First published in 2001, Alan Dugan’s poem, Love Song: I and Thou, is written in free verse with no rhyme scheme. When a reader first comes across this poem, the formatting of the lines will appear strange, arranged sporadically for no discernible reason. The beginnings of the lines are out of order, and line break happen in random places. Dugan made this choice to allow the reader to experience the chaos of the world Dugan describes throughout the poem. The speaker has a ramshackle house, and so the poem has been written in the same way. Paying close attention to the effect of these strange line breaks greatly adds to the reader’s ability to empathize with the speaker and remember a time when they too were furious with their life and the way it was turning out.
Love Song: I and Thou is a structure through which Dugan’s speaker, often cited as being Dugan himself, can cast and analyze the building blocks of his life. Throughout the poem, the speaker compares his own life to that of a house that is “shaky by nature.” He describes building the house, how he made it the way it is, “Nothing…plumb, level, or square.” The speaker gets increasingly angry as the poem continues on, angry at himself and at God, who at one point he blames for his life. The poem concludes with a reference to martyrdom in which the speaker confesses that he is determined to stay in this rickety house until it kills him. He will nail his left hand to the wall, but needs a wife, “a love,” to nail the right hand. The wife can be seen as a positive in the speaker’s life, but also as the reason his life is the way it is.
You can read the full poem Love Song: I and Thou here.
Love Song: I and Thou Analysis
Love Song: I and Thou begins in the middle of what could be considered the speaker’s rant about the way his life has turned out. He is describing the construction of his house, how each feature is flawed. The pieces do not fit together like they are supposed to, the “joists are shaky” and nothing is level or square. All in all the reader can discern from this that the speaker’s home seems to be in a bit of a mess.
The poem continues to describe how,
“bent nails / dance all over the surfacing / like maggots.”
The boards of his house are covered in bent, broken nails, mistakes from when he was putting it together. It’s at this point in the poem that the reader might be realizing this the house the speaker is describing is more than just a house, it is also a metaphor for his life in general. The nails like maggots living in the boards of the house are an accumulation of this bad choices he has made throughout his life. They have become so numerous that they are covering “all over.”
The next part of the poem makes it clear that the house is a metaphor for the larger picture of this speaker’s life. He calls on Christ in the next part of the poem, proclaiming that he is “no carpenter.” This short line can be read as an exasperated confession, but it also draws a comparison between Christ and the speaker and how dissimilar they are. The poem continues with the speaker, in a sense, taking responsibility for his actions. He admits that he built this house himself,
“… the roof for myself, the walls / for myself…”
He continues to cite the floors, and then proclaim that he was the one that got himself “hung up in it.” He is responsible for the way his life has gone, he got himself stuck in it.
The next section of the poem becomes more emotional as the speaker describes his mistakes and rage. He speaks about how he “danced with a purple thumb” while at his house-warming party. The thumb, turned purple from repeated hits with a hammer, is another reminder of his mistakes, one that he carries around with him where ever he goes. He also describes himself as being drunk on his prime whisky and raging. The next line is a great example of the rawness of his anger.
“Oh I spat rage’s nails / into the frame-up of my work:”
While vivid image, this line could also refer to how his internal rage and his inability control it eventually erupted out and shot into others around him. Perhaps the speaker has destroyed a number of his past relationships and opportunities because of his anger.
The nails that the speaker spits out hold up the framework of the house temporarily but then they fall apart in a different direction; still the house is a failure. He curses God in the next line saying,
“God damned it. This is hell,”
In normal speech someone might say, “God damn it.” but in this instance, Dugan chose the phrase, “God damned it” for his speaker. This is to show that to some extent the speaker blames God for how his life has turned out. Remember that he claims at the beginning of the poem that the house is “shaky by nature.” The speaker may be looking for a way out, someone else to blame besides himself. Or at least someone to share the blame with. He quickly moves away from this proclamation though saying again that he was the one that planned it. He,
“…sawed it, / (he) nailed it,”
This is the life that he built and he has chosen to remain in it until it kills him. Perhaps the speaker at some point in his life considered taking his own life and escaping from this failing house before death took him naturally. He has clearly decided against that path though.
The poem concludes with another reference to God. It is unclear throughout this poem if the speaker is religious, or is just using religion as a temporary excuse for his own actions. He describes at the ending of this piece that he can nail his “left palm / to the left-hand crosspiece…” halfway martyring himself on a metaphorical cross, but that he needs help to nail the right hand. The help he claims he needs is a “love, a you, a wife.” Until this point in the poem, there has been no direct mention of anyone aside from this first-person speaker. The poem also takes on another layer of detail at this point. There is now someone else in the speaker’s life that he could blame.
Perhaps the speaker is saying that his wife has made him this martyr. It is her fault that he is stuck in this faulty home. OR perhaps the speaker is inferring the exact opposite. That in the end, it is his love, his wife, that is there to support him.
About Alan Dugan
Alan Dugan was born in 1923 and was not considered to be a skilled poet at a young age. His books have been greeted with mostly mixed reviews until his book Poems came out in 1961. Poems would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. His work appeals to audiences due to its commonplace material and clever satire and deep humor. In 2001 Dugan won the National Book Award for poetry for his book, Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry. He died in 2003 at the age of 80.