Gwen Harwood Poetry: Mastering the Personal Response
A presentation on Gwen Harwood's poetry for HSC English (Advanced) students.
Module B: Critical Study of Text Gwen Harwood’s Poetry Mastering the ‘Personal Response’ An Into English Presentation Module B: Critical Study of Text HSC 2010 Question ‘Harwood’s poetry continues to engage readers through its poetic treatment of loss and consolation.’ In the light of your critical study, does this statement resonate with your own interpretation of Harwood’s poetry? In your response, make detailed reference to at least TWO of the poems set for study. Notes from the Marking Centre • In better responses, candidates explored the conceptual importance of loss and consolation in a skilful and synthesised manner. • They developed a strong thesis which was supported by effective and appropriate textual references which demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of poetic techniques. • These responses were also characterised by a strong sense of personal engagement. • Engage with the precise terms of the question – ‘loss’ and ‘consolation’ • Develop and sustain a thesis • Choose appropriate quotations • Identify poetic techniques and explain their effect • Show that you have critically considered the poems – argue the validity of your own interpretation Developing a ‘Personal Response’ • The first step in developing your personal response is to engage with each poem through a close reading for meaning and purpose. • What is the subject matter of the poem? • What ideas and values are being conveyed? • To what extent has the poet’s context influenced the ideas and values inherent in the poem? • Analyse and evaluate the use of language and poetic devices and how Harwood uses them to develop her meaning and achieve her purpose. • Consider the extent to which your own context has influenced your interpretation and perspective of the poem. • Consider the prescribed poems in relation to each other. You will find there are shared ideas and values. Analyse, evaluate and synthesise your responses to the poems. • Research other interpretations of the poems. • What new ideas/insights does each interpretation offer? • Develop a strong thesis and test it by answering different essay questions. What about ‘Critical Theory’? • In researching and reading the way others have interpreted Gwen Harwood’s poetry, you will inevitably encounter ‘critical theory’ – often called ‘readings’. • Such ‘readings’ should NEVER be used as a substitute for your own personal response to the poems. • Nonetheless, it is worthwhile applying relevant critical theory to the poems as it can illuminate meaning and draw your attention to possible ways of interpreting Harwood’s poetry that you may not have previously considered. • In undertaking such an exercise, you will be able to add depth to your personal response. Gwen Harwoodâ€™s Poetry: Conducting a Critical Analysis to Develop a Personal Response The Thesis • Consider the overarching ideas contained within the prescribed poetry collection: • Youth/childhood/innocence • Age/maturity/experience • Family/love/relationships • Mortality and the transience of life • Nostalgia/memories • Time and the inevitability of its passing • Loss/grief • Growth/renewal/regeneration • Comfort/consolation/relief The Thesis • Apply these overarching ideas to the given question. In doing so, construct a 2 sentence answer to the question – THESIS • Example: HSC 2010 Question ‘Harwood’s poetry continues to engage readers through its poetic treatment of loss and consolation.’ In the light of your critical study, does this statement resonate with your own interpretation of Harwood’s poetry? In your response, make detailed reference to at least TWO of the poems set for study. THESIS: Gwen Harwood’s seemingly paradoxical simultaneous examination of the personal and the universal is regarded as possessing sufficient textual integrity that it has come to resonate with a broad audience and a number of critical perspectives. In ‘Father and Child’, ‘The Violets’, and ‘At Mornington’, the poets’ main motif is that once innocence is lost it cannot be reclaimed, and it is only through appreciating the value of what we have lost that we can experience comfort and achieve growth. Father and Child The “Bildungsroman” narrative style: What is “Bildungsroman”? Bildungsroman is the story of an individual's growth and development within the context of a defined social order. In “Father and Child”, the social order is a combination of patriarchal and Judaeo-Christian values. The growth process, at its roots a quest story, has been described as both "an apprenticeship to life" and a "search for meaningful existence within society.