The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Open Casket” is a free-verse poem in which the poet describes and moves through various California landscapes. The identity of the speaker is muted, and the personal pronoun Sandra McPherson uses is the plural “we,” which de-emphasizes the individual in the scene and focuses the reader’s attention on the landscape itself.

Although the title suggests a funeral at which there is an “open casket” viewing of the deceased, the poem itself seems to go off in a different direction, depicting vacation entertainments, rural landscapes seen from a bus, a field trip for school-children, and other diversions. The school trip, in particular, suggests that the sights in the poem are seen from the viewpoint of a child.

The tone of voice in the poem is calm and understated, conveying a cool sweetness that contrasts ironically with other statements about the poor, going “back where we belong,” or overpopulation, “Certainly too many people.”

The first stanza begins with the sort of recommendation one might find in a travel brochure, describing as it does a ride in a “glass-bottomed boat,” a tourist attraction in Monterey Bay near the town of Pacific Grove, on the California coast. The onlooker marvels at how clearly she can view the sea anemones and other underwater life. Presumably, this boat trip takes place on a vacation excursion.

The following, indented stanzas turn by association to other trips, or...

(The entire section is 561 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

McPherson uses indentation and stanza breaks to provide structure for her free-verse poem. The first and last stanzas serve as a frame for the others, but otherwise the poem is very open in form. Although the reader can occasionally hear rhymes, such as “brine” and “design,” they are rare and almost incidental.

Strong visual images are very important in the poem. The poet describes things vividly and accurately in a few words, and as she does so, her observations and descriptions evoke layers of association and meaning. Although her images become metaphorical by association, McPherson’s descriptions are also strongly physical. The world she describes is very concrete and real, and the connections she makes between objects and events follow channels of physical experience. In “Open Casket,” the boat trip evokes feelings of peacefulness and awe and the sense of looking into another world, but the boat itself is a real object in a real world. It is associated visually with the funeral casket by the boat’s shape, the flowerlike sea anenomes, and other images. An interesting poem to compare and contrast with “Open Casket” is Emily Dickinson’s poem numbered 712, which depicts death as an endless carriage ride. In Dickinson’s poem, the dreamlike ride evokes feelings of depression, anxiety, and resignation associated with death, but the carriage ride itself, unlike McPherson’s boat ride, is imaginary.

Other important images...

(The entire section is 401 words.)