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  • Raymond Obstfeld

Poem #6: W.D. Snodgrass's Lying Awake




Logline

The protagonist in “Lying Awake,” haunted nightly by moths battering his window, realizes how much he has in common with them. And why that’s not a good thing.


Lying Awake

This moth caught in the room tonight

Squirmed up, sniper-style, between

The rusty edges of the screen;

Then, long as the room stayed light,

Lay here, content, in some cornerhole.

Now that we've settled into bed

Though, he can't sleep. Overhead,

he hurls himself at the blank wall.

Each night hordes of these flutterers haunt

And climb my study windowpane;

Fired by reflection, their insane

Eyes gleam; they know what they want.

How do the petulant things survive? Out in the fields they have a place

And proper work, furthering the race;

Why this blind fanatical drive

Indoors? Why rush at every spark,

Cigar, headlamp or railway warning

To knock off your wings and starve by morning?

And what could a moth fear in the dark

Compared with what you meet inside?

Still, he rams the fluorescent face

Of the clock, thinks that's another place

Of light and families, where he'll hide.

We'd ought to trap him in a jar,

Or come, like the white-coats, with a net

And turn him out toward living. Yet

We don't; we take things as they are.


Why This Poem

“Lying Awake” has the saddest ending of any poem I’ve ever read. I don’t mean the most tragic or sentimental or emotional. Just saddest. You won’t agree with me at first. You’ll probably get there and think, “Huh?” But maybe I can convince you otherwise.

The narrator of the poem is troubled by his inability to sleep and sits in his study pondering why he suffers from this unnatural problem—what could be more natural than sleep—while the insects of the world outside his window live perfectly happy lives. Only those trapped in the room, like him, face an early death. When he realizes why he can’t sleep, he has a choice to make that could save him.

This is not a pep-talk poem in which the narrator, suffering from acute ennui, suddenly has an enlightening epiphany, jumps to his feet, and embraces life and all its wonderous mysteries. There is an epiphany alright—a clear moment of insight—but the last line shocks with its unvarnished realism. I’ll explain why at the end of the line-by-line analysis. (Feel the suspense?)

I chose this poem because it addresses what I see as the biggest problem individuals face as well as society in general: the ability to logically evaluate the choices they have and to have the courage to choose rationally. This is difficult, which is why our culture has romanticized the “go with your gut” method of choosing, a method that is generally nothing more than the stench given off by the stewing gumbo of cultural tradition, personal bias, and naked greed.

“Go with your gut” is the justification for the lazy and those lacking conviction to really dig deep. It is contrary to the basic concept of all religion and philosophy, which is “delayed gratification is ultimately more rewarding than instant gratification.” Our laws and social teachings are based on that ideal. But people want what they want and so romanticize the “go with the gut” or “go with the heart” in order to avoid the harder choices so they can just do what they want in the moment. While there is certainly much to be said for intuition or instinct (as a subconscious reaction honed over years of observation and analysis), if it is the main method of decision-making, it inevitably leads to being trapped, living an illusion that you’re in control of your life when really you merely react to stimuli in a predictable and self-destructive way. It is the answer to “Why do I keep making the same mistakes again and again?”

What This Poem Means to Me

Snodgrass has been a favorite poet of mine since I was a freshman in college and read his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Heart’s Needle. I was a 17-year-old poet myself, feeling a bit smug about my abilities because while still in high school I had already sold a few poems to magazines, gave a couple poetry readings at the local college coffee house, and was fussed over by some of the college girls at my readings. Then I read Snodgrass and it was like walking through a door into a bright room filled with magnificent oddities. It was the same feeling I had when listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue album for the first time: “Oh, you can write about that?”

Here’s what I learned from Snodgrass:

1. The subtlety of his rhyme was a revelation. Though most of his poems rhymed, they did so with a quiet ease so smooth you could miss it. Yet, the fact that it was there gave more power to the lines. It’s like the difference between air and compressed air.

2. His poems seemed so personal, so intimate, with no attempt to romanticize the narrators or to pity them. Most beginning writers can be just as nakedly confessional, willing to spill every embarrassing detail, but their poems (and I count my early work to be among them) are melodramatic indulgences that clumsily try to elevate their pain into art. But the sincerity of one’s pain isn’t what makes art, it’s the actual artifice of conveying emotion while also offering insight. It’s not enough to describe emotional pain, the artist must find a way to make the audience experience that emotion and then guide them to understand some universal truths about it.

