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Sunday, August 26, 2007

SPM Literature in English (Notes: Poems II)

Posted by Snow

A. but education tells me I am halus, he kasar
for don’t you see I’m a Shakespeare-wallah
with this degree that clings to me like a vise
and a middle-class airconditioned nose?
In the lines above, why does the speaker refer to himself as “a shakespeare-wallah”? [5 marks]

The speaker refers to himself as a shakespeare-wallah as a means of equalizing his status with that of the midnight satay vendor. He does this by using the local slang term “wallah” that means “vendor”. This stanza reveals the guilt the speaker feels about his own higher status in society; a status afforded him by his education to which the satay vendor does or did not seem to have had equal access.

B. In the poem Dance by Fadzillah Amin, what does the speaker mean in the line “I am tired of these ronggeng motions”? [8 marks]

The speaker compares her relationship and her daily routines to the ronggeng*, an upbeat Malay social dance in which couples exchange poetic verses as they dance to the music of a violin or a gong. The dancers of the ronggeng perform very energetic movements that, however, never culminate in physical contact with one another. In the very first stanza of “Dance”, the speaker says:
“We are like partners in the ronggeng,
Approaching nearer, nearer and nearer;
But just when one would think we’d meet at last,
We turn away, reverse our steps, withdraw….”
The ronggeng can be read as both a simile and a metaphor for the speaker’s life of which she is tired. It appears that the social rules, symbolized by the dance’s fixed routine, of the speaker’s life does not allow for a greater intimacy between the dancers or those around her. As it were, the speaker is merely “going through the motions” because her life lacks greater meaning through richer expression which she feels can only be obtained through a forbidden intimacy.

*From the beginning, Ronggeng is a type of Malay social dance. Ronggeng, sampeng and sila are dances influenced by Western, Near Eastern and Malay traditions. The terms joget and ronggeng denote the most famous and popular Malaysian dance, often seen as an unofficial national social dance. The word joget has two meanings; “dance” and “dancing girl”. In its earlier usage, it probably denoted female courtly dances and dancers in the state of Pahang. The ensemble accompanying the dance was known as a joget gamelan which still exists in Pahang and Trengganu. The form of joget was influenced by Portuguese and Malaysian-Portuguese dancers and musicians at the time of the Portuguese occupation of Melaka, four hundred year ago. Until the early 20th century, it was known by the name ronggeng. With the creation of joget modern, the term joget generally replaced the term ronggeng as the name of the genre. [Folks, I got this off the Internet… for your information.]

C. “The future is a different planet, they do things differently there.”
Do you share this view in your reading of Tea in a Spaceship by James Kirkup? Support your answer with reasons and examples from the text. [12 marks]

In the poem “Tea in a Spaceship” [TIS] by James Kirkup, it would seem that the future is indeed a different planet where things are done differently. This is especially apparent in the central metaphor of having tea in a spaceship where the spaceship can be said to represent the “other-worldliness” of the future. Within this spaceship,
“... a tablecloth need not be laid
On any table, but is spread out anywhere
Upon the always equidistant and
Invisible legs of gravity’s wild air.”
From the very beginning of the poem, we are painted a picture of total formlessness where familiar and necessary objects or paraphernalia one associates with the social construct of having tea such as a tablecloth, cake-forks, spoons or knives are considered obsolete. This world of the spaceship / future where gravity, in both senses of the word -- that is, “the force that attracts objects to the centre of the earth and to each other” and “seriousness and solemnity” -- holds no sway seems to have a “wild air” about it.

The following three stanzas of the poem proceed then to reinforce this sense of wild disorderliness of the future, especially because cups -- the moulds which would otherwise hold and give form to liquid tea – can no longer contain the tea. Without gravity the surface tension of liquid will have the tea gather “itself into a wet and steaming ball” that “... hurls its liquid molecules at anybody’s head”.

