The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.)