Throughout ‘Sally’s Hair,’ Koethe demonstrates incredible skill with imagery and the ability to capture the feeling of a moment with as few words as possible. Readers are likely to walk away from this poem feeling as though they understand the speaker’s attraction to Sally and with the ability to imagine the influence of her bright, blonde hair.
Explore Sally’s Hair
‘Sally’s Hair’ by John Koethe is a thoughtful poem that weaves together themes of nostalgia, the past, and memory.
In the first stanzas of this poem, the speaker looks back on a moment from his past. He recalls meeting a young woman named Sally, with beautiful blonde hair, at a train station while he was traveling. The two spend a bit of time together at a hotel, fooling around before they part. He hears from her one more time before never hearing from or seeing her again. That was thirty-seven years ago. The speaker was inspired by the light on a summer afternoon to remember the young woman’s blonde hair.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘Sally’s Hair’ by John Koethe is a six-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. The poem is written and free verse. This means that the poet did not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern when composing the lines. Despite this, readers who pay attention to the writer’s use of words are likely to notice his use of half-rhyme and full rhyme. For example, in the first stanza, “glass” and “grass” rhyme.
Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Simile: seen through comparisons that use “like” and “as.” For exmple, “It’s like living in a light bulb.”
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “living” and “light” in line one and “golden” and “grass” in line four of the first stanza.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting and effective descriptions. They should inspire the reader to imagine the scene in the greatest detail as possible. For example: “The leaves are all ablaze with light, the blond light / Of a summer afternoon that made me think again of Sally’s hair.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza.
It’s like living in a light bulb, with the leaves
Like filaments and the sky a shell of thin, transparent glass
Enclosing the late heaven of a summer day, a canopy
Of incandescent blue above the dappled sunlight golden on the grass.
In the first stanza of the poem, the poem begins by using a simile. He compares life as a young man to “living in a lightbulb.” As the lines progress, the poet demonstrates a beautiful array of images that relate life on earth to life underneath a “shell of thin, transparent glass.” This makes life feel very breakable and very confined.
The reader should also be attentive to how the poet describes a “summer day” as “heaven” and his use of words like “incandescent,” “dappled,” and “sunlight.” He is using positive language to set up the reader for what’s to come. Although a light bulb is breakable, the world existing inside it is beautiful.
I took the train back from Poughkeepsie to New York
And in the Port Authority, there at the Suburban Transit window,
She asked, “Is this the bus to Princeton?”—which it was.
“Do you know Geoffrey Love?” I said I did. She had the blondest hair,
In the second stanza, the poet changes their approach to their style of writing. Now, the poet uses the first-person perspective, making use of words like “I,” “my,” and “mine.” He describes riding a train from Poughkeepsie to New York and seeing a woman at the “Suburban Transit window.” It’s this memory that’s at the heart of the poem. The poet meets “Sally” there in a mundane and unimpressive setting and is immediately attracted to her blonde hair.
The two communicate briefly, informing the reader of the fact that they do have something in common. The speaker agrees when asked that he does, in fact, know “Geoffrey Love.”
Which fell across her shoulders, and a dress of almost phosphorescent blue.
She liked Ayn Rand. We went down to the Village for a drink,
Where I contrived to miss the last bus to New Jersey, and at 3 a.m. we
Walked around and found a cheap hotel I hadn’t enough money for
The third stanza continues the poet’s skillful, mostly color-related, imagery. He describes the way that her hair fell across her shoulders and the bright “phosphorescent blue” of her dress. The poet alternates between short, choppy lines that utilize caesura and longer, more lyrical lines that provide readers with exposition details.
Readers are provided with a little bit more information about the young woman that the speaker met at the train station. She likes Ayn Rand, and the two got a “cheap hotel” together. Here, it becomes clear that the young woman is just as drawn to the speaker as he is to her.
And fooled around on its dilapidated couch. An early morning bus
A summer dormitory room, my roommates gone: “Are you,” she asked,
The two “fooled around” (a youthful turn of phrase) on the “dilapidated couch” in the hotel, and then morning comes, and their lives go on. The poet briefly outlines what the next day looks like, why the young woman was there, and the moments they spent in a “summer dormitory room” when the speaker’s roommates were absent.
“A hedonist?” I guessed so. Then she had to catch her plane.
Who she is now. That was thirty-seven years ago.
In a somewhat surprising twist considering the nostalgic and summer-related imagery that the poet has thus far presented, the young woman addresses him, asking him if he’s a “hedonist.” He does not respond with 100% certainty but says that he “guesses so.” He may be someone who pursues pleasure over everything else, seeing it as the most important thing in life.
It’s within the stanza that it becomes clear that this connection between Sally and the speaker is short-lived. She calls from Florida that night perhaps to tell him that she’s safe, and then he never hears from her again. The speaker reveals that the events of the poem happened thirty-seven years ago, and within these short stanzas, he is reliving his past and contemplating where Sally ended up and “who” she is now.
And I’m too old to be surprised again. The days are open,
Of a summer afternoon that made me think again of Sally’s hair.
The speaker sees himself as “too old to be surprised again.” The use of the word “again” suggests that this meeting with Sally and the time they spent together “surprised” him in some fundamental way. Perhaps it was her attraction to him, for at least a few hours, or perhaps the surprise came from the way in which Sally and her beautiful, blonde hair stuck in his mind.
Unlike the past, which the speaker implies held some mystery, today, the “days are open.” Life “conceals no deaths, no mysteries, the sky is everywhere.” It is no longer confined by the lightbulb shape dome that was described so beautifully in the first stanza. Here, the reader should relate the reference to “light” to the same light bulb imagery. The leaves are “all ablaze with light.” It is this light, the speaker reveals, on a summer afternoon that made him think again of “Sally’s hair.”
Within the simple days of his old age, the speaker was reminded of moments from his youth in which he was taken by and entranced with a young woman’s hair and their brief moments together.
The main theme of this poem is nostalgia. This, along with themes of summer and the past, creates an atmosphere of gentle memories and a soft, peaceful kind of sadness. The speaker is reminiscing on moments from his past in which he connected with a young woman with beautiful blonde hair. Now, thirty-seven years in the future, he was reminded of the encounter by the “blonde light” of a summer afternoon.
The speaker is an older man looking back on his past. He is recalling a moment from his youth, perhaps when he was in college (due to the dormitory reference), thirty-seven years in the future. His exact identity is unknown and should not influence readers’ interpretations of the poem.
It’s likely that the poet wrote this piece in order to explore a series of images, perhaps from his own past or another persons’ in his life. Or, he might have invented the exact details from the poem in order to express a particular emotion.
The message is that the smallest things from the past, or present, can have a memorable impact. In this case, the young woman’s hair came into the speaker’s mind when he saw the summer afternoon light in a certain way.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some related pieces. For example:
- ‘The Good Life’ by Tracy K. Smith – within this piece, the poet asks the reader to consider their relationship with money and what the ‘good life’ really is.
- ‘Nostalgia’ by Carol Ann Duffy – explores the moment in which the term ‘Nostalgia’ was coined, following the crusades of 17th-century Swiss mercenaries.
- ‘The Opposite of Nostalgia’ by Eric Gamalinda – explores escapism, and a desire for something new, different, and exciting.