As far as the tone of Tea in a Spaceship is concerned, the future where things are done differently is not looked upon kindly. Chaos and rudeness appear to reign supreme with tea assuming a life of its own and those that consume it are “chronically nervous jerks” who, despite their failings and “flailings” with “mouths agape for passing cake”, will not spill a drop of tea as there is no gravity or seriousness to cause such that would otherwise be regarded as a social faux pas.

The chronically nervous jerks who populate the future live in a world that is free of “gravity” or seriousness and concern thanks to technological advances (such as the microwave oven) that allow the tea to be perpetually hot. Aside from this, they also no longer need or want to have control over the condiments that go along with the having of tea such as sugar cubes that “[S]ling themselves out of their crystal bowl” and milk that “... describes a permanent parabola / Girdled with satellites of spinning tarts.”

The last stanza of the poem takes on an even heavier sense of irony when it concludes that:
“The future lives with graciousness,
The hostess finds her problems eased,
For there is honey still for tea
And butter keeps the ceiling greased...”
The future is a land of plenty where we will always have enough to eat and drink. However, social mores – represented by the ritual of “taking tea” – have changed dramatically. If in the past (or perhaps the speaker’s present) food shortages and manual labour are the main focus of concern or grave issues of the day, the lack of such cares in the future will make it a different planet where things will be done differently, and not to the approval of the speaker of Tea in a Spaceship, if his tone is anything to go by.

A. Grandchild we lived
before your age. Because
of our ignorance,
we did not know
pollution, stress, traffic jams
destruction of forests, streams and
we feared God and nature
now nature fears you and
money is your news God.

In the stanza above, what is the speaker saying to “Grandchild”? [5 marks]

The stanza above is the grandparent’s response to the question the grandchild had asked in the first stanza of M. Shanmughalingam’s poem “Heir Conditioning”. Here the grandparent answers the main question asked by the grandchild, that is, how did the latter live without modern technological advances such as air conditioning and telephones that make life so much easier. In the stanza above, the grandparent then explains that although he or she had lived in an age before their knowledge was “advanced” enough to invent such technological conveniences (“Because of our ignorance”), they lived without the stress, traffic jams and the destruction of nature that such progress brings with it. Also, the grandparent says, progress has made those living in the grandchild’s age worship money as it is only with money that such modern gadgetry can be bought. Ironically, however, such conveniences come with a spiritual price and stress.

B. In The Gardener by Louis MacNeice, what is the significance of the explanation “For he was not quite all there”? [8 marks]

The phrase “For he was not quite all there” and “He was not quite right in the head”, used in the poem, respectively in the first and last stanzas, are euphemisms that the speaker uses to say that the gardener is mad. These euphemisms are significant in that they underscore the speaker’s own fascination with the zany antics of the gardener to whom the former cannot or is not willing directly to apply the word “mad”.

Instead, the speaker gives us a very graphic description of the gardener’s actions that obviously hold the speaker of the poem in a grip of fascination that, in turn, can be seen in the painstaking detail the speaker uses to describe the gardener.

In the first stanza the reader is informed that the gardener is illiterate and that he (presumably) makes a living by tending to the gardens of richer folk. By the end of the first stanza, the speaker declares the gardener “not quite all there” because the latter cuts hedges and hoes drives with the “smile of a saint” and “the pride of a feudal chief”. It appears that the speaker looks down on the lowly gardener by saying that only a mad man could have the smile of a saint and the pride of feudal chief if all he does is cut hedges and hoe drives.

As the poem unfolds the details of the gardener’s ways, however, it becomes apparent to the reader – if not to the speaker – that despite making a big deal about the unstable mental health of the gardener, the speaker harbours a sad admiration and respect for this gardener who is “not quite all there”.

C. “Technology breaks down communication between people and erodes civility”
Do you share this view in your reading of Manners by Elizabeth Bishop? [12 marks]

In my reading of the Elizabeth Bishop’s poem Manners, a very strong case can be made of the statement “technology breaks down communication between people while eroding civility”. This is most apparent in the seventh stanza of this eight-stanza poem in which a grandfather instills the lessons of civility and respect at two levels: Civility and respect people should have for one another, and civility and respect people should have for nature.

