The Great Poem Series: Nathan Whiting’s “In Charge”

In the 2002 volume of Best American Poetry, one of my favorite poems would definitely have to be “In Charge,” written and published by Nathan Whiting.  Whiting was born in 1946, and spent much of his life writing poetry, running in races, and dancing.  He found ways to incorporate his lessons and experiences through dance and running into his poetry, giving more meaning.  He writes, “I believe it is important to observe the detailed movements of people and the various ways they express themselves” (Whiting, BAP 2002).  He is able to convey this idea of observation more in depth through his poem In Charge.

In In Charge, the meaning is simple, but really helps to give a good understanding of the author.  As Nathan Whiting states, he enjoys spending time observing others.  This poem discusses this concept, and helps to prove that the person the poem is describing would prefer to spend time alone (with his dogs of course), rather than with other humans.  He is able to find joy in his dogs, as they give him all of the company that he needs.  He does not need to get involved in other people’s lives, nor do they need to get involved in his: “the whole park knows me but nobody knows me” (Whiting).  I think that it is good when the overall theme of the poem is able to relate back to the author, and you can understand their lifestyle through the writing.  This creates a deeper connection; Whiting prefers to be alone and enjoys studying others. He doesn’t need to have social interactions with other people to be happy, and he expresses this idea through his poetry.

Whiting also is able to add a sense of humor and interesting language in his poem, which I think contributes to this idea of “great” poetry.  The poem is written as an explanation; he writes about how he only needs his dogs, no one else.  However, while he is writing this way, he incorporates his own thoughts.  For example, he writes: “I don’t need anybody.  Don’t touch that Kumquat.”  It is like he is having two separate conversations, one with himself and one with the reader.  This is more engaging, especially because now there is more of an insight into his actual thoughts and actions.  I found the names of the dogs to be extremely interesting, as they are not common names you would typically hear/use.  I think this represents Whiting’s overall theme of not needing people, and not caring what they think.  After looking up the definition of “Kumquat,” I learned it refers to a type of orange fruit.  However, none of the other names relate to anything of the sort.  I found this to be mysterious, and something that allows the reader to try to find a meaning themselves.

Whiting incorporates questions into the poem, which I really liked and found to be engaging.  They made me stop where I was reading and actually try to answer the question being asked.  It is his way of forcing you to think further, which I think is important because many times in poetry the reader never stops to think about what they are reading, they just read it straight through.  I am guilty of this, but this poem gave me a different perspective, and forced me to think about what he was trying to express.  The first line of the poem is a question: “I collect dogs. What of it?”  Immediately, I stopped reading and thought about that question, before I had even gotten through one sentence.  Obviously, there is no clear answer to it in the beginning, but the rest of the poem is explaining his reasoning to collecting these dogs.  This question introduces the rest of the poem.

Another intriguing aspect of this poem is the title, “In Charge.”  Before reading this poem, I would never had suspected the theme would revolve around dogs.  After spending some time reading the poem and understanding the meaning, the title made more sense.  The main character in the poem is “in charge” of his 15 dogs.  They may be his friends, but he is the boss of them, and seems to like that.  Whiting writes, “There is no responsibility because they’ve each got 15 friends.  I’m just in charge.”  The title relates back to the fact that this person is in complete charge of his large group of dogs, although they may just be there for company.

Nathan Whiting wrote this poem because it really connects to this life and personality.  He enjoys studying others and understanding why they act in the way that they do.  He is someone who has passions other than writing.  He has participated in over 75 races of over 50 miles or longer, and was still dancing over the age of 50.  He is passionate about what he enjoys, and says his poem In Charge is “a poetic equivalent of a short character dance, both the listening and the imagination.”  He wants people to really understand who he is through his writing, and I think he is able to do a very good job at that.


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