3. His poems were about the mundanities of everyday middle-class life from which he extracted the greater questions about how we live our lives, choose our values, and navigate the rocky intricacies of love and loss. I’m not saying there weren’t other poets doing the same thing (Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, for example), but Snodgrass was the first one I read that showed me that path. Before I read Snodgrass, my poems were overly precious musings about the Big Issues—most of which I had only a naïve understanding—such as war, violence, humanity’s inhumanity, the typical stuff of someone coming out of the 1960s with a hearty skepticism of authority and tradition. In other words, my poems were preachy editorials.

Years later, after I had published my book of poetry and was teaching creative writing at Orange Coast College, 3,000 miles away from the small Pennsylvania town where I’d first read Snodgrass, I bought a book that featured new poets from America and England. Among the American poets was a young gas station attendant called S.S. Gardens. I was immediately drawn to them. Yet, the closer I read them, the more they reminded me of Snodgrass. At first, I assumed that the poet, like myself, had just been greatly influenced by Snodgrass. Then I looked at the name, which was very close to Snodgrass spell backward. I wrote to Snodgrass and asked him if these were his poems and he wrote back admitting that they were but that they were of such a personal nature about his family that he didn’t want them to read the poems. He had changed his name, but couldn’t hide his voice or artistic style.

All the Biography You Need to Know for This Poem

William De Witt Snodgrass (1926-2009) was raised in Pennsylvania, was drafted into the Navy in 1944, and attended the University of Iowa where he enrolled in the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He graduated in 1949, after which he earned both a Master of Art degree and a Master of Fine Arts degree. He went on to teach at several universities, published widely, and won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection, Hearts Needle. He was labeled a “confessional poet,” a term he disliked, a designation of poems in the late Fifties and early Sixties by poets who tackled intensely personal subjects such as sex, mental illness, and suicide (which included poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, and Allen Ginsberg). His second collection, After Experience, is one of my favorite books.

Line-by-Line Musings

Lying Awake (title)

Certain words trigger every English major’s saliva glands for juicy literary morsels. Both words in this title have that effect. “Lying Awake” is, on the surface, a direct statement of fact: the narrator is lying awake, which makes us immediately ask the question, “Why can’t he sleep?” But when we get to the end of the poem and we realize exactly why he can’t sleep, the title tells us the cause: It’s because he is lying to himself that he is awake in his life when he is actually asleep, meaning living in an illusion rather than awake to what’s really happening. (Not unlike the idea of being “woke,” meaning conscious of social injustices that are plain to see to those who choose to look.) To be awake—and see things as they really are—is to be able to make informed decisions about one’s life. To be in control.

This moth caught in the room tonight

Snodgrass introduces the comparison between the moth and the narrator. Both are caught in the room, unable to escape. Snodgrass does a similar comparison between the narrator and a lobster in his poem, “Lobster in the Window” (http://www.101bananas.com/poems/snodgrass.html).

The word “caught” suggests both the moth and the narrator are involuntarily trapped, through no fault of their own. That’s the narrator’s perception. The poem then goes on to suggest otherwise.

Squirmed up, sniper-style, between

The rusty edges of the screen;

“Squirmed up” and “sniper style” suggest the desperation of the insect, which can fly, but here is reduced to crawling like a soldier to escape the war zone that is this mundane room.

The “rusty edges” of the screen may imply the neglect toward the room, as the narrator has neglected certain aspects of his* life. Which aspects have not yet been revealed.

[*pronoun note: There is no indication of the gender of the narrator. When I tried to write this analysis using a neutral “they” when referring to the narrator, there was confusion in several places so I’m reluctantly just using the traditional “he” for the narrator.]

Then, long as the room stayed light,

About Snodgrass’s rhyme. Now that we’ve gotten through the first stanza, I’ll point out the rhyme scheme (ABBA). It’s especially tricky to do have a couplet in the middle of the stanza because the rhyme coming so quickly can bring the whole poem to a halt while we admire it. Yet, Snodgrass doesn’t stop the line’s momentum but pushes us through to the next line. This way he gets the subliminal bang of the rhyme without giving it any fanfare to distract us from the content of the poem.

As for the line itself, Snodgrass is introducing the central metaphor of light as symbolizing that elusive and illusive goal both humans and the moth strive for. The irony is that the light can be enriching and enlightening or it can be deadly and destructive. Depends on the person’s ability to see the goal clearly for what it is—and then having the courage to act accordingly.

[note on courage: Every story comes down to the protagonist having to make a choice and whether or not he has the courage to make what the author considers the right choice.]

Lay here, content, in some cornerhole.

