‘Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet’ by Tony Hoagland was written in 1998 and conveys a very human longing for a life filled with adventure. After expressing his boredom with his life, the second half of the poem is filled with the speaker daydreams about serving on a whaling vessel, like the one in the book he’s reading, Moby-Dick.The poet taps into a longing that most human beings have for a life that’s grander and more exciting than their own.
Explore Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet
Throughout this poem, the speaker juxtaposes his life, one of control and structure, against the lives of those in his novel Moby-Dick. The poem starts out with the speaker looking down on fields below him. There, in the pattern, all he can think about is mundane everyday life. He is no longer awed by the experience of flying as he had been. As he goes on, he turns to his novel and expresses his desires to live freely as the characters in the book do. They have nowhere they have to be and live at the will of their “mad captain.”
In ‘Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet,’ Hoagland engages with themes of dissatisfaction, death, and exploration. It’s the latter that fuels the speaker’s moments of dissatisfaction. He feels a longing to live his life on the edge, something that’s almost impossible in his world. No longer is it the norm to sail out to sea and risk oneself foolishly for, in this case, revenge. He admits that he’d rather face a brave and exciting death than live out his life, presumably into old age and peaceful, uninteresting death.
Structure and Form
‘Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet’ by Tony Hoagland is a seventeen-line poem that is divided into sixteen sets of three lines, known as a tercet, and one final set of four, known as a quatrain. The poem is written in free verse, meaning that there is no specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. It moves quickly as well, with very little end-punctuation and a great deal of enjambment.
Hoagland makes use of several literary devices in ‘Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, caesura, and similes. The latter is a type of figurative language, a comparison between two things using “like” and “as.” For example, in the twelfth stanza, the poet writes: “Imagine a century like a room so large, / a corridor so long / you could travel for a lifetime.” This is also a way of creating imagery, something that’s easy and interesting for the reader to imagine.
Enjambment is a formal device, one that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transitions between all the lines in the first stanza, as well as lines one and two of the second stanza. They read as one long sentence. The reader doesn’t pause until they get to the period at the end of line two of stanza two.
Caesurae are pauses in the middle of lines, ones that are created with either a natural pause in the meter or through the use of punctuation. For example, line one from stanza five reads “a little bored, a little old and strange” or “I remember, as a dreamy” in the same stanza.
Stanzas One and Two
At this height, Kansas
is just a concept,
At this stage of the journey
In the first stanza of ‘Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet,’ the speaker begins by describing Kansas from the sky. It’s a sight familiar to anyone with any experience flying. All the cities, farms, and woods are broken down into a “checkerboard design.” He specifically mentions “wheat and corn,” staple products in Kansas.
The speaker’s elevation over everything below him makes him feel as though he’s looking at the “foldout section” of a travel magazine. This is an example of a metaphor, one that has specific and relatable parts. The speaker mentions the magazine as belonging to his neighbor, suggesting that he doesn’t have anything like this in his own home.
Stanzas Three and Four
I would estimate the distance
between myself and my own feelings
between Muzak and lunch,
In the third stanza, the speaker says very plainly that he’s at a “distance” from his “feelings.” For some reason, as of yet unexplained, the speaker is alienated from his own emotions. He compares the distance to the same mileage between “Seattle,” on the west coast of the United States, to “New York” on the east coast. The speaker is in something of liminal space, between “Muzak and lunch.” He’s waiting for the next part of his journey without much interest, or as he mentioned, feeling.
Stanzas Five and Six
a little bored, a little old and strange.
I remember, as a dreamy
in lines so steady and so straight
In his moments of contemplation, the speaker remembers how incredible flying seemed to him as a child. He would dreamily look up as the “planes engrave the sky,” but now that’s no longer the case. He’s “a little bored, a little old and strange.” Flying has lost its magic. Readers should take note of the use of alliteration in the third line of the sixth stanza with “steady” and “straight.”
Stanzas Seven and Eight
they implied the enormous concentration
of good men,
then back into my book,
The lines he watched back then alluded to the “concentration” of the men flying those aircraft. He’s no longer amazed by the things that human beings can accomplish. He’s grown used to seeing these things. His eyes are having trouble focusing on any one thing. He looks at his book, the movie, and the “stewardess’s pantyline.” Then “back” to his “book.”
Stanzas Nine and Ten
where men throw harpoons at something
much bigger and probably
to prove that they exist.
It’s in the ninth stanza that the poet alludes to Moby Dick, the book that the speaker is reading on this flight. It’s a very human, earthy, and emotional battle, the complete opposite of the experience the speaker is having. The poem starts to get slightly more complex in the tenth stanza when the speaker discusses feeling alive, or the act of proving existence. The latter, he says, is accomplished in the great acts of human beings, such as killing the white whale. Readers might find it interesting to consider the speaker’s implicit comparison of life and violence, strength, and perseverance. One needs the latter, at least in this moment in the speaker’s mind, to prove the other.
Stanzas Eleven through Fourteen
Imagine being born and growing up,
Imagine a century like a room so large,
a corridor so long
with a mad one-legged captain
living for revenge.
The men in his novel are on an adventure, living their fullest lives while he flies mundanely to an unnamed destination. The speaker imagines in these lives what it was like to spend one’s life catapulted from exciting adventure to danger to pleasure. It would be like a “corridor so long” that one could travel forever without even thinking about doors. He’d rather be on the ship from Moby-Dick with the mad Captain Ahab, risking one’s life for revenge and personal glory, than to be living as he is.
Stanzas Fifteen, Sixteen, and Seventeen
Better to feel the salt wind
spitting in your face,
of the beast beneath the waves.
What a relief it would be
Where are we going now?
The poet repeats the words “Better to” at the start of the fifteenth stanza as well. He’s clear that he feels his life is lacking the excitement that one might find in another. It’s a clear example of the idea of the grass being greener on the other side. Readers might want to consider what someone like Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick would think if they got an insight into the speaker’s world.
The poem ends with the speaker alluding to a base desire for freedom, something that’s lacking in his structured world. The idea that one doesn’t know where they’re going next and they’re at the will of a “mad captain” has an adventurous appeal to the speaker.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet’ should also consider reading some related poems on the same topic. For example:
- ‘The Furthest Distance I’ve Travelled’ by Leontia Flynn-describes the way that travels impacts both the traveler and those they meet along the way.
- ‘Ulysses’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson- depicts Ulysses, more commonly known today as Odysseus, and his bravery along his journey home.
- ‘Before I Knocked’ by Dylan Thomas – told from the perspective of Christ as he looks back over his mortal life from an immortal perspective.
- ‘Bored’ by Margaret Atwood-ruminates on experiences of boredom throughout her life and decides to stop living the way she has been.