Lowell was often criticized in her time for her free-flowing poetry, which went against the strict rules of traditional English poetic form. This form was based on regimented patterns of rhyme and cadence, or rhythm. Words at the ends of lines often rhymed with one another. Lines were written in uniform patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. The rhythm of most traditional poetry was regular—could be heard like a systematic tapping of a pencil on the top of a table. Many poems were based on an iambic meter, in which one unstressed syllable was followed by one stressed syllable, over and over again. Most common was iambic pentameter, or five iambic feet (units that contain one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable). The rhythm would sound something like the following: ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum. Such formal meters became so closely associated with poetry that any poem that did not follow such conventions was criticized for not being any different . . . Read More
In her introduction to her collection Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, Lowell refers to the French term vers libre (which means ‘‘free verse’’) to describe the form in which she wrote some of her poems. Lowell often used her own term, unrhymed cadence, to refer to this type of poetry. Today, most poems in English that are written without adherence to a strict meter are referred to as free verse. Though free verse poems are not based on regular meter, they do have a cadence, or rhythm, created through phrases, punctuation, line breaks, and patterns. Rhyme can be used but rarely is in free verse.
Lowell further explained the form by stating that the poems are ‘‘built upon ‘organic rhythm,’ or the rhythm of the speaking voice with its necessity for breathing, rather than upon a strict metrical system.’’ Lowell stated that the lines of poetry differ from prose and should not be confused with a system by which . . . Read More
Lowell is often praised for her skill in expressing her passion in her poems. ‘‘The Taxi’’ is a good example of how she instills passion in the poetic images she creates.
Passion defines this poem and drives it forward. The word passion means any deeply felt emotion. In the case of Lowell’s poem, the passion is the love that the speaker has for the lover she is either leaving or imagining she is leaving. According to the poem, this passion is so strong that separation becomes torturous for the speaker. It is interesting to note that even though the main theme is the passionate love that the speaker feels, the speaker never mentions the word love. This is due in part to the form that an imagist poet such as Lowell practices in her writing. Imagist poetry does not use abstractions. Love, being an emotion, is an abstract concept; instead of talking about love, Lowell uses powerful images to express it. The speaker . . . Read More
‘‘The Taxi’’ is a poem that has nothing to do with a cab and yet everything to do with it. The word taxi is not once mentioned in the poem; rather, the reader experiences the speaker’s thoughts and sights as the cab carries her away through the streets of an unidentified city. This is a poem about the pain of leaving; in abstraction, the taxi becomes the cause of the pain, pulling the speaker farther and farther away from the object of her love and passion. So although this poem never mentions a taxi, the title gives the taxi a significance that the speaker does not have to explain. The title is used to give the reader an image—a woman being driven away in a cab, looking out the rear window and watching the distance between herself and her lover increase.
The title literally provides the vehicle of this poem, whereas the first three lines provide the direction that the taxi is . . . Read More
Octavio Paz’s Sunstone is a poem concerned with transformation—a complete change in appearance or form. Transformation is a motif, or dominant idea, threaded throughout the epic poem, constituting part of the poem’s cyclical structure, its inspiration from Aztec sources, its theme, its content, and its historical context. The writing of Sunstone also had a transformative effect on its author.
Sunstone is named after an intricately carved, highly symbolic Aztec sculpture dated to the fifteenth century. When the Sun Stone was rediscovered in the eighteenth century, it was believed to be an iconic representation of the Aztec ritual calendar. In the late twentieth century, scholars determined that the Sun Stone represents the destruction of the four ages past, with the hungry mouth of the sun god Tonatiuh, ruler of the fifth and current age, at the center. Thus it was deduced that the Sun Stone was a sacrificial altar. Although Paz would not have known this at the . . . Read More
Paz explores the unity and disunity of humankind in his long poem Sunstone. The narrator of the poem seeks meaning for his existence and finds it in the visceral connection he feels with the land as well as in relationships between people. The connection he speaks of experiencing with other people is romantic love with women—women who have blended together in his mind to form a single radiant goddess. Near the beginning of the poem, this goddess is first manifest to him as a spirit of the land, whom he traverses and comes to know intimately. Thereafter he seeks this goddess, seeks the union of soul, body, and earth that he once knew when he knew her, but she is elusive. He learns to find her in the faces of other women and through these women rediscovers the balm for his loneliness, the companionship of other people. He also learns that his goddess, the spirit of the land, which supports his life and the lives of his neighbors, is dual . . . Read More
Sunstone is an exploration of the meaning of existence. Humans are alone, lonely, but able to come together through love and community. Based on the Aztec reverence for the morning and evening star, the poem mimics the 584-day synodic cycle of Venus. A synodic cycle is the amount of time it takes for an object in the sky to return to the position it originally held relative to the sun. In the original Spanish, Piedra de sol comprises 584 eleven-syllable lines (with half-lines visually combining to make full eleven-syllable lines). The final six lines of the poem, which are not part of the 584-line count, repeat the first six lines to make a cyclical whole. Eliot Weinberger’s English translation, Sunstone, is 586 lines long, including the six-line repetition at the end.
In Aztec mythology, the planet Venus is symbolized by two fiery serpents merging into a single being: duality and unity. Venus is also known to many cultures as the morning star and evening star because . . . Read More
The poems of Komunyakaa’s Magic City are often discussed in relationship to the poet’s life and to the historical context of the 1950s and 1960s. Angela M. Salas, for example, argues in an article in College Literature, ‘‘In Magic City Komunyakaa makes an imaginative return to his childhood home of Bogalusa, Louisiana.’’ She adds that the volume is ‘‘marked by the time and place Komunyakaa reflects upon: the pre-Civil Rights, Jim Crow South.’’ Salas also locates Komunyakaa’s themes within this framework, calling the collection ‘‘an extended meditation upon race, class, and gender, and how these things mark, indeed, vex, the lives of those with whom Komunyakaa grew up.’’
There is little doubt that the poems of Magic City, including ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook,’’ can be read in just such a manner. At the same time, however, it is possible to overlook Komunyakaa’s supreme artistry by concentrating solely on historical and . . . Read More
Jim Crow was originally a character in a nineteenth-century minstrel show, played by a white man performing a caricature of a black man, dancing and singing silly songs. The character became standard during that century, and came to represent a stereotypical image of black inferiority. Ultimately, the term became connected to racist laws that not only deprived African Americans of their rights but also defined them as a subordinate and inferior group of people.
In 1896, the Supreme Court of the United States, in a landmark decision called Plessy v. Ferguson, upheld the concept of ‘‘separate but equal.’’ That is, the decision stated that states could segregate facilities by race so long as both African Americans and whites had equal facilities. In reality, while facilities were indeed separated, they were scarcely equal, with African Americans forced to attend inferior schools with few resources, to use restroom . . . Read More
In poetry, when critics speak of a motif, they mean a recurring image, subject, symbol, or detail that unifies a creative work. Readers at times confuse theme and motif, although the two can be distinguished easily if one remembers that the theme of an artistic work is not the same as the subject. That is, the theme is an abstract statement about the subject. A motif, on the other hand, is the device that a writer uses to develop his thematic concerns. In the case of ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook,’’ Komunyakaa uses the motif of basketball. Readers can easily identify that this poem is, on the surface, about basketball. In addition, readers can bring to the poem everything that they know about basketball; for example, anyone who has watched a basketball game knows that it is a fast, powerful, highly competitive game in which players attempt to disguise their movements toward the basket. At the same time, basketball, while the ostensible . . . Read More