Unpack the Poem: “Inland” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

There’s an idea I’ve been wanting to try for a while now, and National Poetry Month seems like the perfect time. I think it would be cool to take a poem, here on the blog, and go through the process of reading it, interpreting it, studying it, etc. It’s a concept I’ve been calling “Unpack the Poem” in my head — thanks to all of my professors over the years saying, “Can you unpack that?” when they want deeper analysis — but I’ve been hesitant to try it for several reasons. First of all, if it were to become an occasional series I add to my blog topic repertoire (as I hope it will, if there’s enough interest), I’m somewhat limited in my choice of poems. For legal reasons (copyright) I can only “unpack” poems that are in the public domain.

Another thing that’s made me hesitate is the fear of seeming like an authority. So instead of not doing this, because I do love the idea, I’ve decided to just tell you guys: I’m not an authority. I’m not a professor, a scholar, or an established poet. I’m a young poet, a reader, and a pupil of the art. So I would like to go into this little experiment with you all thinking of me not as a teacher giving a lesson, but as a fellow student who’s also figuring things out as I go. Because let’s face it – when it comes to the masters, we are all students.

[Heads up: this is a long post, so I put section headers if you’d like to skip around.]

The Poem

And what better master poet to start with than one of my personal favorites, Edna St. Vincent Millay? I was actually hoping to find another of her poems (a sonnet; “Night is my sister”), but that one doesn’t appear to be in the public domain yet. I did, however, come across this beauty that is quickly becoming a new favorite of mine. The poem is called “Inland.” Here it is untouched for you to read on your own before I skew your perspective with my own thoughts. I also decided to record an audio of myself reading it because the poem is so dang pretty when you hear it out loud.

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

People that build their houses inland,
People that buy a plot of ground
Shaped like a house, and build a house there,
Far from the sea-board, far from the sound

Of water sucking the hollow ledges,
Tons of water striking the shore,—
What do they long for, as I long for
One salt smell of the sea once more?

People the waves have not awakened,
Spanking the boats at the harbour’s head,
What do they long for, as I long for,—
Starting up in my inland bed,

Beating the narrow walls, and finding
Neither a window nor a door,
Screaming to God for death by drowning,—
One salt taste of the sea once more?

Okay, now that you’ve read the poem, let’s unpack it! Please keep in mind that these are just my interpretations, my impressions, my way of looking at this. Poetry is subjective, and as I said, I’m not an expert.

Poetic Devices

The first thing any poetry enthusiast does when she sets about analyzing a poem is scan it. Scansion is the act of discovering the metrical pattern of a poem’s lines (the most common one people recognize is good ‘ole iambic pentameter). Unfortunately, I don’t have the space today to give even a basic lesson, so if you don’t already have an understanding of metrics you might just skim this bit. (But don’t scan it; it’s hopelessly prosey. (Yeah I’m that chick who makes bad poetry jokes. Sorry.)) If you’re not up on your meter lingo, don’t sweat it. We’ll jump into some more universal stuff right after this.

For those of you who are curious, I did scan it, and I was a bit surprised by what I found. The poem is definitely metrical – obviously this is no free verse – and there are consistently four feet per line, but the types of feet vary quite a bit. The poem is predominately made up of trochees (“houses inland”), but there’s a fair share of dactyls thrown in (“Beating the”). Depending on how you scan it, there are also some iambs (“the shore”) and even a few truncated trochees (“ground” and “door,” for me).

So what does all that mean in normal speak? Every line of this poem except one begins with a stressed syllable, meaning that the poem as a whole packs a lot of punch. At times it even seems aggressive. You’ll see the exception when I get to enjambment, below, but the takeaway here is that Millay chose a meter that gives the poem a strong, forceful tone.

How about rhyme? The poem is four quatrains (stanzas of four lines each) with a rhyme scheme of ABCB, meaning that only the second and last lines of each stanza rhyme. This makes the poem lyrically pleasing without becoming overbearing or sing-songy. It’s also worth noting that the second and fourth stanzas actually share the same rhyme sound, “ore.” I think that return to the previously used sound – along with the repeated line – gives the poem a nice feeling of closure; when we get to the end we know it’s the end.

