This poem is commonly considered to be Stephen Dobyns’ most popular work to date. ‘How to Like It’ explores themes that are fundamental to human experience and should appeal to a very wide audience. Readers may find themselves sympathizing with the “man” in the poem as well as judging him for his actions and inactions.
Explore How to Like It
‘How to Like It’ by Stephen Dobyns depicts the contradictory and overwhelming feelings that come with aging.
In the first lines of this poem, the poet’s speaker describes a fall night that serves as a symbol for the aging years of a man’s life. He’s experiencing the night, like many others, and is looking for answers regarding what’s “next” for him. His dog, who is accompanying him on a walk into the night, speaks to him. He tries to get the man to act out and give in to his baser instincts. But, the man is consumed with thoughts of a journey, the past, and how the “faces” of those he once knew are surrounding him in the trees’ shadows.
The dog eventually convinces the man to go back inside and make a sandwich. This mundane change of goals brings the poem to its conclusion. The man is left seeking an answer to one primary question, how is he supposed to like what comes next?
You can read the full poem here.
These are the first days of fall. The wind
at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,
This is how dogs deal with the prospect of change.
In the first lines, the speaker sets the scene and the general atmosphere of the poem. It becomes clear quite quickly that the speaker is focusing on a man who is entering the “fall” of his life. He’s aging and, like the changing seasons, is progressing towards the end of his life. This is represented through the description of the “first days of fall” that come before the season is in full swing and is then quickly followed by winter (a symbol of death).
The speaker uses a fantastic example of imagery in the next lines to describe the “smells of roads still to be traveled.” This evokes a feeling of restlessness and dissatisfaction. It’s clear that the “man” in this poem is not ready to settle into his life as it is. There is a great deal more he wants/wanted to do, and he’s bothered by this fact.
The feeling of being “unsettled” is emphasized in the next lines with a direct reference to it. The speaker says that there is a feeling of restlessness in the man’s blood. It is a part of him in a way that is not easy to ignore. It’s as fundamental to his identity at this point as his blood is.
There is a transition in the next lines that introduce the two characters readers are going to become familiar with throughout the fifty-six-line poem— a man and his dog.
The poet immediately jumps into an example of personification. This is seen through his description of the dog talking to the man, telling him that it’s time for them to “go downtown and get crazy drunk.” The dog suggests that this, and causing some havoc downtown, is going to make the man feel better. It’s through actions like these that dogs deal with change. This image is both amusing and interesting at the same time. It should immediately inspire readers to consider whether or not, in this world, the dog is actually speaking or if the man is imagining this conversation playing out.
The man’s more destructive tendencies come out through the dog’s words. His baser instincts, those that he’s likely trying to ignore, are pushing him to act out.
But in his sense of the season, the man is struck
by the oppressiveness of his past, how his memories
leaving on a journey. He looks down the street
The theme of change is also clearly introduced in the first part of this poem. The transition into fall hinted at it in the first lines, and then the dog mentions it directly. The man is having a hard time dealing with “change,” and despite the dog’s prodding, he remains silent. He’s overwhelmed, in these lines, by the “sense of the season” and the “oppressiveness of his past.”
He’s stuck thinking about who he is now, what he’s done with his life, and the potential (or lack thereof) that he has. This crisis is made very real by the description of “faces / caught up among the dark places in the trees.” The man is seeing the “faces” of his past all around him. They are watching him from the darkness (a rather foreboding image that suggests the man is truly struggling).
The dog continues his self-destructive suggestions. This time, trying to inspire the man to go out and get “some girls” and “rip off their clothes.” Or “Let’s dig holes everywhere.” He merges the instincts of a dog with those of a man trying to ignore his aging and loss of prospects.
The poet creates another great example of juxtaposition by describing the man’s interest in the “wisps of clouds / crossing the face of the moon.” Rather than indulging his baser instincts, the man considers the beauty of the world around him and how, he thinks, it indicates the beginning of a journey. This is the kind of experience the man seems to want, but, as the rest of the poem plays out, it becomes clear that it’s not quite that easy.
to the hills outside of town and finds the cut
where the road heads north. He thinks of driving
shine like small cautions against the night.
The speaker uses several examples of imagery in these lines to describe what the man sees when he looks down the street. He thinks about driving and what he might see/smell. His contemplation of the future and the “journey” the night sky reminded him of is interrupted by the dog’s assertions about what they should do. The man ignores him, as always, and keeps his mind on the “empty and dark road.”
Darkness is a reoccurring symbol in this piece. It is seen through the shadows in the trees, the night setting, and the darkness down the road that the man is thinking about traveling into. It represents uncertainty regarding what’s going to come next. It also serves as an allusion to death and how, no matter where the man ventures or how many women he picks up at bars, he’s going to face his mortality.
Sometimes a passing truck makes his whole car shake.
The dog says, Let’s go to sleep. Let’s lie down
and there, filling a valley, will be the lights
of a city entirely new to him.
Trucks pass on the dark road in front of him, shaking the car that, if he wanted, he might get into and drive off in. Other people are on the road, indicating that it is possible to leave the place he’s in. But, the power of the passing truck may serve as an indicator that his car and the man himself are not up to such a leap of faith into the darkness.
The dog has moved away, at this point, from acts of violence or lustful indulgence. Now, he’s telling the man that they should lie down by the fire and go to sleep. Perhaps, implying that the two should just give up on any kind of exciting future or evening.
Rather than curl up by the fire as the dog suggests, the man is thinking about getting in his car and driving on the dark road until the sun “creeps” (another example of personification) into his “rearview mirror.” In this vision of the future, the man focuses on “light” as a new symbol. There is the light of the sun as well as the city lights in the valley in front of him.
