Plane Wrech at Los Gatos by Woody Guthrie Pome Reflection
Before it was a song, Woody Guthrie wrote a poem about a plane crash in California. The first thing that is striking about the word choice for this poem is its title. The longer, presumably original title, is “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos” which conveys the subject quite literally. But the subtitle gives away the purpose of the poem – “Deportee”.
In the first through third stanzas, the language and the cadence are almost sing-song; it isn’t surprising to realize this was later set to music. The diction at the beginning feels “folksy”, this isn’t overly literary language or even overly educated language. Guthrie uses words like “rotting”(Guthrie 1.1), “’em” (1.3), “big airplane” (2.3), “took down and died” (3.4). This is typical for what I remember of Guthrie’s children’s songs, but it also conveys a sense of this having been written by a normal, common, every-day kind of person – not by someone responsible for making the kind of decisions that lead to deportations, but the kind of person who’d be out working the fields with the people getting deported.
The cadence doesn’t change in the last four stanzas, but the diction and syntax does. It’s not as folksy, not as colloquial. The words have a more stately presence. Their syntax helps convey a moral stance that takes on greater power for having lost the country-folksy feeling of the beginning. The poem no longer feels like someone trying to be your friend. Now there’s a message.
The repetition of the phrase “We died” (5.1, 5.2, 5.3, 5.4) hammers the point home again and again. The words push that point – these were people who died, Guthrie is identifying with them and asking his reader to identify with them as well. All of the locations mentioned – “hills” (5.1), “deserts” (5.1), “valleys” (5.2), and “plains” (5.2) – bring together a unified sense that the people Guthrie is writing about were everywhere; not isolated, but interwoven into the totality of the country.
Guthrie is condemning the choice to call identifiable people by a demeaning collective. These are not just “deportees” (6.4) but friends (6.3). The syntax gives that condemnation a lyrical base. Guthrie may have given these people names at the beginning, but now is using the collective to point out the dehumanizing nature of the process of deportation. The plane crash and their death is almost secondary to the larger issue of having deported them in the first place. But the ultimate choice not to recognize them as individual human beings but this collective “deportees” is equally dehumanizing. The choices Guthrie makes in syntax and diction, without losing the unifying cadence that prevails through the entire poem, moves the reader from befriending these people to being appalled by the choice not to treat them as people.
The rhetorical questions at the end leave the reader questioning their own perspective on the choices made by everyone involved in the circumstances of the event. Are we to keep making these choices? Or fight for a change? Arguably, Guthrie’s entire point in writing this poem is summed up by that end.
Guthrie, Woody. “Plane Wreck At Los Gatos”. http://woodyguthrie.org/Lyrics/Plane_Wreck_At_Los_Gatos.htm