From the first to the sixth stanza, the grandfather -- who is riding in a wagon with his grandchild -- gives the latter lessons on manners and civility with examples drawn during the course of their journey.

In the first stanza, the grandfather says “’Be sure to remember to always / speak to everyone you meet’”. In the following stanza, the grandfather enacts this instruction by greeting a stranger on foot whom their wagon passes. The lesson in stanza three “’Always offer everyone a ride; / don’t forget that when you get older,’” is then backed up in stanza four when the grandfather offers a boy they knew -- who had a pet crow on his shoulder -- a ride.

When Willy, the boy passenger, gets into the wagon, however, his crow flies away, much to the speaker’s dismay. Nevertheless, and this time much to the speaker’s awe, the crow follows Willy and the wagon “from fence post to fence post,… / and when Willy whistled he answered”. From this, the grandfather draws the conclusion:
“’and he’s well brought up. See, he answers
nicely when he’s spoken to.
Man or beast, that’s good manners.
Be sure that you both always do.”
It is at this point that the wagon is rudely passed by automobiles whose “dust hid people’s faces”. Although the passengers of the wagon are true to their principles of civility which they then exhibit by shouting “’Good day! Good day! / Fine day! At the top of (their) voices”, the din of the automobiles’ engines drowns them out. This, then, highlights the observation that “Technology breaks down communication between people and erodes civility”. Technology, this stanza can be interpreted to say, obscures human communication and contact, and, ultimately, civility and manners.

A. So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamor
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamor
of childhood days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.
Why does the speaker of the Piano by D.H. Lawrence say that “… it is vain for the singer to burst into clamor”? [5 marks]

The speaker says that “… it is vain for the singer to burst into clamor” because the singer cannot change the mood of the speaker in which her first song, sung softly, had placed him. The first soft song reminded the speaker of his childhood, specifically of a poignant moment he had sitting under the piano “(a)nd pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.” For the speaker, this memory is more glamourous than that of his adult life so even the more upbeat tune cannot drown out his yearning for his childhood.

B. What role does the imagery of flowers play in the poem Parents by e.e. cummings? [8 marks]

Flower imagery is the heart of the poem Parents by e.e. Cummings. The different types of flowers – pansies, lilies-of-the-valley, and blackred roses – used in the poem respectively convey concepts such as effeminateness, purity or chastity, and sexual passion.

In the first stanza, the speaker declares his mother so unique and special that if there were heavens, she would have one all by herself. Then, to describe the character of her heaven, the speaker then draws on flower imagery to delineate it. We are told:
“…. It will not be a pansy heaven or
a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but
it will be a heaven of blackred roses”
In other words, the speaker’s mother’s heaven will neither be a common heaven nor -- because it houses a woman – an effeminate one. On the other hand, his mother’s heaven is also not a heaven that’s pure or divine, as symbolized by lilies-of-the-valley, but a heaven of heady passion, as suggested by “blackred roses”.

This interpretation is further reinforced when the speaker says that his “father will be (deep like a rose / tall like a rose / standing near my / swaying over her / (silent)”. So, although his father is in heaven with his mother, she is still the only occupant of her heaven given that his father is not there in human form but only as one of the blackred roses that constitute it. As this tall and deep blackred rose, the speaker’s father represents the passion of love, and this is especially apparent in the almost breathless lines “my father…. is a flower and not a face with / hands / which whisper / This is my beloved my”.

C. “You only totally understand, love and miss your mother when you need her help.”
Can this statement be applied to A Figure Forgotten in Hours Not-of-Need by Kee Thuan Chye? Support your answer with reasons and examples drawn from the poem. [12 marks]

The very title of this poem supports the phrase “you only totally understand, love and miss your mother when you need her help”. For the speaker, his mother, up until the point that the poem is written, was no more than a figure.

