Certain poems are more veiled in meaning than others, it often seems, but through careful examination it is generally possible to extract many deep layers of meaning from even the most oblique piece. For instance, one might take Cody Rice’s poem Precautionary Measures as a case in point. At first glance the poem seems somewhat difficult to understand, but after further reading its meaning readily becomes much more apparent.
It would probably be appropriate to begin by analyzing each stanza of the poem in turn. The first stanza, beginning with the line “‘Do not look so concerned’ he always said,” sets up the basis for the whole of the piece. It originates the concept that war is involved, by mention of the “gas mask,” and begins the ironic repetition of the phrase “precautionary measure.” The second stanza furthers the already established idea of the poem being set against a backdrop of war, and introduces the correspondence. The third stanza comments further on how the letter came to be in the sad state in which it eventually exists, and brings about an understanding of the distance involved in the situation. Lastly, the fourth stanza brings the reader’s attention to the “other side of the earth” that was mentioned in the previous stanza, and furthers both the war imagery and the repetition of “precautionary measure.”
After this basic analysis, one might look into how the structure of the poem affects its meaning. Rice’s poem is one that at first seems to not be overly tied to its form, but one can definitely see some ways in which that structure does manipulate the meaning as a whole. For example, the clipped nature of the short verses creates a choppy, almost flash-photographic sort of feel. The brevity, likewise, almost seems to suggest that one is getting a kind of quick mental impression from the speaker. Indeed, keeping the poem relatively short also allows it to be rather vague and universal in scope, something which would be nearly impossible in a longer work.
Another facet of the poem that its briefness affects is the fashion in which the images function. In such a short poem each image becomes extremely important. For instance, the last image of the “laminated picture in his helmet” becomes one of surpassing emotional power, due to the fact that it’s one of the few solid images that the poem contains. In the same way, the image of the “soggy” letter whose writing has become a “sad mess” turns into a tragic, bittersweet image of happiness met with cruel reality.
In the same way, in such a short piece the word choice becomes highly important, almost crucial. For one thing, the use of more simplistic language gives a decidedly internal tone to the piece, as if the reader were seeing a transcript of the protagonist’s deepest thoughts. It is also very interesting to carefully examine the words that are found within quotation marks. Those words tend to be of a slightly higher diction, as if, perhaps, the person being quoted was being spoken about by a child. Also, putting those words in quotation marks heightens their emphasis somewhat. The use of “precautionary measure,” really, is what makes the poem. It is a brilliant choice of words, because a gas mask in wartime is not so much a “precautionary measure” as it is a lifeline to save oneself from gruesome death. This bitter irony is what really seems to drive the entirety of the poem.
Rice, Cody. “Precautionary Measures.” The Henderson Community College Literary Magazine. 2003: 6.