Every so often, I’ll come across a poem that sort of sticks around in my mind. It’s not that I memorize it on purpose or read it so many times that I may as well have memorized it. The poem just buries itself in the back of my head and comes up, unbidden, every now and then.
“Flying at Night” is one of those poems. I came across it in sixth grade English class, and it’s stuck around with me. The rhythm of it pleases me, and every time I happen to be in an airplane at nighttime, the lines float around in my head.
I can just see everything that’s being described. The geometric shapes of lights below, the sprays of stars above, the clustered lights of cities and small lights in the country.
But my favorite thing about the poem is the image of nested worlds. The universe, the earth, the land, the city, all the way down to the farmer, are little worlds of light in the darkness. In the poem, though, they’re not named in order. First we see the earth, and the speaker in the plane is caught between land and sky. Then we zoom out five billion miles, where an entire galaxy meets its end. And then we’re looking at a farmer–one farmer on this one planet in this one galaxy of the entire universe.
As I read the poem, I’m drawn to the farmer. I want to be in his island of light, “the little system of his care.” I’ve been shown the sky, the stars, the galaxy, but I care the most about one person, with his barns and sheds.
Then there’s the last two lines:
“All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.” (7-8)
The first time I read “Flying at Night,” these lines perplexed me. Now I think they mean that, from the plane’s point of view, the farmer’s light should belong to one of the cities. The viewer tries to group the lonely light with one of the bright cities. The lonely light doesn’t really belong there, though. Even though the cities tug all night, the farmer remains isolated, the master of his world of light. Unwittingly, the farmer is resisting a sort of gravity: the universal ordering principle that small things must be drawn to big things.
What do you think about “Flying at Night”? What poems have stuck around with you? Let me know in comments!
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(P.S. I’ll be camping next Wednesday, so I won’t post then. I’ll see you on Thursday and Friday as usual, though.)