The Poem

“Sleeping in the Woods” is a poem composed of forty-eight lines of free verse that seems to ebb and flow on the page. The gerund in the title (sleeping), along with other verbals (participles and gerunds usually ending “-ing”), is common in David Wagoner’s poems and notably in their titles. The first poem in the collection Sleeping in the Woods is “The Singing Lesson,” and other titles in that book include “Talking to Barr Creek,” “Beginning,” “Living in the Ruins,” “An Offering for Dungeness Bay,” and “Raging.” Discounting such nouns and pronouns as “ceiling,” “morning,” and “anything” that end in “-ing,” Wagoner includes some forty verbals in this poem, which leaves readers with a sense of flow that may suggest progression, abundance, or change. Certainly the use of verbals keeps the poem in motion and does not allow either stability or rest, despite what the title might imply.

Wagoner is fond of confronting an undesignated character in his poems by using the second-person “you,” which tends to lure readers into identifying themselves with that character while the poet remains somewhat distant as a teacher or adviser. The voice of the poet, which can even be godlike at times, may be compassionate and genuinely helpful, or it may be sinisterly ironic. Many of Wagoner’s best poems (including this one) are meditative in nature, but the tone is conversational. He enjoys moving between the profound and the playful, with much of the playfulness dependent on the ambiguous nature of language. Readers must always be prepared for puns, sometimes very serious ones, almost none of which are accidental...

(The entire section is 682 words.)

Forms and Devices

Wagoner has compared the undulating lines in this and several other of his poems to a sine wave or an expansion-contraction pulsation. Typically, readers encounter a long line with five or six heavily stressed syllables, then a shorter one of four or five stresses, and then an even shorter one of just two or three stressed syllables. On the page, these lines look almost like tercets (three-line stanzas), but they are not self-contained units; that is, the loosely constructed sentences flow over the line endings, prompting readers to anticipate one thing at the end of a line only to be surprised by the first word or phrase in the next line. Most of Wagoner’s lines end without punctuation marks (enjambment), and the sentences are often quite lengthy (one of them in this poem is nearly 170 words long and rambles over twenty-three lines). The effect of this kind of syntax and line play is to keep readers alert, but the result of being an attentive reader of a poem by Wagoner is not so often clarity as it is an awareness of the multiple meanings of words and of the events they define. The ambiguity is intentional.

The greatest risk Wagoner takes in the poem is that of the verbals themselves and the possibility that readers will be annoyed by the repetitive use of the “-ing” ending. However, he often uses such rhetorical devices as parallelism to create a sense of balance and poise, as in these lines near the middle of the poem: “The ground beneath you...

(The entire section is 405 words.)