Ellen Bryant Voigt’s poem, “Cow,” is about more than just the one cow mentioned in it. It is a valuable poem to read for those interested in how content and form can be intertwined.
The poem contains four quintets without any capitalization or punctuation, which makes the poem both more challenging to read and more intriguing to read. Voigt bypasses the problems the absence of punctuation can create by presenting the content in semantic chunks. Examples include “end of the day,” “daylight subsiding into the trees,” and “lights coming on,” the three comprising the poem’s first line. Those chunks control how the line’s read, inserting an invisible caesura between each pair, so I read them as if they were written this way:
end of the day daylight subsiding into the trees lights coming on
The poem’s light-heartedness, almost tongue-in-cheek tone, combined with the choppiness of its flow (e.g., “they get some grain some salt they get their shots no catamounts”) also contributes to the poem’s effect.
Another of the intriguing elements of the poem is this wording: “the smaller brain // serving the larger brain,” that content spread across two stanzas. The “smaller brain” refers to the ant, the “larger brain” to the cow, both used in a symbolic way; after stating that, the poem offers no explanation of the wording’s meaning, instead shifting to “the cows eat so we will eat,” which creates a logical gap.
The Website, The Incredible Ant, offers clues as to what Voigt might mean. According to the site, among the things ants do
are aerating and oxygenating soil, adding nutrients to the soil, controlling bug populations, transplanting seeds, pollinating plants and flowers, aiding in decomposition, moving and consuming organic and inorganic material.
That amounts to a lot of activity given the estimate that the earth contains about 10 quadrillion ants. Through that effort, is that how ants “serve” cows? But then, through their activity, the ants are serving many more than cows.