There are a great many poems in existence that push forward the desire to express a need or feeling, and as well many that push forward the desire to simply say something. Alice Walker’s Expect Nothing falls in the latter of the (very rough) categories, a poem that states its purpose very plainly, without relying too heavily on poetic devices or heavy language. There is a strength to this poem, and to others like it, in simply saying what it is that the author wants to have expressed, and this does not take away from the power of the message. In small ways, such as the structure of the poem, and the rare use of metaphor are benefited by their rarity. The accumulation of this simplicity is a powerful, meaningful poem that is easy to digest and appreciate while still being thought-provoking in that meaning.
Expect Nothing Analysis
Expect nothing. Live frugally
Stop short of urge to plead
Then purge away the need.
This poem, which can be read in full here, does not feature a narrator as a character, nor a setting of any kind. Instead, it begins with simple advice — “expect nothing.” The structure of the poem, which is not designed to rhyme, helps to keep the reader reading, by beginning the next sentence on that same line and finishing it on the following one. Only two sentences throughout the versed at the same time that the line they take up does, and this is to keep the reader moving to the next line naturally to find the end of the thought.
The advice given throughout the verse is simple. “Expect nothing” is easy enough to understand — if a person doesn’t spend their time expecting things to happen, they’ll always be pleasantly surprised when good things do, and won’t be disappointed when good things don’t. “Live frugally / On surprise” the next line advises, and this too is good advice. A person who lives frugally is one who is economically-minded in a way that lends itself to low spending. A frugal person tries to save their currency and live light. To live “frugally” on surprise suggests to live on surprise and little else, and this ties in nicely with not expecting anything. Expect nothing, and when things happen, live for those moments of surprise when things happen regardless of expectation. This is how the poem starts — and this sets the tone for the rest of the poem, carrying a blunt, somewhat unorthodox kind of atmosphere to it. The rest of this verse tells the reader to never accept too much from others but to stop accepting compassion at the point where they no longer need it, but rather begin to want it. When it says to “purge away the need,” it refers not only to compassion but to anything that becomes a need out of sheer desire.
Wish for nothing larger
Than your own small heart
Make of it a parka
For your soul.
The second verse follows very much the same pattern as the first one, beginning and ending with advice for the reader. This verse is also notable for using the metaphor of a star to symbolize the human heart. It suggests that the reader should never wish for anything greater than their “own small heart,” which is a fairly vague sentiment since a wish cannot be measured in the way a physical organ can. What the verse actually seems to be suggesting is that wishes should come from the heart, and be sincere to what the person feels and wants. In this sense, the heart can be as large and as grand as a star, if it is sheltered from “wild disappointment.” The way the poem suggests to handle these disappointments is with cold caresses; which is to say without feeling disappointed, but to make disappointment a “parka / For your soul.” A parka is a kind of coat, and in this metaphor, disappointment is like feeling cold, and the only way to be sheltered from the cold is by wearing a parka. So, it is suggesting, get used to disappointment, and tame it so that it thickens your skin and defends you against future disappointment — because there will always be future disappointment.
Discover the reason why
So tiny human midget
But expect nothing. Live frugally
The strong themes contained within this poem are those of independence, of happiness with one’s self, and of the gap between expectation and the world. An independent and fulfilled person is one who can discover the reason why the human “midget” (a rather blunt metaphor to demonstrate the relatively small existence of one species on one planet circling one star) exists at all. This is likely not meant as a literal discovery — it is unlikely that independent happiness is going to enable to the purpose of life to dawn on the individual — but it does suggest that a person can be reasonably happy and content with their own life and existence if they are expecting nothing from it. Without building up the grand expectation of life and reality in their own heads, a person can focus on what makes them feel fulfilled, rather than trying to live according to other people’s expectations or rules. This last verse strengthens the idea of independence sewn throughout the work and reinforces the advice that begun the poem — “Expect nothing. Live frugally / On surprise,” indicating that this is important, and indeed, much of the poem can be compressed into those two lines alone.
Without using any heavy literary devices, the meanings embedded within Alice Walker’s Expect Nothing are fairly straightforward. This is a poem that’s easy to read and easy to understand but is very difficult to really get through because it is a poem entirely comprised of advice. For each individual person, the same advice has different implications. This is why the themes are so important — these ideas of making oneself happy, of doing so independently, of managing expectations, are applicable in some way to all readers, which makes this a powerful poem that can, in a way, transcend individual circumstance, and make the implementation of this particular piece of advice-driven a meaningful and successful one.