Q1: “Plants”, Olive Senior
In her poem “Plants”, Olive Senior explores the interactions between plants and humans, as well as their persistence in our society. However, she takes an unconventional approach as she builds relationships amongst the speaker, the audience, and the plants by focusing on characterizing the plants as intrusive and overpowering. Senior uses a variety of literary techniques such as personification, diction, and enjambment to emphasize the interconnectedness of the parasitic nature of plants on humankind.
By using diction and personifying the plants, Senior effectively creates an imbalance of power on the plants’ behalf. She describes roots that are “bent on conquest”, seedlings that “seek wide open spaces”, “armies of mangroves”, and burrs that have “colonizing ambitions”. Utilizing verbs such as “bent” and “seek” creates a sense of an action that the plants are carrying out and therefore humanizes them. She convinces the audience that plants aren’t just dormant organisms that live in the backdrop of our lives, but hold so much autonomy and power that they can be compared to other people. This relationship is given a negative tone with the phrases “colonizing ambitions” and “armies of mangroves”, implying that the plants have the capability of acting in such a way that they consume the areas around them. The reference to colonization also evokes images of exploitation and despair in the minds of the readers, thus paralleling the same tragedy with the actions of the plants. The word “colonizing” also allows the reader to infer that the plants behave in a similar manner to colonizers, feeding off the land and the people (in this, case society) for personal benefit and providing nothing in return. Furthermore, the use of the word “armies” incites images of weaponry and violence. Personification adds to this parasitic view of plants because it implies that as organisms comparable with humans, the plants are acting consciously to “conquest” and fulfill their “colonizing ambitions”. These comparisons convince the reader of the interconnectedness of the lives between plants and themselves, showing how prominent the plants are in the world around us. Senior uses personification and diction to highlight to the reader that plants are powerful creatures that can a significant negative impact on humankind.
Senior uses enjambment to depict the invasive nature of the plants on society. Enjambment creates a sense of displacement and almost discomfort as Senior urges the reader to hurry to the next line or stanza to complete a thought. This is most effectively displayed as she discusses the “parachuting seeds and other//airborne traffic dropping in” as well as advising the audience that “we must infer/a sinister not to say imperialistic//grand design” when considering plants. The enjambment teases the end of phrases and ideas when referring to “and other//airborne traffic” as well as starting with “we must infer” and giving the audience directions on what exactly they should infer on the next line with “a sinister not to say imperialistic//grand design”. This encourages the reader to progress from idea to idea in the very chaotic poem by providing a hook at the end of the lines. In addition, the awkward places at which the enjambment occurs has a jarring effect on the reader, paralleling the message of the poem that the plants are intrusive and dominating our world. By interrupting the flow of the words with enjambment, Senior embodies the nature of the plants in her poem, suggesting that plants take on the same invasive role in our world as well.
In conclusion, Olive Senior uses a variety of literary devices to emphasize her point to the audience that plants have taken on a role that is intrusive, parasitic, and destructive. She does so by characterization of the plants with personification and diction, thus creating gravitas and importance behind the actions of the plants as well as enjambment to highlight the invasive role that they play in society.
Are stories “all one story” or rewarmed versions of one another?
The smell of paper and musty books worn down to bone fills the room.
The bookshelf stands in the middle of the floor. Despite its frailty, it wears the proud shine of younger wood, incandescent in the reflection of the stark white walls.
I run my hand over the bottom shelf, watching the dust gather underneath my fingernails. The layers become finer as a I reach up the shelves, until the last book is nearly pristine. The spines tell a plethora of different stories from thousands years of humanity, from thousands of lives, from thousands of experiences, but the tongue that reads them to me in my head remains the same. The same lilting accent with which my mother speaks.
I pull the first book from the shelf. It’s on the verge of crumbling between my hands, my fingerprints making a home with the ghosts of others. The papers are yellowing, more so than the rest of them, tears and notches creating artwork in the flaking leather. Gently, I pull it open.
The words don’t stay on the page. I watch them leap from age-old paper, dancing through the air around me. They spin and they tumble and they laugh, illuminated by the glow of my wonder. They race each other to the other books, and all of a sudden they all fall open in a thunderous clatter.