Another device employed quite a bit in this poem is that of enjambment. Enjambment is when a sentence or thought doesn’t end neatly at the end of a line (with a comma, semicolon, or period), but rather continues unimpeded into the next line. Because the eye hurries to continue the sentence, enjambment serves the effect of softening the effect of rhyme as well as building momentum in the poem. You can see that Millay even enjambs her first stanza into her second, giving the effect of rushing forward.

Now that we’ve covered some general analysis, let’s get into the really good stuff.

Line by Line

People that build their houses inland,
People that buy a plot of ground
Shaped like a house, and build a house there,

I want to take these first three lines together, because immediately something jumps out at me about them: they repeat. A lot. “People” appears twice, as does “build,” and “house” shows up three times in as many lines! What’s up with that? Perhaps in the hands of an amateur poet we might assume this was sloppy writing, but I feel pretty confident Edna St. Vincent Millay doesn’t do sloppy, so in this case the heavy repetition is a clue to look closer. Why might she be doing it?

For me, the answer is in the subject matter. We’re talking about houses inland. The repetition of  houses alone gives me the image of a whole street of houses lined up side by side. And then you throw in “a plot of ground shaped like a house.” Squares, or rectangles, right? A house is rectangular, and so is the lawn. Now I see many square houses on many square lots in many square blocks all lined up. Add the double use of the verb “build” and I’m seeing them pop up like toy houses – a whole neighborhood of cookie-cutter buildings. The impression is monotony bordering on disdain.

Far from the sea-board, far from the sound

Again, we have repetition. But rather than the percussive drudgery of the many houses, we have two long, lovely phrases back to back. The difference in impression, for me, is striking. The stanza has now gone from monotonous to lyrical; it has switched from repetitive in a grating way to repetitive in a melodious way, like waves crashing ashore.

Of water sucking the hollow ledges,
Tons of water striking the shore,—

I think it’s worth noting that these are not peaceful images of the sea as beautiful. “Sucking” and “striking” are forceful if not violent verbs, and “hollow” and “tons” both carry negative connotations.

What do they long for, as I long for

Again, any time a (good) poet repeats, it’s for a reason. Here, the double use of “long for” serves as emphasis. It intensifies the feeling of longing.

One salt smell of the sea once more?

Here we reach the crux of the first half of the poem: we see now that the poet longs for one more smell of the sea, which is doubly interesting given her dark description of it just two lines above. The alliteration in this line (the s sounds in salt smell sea once) serves to heighten it, to raise it above everything else that’s come before. We see the importance of it, and the beauty of the wording gives the message even more power – imbeds longing in the reader to match the poet’s.

People the waves have not awakened,
Spanking the boats at the harbour’s head,

Now we begin the second half of the poem in a similar structure to the first; people “other” than the poet herself. Again, we get a violent, forceful verb to describe the actions of the sea.

What do they long for, as I long for,—

More repetition, another increase in the intensity of longing.

Starting up in my inland bed,

A very telling line. In the first stanza we felt the poet’s pity-nearing-contempt for people living inland, and here we’re told quite plainly that she is among them. We’re left to wonder if the poet turns that disdain inward. We’re also left to draw the conclusion that the difference between her and these others is that she once lived by the sea and they have not (see the “not awakened” line).

Beating the narrow walls, and finding
Neither a window nor a door,

Another forceful verb, “beating,” continues to increase the intensity of the poem. Then the narrow walls combined with the lack of an exit escalates the square boxes we imagined in the beginning to a level of imprisonment – a claustrophobia-inducing trap.

Screaming to God for death by drowning,—
One salt taste of the sea once more?

Finally, we reach a fever pitch, a shiver-inducing climax. These two lines are explosive. The poet is literally screaming, begging God for death just so she can finally be at her so longed-for ocean. The concept of being willing to drown simply to taste the sea one last time is breathtakingly beautiful – all the more so for how startling it is and unapologetically it’s declared. And of course, the repetition of that last line brings us full-circle, cementing the poet’s desire. The single change in the line from “smell” to “taste” changes the proximity of the sea from “near” to “in,” yet again heightening the intensity of the poet’s message, all the while dragging the poet closer and closer to what she desires.

