Comparing and contrasting three poems that portray the yearning to belong Essay
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We all long to be a part of something and to feel accepted, irrespective of age, culture and society. Similarly, Stephen Spender’s poem, “My Parents kept Me from Children who were Rough”, Moniza Alvi’s “An Unknown Girl” and Phyllis McCormack’s “Crabbit Old Woman” talk about how each of the poets long to be a part of a certain society or culture, and this longing outlines the underlying theme across all three poems.
My Parents kept Me from Children who were Rough is about childhood bullying and regret.
The narrator experiences bullying at a young age and I sense a feeling of regret as the poet wished he could be a part of the group of rough boys. I get the impression that the narrator, now at his adult stage, feels that he did not make the most of his childhood, and this was perhaps due to class differentials.
Whereas, Moniza Alvi’s poem reveals how the narrator had left her hometown at a young stage and when she returns, she yearns to be a part of it. I believe she finds it difficult to reconcile her roots with her foreign lifestyle and falls under the dilemma where she is forced to choose one life, despite her strong desire for both. We get a contrasting idea in Crabbit Old Woman, as it is a plea to break free from the stereotypical image of old people. The old woman feels that she is being judged unfairly because her body has crumbled. She expresses how her soul remains intact, and would like the nurses to realize that her “battered heart swells” with undiscovered vivacity.
All the three poems have an underlying theme of belonging. My parents… is about how the narrator “longed” to fit in with the group of bullies. The world being so brutal, made growing up hard for the narrator. At a young age, the narrator probably needed to feel wanted and important and hence, wanted to be part of a group. There are many other significant themes present, such as a theme of childhood bullying, as the narrator fears the boys who had “muscles like irons”. A theme of regret, coupled with loneliness is distinguished, as the poet “longed to forgive” the bullies, but never had the chance. The constant use of “I” and “Me” tells the readers how the poet was lonesome. Therefore, I get the impression that the poem is written based on a bitter childhood memory. I feel sorry for the poet as he was made fun of for his “lisp” and the bullies’ “salt-coarse pointing”, which seems to have affected the poet’s life greatly, even throughout his adult phase.
Similarly, in An unknown girl, the poet wants to belong to her native community, which she once left behind. There is a theme of admiration, as her fascination for the “evening bazaar studded with neon” is clearly depicted. In addition to that, a theme of self-identity is found, as the poet is desperately trying to find herself through her roots. She is “unknown” to herself.
Whereas, the narrator in Crabbit Old Woman wants to belong in a world and society untouched by the evils of stereotype. She would like to feel accepted and gain the same respect as everybody else. She hopes the “nurses” would include her in their world, and would look beyond her physical inabilities, in order to admire and recognise the beautiful life she has lived and experienced. Alongside that central theme, a great deal of regret is conveyed, as the narrator immensely resents the way she is stereotyped, and hopes to prove that she is still young at heart. There is also a nostalgic sensation in the poem, as the narrator indulges in reminisces about her past experiences and life stages.
I believe that the titles of each poem represent the reason for the narrators’ inability to belong. “My Parents kept Me from Children who were Rough” suggests how the poet blames his parents for not being able to bask in the pleasures the bullies experienced, as they were very protective of him. I get the impression that he envied the other children’s freedom, in contrast to his restricted life enforced upon him. On the other hand, the title “An Unknown Girl” has a double meaning as it could refer to the actual girl hennaing the poet’s hand or it may refer to the poet itself. The poet finds this culture overwhelming yet admires it, and she strongly craves to be a part of it. Moreover, the title “Crabbit Old Woman” itself illustrates the way the old woman is perceived by the nurses. This stereotypical image is what prevents the nurses from exploring the real “old woman” and prevents her from belonging into their world.
Structure aids a reader to visualise a poem and the free verse structure in An Unknown Girl expresses the narrator’s exploration of thought and conveys her dream-like admiration. The lack of pauses in the poem is successful, as these would break the connection between the narrator and the bazaar. I felt the layout of the poem was particularly striking, and this furthermore made me realize that it could symbolize the pretty henna, which is described as “icing” to us, enhancing its graceful manner. Similarly, the use of enjambment in Crabbit Old Woman depicts to the reader the constant running of thoughts and memories of the various stages of life of the old woman.
This creates a fast pace coupled with a constant rhyme and free flowing rhythm, which contrasts with the impression the nurses have of old people being slow. I believe the poet chose to use a fast pace and rhyme, to further emphasis that point. Moreover, I feel the use of three structured stanzas with four lines each in My parents… made me realize how the narrator was always forced to follow his parents’ rules and hence, control himself from many things. As a child, one is helpless in front of his or her parents’ decisions and therefore, I feel as if the author felt caged. I sometimes feel obligated to my parents’ decisions and this often aggravates me, hence I can understand the underlying tone of anger and blame placed upon the parents in this poem.
The use of effective language by the poets helps suggest the ideas of the poems. The constant use of similes in My Parents… show the child’s admiration and interest for the bullies; as “muscles like iron” suggests strength and power, which are qualities that generally excite young boys. “Torn Clothes” reveal class differentiation and this helped justify the reason why the parents did not want the narrator to be a part of the bullies. On the contrary, Moniza Alvi uses striking imagery in her poem, as she paints a wonderful metaphoric image in our minds depicting her state of longing to be a part of this culture.
The way the narrator will “lean across a country [India] with my hands outstretched longing for the unknown girl in the neon bazaar” is a very powerful image. I can almost imagine an anxious woman holding out her arms, in hope to receive her roots; it gives me the idea that the narrator is practically begging for this connection with her hometown. “Colours leave the street float up in balloons” is another influential metaphoric image. This symbolizes how the poet is trying to reach out for something [her roots], but it is not within her grasp. Moreover, the constant repetition of “an unknown girl is hennaing my hand” gives me the impression that the poet needs to constantly remind herself that she connects with this place; showing her desperation to remain connected to her roots.
I chose these poems as I felt I could relate to them very well. I can understand Alvi’s situation, as I myself am away from my country of origin and often I find myself indulging in a more foreign culture, yet many a times I get nostalgic about the place I come from, despite feeling detached and distant from it. In addition, I think I could share my thoughts and feelings very well with My parents… as it is about a young adult, just like me. Fitting in and being part of a group of children is very vital and therefore, I solemnly sympathize with the narrator. Lastly, I think Crabbit Old Woman deals with a great problem of stereotypical images, which are present in all works of life. It was
inspiring to see the old woman standing up against these stereotypical images created by society. The poem made me to realize that I need to offer more respect and admiration for the older generation.
All the three poems are written in a unique style and each one conveys very deep issues, in accordance with the universal theme of belonging. All the poets were very much successful in conveying their ideas and they were able to create a lasting impact upon the readers.