Because the two words—“content” and “cornerhole”—are alliterative, they draw attention to their contrast: how can being in a cornerhole leave the moth content? Again, this is the deepening parallel with the narrator, who is signaling that he is content living in a cornerhole. Yet, the fact that he can’t sleep and feels the compulsion to discuss his situation tells us otherwise. This confirms his status as an unreliable narrator (a narrator who thinks they are giving us an accurate account but which the reader realizes isn’t).

Now that we've settled into bed

“we’ve”: This is the first time we hear about the narrator’s companion. It’s also the last time, which tells us something about their relationship—and why he lives in a cornerhole. This is important because it emphasizes his lack of human connection.

Though, he can't sleep. Overhead,

he hurls himself at the blank wall.

The narrator blames the noise of the moth hurling itself against the wall for their own inability to sleep, though there’s no indication that the other person in bed can’t sleep. It’s not the noise that keeps him awake, it’s the shock of recognition—that he hasn’t yet consciously admitted—of how similar he is to the moth.

“Overhead”: Notice how this single word is isolated at the end of the line in order to emphasize it. But why? “Overhead” could mean the financial burdens the narrator faces (as in the overhead in keeping a business running). “Overhead” could also refer to a heavenly ideal that looms just out of humanly reach. But his pursuit of this traditional ideal—of living a conventional life that society has deemed virtuous—is actually what’s hurting him. [See also Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking,” in which the narrator has a similar existential crisis. The poem begins with “My long two-pointed ladder is sticking through a tree/Toward heaven still,” indicating that he equates his work with earning his way into Heaven.]

“hurls”: The moth “hurls himself,” suggesting a suicidal impulse. The use of “himself” rather than “itself” makes a clear connection between the moth and the narrator.

“blank wall”: The blank wall equals nothing of value. The moth kills itself in pursuit of nothing, which is the narrator questioning whether the pursuits that keep him awake at night are also worthless. [Generally, I avoid bringing the author into a poem because a poem needs to stand on its own without any biographical knowledge. But since we understand the we are reading a poem, it’s fair game to think that the narrator might be referring to the “blank wall” as a “blank page.” That he is killing himself (wasting his life?) in the trivial pursuit of writing—hurling himself at the blank page.]

Each night hordes of these flutterers haunt

And climb my study windowpane;

The big revelation we get here is that the narrator spends each night in his study. How else would he know they haunt the windows every night? What that implies is that instead of spending each night with his companion, he spends it in the “cornerhole” of his study, possibly writing.

“hordes” implies that they are a mindless Borg-like mob.

“flutterers” suggests that they are inconsequential.

“haunt” tells us the effect they have on him. Why do they have such power over him that they haunt him? Because they are him.

Fired by reflection, their insane

Eyes gleam; they know what they want.

I love this phrase: “Fired by reflection.” First, it just sounds cool. Second, the word “fired” embodies the intensity of the moth’s passion. But then comes “by reflection” and we instantly realize that the object of moth’s passion is an illusion, merely a reflection. So when he follows with “their insane/Eyes gleam” we understand that having a self-destructive passion for a reflection is insane. [Also, a nice touch is the dual meaning of reflection—thinking deeply about something. In this case, they are fired up because they don’t reflect on why they are fired up by this reflection. The narrator, however, is fired up by reflecting on his situation. Love the parallel.]

Playing with the idea of the narrator being a writer, writing is a reflection of life, not actually living it. So, the narrator—like the moths—has passion for writing about life more than he does about life.

How do the petulant things survive? Out in the fields they have a place

And proper work, furthering the race;

Here the narrator reflects on the moths’ purpose, as well as his own. Calling them “petulant” (which means childish, sulky) diminishes their actions as immature, irrational. In the “fields”—meaning nature—they have “proper work”—meaning natural—which is having sex in order to further the race. This subtly suggests that the narrator, stuck indoors in his isolated and unnatural setting, has not furthered his race. No children. Why? Because he has selfishly pursued the “blank wall.”

Why this blind fanatical drive

More emphasis on spending one’s life in an irrational and unfulfilling manner by being “blind” and “fanatical.”

Indoors? Why rush at every spark,

Cigar, headlamp or railway warning

To knock off your wings and starve by morning?

“Indoors?”: Notice how the word is isolated, closed off by the question mark, to further give the sense of the narrator being closed off from life, imprisoned by his own “blind fanatical” ambition.

The list of what the moths chase seems silly and insignificant: spark, cigar, headlamp, railway warning. Is this what makes life worth living? [note: Again, this is a similar theme to “After Apple-Picking” by Robert Frost. The narrator, who’s spent a lifetime doggedly tending his orchard, realizes that maybe he made a big mistake.]

