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Concept of Human Existence and Life

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The universe is vast and mostly unexplored, containing time, space, and all that we know. It is something we know exists yet cannot completely fathom due to its size and not knowing what it truly holds, similar to life and the concept of human existence. Throughout Tracy K. Smith’s poem “It & Co.” from Life on Mars, Smith writes in a way which can be interpreted as an attempt to explain the concept of existence and reality. The utilization and repetition of the word “It” within the poem demonstrates the unknown and undefinable aspects of the universe in relation to human existence. This, as well as what it is versus what it is not, ties in to both the idea of space and celestial imagery as seen through Life on Mars, as the imagery of the universe is also interpreted to possess a deeper meaning of what human existence entails and how to define or understand reality as it is not tangible. Everyone has a preconceived idea on what it means to exist or what reality is, but when looking for it or researching we struggle with what it truly is. The idea of “It” within the poem stands for the universe, which is a well-known entity that contains all life, yet is also something we will never fully understand.

With the universe being such a mysterious and immeasurable force, it often forces individuals to think deeply on its structure and definition, although an answer may never be found; similarly, the idea of the universe and its great, unknown qualities draws parallels to the concept of human existence and reality as people search for answers to unanswerable questions. Rhetorical questions are significant for the fact that they pose a question but do not anticipate an answer. The question focuses not on the answer but on the effect that it causes, as they cause the audience to ponder ideas with larger meanings and emphasize the overall message. Smith strategically employs rhetorical questions in lines two through five in the poem “It & Co”. The first rhetorical question reads, “Is It us, or what contains us?” alluding to the infamous unknown “It” within the poem and causing thoughts to surface about what exactly “It” is; the question can take on the interpretation of “It” being the universe, as if asking if we are the universe or if the universe merely just contains us. The universe interpretation is broad, and fits with the theme of Smith’s collection of poetry in Life on Mars, however it could be interpreted further to explore the meaning of existence and our reality. This interpretation is furthered by the following rhetorical question, “How can It be anything but an idea, / Something teetering on the spine / Of the number?” as it reinforces the questioning instilled within the audience regarding the universe and essentially the meaning of life. It begs the question of how we can think we know the definitions and set constructs of things until we are actually faced with deeply thinking about the matter; how do we know what our existence in this massive universe really is if it is not tangible? “It” is something that can never be fully comprehended, yet we think we have an idea of what it is, similarly to the mathematical number ‘i’ which is known to be a number yet is also “imaginary”.

The way in which the poem flows enhances the interpretation of “It” as the universe as it mimics the thought-filled mind with its unique pacing. Enjambment runs at some points throughout the poem, creating a fluidity and fast-paced reading. This faster pace correlates with the rhetorical questions and the interpretation of the poem as the universe and human existence. The pace adds to the tone of the poem and to the intensity and importance of the questions and meanings at hand; the pace with enjambment imitates the pace of the thoughts one may have as they search for the answers and meaning to life in this universe. The purposeful lack of punctuation reflects how thoughts regarding this topic may be flurried and rushed; the thoughts and questions for the universe have no end, and neither do the lines of the poem. Out of all the lines of the poem, nine of them continue on flowing without any form of terminal punctuation. The majority of the poem flows in a way that reflects the unknown aspects of “It”. Also, as with rushing thoughts, there is repetition of the word “It” as the poem desperately attempts to define what it means in place with the universe and the life we live. Repetition is crucial throughout this poem, specifically the repeated usage of the word “It” as it is the fundamental basis of this poem in particular. The idea of what “It” is or could be is the prevalent question and meaning of Smith’s work. The repetition of the word stresses its importance and significance, forcing it to stand out among the lines. Seeing the word over and over engraves it in the mind and causes the idea of “It” to be even more deeply considered and clear. It expresses a type of frantic and desperate tone as someone searching for answers to questions that don’t necessarily have answers might have. Without utilizing this device, the idea of “It” would be lost, as it is the stressing of “It” time and time again as being this unknown, titanic force that reiterates its significance.

Imagery also runs throughout the poem, adding to the enigma of the universe and life as we know it. The use of imagery allows the reader to formulate a better idea and mental picture of what Smith means by “It”. Both simile and metaphor create images of what “It” stands for, as they make comparisons to things the audience can imagine or think of when discussing something that cannot be physically held or explained. The first example seen is both a metaphor and a pun saying, “It is elegant but coy” referring to math as the writer did previously when talking about the imaginary number i . The metaphor compares “It” to imaginary and elusive meanings by stating it as such. Later in the poem, Smith writes “In Bibles and bandwidth, blooming/ Like a wound from the ocean floor” using simile to compare where we go searching for these answers we will never find concerning “It”. With this comparison, Smith shows that we go searching for the answers to the universe and what life is through religion, books, and basically anything that can grant us knowledge on the subject. She then compares searching for the answer to “It” to a lengthy book as she writes, “It is like some novels:/ Vast and unreadable” meaning that you can go searching for the meaning and definition, but it is not possible; there is evidently too dense of information at times that it seems to have no end, drawing comparison to life as it has such a wide range of variety no one is able to interpret it one such way.

The universe contains all that we know, yet we know almost nothing about it. Smith’s question posed in “It and Co.”, “Is it us or what contains us?” provides the fundamentals for the interpretation of “It” being the universe, as it somewhat directly asks if we are part of the universe or if it is just what encases us and our existence. We know it exists, but we cannot fully understand what it truly holds, similar to life and the concept of human existence. “It & Co.” from Life on Mars, can be interpreted as an attempt to explain the concept of existence and reality in correlation with the universe. Everyone has a preconceived idea on what it means to exist or what reality is, but when looking for it or researching we struggle with what it actually is. Today, everyone seems to be faced with some type of existential crisis of finding themselves or questioning the true meaning of life; our existence is still not completely understood, nor is our planet, let alone our entire universe. Tracy K. Smith’s poem is therefore important in the sense that it poses existential questioning, forcing deep thinking within the reader through the repeated usage of the word “It” and posing deep-rooted rhetorical questions in combination with other literary devices.

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