My Interpretation

So what’s the point of all this analyzing? In my view, it’s not only to enhance my understanding and appreciation of the poem, but to take something away from it. I was instantly drawn to this poem because I have an absolute obsession with the ocean and feeling called by it, and of course I love the dark, moody tone of this piece, but what else can I learn from looking closer? The best way to get something out of a poem is to read it again. Reread it. Read it out loud. Think about it. Come back later and do it again. We miss so much when we just read once and flip the page!

The more obvious meaning I took away here was one of suicide, a poignant longing for death that’s almost hidden in a longing for the sea itself. This interpretation shows itself most strongly (show your work!) in the line where we see that the speaker is “in [her] inland bed,” knowing how much she loathes inland houses, and then of course at the end, where she wants to taste the sea even if it literally kills her. Is the poet using the risk of death to portray how strongly she longs for the ocean, or is she using a love of the ocean to portray a longing for the absolution of death? I think a strong argument could be made either way – and possibly for both at once.

There’s another meaning I get form the poem too, though – a subtler one that I picked up on when I started looking at sentence structure. If you break this poem down grammatically, you’ll see that it’s actually just two sentences long. It’s two questions, actually, with a bunch of clauses and phrases thrown in there to modify things, but the questions divide the poem neatly in half.

If you look closely at the first sentence (the first two stanzas) you’ll see that the first six lines are all describing one thing: “they.” The actual grammatical sentence here is “What do they long for?” (“As I long for…” is another modifying phrase.) And, fascinatingly, if you look at the second two stanzas, the exact same sentence is at the heart: “What do they long for?” again led and followed by more modifiers.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the grammatical heart of the poem is a question, and that it’s repeated (remember my theory that repetition always happens for a reason, often emphasis). It would be easy for us, as readers, to lose that question and take away only the poet’s feelings about living inland versus by the sea, but I think that would be a loss. It is, after all, formed as a question, not a statement. Perhaps the poet asks because she’s baffled and genuinely can’t fathom an answer.

Or perhaps she asks because she wants the reader to come up with their own answer – or to at least ponder the question. What might these “other” people long for, if not the sea? (Love? Family? Fulfillment?) And why doesn’t the poet long for those same things? (Perhaps she feels she’s already lost them? Perhaps she feels they’re out of her reach?) And could that lack contribute to her longing for an impersonal, violent thing? To her suicidal feelings? I think so.

But that’s only my interpretation. As T.S. Eliot said, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Maybe you feel something different. Maybe you see something different. (That’s perfectly okay.) Thanks for sticking with me through an unusually long post. I would absolutely love to hear your thoughts, additions, and impressions in the comments!

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , | 27 Comments

Why You Should Read Poetry (Even If You Think You Hate It)

April is National Poetry Month, and to celebrate I’m going to be blogging about poetry-related things all month. (You can also join in the fun on Twitter with the hashtag #NPM14.)

Aaaaaand… I’ve probably already lost some of you.

“I don’t like poetry,” is a common statement and (I suspect) an even more common thought. Before you write me off for the next four blog posts, I’m going to tell you a secret. But you can’t judge me. Okay, you can, but you shouldn’t, because then I’m going to explain. Are you ready?

I don’t always like reading poetry.

Oh, it hurt to type, especially since I’m a poet myself. But it’s a true statement. If I give in to hedonistic instinct, I’ll pick up a novel over a book of poetry most of the time. With a cohesive plot pulling me along and recurring characters in situations I want to see out, novels and stories are easier, faster, and more likely to be fun. The act of reading a book of poetry is often not… fun. I have to make myself do it. I have to force myself to remember that it’s worth it. Because that’s the caveat: it’s worth it.

