Today I’m going to spend a few minutes looking at Hayden Carruth’s, “THE LOON ON FORRESTER’S POND,” one of my favorite nature poems. Carruth’s poetry’s almost always engendered with a strong sense of compassion, and as you’ll see here, our speaker’s attention and the poem’s careful crafting lead us, by playing off the expectation established by the word ‘loon’ in the title, to a greater understanding of nature, relationships, and sanity. When reading the poem, look at the way the first strophe establishes the setting and the circumstance:
THE LOON ON FORRESTER’S POND
by Hayden Carruth
Summer wilderness, a blue light
twinkling in trees and water, but even
wilderness is deprived now. “What’s that?
What is that sound?” Then it came to me,
this insane song, wavering music
like the cry of the genie inside the lamp,
it came from inside the long wilderness
of my life, a loon’s song, and there it was
swimming on the pond, guarding
his mate’s nest by the shore,
diving and staying under
unbelievable minutes and coming up
where no one was looking. My friend
told how once in his boyhood
he had seen a loon swimming beneath his boat,
a shape dark and powerful
down in that silent mysteries world, and how
it had ejected a plume of white excrement
curving behind. “It was beautiful,”
broke the stillness over the water
again and again,
broke the wilderness
with his song, truly
a vestige, the laugh that transcends
first all mirth
then all sorrow
and finally all knowledge, dying
into the gentlest quavering timeless
woe. It seemed
the real and only sanity to me.
The opening words “summer wilderness” establish a time of year and a location, and so from the beginning we know where our speaker is. The speaker then gives us the images of the blue light in the trees and water, but more than giving us a location and an image for our mind’s eye to create, Carruth creates tension by the end of the first sentence. Though we’re in wilderness, our speaker tells us that even that isn’t pure, but the tension lies in our not knowing why. What’s deprived? Fortunately the poem’s constructed to show us rather than have the speaker tell us.
When the dialogue enters the poem, it interrupts the wilderness, but in my reading, the sound of the loon was the first interruption. But our speaker’s just as uncertain about what the sound is as we are about what’s going on. There’s a careful balance here in terms of the delay and release of information. We see our speaker ask what this sound is, and it’s almost as if we’re with him in the moment when he realizes that the wilderness hasn’t been broken at all, that the sound he’s heard is part of it.
Carruth compares the bird’s music to the “cry of a genie inside the lamp,” which helps give the moment a kind of magical aura that carries throughout the poem. But we don’t actually see the word ‘loon’ until the 8th line: “it came from inside the long wilderness / of my life, a loon’s song[.]” So the sound that startled our speaker initially now shares a strong tie to our speaker’s personal life. This moment helps us understand why our speaker’s talking. This “long wilderness / of my life” suggests not just a overgrowth and wildness, but the word ‘long’ at least hints that our speaker’s tired, feeling the exhaustion of a long life.
The poem then gives us images of the loon swimming. We see it guarding its mate’s nest, and the magic returns when it dips under water for “unbelievable minutes.” I find myself a bit confused about the next moment of the poem. Up to this point, there’s nothing to suggest that there’s anyone else with our speaker. But now a friend enters the poem and offers a story about a loon he saw as a boy. Either the speaker’s remembering this story that friend once told, or his friend’s with him in the moment. In my reading, our speaker’s with a friend in the present action of the poem because of the dialogue earlier, and also the immediacy of the phrasing: “My friend / told how once[.]” If it’d read “My friend / once told how,” then I’d assume the story was from memory.
Whether or not his friend is with him in the present action is a bit of a side-track. The important element to focus on in this moment is the story, the way his friend’s literally describing a loon defecating underwater, and how that birdshit was surprisingly beautiful. That’s the transformative power of poetry. We start with literal shit and somehow in this context, with these words, we arrive at beauty. That’s a kind of alchemy. A kind of genie-in-the-lamp magic.
After our speaker’s friend shares the story, the poem breaks into shorter lines to delivery its final two sentences, which are probably the softest, sweetest, and most beautiful descriptions of nature that I’ve ever encountered. My mind’s eye can see this loon rising up out of the water and splashing back down, and like his body breaks the water, I hear his song breaking the silence. In this final section, our speaker uses the word ‘laugh’ for the first time. We see another transformation–from song to laugh. But that laugh, our speaker tells us, is transcendent: not just of entertainment, or deep grief, but finally all knowledge.
Carruth gives us one of the most beautiful phrasings in the English language right here: “dying / into the gentlest quavering timeless / woe,” The syntax and the enjamb both work to push ‘woe,’ to the end of the sentence. Our speaker tells us that laugh transcends all sorrow, and so when ‘woe,’ punctuates the end of the sentence, it serves as a reminder that the reality of sorrow’s not only timeless but inescapable. But the final sentence yanks us back into the mind of the speaker, affirming the beauty of the loon. The speaker also suggests that the only real sanity comes after transcending knowledge. Because we often associate the word ‘loon’ with insanity, or see it as synonymous with crazy, Carruth’s able to capitalize on the resonance of the word ‘sanity’ right at the end of the poem.
We have a sense from the beginning of the poem that our speaker’s dealing with some kind of grief, some kind of woe, or sorrow, just from the phrase “long wilderness of my life,” and this statement at the end of the poem seems to suggests the redemptive power of nature. The song of a bird, by the end of the poem, the sound that initially “deprived” our speaker of the wilderness, proves the only thing our speaker can identify with. Not his knowledge, not his own sanity, not his friend (where’s the friend?). The word “timeless” also reinforces the degree to which the emotional core of this poem is part of the human condition, something most of us will feel at one point or another.
Carruth’s poem is masterful, heartfelt, rooted in our shared world, and it resonates both intellectually and emotionally. Sure, it’s just a guy who hears and sees a bird, but just as the phrase “stop and smell the roses” has nothing to do with roses and everything to do with you stopping to notice your own life, Carruth teaches us the importance of awareness, moving us from something unidentifiable to the one truth (if you want to read sanity as truth, hah).