“ The persona in “Father and Child” is searching in search of self-determination and empowerment through independence and freedom. The phallic symbolism of the purloined firearm encapsulates the persona’s ironic attempt to differentiate themself from the established social order by emulating rather than rebelling against its penchant for violence and oppression. Father and Child The “Bildungsroman” narrative style: To spur the hero or heroine on to their journey, some form of loss or discontent must jar them at an early stage away from the home or family setting. The temporal and experiential gulf between “Barn Owl” and “Nightfall” is “Forty years, lived or dreamed:” The trauma of “Barn Owl” functions as the psychological catalyst that changes the persona’s identity irrevocably. Knowledge and maturity cannot be gained without the loss of innocence and purity. At the conclusion of “Barn Owl”, the persona employs a bittersweet metaphorical pun “owl-blind” to convey their sadness “for what I had begun.” What they have begun is the journey to maturity, the Bildungsroman journey; along the path of which loss will be exchanged as a cruel currency for wisdom gained. “Nightfall” complements this theme by charting the impending loss of the father and the painful role reversal of the “Father and Child” as the former’s “passionate face” has grown paradoxically into one of “ancient innocence.” Father and Child Barn Owl: • Defiance of father leading to loss of innocence • Contrasting religious imagery – “horny fiend” and “angel-mild” • Contrasting youth and age – “wisp-haired” and “old No-Sayer” • The ugliness of death • “… this obscene/bundle of stuff that dropped/and dribbled through loose straw/tangling in bowels” – use of low modality language in “stuff” combines with the dolorous alliteration of “d” and the melancholic assonance. • The father, a symbol of experience, transforms the child’s transgression into a life lesson: • “’End what you have begun’” – direct speech and use of imperative • The owl must be shot again to be put out of its misery and the child must take responsibility for this – an literary allusion/inter-textual reference to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. • The child’s tears at the end of ‘Barn Owl’ symbolically convey that the loss of innocence is a painful experience and childhood innocence cannot be reclaimed; however the child has also learnt from their violent initiation into adulthood. Father and Child Nightfall: • The “mischievous child”, now grown, walks with her “eighty” year old father • It is implied that he is nearing the end of his life – “the season that seemed/incredible is come” – use of seasonal symbolism which dates back to the Elizabethan era, ie. Spring is youth, Summer is adulthood, Autumn is maturity and characterised by loss, Winter is death. • The conversational tone of the poem is achieved through the use of the 2ndperson, “you take/this walk”. • Anaphora of “tears” and “no” (“no more”, “no power”, “no words”, “no tears”) evinces the notion of time passing and the loss that the persona will inevitably experience. • The meta-language of theology and literature in the personification of a “sunset *that+ exalts its known/symbols of transience” illustrates that the persona has reached the conclusion of their bildungsroman journey is being able to appreciate the inevitability of loss and finitude of life. • The inter-textual reference to Shakespeare’s King Lear, “Be your tears wet?” and “Old king”, draws upon a long literary tradition of texts which explore the pain of not realising the value of what one has until it is too late. The Violets Loss and Consolation: What is lost? Youth, innocence and the prospect of a “bright” future What is the consolation? Memories, family and shared intimacies. What is the “The Violets” about? “The Violets” is an introspective poem about life. It employs the extended metaphor of “the day” to symbolically represent life in microcosm. Morning is Youth – filled with opportunity and possibility. The child weeps for the loss of morning, the desperation in the anthropomorphising rhetorical question, “Where’s morning gone?” conveying her naïveté about the transience of life (Synthesis opp. see “Father and Child – Nightfall”). The “hours of unreturning light” (a pun on “life”) is what characterises the impending “night” (Synthesis opp. -see “Father and Child – Nightfall”). The Violets Family and Love: • The lightly pejorative colloquialism employed in the direct speech, “It will soon be night, you goose,” evinces the intimacy of familial relationships. • Emotive and descriptive language conveys the memory of being “carried…downstairs” whilst she “sobbed” to see “the spring violets” – symbolic of regenerative quality of life and Nature and the beauty its yields. • The religious symbolism in “Reconciled/I took my supper” and the personified “innocent sleep” confirms the satiating power of familial love and affection to shield us from the pain of loss that characterises life. Nostalgia (Ancient Greek: literally “the pain of returning home”): • The titular “Violets” are a metonymic symbol for the transcendental power of memory and nostalgia. • The child will not be comforted by “the violets” because children have no sense of nostalgia because they have no yet left the physical home nor