I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I love poetry. It seems that people tend to focus on the negative, so let me repeat that: I love poetry. But so many people don’t. So many people think they hate it. We poetry enthusiasts don’t like that, because we know how much value it can add to a person’s life. Out of that good intention — wanting to share the pleasure — we sometimes end up ranting and raving about how blissful poetry is, how wonderful, transcendent, etc. to try to interest the uninterested. The problem there is that when people hear that and decide to give poetry another shot, they’re often disappointed. The build-up is too much, the let-down too drastic. Which is why I’m writing this post. I do believe that poetry can enrich people’s lives, but I want to be real about it. If you don’t like poetry (or think you don’t), this is what I think you should know.

No one likes every poem. (I’m 99% sure of that.) Most people, if they’re being honest, will admit that they only truly like maybe one out of every dozen poems they read. Perhaps that statistic improves based on what author or collection they’re reading at any given time, but even if you’re reading a book by an author you very much admire, it’s rare to like every poem. The fact of the matter is there are dozens of different “types” of poems (or hundreds or thousands, depending on how broad your categories are), and most of us don’t like all of them. Some people hardly like any of them.

So reading through a whole book of poems can feel like a slog. Depending on the author, my mood, the subject matter, the style… sometimes I’ll read a whole book and go, “Why’d I bother?” Even if I can appreciate the poetry, I sometimes still don’t like it. Robert Frost is a great example of that, for me personally. I admire the hell out of his work – and the poems I love I love deeply (3 or 4 of his make my top 50 list for sure), and I believe they’re truly brilliant – but reading his collected works felt like torture to me. Man, he has a lot of poems that just don’t do it for me.

Why bother, then? If reading poetry isn’t fun, what’s the point?

Because maybe if I hadn’t read his collected works I wouldn’t have run into those 3 or 4 that truly touched me, that I carry around in my psyche. Maybe Frost isn’t the best example here, because most of us read at least the most famous of his poems in school, but just think if the same thing happened with someone you didn’t read in school. If you didn’t read through the Meh you’d never get to the Wow.

I believe that not all things worth doing are fun. I believe that there’s value beyond entertainment – beyond simple pleasure. Like yoga, meditation, or jogging: sometimes the act of doing something isn’t always enjoyable, but we do it anyway because somehow, for some reason, it makes us better people. And if we keep at it long enough we’ll hit the right moment, right mood, right magic, and suddenly it does become fun. The more we do it, the more often we achieve this. For me, poetry is like that.

Even poems that I don’t “like” have things to offer. Things I hadn’t thought of, rhythms or word choices that spark something in my mind, a different point of view, or even a reaffirmation of what I already believe. These are things of worth.

And like I said, we have to read the neutral (and bad) poems to get to the soul-shakers. Yes, we can increase our odds by reading famous poets, favorite poets, or highly recommended poets, but no one else can tell you your exact taste or predict what specifically is going to get to your core and touch you. And you don’t really know either, until you read them, which is why you sometimes have to strike out. It’s worth trudging through a few mediocre books of poetry to find a real treasure. Sometimes the most stunning poems come in the most unexpected places. Sometimes you’re the only one who sees it.

And guys, those moments are worth it. When it comes to moments of impact, profundity, and awe, there are few things in this life as powerful as just the right poem.

So today, in honor of National Poetry Month, I’d like to encourage you – all of you – not to give up just yet. Keep searching, keep reading, keep exploring to find your extra-special, remember-forever, read-and-re-read poem. I assure you; it exists. Maybe even more than one.

So get out there and find them. If you’re lucky, you might even run into a little fun along the way.


Don’t leave me hanging! I’ve confessed my deep dark secret; now it’s your turn. Do you think reading poetry is always enjoyable? Have you found a soul-shaker poem or two? And is there anything in your life that you do because it makes you better, rather than because it’s fun?

Posted in Poetry | Tagged | 30 Comments

What Is Speculative Fiction?

Today, by request, I’m going to take a crack at pinning down a definition for that mysterious term “speculative fiction.” [For more definitions and genre musings, check out the rest of my “What Is Genre Series” here!] If you’re a writer, reader, or movie-goer you’ve probably come across this phrase before. You might have also heard it shortened as “spec fic” (spec-fic).

Speculative Fiction Diagram

So what is speculative fiction? The fast answer: fantasy, science fiction, and horror. But as you can see by my hastily-drawn diagram, that oversimplification causes some serious problems. For one thing, both horror and science fiction can include works that aren’t actually “speculative.” (We’ll get to that in a minute.) For another, while those three are the dominant genres involved, they aren’t the only genres involved, and no one likes to be excluded.

