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In this essay I am going to compare to poems present people and culture. Whether it be using words, imagery or the tone of the poem. The two poems I will be comparing are ‘What were they like’ by Denise Levertov and ‘presents from my aunts in Pakistan’ by Moniza Alvi. Both people consider the prospect of loosing a culture but the will loose them in different ways to each other, through war and the pressures of society also peer pressure.
In ‘what were they like’ by Denise Levertov we are first confused about what the poem subject matter may be until we delve into the meaning of the poem and explore the history of the Vietnamese war and the people and culture caught up in the conflict. After reading into the poem we can see that it is about how people after the Vietnamese war believed their culture would be lost forever and that they would need story tellers and educators to continue their cultures story.
The poem considers issues that are still relevant today such as the possibility of the loss of the culture and tradition in Afghanistan and Iraq due to the ongoing hostilities. The poem heavily romanticises the war and the Vietnamese people when saying things like ‘life was in rice and bamboo.’ This implies that the Vietnamese are simple folk, their lives are painted in a sympathetic portrait of a gentle, kind and humble race living and working in the paddy fields, which may be perceived as a patronising view of the Vietnamese people. This would not necessarily be how the poem was intended to be presented.
‘Presents from…’ has similarities and differences to ‘What were they like’ is about. In ‘presents from my aunts in Pakistan’ Moniza Alvi is curious of her culture that she was torn away from at an early age. She receives presents from her aunts in Pakistan but is embarrassed of them. This poem is written through the eyes of a 16 year old girl who is curious, confused and embarrassed about a culture that she knows so little about but is such a big part of her as a person.
When friends come round she hides her presents to avoid further embarrassment and ridicule. She is considering what culture to embrace and what culture to reject, peer pressure from both her friends and relatives are forcing her into a corner from which she is made to choose from and has nowhere to turn. The way this poem is both different and similar to ‘what were they like’ is that in both cases they are being forced to loose their culture, in ‘Presents from…’ by peer pressure and in ‘What were they like’ by military force, in this way they are also similar because it is not their choice to loose their culture, this is how both poems present people and culture, how people can make their own choices and that people need to stand up for themselves.
In this section of my essay on people and culture I will be comparing the structure of both ‘Presents…’ and ‘What were…’ how they are similar and different in shape, rhyme, punctuation, repetition, refrain and stanzas/sections. The structure of both poems are similar as they are original in the way they are presented. The structure has been greatly considered to show the poem is a certain way.
In ‘Presents…’ there appears to be no structure or reason to the bizarre way the poem is written at first reading. When we consider that the poet is confused and curious about her other culture she has moved away from, it becomes clear that that are the scattered ideas running through the mind of a troubled young girl. There need be no beginning or end to this poem; it is possible for the poem to start in many places, as this is set out to be as though someone has jotted down ideas and thoughts that have possibly no link between lines. There is no rhythm or flow through the poem, broken up by the lack of sense and constant change of path the poem takes.
There is still some structure to the poem, there is punctuation where is should be, maybe even mare so as she pauses to throw more ideas and thoughts onto the page. There are full stops and capital letters where expected at the start and end of ideas. Ideas are split into stanzas which shows the poem is not completely free from structure. There is no repetition or refrain which is only to be expected in a poem such as this, where there is no regular shape or structure.
I believe the poet has intended for their to be no structure, as it shows turmoil in the writer’s mind as she throws up the pro’s and con’s of embracing or rejecting her culture of which she knows so little about. It could also be written in this way to celebrate culture and diversity, by displaying her work in a unique and diverse way, I think this is the way Moniza Alvi wanted to display people and culture through the structure of her poem.
In ‘What were…’ the structure is also unorthodox in the way it is presented. We may be puzzled the first time we read it and question why the poem is written in such a way. As I have said before, it is not until you read deeper and research into the meaning of the poem that you can fully understand why it is written the way it is. You can then understand that it is written about the Vietnamese people and their battle to keep their culture. It appears to be children asking their teacher, Vietnamese people or American war veterans that fought in the war about the past and the culture or way of life the Vietnamese had.
The way the poem is set out even as a question and answer poem is not as you would expect it to be, all the questions and all the answers are grouped together in two block paragraphs divided by a small gap. I thin Denise Levertov wrote the poem in this way because it shows that there are two different speakers to the poem and it draws a clear line between then to avoid confusion. I also think it is written in this way to show that there is a bombardment of questions from the children, as when the war was over people would have wanted to ask a lot of questions about the war, what the felt and how their culture has been affected. This is how I think Denise Levertov intended and used the structure of the poem to present how the people both Vietnamese and the group questioning them felt about the war.
In the next section of my essay I will be exploring how the poets used language and poetic devices to display people and culture. Poets use different poetic devices to display their work in different ways depending on which way they would like their work to be perceived. ‘What were…’ is a good example of where metaphors are used affectively to creat a clear image in your mind of what the poet is tring to get accros. A good example of this is ‘Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth’, this could mean a few things, it could mean that they can no longer laugh as nothing is funny after the horrors they have seen, nothing would seem funny after the amount of death and destruction they have seen. Another meaning that is linked to laughter being hard to come by, could be that after seeing charred bodies and charred mouths that can no longer physically laugh.
The poem is very ambiguous and could have many meanings that are not clear at first. The poet, Denise Levertov could have intended for this to happen and used it as a devise to make you continue reading to see if it became clear over time the exact meaning of this poem. It may also be ambiguous because the poem was written before the end of the Vietnamese war and ideas they may have been proved wrong or be different to the knowledge we have now, I think it was accidental that the people and culture are displayed in such an ambiguous way, but the way imagery, metaphors and similes have been used is very effective and presents well people and culture in the Vietnamese war.
In ‘Presents…’ imagery is also used all of the time to help you imagine the presents that are sent from her aunts in Pakistan. At the same time similes and metaphors are used to describe the items of clothing by comparing the exotic items of clothing to other more familiar objects, such as when it says ‘They sent me a salwar kameez peacock blue, and another glistening like an orange split open.’
This is very useful when trying to imaging other items of clothing that are sent. It is much better way of describing what the thing looks like and a much clearer way of presenting the people and culture in the poem when we can relate to everyday items and not just a name that we cannot pronounce properly. One of the dresses is personified when it says ‘ I tried each satin-silken top was alien in the sitting-room’. This puts a clear image in your mind of how Moniza feels towards her new clothes, it shows that she is confused about her Pakistani culture as if it were alien to her. Personification is not used in ‘What were…’ but is used very effectively in ‘Presents…’