The Sacred by Stephen Dunn

‘The Sacred’ was published in 1989 and conveys many of the themes that Dunn is best-known for, such as elevating the mundane or the everyday ins and outs of life. In this case, Dunn’s speaker focuses on driving a car. Dunn uses straightforward syntax and simple language throughout, allowing the meaning of this poem to become accessible to a wide variety of readers. Close readers will also realize that Dunn is speaking about more than just driving. He is exploring themes of the meaning of life, spirituality, and even writing. 

 

Summary of The Sacred 

‘The Sacred’ by Stephen Dunn describes a conversation in a classroom and the idea of a car as a place of spiritual peace. 

The speaker takes the reader through the simple elements of a discussion about sacred places. The best example that a student in this discussion could come up with was a car. In it, one can insert the key, worship at the altar-dashboard, and put themselves in motion to go wherever they want to. This depiction of the car felt truthful to all those in the room and no one could fault it. 

You can read the full poem here.

 

Structure of The Sacred 

‘The Sacred’ by Stephen Dunn is an eighteen line poem that is separated out into stanzas containing three lines. These lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This is a technique known as free verse. A reader should also note that in the original text the poet chose o indent the second line of each stanza. This creates a back and forth motion that one might interpret as mimicking the movements of a car. 

 

Literary Devices in The Sacred 

Dunn makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Sacred’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and metaphor. The car itself is the most important metaphor. A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. It is a conduit to spiritual peace and even enlightenment in this poem. It is the “sacred” place that many people, of all ages, find themselves drawn to. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “car,” “coming,” and “car” again in lines ten and eleven. 

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. This is one of the most effective techniques in ‘The Sacred.’ Good examples include the transitions between lines one and two as well as that between lines twelve and thirteen. 

 

Analysis of The Sacred 

Lines 1-5 

After the teacher asked if anyone had

(…)

said it was his car,

In the first lines of ‘The Sacred,’ the speaker begins by relaying a conversation that occurred in the classroom. The type of class is not entirely clear but a likely option is a creative writing course.  In it, the speaker posed a question to the students. It is relayed clearly and without flowery language. The speaker depicts the student’s reactions to this personal inquiry very accurately and clearly. It is easy to imagine every student feeling nervous about revealing something so personal, or even having to think about something so personal, in a classroom setting. 

The speaker is hoping to engage the class in a discussion about what is sacred. In this case, a “sacred place”. The teacher wonders if any of the students have alpaca that they’d consider “sacred”. Somewhere that they go when they want to separate themselves from the rest of the world. The word “sacred” feels elevated and spiritual, even religious or ceremonial. But, in this context it is common. The teacher implies that any student could have such a place, and they likely all do. 

The “most serious” of the students too the question seriously and answered that his “car” was his sacred place. This is an interesting choice, one that maps out the rest of the poem. 

 

Lines 6-11

being in it alone, his tape deck playing

(…)

the car in motion,

In the next lines of ‘The Sacred,’ the speaker goes on to add details to this student’s description of his car. Primarily, it is the fact that he can be “alone” and can go where he pleases when he’s there. Restrictions are lifted in a way that they aren’t in any other setting. 

The “car” as a sacred place is not something that applies to only one student. In fact, the other students in the class, or so the speaker says, related to this as well. There were some that mentioned their rooms and “their hiding places” but the “car” had a ring of truth to it. It “kept coming up” in their discussion. A reader should take note of the use of alliteration in these lines. For instance, “car,” “coming” and “car” in the tenth and eleventh lines. 

 

Lines 12-18 

music filling it, and sometimes one other person

(…)

and putting it in, and going.

In the final lines of ‘The Sacred,’ the speaker emphasizes the car in motion. The motion is critical the speaker implies. He also refers to the dashboard through the metaphor of an “altar,” as if the car is a place of worship. The use of enjambment in these lines and many others in prior stanzas is effective. A reader moves fluidly from one line to the next as though they are driving around turns in a car. The transitions from lines sixteen and seventeen to eighteen are particularly powerful. 

The word “key” has a double meaning. It can be physical, like a car key but also metaphorical. In this case, it is both. It is the “key” to finding peace with oneself as well as the “key” that unlocks the car. 

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