The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511

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Walter McDonald’s “A Thousand Miles of Stars” consists of four eight-line stanzas written in rhythmic free verse of four to six beats per line. A lyrical reflection, it focuses on the changes in personal values that come with years and experience. The speaker first describes, with comic irony, his youthful, romantic vision of his place and potential in the world. He then contrasts this speculation with the more down-to-earth vision that characterizes his maturity. Although the things he values have changed with age and circumstance, his passion for life and the world in which he lives remains.

The poem begins with the speaker’s memory that he thought he would “need a thousand sweethearts” when he became a famous rodeo rider. So great would be his wealth and fame that he would pass his days in “villas in Italy,/ Geneva, Tahiti.” Not only humans but also animals would respond to him with love and devotion. “Palominos” would nudge his fist for sugar; dogs would call him master “with their tails”; and even the more exotic creatures of his romantic retreats, “leopards” and “monkeys,” would do “amazing tricks” to please him. His toucans would welcome him home with their singing.

Such were the dreams that, after a long day in the saddle, the young cowboy would enjoy in the bunkhouse. The excitement of “straddling a black,/ two-thousand-pound bull” with “a thousand fans cheering” had understandably filled him with youthful arrogance. If his rodeo riding had not done so, his pursuits after the rodeo would have. He enjoyed the affections of his admirers on the barroom dance floor, with their “purple eyes/ and perfumed, tequila breath.” His thinking about such relationships went no deeper than the passions and clichés of country songs, “old western words from a jukebox.”

The third stanza moves from memory to the narrative present. No longer a young rodeo rider or barroom favorite, the narrator is now “sixty” and “stiff.” When he does ride at all, it is on the back of an old, fat gelding. His desire is no longer for rodeo fame or the pleasures of the barroom, but for the simple comforts of family life. The prizes he treasures are not rodeo awards to “stack on the mantle,” but his grandchildren. When they visit the ranch, he and his wife hold them close until they leave, and they stand waving goodbye until the children have disappeared down the dirt road.

After the two “hobble” back to the porch in stanza 4, they reflect upon the moments spent, cherishing each child’s action, possibly as they once relished the details of the speaker’s rodeo performances. Their feelings are not for their grandchildren alone, though: In the dark they “rock and hold each other,” enjoying being together on the ranch, listening to the sounds of the night. In the final image, dogs bark, a windmill turns, and the two listen to “the far-off roar of stars.” The two seem to be in love not only with each other but also with their place in the universe.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 679

The overall structure of this poem hinges on the narrator’s shifting focus, since that contrast demonstrates how values and perceptions change with age. The details of the first two stanzas portray the romantic vision of youth with hyperbole and ironic overstatement. The narrator will “need” a thousand sweethearts—a testament not only to his passion for excitement but also to his perceived virility. His lifestyle expectations, too, are wildly exaggerated. In his dreams, he will live among the scenes that real cowboys experience only in travel films or brochures—Italy, Geneva, Tahiti. The creatures that surround him will not be horses and cattle—creatures of real ranch life—but monkeys, leopards, and toucans—creatures of his imagination.

The aural system of the poem, too, supports the ironic tone McDonald is creating. Typically his poems are a richly woven tapestry of sound, and this one is no exception. In the first two stanzas, however, he sacrifices his customary subtlety to engage an aural extravagance that meshes with the young man’s romantic dreams and at the same time confirms the speaker’s ironic distance. The images of youth are a lavish intertwining of internal rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and consonance. For example, he “thought [he’d] need a thousand sweethearts”; the dogs he envisions would be “wagging, dragging my slippers”; in his imagination “Palominos pranced,” then “nudgednibbling my palm”; “monkeys [would do] amazing tricks to please me,” and “red and blue toucanscooing” would be “free to fly in and out.”

The syntax also enhances the poem’s effect. Two rhetorical questions serve as a bridge from the past to the present. In stanza 2 the speaker asks, “What did I know, straddling a black,/ two-thousand-pound bull twisting and bucking,/ a thousand fans cheering the cowboy and the bull?” The implied answer is that he knew nothing or very little. The reader wonders what he knew little about: The contrast presented later in the poem indicates that he knew nothing about what would take on lasting value in his life.

The speaker then asks, “how could I whisper more// than old western words from a jukebox?” As a youth, he valued wealth, fame, and the dance-floor sweethearts they would bring him. He had not, he realizes now, ever considered relationships more deeply than the values expressed in country songs. That his mount of choice is now a “fat gelding” suggests his current opinion of sexual appeal and virility. The bucking bulls of his youth have been exchanged for a castrated horse.

The syntactic patterns also suggest his passion for his grandchildren and for the life that he and his wife share. Beginning in the third stanza, line 1, the narrator reflects upon his grandchildren in a cumulative sentence that continues for six lines, fifty-four words. This is followed by a similarly elongated sentence in which the two remember the actions of their grandchildren, six more lines, fifty-two words. These are followed with the simple sentence, “We rock and hold each other,” a phrase that reads all the more emphatically because it creates a sudden jolt after two long, emotion-packed units.

The poem’s closing image is a peaceful pastoral scene of the couple sitting on the porch in the deep quiet of the evening. They “listen hard” and hear dogs barking a mile away, the turning of the windmill, and, last, the “far-off roar of stars.” The image at first seems homely enough, but the sounds are presented in climactic order based on rarity. The night-time barking of dogs is common; considerably more rare is the sound of turning windmills; rarer still, however, is the experience the speaker communicates through synesthesia (the description of one kind of sensation in terms of another): They listen to “the far-off roar of stars.” As they watch the stars, something about their superabundance, as indicated by the poem’s title, pushes the speaker to imagine them figuratively as sound as well as sight. The effect is an image more exotic, in its own way, and more full of wonder, than the romantic vision of the young cowboy.