helmsman. He identifies with an inanimate object washed overboard and lost from everything that could give it meaning. The “I” of Carruth’s poem exhibits similar feelings about being at the mercy of a wrong-thinking person who throws him into a veritable sea of troubles where he is at the mercy of forces he cannot understand.

Carruth uses alliteration, assonance, and a dizzying array of rhyme schemes and patterns of lineation. The single nine-line stanza of the first section uses one of the most complex mixtures of alliterations and end rhymes in the whole poem:

Mystery. Seeds of every motion.See out there beyond the thermal-pane that last chrysanthemumin the frozen bed by the concrete wallwinging wildly its lavenderand shattered head. How fastthe wind rises. How the mudelaborates in patterns of ice.A gull, hovering, shudders and cries.

The reader should notice that at the end of the second line the poet forces a line break in the middle of a word. The break not only provides an end rhyme with the fourth line but also enhances the alliterative effect of all the m sounds in the first three lines and the final “mud” of the seventh line. Carruth uses a similar and more complex effect in the first two lines with “Mystery. Seedmotion./ See” and in the fourth, fifth, and seventh lines with “wall/ winging wildly . . ./wind.”

The second section is divided into two stanzas of four lines each with a very conventional rhyme pattern: aabb ccdd. The third and fourth lines of each stanza are indented, giving these two quatrains the feeling of four rhyming couplets. The second quatrain opens with an inversion that appears to have no greater purpose than to generate an end rhyme with the next line: “comfort me who will then?/ Or otherwise that time soon when.” Throughout the poem, Carruth continues to use inversions like this one to gain end rhymes.

The poem’s rhyming patterns change with each new section, and no two sections use the same pattern. One of the more interesting rhyme schemes comes in the tenth section. This section has only one strophe of four lines. The final word of the second line rhymes with the final word of the third line (there is nothing unusual in that). The final word of the final line rhymes, not with the final word of the first line, as one might expect, but with the first word of the first line. There is also a wonderfully playful irony in this section. This is the only place where the “I” of the poem provides the name (Rachel) of the woman who has abandoned him. He exposes himself as an unreliable narrator by saying, “Rachel, your name won’t rhyme, the language itself/ has given up on you. Zilch.” Then, at the end of the next sentence, the very last word of the stanza, he gives her name a rhyme, “satchel.”

The variety of stanza choices is as wide as that of rhyme schemes. Carruth runs the gamut from free form to couplet, tercet, quatrain, quintain, sestet, septet, and upward. By the time the reader reaches the end of the poem the constant and rapid changing of rhyme schemes and stanza types has left little doubt that the poet is a master craftsman and that his narrator is somewhat—but not hopelessly—paranoid.