Stories of all sorts surround me. Of limerence, of loss, of desperation, of desire. They hum through the air, a chorus of words that crescendos into a wave of raw emotion. They soar to the walls with purpose, painting themselves on the surface until not a hint of ivory white can be seen. When the clattering dies down, I take a step back.
The books lie empty on the floor. On the walls, symphonies of colours and textures and lights stand proudly on display. From facades seemingly so different, so unfamiliar with each other, their words worked in unison to create the great painting before me. From so many experiences and loves and losses and lives, came one story.
The poems “A Barred Owl” and “The History Teacher”, written by Richard Wilbur and Billy Collins respectively, explore the dynamic of truth and the responsibility of adults to choose how they must deliver such truth, if at all. Though both poems initially have similar messages of ignorance serving as protection, they contradict each other in the question of whether being shielded from the true nature of the world is ultimately beneficial. The authors present their respective views by using rhetorical devices such as structure and figurative language.The poems “A Barred Owl” and “The History Teacher”, written by Richard Wilbur and Billy Collins respectively, explore the dynamic of truth and the responsibility of adults to choose how they must deliver such truth, if at all. Though both poems initially have similar messages of ignorance serving as protection, they contradict each other in the question of whether being shielded from the true nature of the world is ultimately beneficial. The authors present their respective views by using rhetorical devices such as structure and figurative language.
Though both speakers in “A Barred Owl” and “The History Teacher” agree that ignorance serves as a form of protection, “The History Teacher” then proceeds to challenge the notion of whether this is ultimately good for the children by writing more literally than the great use of figurative language in “A Barred Owl”. In “A Barred Owl”, Wilbur writes that words can “domesticate a fear”, thus personifying fear as something that can be tamed. This figurative language evokes vivid imagery of the fear being something alive and ready to strike, thus serving as a parallel to the owl that the parents were initially trying to shield their child from. By portraying the fear as something dangerous, it convinces the readers that this fear in the child is something that must be suppressed before it can cause any harm. ***. Consequently, Wilbur is providing reasoning why hiding these dangers with words is so necessary because otherwise it will wreak havoc. On the other hand, the lack of figurative language in “The History Teacher” doesn’t evoke the same kind of emotions when Collins flat out writes that the teacher is “trying to protect his students’ innocence”. As a result, as he has not argued for the advantage of ignorance, he can later paint a vivid scene to draw readers to his true point: that shielding children from the truth is detrimental. Collins writes that after the teacher’s lessons where he tried to create euphemisms for real horrors like dropping “one tiny atom on Japan”, the teacher observes the children “torment[ing] the weak and the smart”. His explicit description allows the readers to see the truth the way that he wants them to see it— without metaphors and similes to try and obscure the meaning and try to put it up for debate. This is parallel in his writing style, where there is an evident lack of figurative language. He uses this to convince readers of his point, while Wilbur uses personification to evoke strong imagery and convince readers of his point.
Another way that the two poets make their respective points is through structure. Wilbur uses ten syllables per line as well as a regular rhyme scheme, thus drawing similarities between his poem and a children’s nursery rhyme. Nursery rhymes are typically sweet and innocent, avoiding all topics that are dark and unpleasant. By choosing to write his poem like a nursery rhyme, it is even more of a shock to the reader when he details the owl’s cruelty in the last stanza, describing it as bringing something up to its “dark branch” and eating it “raw”. The smooth rhythm and pace allows the readers to initially draw comfort from his writing, before being jolted by a disgusting image. This allows Wilbur to emphasise the cruelty of the owl’s actions that symbolise the evil of the real world and therefore convince readers of his point that it is important to mask horrors to children. Collins, however, writes “The History Teacher” in free verse, so he has more freedom to write the poem in any way he pleases. He chooses to write it like a story, giving the poem more of a colloquial tone. As a result, it is not masked by song-like whims and is far easier for the reader to understand. With more understanding, it is easier to convince readers of his point that ignorance is ultimately bad. By writing “A Barred Owl” like a nursery rhyme with a regular line length and rhyme scheme, Wilbur manages to present his point in favour of ignorance by creating a sense of comfort and predictability before revealing a shocking detail in the final line. Collins, on the other hand, writes in free verse so that he can use a more casual, story-like approach and be easily understood by the readers.
