The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 586 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 613 words.)