“To knock off your wings and starve by morning” is a favorite line of mine. First, the rhythm is a bit harsh, like a lesson learned the hard way. Second, I like the reference to angel wings. By striving for the false, illusory gods of success (sparks, cigars, etc.) he loses that part of him that should strive for more spiritually rewarding goals.

Sadly, he seems to be fully aware of his dilemma. The suspense of the poem now is whether or not he will do something about it, whether his insight leads to action that redeems him.

And what could a moth fear in the dark

Compared with what you meet inside?

This is a loaded question. Outside, in the natural world, the moth instinctively knows how to get the most of life. This is not a tree-hugging rhapsody about the wonders of Nature. It’s not about long walks in the woods. It’s about the nature of beings to fulfill their biological programming to form a family and to find joy in that.

This is compared to “what you meet inside,” which is the human-made world that promotes artificial goals, such as seeking fame and fortune. For example, many studies have concluded that Facebook and other social media creates more depression in its users who fear their lives are not as rewarding as the carefully manipulated lives of others. In the narrator’s case, we know he spends each night in his study, pursuing whatever dreams he has, away from any loved ones.

“Inside” also has a connotation of what’s inside us: the dark unconscious of the id, our unfiltered desire that can drive us to self-destruction.

Still, he rams the fluorescent face

Of the clock, thinks that's another place

Of light and families, where he'll hide.

The clock is an apt symbol of how we artificially keep track of time so that the clock becomes something of a relentless taskmaster. I think of Rudyard Kipling’s line in “If,” when he advises his son to “fill the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.” Yikes, that’s a lot of pressure. Distance toward what? So, ramming the face of the clock questions the value of our daily-planner routine, with our lives parceled in 15-minute increments of “distance run.”

“of light and families, where he’ll hide”: Putting light and families together makes it seem more like an ideal, like the photos of perfect people and families they put in photo frames in stores. The narrator is well aware that his home is also a place where he hides—hides in his study from his partner, from life.

This is similar to Joni Mitchell’s song “The Last Time I Saw Richard” in which she describes an ex-boyfriend:

Richard got married to a figure skater And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on And all the house lights left up bright

Richard, too, hides in his house with all the trapping of what a normal life should be and the lights turned up bright to keep at bay his inner darkness from an unfulfilling life.

We'd ought to trap him in a jar,

Or come, like the white-coats, with a net

And turn him out toward living. Yet

The narrator pleads for salvation through his discussion of the moth: We should capture the moth and turn him out toward living. His reference to the white coats and the net are classic cartoon portrayals of workers at mental institutions capturing escaping patients with butterfly nets. He’s likening the moth—and himself—to the “insane” who are self-destructive, even though he knows better. They are therefore incapable of helping themselves and need someone else to save them.

But there’s that chilling “Yet” that hangs at the end, telling us things are not going to end well. There will be no salvation.

We don't; we take things as they are.

This line tolls like a death knell. The narrator admits he can’t change his life and that no one else can come to save him. We realize that, despite having the insight about his life, he lacks the courage to actually change it. To me, that’s what makes it one of the saddest lines in poetry. The surrender.

A brief commentary of tragicomedy: This poem is a tragicomedy. In class, I have a fairly long but I’m sure fascinating lecture on tragicomedy. You’ll get the thumbnail sketch. In tragicomedy:

1. The protagonist faces some sort of conflict,

2. The protagonist must choose to resolve the conflict either by following the orthodox teachings (basically, the status quo of what society expects) or breaking away from the orthodox and following teachings they decide are better for themselves and for humanity (Existentialism).

3. Although the story makes it clear that choosing his own teachings is the best course, the protagonist is afraid to make that Leap of Faith (all stories require some sort of leap of faith). He fails to make that leap of faith because he has Bad Faith, which is demonstrated by (1) denying who he is and/or (2) denying his ability to change who he is.

4. The result is Bad Death. Ominous, I know. That can mean actual death, in which the character dies lamenting how unfulfilling his life was. Or it can be symbolic: the character is living a kind of death in which he is cut off from his authentic self (who they want to be) and from meaningful relationships with other people. That isolation is a living death.

Now looking at “Lying Awake,” we can see how the protagonist denies his ability to change who he is and therefore ends up in the Bad Death his life has become. Tragicomedy has become one of the most popular of world visions in literature because it’s become clear—to writers anyway—that many people prefer the delusions of The Matrix’s blue pill to the truths of the red pill. How many people try to model their lives after some fictional version of the perfect American life rather than find what best fits them? How many justify fuzzy thinking with the defiant proclamation, “That’s how I was raised!”? How many “take things as they are”?

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