The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

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Michael Collier’s “The Problem” is a colloquial lyric poem examining how as a young boy the poet faced the fear of his father’s death. Writing as an adult, Collier offers mature insight into his childhood awareness of death. He implies that just as natural as the fear itself is his own compulsion, both as boy and adult, to come to terms with it, and he uses the poem for just this purpose.

The poem’s setting is Collier’s room as a boy of ten or so. World War II airplane models hang over his bed. Attached to the ceiling “by thumbtacks and string,” the planes are the last objects he sees before falling asleep at night. He thinks of his father, perhaps because he has received his father’s help in assembling the planes. Such thoughts, though, make him dread sleep because he fears his father will die before he awakens. The young boy succeeds in making “the world fair enough for sleep” only by assuring himself that his father will not die before he himself reaches the age of twenty-one, an impossibly advanced age for him to imagine. Lulled to sleep through this nightly “bargain” with death, with his adult wisdom Collier wryly notes that childish egocentricity projected his needs into a kind of “promise” made to him by his father.

Collier makes clear to the reader that his boyhood strategy of postponement, midway between “gamble” and “promise,” like the fear of death itself, is a matter of the imagination. The poem’s focus on the key role played by the imagination, the poet’s contemplative tone, and the concentration on the unique, individual feelings of the boy place the work firmly within the Romantic tradition. At the same time, though, the underlying angst of the work makes Collier a postmodern artist.

As in many postmodernist works, the resolution that climaxes this work occurs through a dramatic act rather than being proclaimed as a transcendent vision, as in traditional Romantic poetry. The act is the way the youngster creates the airplane models themselves, accomplishing the difficult feat of attaching the wheels to the plane without freezing their movement by applying glue in just the right place. Possibly in a trick he has learned from his father, in the same way that one breathes air into a fire to make it burn, so the young Collier “blows” on each wheel to dry the glue and make the tire “spin.” By analogy, the boy’s ability to attach the axles and landing gear to the plane without binding the wheels suggests to the reader the notion that that the awareness of death is not only an attachment or halting but also a means of transporting and releasing human qualities and achievements.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483

In “The Problem,” Collier creates a poem that falls neatly into two almost equal parts. The first ten of the twenty-one total lines consist of two unrhymed couplets of irregular meter in which the poet moves into “the problem” by bringing the planes that he built “out of their shadows.” He does this by naming them. The names are appropriately exaggerated and violent in the manner of a cartoon: “Messerschmitt,” “Spitfire” and “Hellcat.” In a sudden contrast to these exciting words, the poet confronts “the problem” itself in plain English. He asks himself how old he would have to be to endure his father’s death—“How old must I be before I am old enough for my father to die?”

The seemingly casual, conversational tone with which this question is broached is echoed in the structure of this half of the poem. Formatting it as dialogue, the poet follows the twin couplets, which pose a question or make an observation, with a one-line stanza summing up an answer or comment. At the end of the first half of the poem, when the “bargain” or “promise” is made that the father will not die until the boy reaches the age of twenty-one, the youngster believes he has overcome the fear that threatens to overwhelm him; he has “made the world fair enough for sleep.”

The second half of the poem modifies the question-and-answer formula. Mirroring the profound release that comes with the boy’s creation of the planes as moving, lifelike objects, the one-line comments become the conclusion of sentences already started in the couplets, rather than existing as sentences in their own right.

Interestingly, as in the previous portion of the poem, here also the poet reveals ancient roots. For example, although deliberately experimenting with a postmodern dissonance at the end of lines, within lines Collier cultivates older accentual patterns and rhyme schemes through his unobtrusive use of both full and slant rhymes, such as “fear” and “gear,” “fear” and “fair,” and “plane” and “names.” This assonance within lines counteracts and softens the dissonance between lines, the anomalous juxtaposition of “planes” with “ceiling,” “twenty-one” with “night,” and “protruding” with “careful.”

In an additional effort to link this poem with the literary past, an aim expressed rather explicitly in other poems in the collection, Collier also puns modern and ancient meanings. “Fair” means not only “equal” but also “beautiful.” “Plastic” means “synthetic” as well as “pliable.” Finally, Collier’s “bargain” with death not only invokes the contemporary three-stage approach to death—denial, bargaining, and acceptance—but also refers to the ancient imaginative and dramatic symbol of humankind’s effort to postpone death through gambling, dueling, or playing chess or cards. Here the poet figures his adversary as the absolute necessity to apply “noxious glue” one drop at a time in a “difficult place.” If he makes a mistake, the tires will not spin.