That moves us to the need for a more accurate definition. The key here lies in the root word: speculate. Think of this in terms of “what if” and you’ll see it. So now you might ask, “But doesn’t that make all fiction speculative? Fiction, by definition, is untrue, so all of it involves some degree of speculation.” The difference is in what’s being speculated upon. Speculative fiction is fiction in which the author speculates upon the results of changing what’s real or possible, not how a character would react to a certain event, etc.

Therefore, the thing being speculated upon must be more elemental than character or plot. Speculative fiction is any fiction in which the “laws” of that world (explicit or implied) are different than ours. This is why the term “world-building” usually goes hand-in-hand with “speculative fiction.” If you’re changing our world or creating a new one, you’re going to have to do some work so the reader/viewer understands the new “rules.” Don’t let the word “world” throw you off, though. The defining line between fiction and speculative fiction is not so much scale as it is ‘what’s possible’ in reality. (Scale is more of a byproduct, and an optional one at that. Speculative fiction can be and often is small in scope – think a single character’s life vs. global battles.)

So dropping a bad guy into a nest full of alligators, while thrilling, isn’t “speculative” because it could really happen in our world. Dropping a bad guy into a nest full of mutant alligator-sharks is “speculative” because it isn’t possible in our world; the author must “speculate” on how that would go. (And I’m guessing the answer is “not well.”)

Another example: a movie in which two astronauts get lost in space isn’t speculative because it could really happen within the realm of our existing knowledge of the world, as terrifying as that may be. A movie in which a group of astronauts discover an alien life form is speculative because – according to our current knowledge – it couldn’t happen in real life, since we know of no other intelligent life forms. See the difference?

Speculative fiction takes our existing world and changes it by asking “What if…?” (What if monkeys could fly? What if zombies were real? What if the Nazis had won World War II? What if one man had x-ray vision?) This opens up the first definition — fantasy, science fiction, and horror — to include other genres as well, such as alternate history, weird tales, dystopian, apocalyptic, time travel, superhero, etc. It also excludes science fiction and horror that doesn’t speculate (i.e., horror without supernatural elements, or science fiction based on current technology).

Now that we have a good definition to go on, let’s take a more detailed look at my little diagram.

Speculative Fiction Diagram detailed

In area 1, we have the overwhelming component of speculative fiction: fantasy. By definition, all fantasy is speculative. This includes all subgenres, such as epic, soft, urban, and magical realism.

In area 2, we have another large component: science fiction. As I mentioned above, sci-fi is usually but not always speculative. (When it’s not it becomes section 3.) Speculative sci-fi often includes the sub genres of space travel and time travel.

In area 4, we have the third part of the main triumvirate: horror. Horror is frequently but not always speculative. Horror based on true events or without any supernatural elements falls outside the speculative ring (section 5). Speculative horror includes paranormal, creature, and weird tale to name a few.

Sections 6 through 10 are probably pretty self-explanatory. If you combine speculative sci-fi with speculative fantasy, for example, you might get superhero fiction. In all those little overlapping sections, it’s really a game of mix and match.

Section 12 is historical fiction without speculative elements, such as a fictionalized rendering of a real battle or a fictional character living in historically accurate settings. Section 11 is historical fiction with speculation thrown in, such as supernatural elements added, a shift in the real timeline (alternate history), etc.

Finally, there’s lucky section number 13, which holds all of those speculative stories that don’t fit neatly into fantasy, sci-fi, horror, or historical. These might include dystopian, weird tales, or surrealism.

As if that weren’t all complicated enough, if you shift some circles around you can build and blend your own genres. Expand “historical,” for example, so that it overlaps with “fantasy” and you’ve got historical fantasy (think vampires in the Victorian period or elves fighting in World War I). Throw in a healthy dose of fear and you might have historical horror.

The possibilities are really limitless, which is perhaps why so many people get confused by the term “speculative fiction.” If you find yourself getting lost, go back to the basics: could this world really exist according to our current knowledge of reality? If the answer is yes, it probably isn’t speculative. If the answer is no, it probably is speculative.

