In this poem “Woodchucks”, Maxine Kumin sketches a canvas of a situation where a frustrated farmer is trying to get rid of the woodchucks. At the beginning of the poem, seems to be more of a Tom chasing Jerry type of story but as it progresses it turns into something more serious. Kumin in this poem introduces the speaker as a frustrated farmer who has already made the assumption that killing the woodchucks is the only solution to his/her problems. Kumin provides an alternative approach to view the woodchucks, which were once considered as the innocent creatures in the forest. Also in this poem Kumin uses some effective poetry writing skills like imagery, shifts and parallels, portrays the central claim effectively, where the speaker is a frustrated angry farmer who is trying to fix his yard by getting rid of the woodchucks. And he finds that killing is the only option to get rid of them, but he wishes they (woodchucks) have a quick death instead of a painful one. Kumin is also successful in outlining how the speaker starts to drift away from humanity bit by bit as the hatred increases. The purpose of the poem is to illustrate how a person who is a pacifist gets consumed by her inner killer, passing on a message that everyone has an evil side.
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At the very end of this poem, Kumin concludes by creating a relation of the farmer and woodchuck to that of the Hitler and Jews in the gas chambers of the Holocaust in World War II. After reading the poem, it doesn’t feel like a song due to its rhyming scheme. This poem has a rhyming scheme but very subtle, it’s not the conventional rhyming scheme such as abab etc. In this case every stanza follows the rhyme scheme such as abcacb. It is very evident and the reader can notice this in the first read but this does not affect the effectiveness of the poem at all.
The poem begins with explaining the unsuccessful attempts for removing the pests in the very first stanza, “the knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange was featured as merciful, quick at the bone” (Kumin 8). By this Kumin wants to explain the reader that the first attempt was a little merciful. Though it was still pointing towards murderous thoughts, but it was in a merciful way which would cause less pain, “quick at the bone”. And then the poet continues brushing the picture further by adding a little humor. “and the case we had against them was airtight, both exits shoehorned shut with puddingstone, but they had a sub-sub-basement out of range” (Kumin 8). Kumin is successful in adding humor by mentioning the chase between the speaker and the woodchucks and how the speaker is cunningly outwitted by the woodchuck only because of his/her overconfidence. From this first stanza, it is clear that the farmer has already decided and made attempts to kill the woodchucks, where he/she starts with a merciful way and transitions towards the brutal forms as the hatred increases. If we have to summarize the first stanza, a nice imaginative base picture is painted which depicts the funny chase between the speaker and the woodchucks.
The next stanza continues extending and brushing the canvas by the verse, “Next morning they turned up again, no worse for the cyanide than we for our cigarettes and state-store Scotch, all of us up to scratch” (Kumin 8). By this time the readers start to sense the feeling of the hatred in the speakers mind and his/her mental situation related to woodchucks. Kumin makes use of some alliteration to highlight the words cyanide and cigarettes. “They brought down the marigolds as a matter of course and then took over the vegetable patch nipping the broccoli shoots, beheading the carrots” (Kumin 8). The later statements in this stanza exemplify the hatred growing inside the speaker due to the menace caused by the woodchucks in his/her yard. Speaker’s murderous thoughts are very evident especially when the carrots are referenced as being “beheaded”. The transition from this stanza to the third is comparatively smoother as the feeling of hatred has already evolved and this feeling is getting amplified in the third.
In this third stanza the speaker has finally opened up and rolled up his/her sleeves with the immense hatred and vengeance, and this is unavoidable to be noticed by the reader. “The food from our mouths, I said, righteously thrilling to the feel of the .22, the bullets’ neat noses” (Kumin 8). The speaker, now mentioned as killer takes a moment to express his/her grief on his/her plan of action. The overall poem goes through two very important shifts, first where the speaker starts as sensitive and then turns into insensitive and then again back to sensitive. And the second, where the speaker starts the inflection in pronouns, impersonal and then turns personal when he/she starts referencing ‘I’ more as compared to ‘we’. This is very clearly evident starting from this third stanza. “I, a lapsed pacifist fallen from grace puffed with Darwinian pieties for killing, now drew a bead on the little woodchuck’s face. He died down in the everbearing roses” (Kumin 8). This stanza can be recognized as another inflection point where the speaker is crossing the borders to enter an uncanny pleasure zone. It is also clear that the speaker has exposed him/herself and the inner side of the speaker is evident which was hidden all along. The speaker seems to be excited and thrilled with the killing. And this thrill again continues in the next stanza as the poem moves forward.
In the fourth stanza, “Ten minutes later I dropped the mother. She flipflopped in the air and fell, her needle teeth still hooked in a leaf of early Swiss chard” (Kumin 8). Just a few minutes later, this was another brutal loss of life. The speakers thirst for blood seems to be increasing with the stanzas. “Another baby next. O one-two-three the murderer inside me rose up hard, the hawkeye killer came on stage forthwith” (Kumin 8). Now after reading this line it is very much crisp and clear that the speaker is a lot more angry and frustrated and is finding some forbidden pleasure with these vicious killings. The speaker seems to be sinking in the hatred and entering the world of vengeance and inhumanity. After reading the stanzas till this point it is also very clear that the speaker found some weird satisfaction from these killings. But the next forth coming stanzas mention the cost of this satisfaction in a more detailed manner.
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The final or the fifth stanza continues as follows. “There’s only one chuck left. Old wily fellow, he keeps me cocked and ready day after day after day. All night I hunt his humped-up form. I dream I sight along the barrel in my sleep” (Kumin 8). This total massacre planning and killing has drowned the speaker in thirst of blood, and this feeling stays with the killer no matter if he/she is sleeping, sitting, walking, running, conscious or unconscious. The last verse points out another weird psychological anomaly with the speaker. “If only they’d all consented to die unseen gassed underground the quit Nazi way.” This last line is a little awkward mixture of grief and murderous thoughts which are very rare. It more feels like for the speaker the killing of these woodchucks is more like a mundane task and there is no feeling of mercy. Also from this last line it is also clear that for the speaker the guilt has returned again now and he/she feels guilty again. But there is repetitive back and forth of the speaker’s feelings which are backed up by justifications and explanations which just proves the ironic effect of vengeance. And the entire justification and explanation boils down to woodchucks being at fault. It was a misfortune that occurred but it did bring a change in people’s thought process all over the world. To conclude, I still feel that there are people after the war, who still feels that violence is more effective approach.
Schilb, John and Clifford, John. “What Is Literature? How and Why Does It Matter?” Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers. Sixth ed. Boston-New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. Print.
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