Light represents hope and a new future, one that is far from the darkness of night that began this poem. But, the man doesn’t get in his car. This future is inaccessible to him because he has ties to where he is and has a personality that does not allow him to make rash choices like these he’s dreaming about.
But the dog says, Let’s just go back inside.
Let’s not do anything tonight. So they
Let’s make the tallest sandwich anyone’s ever seen.
It’s in these next lines that the man finally takes a piece of advice the dog suggests. That is, to go back inside and “not do anything tonight.” This is the easiest option and the one that’s by far the safest. It conforms to the kind of life the man has been living up until this point and does not challenge him in any way.
There are two intense questions in the next lines that get to the heart of the man’s struggles. He is conflicted by the duel emotions inside him. He wants so much but still wants “nothing.” He wants to sleep but also wants to “hit his head again and again / against a wall.”
The man is dealing with feeling as though his life is getting away from him and wants, in some ways, to pursue it. But, at the same time, he feels the exhaustion of day-to-day life and his responsibilities. These things tie him to his home and wife and make him feel as though any drive off into the night is pointless (as well as impossible).
Rather than facing challenging questions, the man goes back inside and makes a sandwich at the dog’s suggestion.
And that’s what they do and that’s where the man’s
answers to what comes next and how to like it.
The two go inside, where the man’s wife finds him. This is the first mention of her throughout the entire poem, suggesting that he is not including her in his nighttime dreams of escape. She’s a part of his life but only peripherally. His wife may feel more like a barrier to achieving something in the “fall” of his life.
The poem ends with the image of the man standing in front of the fridge (never having made a sandwich) and staring into it as though it is “where the answers are kept.”
He’s overwhelmed by the days that lie ahead of him and those he’s lost. The answers he’s seeking are to questions like, “How is it possible to sleep at night?” And “What comes next?” The final question is: how can he like what comes next? He feels as though it’s impossible for him to take joy in whatever comes next as it seems his best days are behind him. But, he keeps looking for the answer.
Within this popular poem, Dobyns engages primarily with the theme of aging. This is seen through the poet’s use of symbolism (fall, darkness, and a journey) and the man’s obsession with thoughts of the past. He’s reached a point in his life where he realizes that he’s not going to be able to accomplish everything he wanted to and that there may not be anything inspiring to look forward to in the future. He’s desperate for some change that’s not of a negative nature. But, his personality and unwillingness to take a risk confine him to his day-to-day life.
The poem expresses the unavoidable nature of death and change. The man is aging and isn’t happy with how he sees his life playing out throughout the “fall.” Winter, or the end of his life, is drawing closer, and he’s desperate for a metaphorical journey or a series of new experiences. But, stepping outside of one’s comfort zone is not that easy. The man ends the poem back inside, staring into the depths of his fridge.
Structure and Form
‘How to Like It’ by Stephen Dobyns is a fifty-six-line poem that is contained within a single, long stanza. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the poet did not make use of a structured rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines are different lengths and end with a variety of sounds. For example, the first few lines end with the words “wind,” “traveled,” “lawns,” and “blood.”
Despite the lack of rhyme scheme, the poet does use several examples of repetition in order to provide the poem with some structure. The personified dog speaks, and rather than respond, the speaker conveys the man’s contemplative thoughts about the night, a future journey he’s never going to take, and aging.
Throughout ‘How to Like It,’ Stephen Dobyns makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues something non-human with human characteristics. This is seen quite clearly through the dog’s dialogue.
- Symbolism: throughout, the poet uses classic symbols of lightness and darkness. The darkness represents death and the unending progression of days that will provide the man with nothing inspiring or interesting to look forward to. The lightness, on the other hand, seen through a metaphorical cityscape and the sun, represents adventure, passion, and youth. But, the man is faced with inescapable change (aging) that he sees as negative.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between the first two lines of the poem.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “leaves” and “lawns” in line three.
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of text. This might be achieved through the use of punctuation or a natural pause in the meter. For example, “Above his house, the man notices wisps of cloud.”
The purpose is to explore the contradictory feelings associated with aging. This includes a constant question regarding what’s next and how one is supposed to accept it and even like it. The man featured in this poem is dissatisfied with his life and wants to, in part, step out of his routine. But he never does.
Dobyns likely wrote this poem in order to explore the nature of aging and how, when one’s best days are seemingly behind them, the future can seem bleak. This is a state of being that all readers can relate to at some point in their life.
The tone is contemplative and questioning. The speaker is clearly depressed about what his life has come to. But, his routine, personality, and comfort in his day-to-day life prevent him from stepping outside of his life and doing something new. Instead, he broods on questions it seems he’s never going to answer.
The speaker is an omniscient narrator who spends the poem conveying the thoughts of a middle-aged or older man considering what comes next in his life and the words of a personified dog. The dog serves as a representative of the man’s baser instincts and then, as the poem progresses, the voice that tells him to stay within his comfort zone (despite the fact that this is what’s making him unhappy).
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider exploring some related pieces. For example:
- ‘Men at Forty’ by Donald Justice – is a moving poem about aging and fatherhood. The speaker is describing what it’s like for all men when they reach forty and consider their pasts and presents.
- ‘Splendour in the Grass’ by William Wordsworth – describes aging and where, after their youth has ended, one should seek strength and happiness.
- ‘On Aging’ by Maya Angelou – explores what it means to get old. The speaker is honest and direct, confronting the reader with the truth about age.