the metaphorical home of innocence. (Synthesis opp. –see Bildungsroman). • The anthropomorphised “frail melancholy flowers” grow from out of pain and loss, symbolised by the “ashes and loam.” At Mornington Memory: • Perhaps the most stream of consciousness in style of Harwood’s poems in the collection. This aesthetic - achieved through the use of enjambment, ellipsis and sentence fragments – reflects the tumult and chaos of nostalgic reverie. Metaphor is also employed in “rolled in one grinding race/of dreams, pain, memories, love and grief…that bear me away for ever.” • Nature as both a trigger and a parallel for memory is again employed here. The rhetorical question and metaphor of “On what flood are they borne” communicates the contrasting sensation of experiencing memory and nostalgia as overwhelming and magnificent. At Mornington Nostalgia: • Like “The Violets” this poem is about Nostalgia, but this poem reconciles previous tensions between Loss and Love. • “At Mornington” is about the acceptance of death and the transient nature of life. It transcends mortality and transience by positing the perpetuity of the perfect day described at the end of the poem by, in which all of life experience is captured in microcosm, aligning it with the perennial tide of the ocean. At Mornington Connections with other poems – Putting it all together… • The poem functions perfectly as the last poem to analyse in your essay because it offers the denouement to which the other poems are building. • The passive voice employed in the poem’s opening line “They told me…” convey the persona’s naiveté (Synthesis opp. – “Father and Child”) – she has the perspective of an adult now but did not when the incident occurred. The ambiguity is further evinced in the conditional “I seem to remember”. • The mixed emotive language of the father’s response to his child’s near drowning, “half comforting, half angry” conveys the complexity of emotion associated with familial relations. (Synthesis opp. – “The Violets”) • Seasonal imagery, “autumn grasses”, is again used here (Syn. Link – “The Violets” and “Father and Child). Symbolic of their “middle age.” At Mornington Connections with other poems – Putting it all together… • Harwood carries Biblical allusions and references as a motif throughout her poetry in this collection (Synthesis opp.) – “I remember believing…I could walk on water.” The comparison to Christ is evocative not only of the poet’s personal biography and context, but also relates to the child-like optimism and hopefulness. • “Grave” is repeated twice during the poem, but the tone is not melancholic or macabre, it is instead resigned and even a little mischievous is the cultural allusion to Halloween, “I laughed at a hallowed pumpkin/with candle flame for eye sight.” • As is meta-language, “-a parable of life”. The contrast to the “sun…as known symbols of transience” is that by looking at life holistically, rather than to focus upon its brief and transient nature as “Father and Child” does, “At Mornington” presents a more mature perspective of life’s regenerative quality. Sample Conclusions Finalising your “Personal Response” Remember ALWAYS to finalise your personal response by re-visiting the question’s key words and your essay’s central Thesis in the conclusion. Here are a few examples: “The enduring power of Harwood’s poetic treatment of age and youth centres, in my opinion, on the most profound of universal truths – that there is no certainty in life, and we must deal with events and situations as we encounter them. This is espoused throughout the poems…” “Gwen Harwood’s poetry presents a nuanced exploration of the relationship between age and youth, which has greatly shaped my own understanding of these things. Her unique and idiosyncratic manner allows the responder to not only form a deep empathy with her words, but also to critically consider one’s own life and experiences. Such poems as…” Sample Conclusions Finalising your “Personal Response” “In conclusion, Harwood deals with the perennially relevant issues of loss and consolation by charting a bildungsroman character ark from childish naiveté to maturity and acceptance. This ark begins with….” “Amidst the varied tragedy and trauma suffered by Australian’s throughout the year 2011, Harwood’s exploration of loss and the consolation of memory seems especially pertinent.” “Without loss there can be no growth, without tragedy there can be no triumph and without the acceptance of death there can be no celebration of life. Harwood’s exploration of such themes as ….throughout her poems…” Final Advice • Make Harwood’s poetry about YOU! • Find the common ground between your world and the world of Harwood’s poetry. • Read widely in terms of critical theory: • Feminism • Freudian/Psycho-analytical Eg. Freud, Lacan, Foucault • Judaeo-Christian • Post-structuralism/Postmodernism • Etc. • This will help you not only with Module B but also with your other modules. • Support your claim with as many TEXTUAL REFERENCES as possible.