Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517

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Many of Collier’s poems of this early period examine the fear of his own or another’s death, usually envisioned as being buried, taken away, or, as here, falling or falling asleep. Almost always in these poems, however, juxtaposed to the fear of death is the affirmation of living that occurs in a creative act. Such acts can take the form both of an imaginative, verbal act, a “bargain” with death or a “promise”; or of a deliberate, dramatic deed that releases individual energies, as in diving into water, playing a guitar, breaking open a piñata, or, as here, constructing a model plane with wheels that move.

Because he works within the Romantic tradition, Collier’s quest for a solution to “The Problem” also takes him back to his childhood experience of night terror, as he brings to bear the dual perspective of child and adult; childhood offers the raw material of experience, which the mature poet then interprets.

In many Romantic poems the poet emphasizes the loss implicit in growing up and fails to build a solid, reasonable resolution to the problem the poem establishes. Here, though, the poet mourns no loss and finds the resolution to the problem of death embedded within the childhood experience itself. This resolution embraces first the provisional answer of ruling out or postponing death on the grounds that death is just as unimaginable for a child as for an adult. This affirmation then moves on to a scheme that formulates the dramatic act of creation as a way of staying death’s hand, even the creation of something so humble as a model airplane. In other words, going well beyond the conventional Romantic assertion of art as an antidote to death, here Collier validates any kind of meaningful act as a kinetic release from time, perhaps especially one that is not accepted as being artistic. In yet another significant departure from tradition, both the imaginative and dramatic acts that constitute the resolution to “The Problem” occur quite spontaneously, rather than being grounded in a sense of oneness with the renewal of nature, as is often the case in Romantic poetry.

Collier’s handling of his material also differs from much postmodern poetry, however, in which the feeling is a conviction of being cut off from the past. Here, through the use of ancient accentual patterns, punning and the highly conscious use of literary symbols, Collier makes clear his indebtedness to the past. The result is a poem that looks simple but that actually operates on three different levels. The first is the way a preadolescent boy handles fears about his father’s and, by extension, his own death. Just below that level is adult awareness and analysis of the twin imaginative and dramatic steps involved in allaying such fear. At the very foundation of the poem, however, is what literature and art has already said about death. At its base can be found the profoundly human, individual, and unique experience that both lies behind the fear of death and gives rise here to its imaginative and dramatic resolution.