At this point you might be wondering, Does this mean that “speculative” changes over time? My answer is yes. As our knowledge and technology change, so does our interpretation of what’s “possible.” Technology in futuristic books written twenty years ago might not be speculative at all anymore. No to mention that individual beliefs can affect the definition, too. That’s how you get books about ghosts and aliens on the “nonfiction” shelf; some people believe these are already a part of our reality. Technology changes, knowledge grows, beliefs shift – and these are all things that inform our concept of “what’s possible.”

As you can see, the lines on all the circles I’ve drawn could be a little blurrier, but I hope I’ve shed some light on the general concept. As always I’m happy to answer questions below, or to hear your take on things!

Posted in Genres | Tagged | 48 Comments

The Line Between Public and Private

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about declaring one’s points of view in life. Everything from big things like religion, political stance, sexual orientation, etc., to small things like favorite authors, music tastes, and birthdays. Identifiers, basically, is what I’m talking about, and what we choose to call ourselves – and whether or not we choose to do so publicly.

I think there’s a fine line of choice in declaration. We can announce our labels because Facebook asks us to and that’s just what’s expected. Or we can announce our labels because we feel that it’s a way to be most honest about our authentic self. We can keep quiet because we’re ashamed or holding secrets, or we can choose not to declare because we simply don’t feel it’s anyone else’s business – don’t feel the need to justify our choices.

An example: I try really hard to stay out of politics in the digital sphere, even though I have strong opinions and a deep investment in current issues, for many different reasons. Those reasons vary from a weariness of pointless arguments that change no one’s mind to an awareness that I’m trying to build an author platform and that isolating potential readers isn’t wise.

So for these reasons and many, many more (it is always more complex than it sounds), I have kept silent. If someone asks me about my beliefs or anything like that, I answer them honestly if I feel comfortable doing so; I tell them it’s none of their business if it’s not. I don’t lie. I’ve never lied about such things, because I would find it personally injurious. On a deep, self-love level, I need to remain accepting of who I am.

Yet… I don’t declare. And so I wonder when not declaring becomes the same as keeping a secret. Especially in today’s world, where everyone is public about not just every opinion they have but every thought they have, one has to make a conscious effort not to reveal their stances. At times, to me, that effort begins to feel like secret-keeping. At times I feel the urge to tweet or blog about personal things. What if someone fills in their own blanks and gets them wrong? I hate the idea of being misinterpreted due to a need for privacy, but I also hate the idea of throwing away privacy for the sake of appearances.

Where’s the line?

I suspect the line is different for every person – and possibly different for each of us depending on our stage in life, mood, circumstances, etc. It’s not as if I haven’t blogged about personal things before. Blogging is inherently personal, to me, so it’s inevitable that I share some things. I blogged about my dad’s alcoholism and death because that was a “secret” that felt personally damaging to keep quiet about; speaking openly about shame subjects is a form of rejection – a way to refuse to buy in to what society tries to sell us. Not to mention that my only nonfiction writing (my poetry memoir Hope and Other Myths) is about this, so I’ve always been aware that this part of my life can’t remain private.

Other issues, like my battles with depression, my sweet husband, my hard-earned ‘life lessons,’ etc. have all come up organically, when I feel driven to talk about them – whether to share my experiences, hear advice or support, or whatever. Yet, somehow, there are large pieces of myself not represented online. And you know what? For now, I like it that way.

In a time when the very details of our meals, outfits, and moods are snapped and shared for friends, family, and strangers alike, I still value my right not to share. Not because I’m ashamed of my beliefs, stances, or decisions (I’m not), but because I believe there’s inherent value in allowing ourselves privacy. Just as sharing something can make it feel more real, keeping something personal can make it feel more authentic.

I love my blog, I love the internet, and I truly do love our modern culture of public life, but I don’t want to become the sum of my represented parts. So the line, for me, is constantly shifting near and far, but I appreciate the fact that there is a line, and I hope to keep it around.

Where’s the line for you?

Posted in Food for Thought | 28 Comments