In conclusion, both Wilbur and Collins convey the same fundamental message: shielding children from the horrors of the world serves as protection. However, the poems disagree on the usefulness of this technique by contrasting structure and the use (or lack thereof) of figurative language.
This is the rewrite of my Q3 piece on how the desire for power shapes a character. I chose the play Macbeth, because power is explored in so many different ways. I wanted to focus on Lady Macbeth because I think that she’s such an intricate character and her role is so instrumental to the play that she in fact should have been the main character. By writing this essay about her, I am nodding my head to her.
Power— whether it be a virtue or a vice— is undeniably woven into the fabric of our history. From romances to tragedies, comedies to dramas; it exists in every form. It is impossible to deny that power plays an instrumental role in humanity. The abuse of power is sin, and all sin is executed in the name of personal ambition. There is no piece of literary merit that exhibits this better than William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Within the span of a mere few pages, Shakespeare gives the readers an insight on his true view on society and the ruthlessness of human nature. He argues that with the oppressive struggle for power, comes the spiral into tyranny. However, the pleasure of power is only temporary, and the sins will eventually catch up and become its own ultimate downfall. This is best represented in the character of Lady Macbeth, whose own obsessive greed displays the very same narrative of cutthroat deceit and eventual self-destruction.
Lady Macbeth’s journey to wrangle power into her arms begins with the manipulation of her husband, setting her on the path of tyranny. She does so by encouraging him to kill King Duncan so that he can be crowned King of Scotland, hence making Lady Macbeth queen. She does this by belittling and insulting him, taking jabs at his masculinity and declaring him a coward. Although he eventually obliges, this action is indicative of Lady Macbeth’s first step towards self-destruction. Shakespeare is not only showing Lady Macbeth trying to exert power over an entire country, but over her husband as well. As she does so, she is starting to pick away at what was once a healthy relationship and transforming it into something far more toxic, placing Macbeth on the brink of his own turn to cruelty for personal gain This shows how the tyranny in her is not something that she can necessarily control. She can’t limit it to just the kingdom— no the evil of selfishness run so deep that it infects other aspects of her life, too. Shakespeare chooses to further emphasise this point by causing the evil to spread from just her actions and her husband to her own mind as well. As Lady Macbeth is the one who convinces Macbeth to kill Duncan, the blame is now mostly on her own shoulders. This taints her future in the play as it continues to drag behind her, not even leaving as we get closer and closer to her tragic end. Shakespeare holds up a mirror to human kind’s vile and most ruthless desires by showing the extent to which Lady Macbeth will go to obtain power and the subsequent spread of evil that follows and that will eventually come back to haunt her.
It’s not long after Macbeth kills King Duncan when Lady Macbeth’s descent from power to insanity begins. As Macbeth savagely continues his killing spree, targeting even his best friend Banquo and Macduff’s innocent family, his wife bears the weight of his actions. Lady Macbeth is thrown into a pit of inescapable guilt. She believes that it was her own cruel behaviour and desperate struggle for power that turned her husband from a man faithful to his morals and reluctant to kill into one who seemed to do so without a second thought (though, unbeknownst to her, he too starts seeing guilt in the form of an apparition of his once dear friend, Banquo). The guilt of her tyranny drives her to madness, essentially destroying the person she was before. She too starts seeing things, exclaiming “Out, damned spot!” when she cannot wash the figurative blood from her hands. Eventually, she can live with herself no longer, and commits suicide. Here, Shakespeare is further showing how an obsession of power is not just limited to the actions, but is so strong that is has the capability to bleed through to other aspects of one’s life. For Lady Macbeth, it was the destruction of the relationship with her husband when neither of them knew the trauma they were both experiencing. It was also the implosion of her own sanity and sense of self as her guilt stripped away all sense of control. This is reflective of the exact message Shakespeare is warning people of in his work: that the human drive for power ultimately leads to an all-consuming tyranny that self-corrects by destroying everything in its wake.
In conclusion, Lady Macbeth’s incessant desire for power ultimately becomes her downfall. By writing her character so, Shakespeare expands the significance of Macbeth beyond just a distant tale in a far off land into a reflection of the dangers of personal ambition in mankind’s experience of the world.