The Poem

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 682

“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.

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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 in Wagoner’s poems.

In the opening lines of the poem, the speaker indicates that “you” are lost in the woods and must bed down for the night. In the third line he writes, “you have nothing,” and for an instant the reader is confronted with annihilation; however, that instant lasts for only as long as it takes to read the next line: “you have nothing/ But part of yourself to lie on.” Wagoner depicts the character in the poem “standing,” “kneeling,” “crouching,” “turning over old leaves,” and “going under” in the process of bedding down. The play on “going under” suggests simply crawling in under the leaves but also being ruined or overwhelmed. In this process, the person (or persona) in the poem becomes “like any animal” entering “the charmed circle/ Of the night,” but the human body is awkward and not readily adaptable for such a purpose. The speaker represents the persona as stiff-necked, “One ear-flap at a time knuckling your skull.”

The phrase “But now” that opens the fifteenth line indicates a second movement in the poem, in which the persona is “lying still,” watching the shadows, and going to sleep (“not falling asleep,” the speaker advises, not losing anything to the earth beneath) without a ceiling or walls. The persona is now settled down at “the place where it is always/ Light”; that is, the persona is entering a dream state, and dreams may reveal deep truths. The dream, however, may be “sunk in blood,” and all night the mind might plague the sleeper with fear of being food for wild animals. The speaker teases the persona by suggesting that the persona’s body (“hidebound substance”) might provide food for the very low (“mites”) or the very high (“angels”).

Near the end of line 37, the speaker quite casually advises, “Turn up/ In time, at the first faint stretch of dawn, and you’ll see/ A world pale-green as hazel.” The awakening is lyrical and rejuvenating as the persona’s “cupped hand” is “lying open/in the morning like a flower.” It is not at all unusual for Wagoner to resort to a pun as he ends a poem: “Making light of it,/ You have forgotten why you came, have served your purpose, and simply/ By being here have found the right way out./ Now, you may waken.” Whatever it was that drew the persona into the woods has been rendered trivial by the experience of having come to terms with it.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405

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 neither rising nor falling,/ Neither giving nor taking.” Wagoner’s ear is attuned to the subtleties of sound, and a careful reading aloud of certain passages will reveal patterns of alliteration and assonance that account for the lyrical or musical impact common to the best unrhymed, free-verse poems: “Whoever stumbles across you in the dark may borrow/ Your hidebound substance for encouragement/ Of mites or angels.” The soft m’s and b’s and the prevailing short vowel sounds become the major key. Later, near the end of the poem, the reader becomes especially conscious of long e and i sounds: “The chalk-green convolute lichen by your hand like sea fog,/ The fallen tree beside you in half-light/ Dreaming a greener sapling.” Wagoner closes his poem with an assonantal triangle featuring the long a: “By being here have found the right way out./ Now you may waken.”

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Themes