However, the poem itself is an expression of the speaker’s desperation “in helpless moments” when he most understands the figure who had sacrificed so much for him, but whom he had remonstrated in the good times.

Spurred on by a poignant sense of helplessness, the speaker ponders his relationship with his mother. He now understands her actions that he once condemned. He says:
You are not the purest of women
but you toiled for your children,
throwing morals coyly to the wind.
How else could we have grown up
with cushioned settees to sit on
and hot cuisine to nourish our hungry souls?
These lines strongly suggest that the speaker’s mother had compromised her morals – engaging in prostitution, perhaps? – to fund her children’s upbringing, the standards of which seemed to be quite high as the words “settees” and “cuisine” insinuate.

It is now clear to the speaker that his mother did what she had to do to protect her children from the harsh realities of life. The speaker says:
“Now, in helpless moments,
I think of you,
a figure forgotten
in hours not-of-need,
but a comforter of the past
who caught cockroaches with bare hands.”
The speaker’s mother caught cockroaches with bare hands, a brave action which the speaker, even as an adult, is still afraid of doing. From a symbolic angle, one can argue that, in the poem, cockroaches represent the filthy realities of life – such as the compromising of one’s morals in order to protect others – which the speaker, unlike his mother, is still unwilling to face as an adult. He says:
And though it’s a sin to grow old
And to lost your dearest treasures,
You stoutly go your humdrum ways
While I curse the drudgery of life.
I am still afraid of cockroaches.
So, it would seem, from this poem, that one’s mother is especially loved, missed and finally understood only when the child is faced by life’s dilemma’s and challenges that the parent had so willingly faced up to all in the name of love for her children. In the last three lines of the poem the speaker laments:
But when I think
how little live I’ve shown you in return,
I sometimes cry.

A. Your body is black
your face is black soot
the sky is black.
despite your shame
you are a river of frangipani blossoms
a burning flower
a firefly.

A Father’s Word for a Lost Child, Suhaimi Haji Muhammad
In the stanza above what is the speaker saying to the child? [5 marks]

The speaker is telling his child that despite her exposure to evil, she is still pure. Although the child is now “black”, which represents evil and shame, on the outside, she is still innocent and pure inside, symbolized by the river of frangipani blossom, a burning flower and a firefly, all of which symbolize bright beacons of hope in the face of darkness.

B. What is the attitude of the speaker towards the little Maid in the poem We are Seven by William Wordsworth? [8 marks]

The speaker of We are Seven is, on the whole, exasperated with the little Maid who refuses to accept the finality of death. At a deeper level, it can be said that the speaker also feels very sorry for her as she is obviously a very lonely child now that most of her brothers and sisters have either left home or have died.

On the surface, the poem is hinged on the clash between the difference in the adult and child’s perception of death. The first stanza reads:
“A simple Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?”
This stanza of the poem sets the framework for the dialogue between adult and child that follows. The next fifteen stanzas are then filled with the details of her family and siblings who are no longer around. She tells the speaker that two of her siblings are now living in Conway, two are at sea, two are dead and buried in a churchyard nearby while she lives with her mother not twelve steps from the graves of her deceased siblings Jane and John.

Despite going into great detail about Jane and John’s death and their graves, the little Maid insists that there are still seven – as opposed to five – children in the family. The adult tries to reason with her, that if two are dead, there must only be five. Ultimately, the poem ends with the child refusing to accept the adult’s calculations.

At a less obvious level, one can argue that the speaker of the poem is very touched by the child’s loneliness that leads to her denial of death. The painstaking detail of her interaction with the graves of her siblings, told over six stanzas, underline this. The speaker is intrigued that the little Maid knits, sings and eats by the gravestones of her brother and sister. She performs all these workaday activities by their graves as a way of keeping them alive in her mind and the speaker is careful to relate this to his audience or readers.

C. “Symbolism in poetry provides one a way of saying one thing and meaning another simultaneously”
Do you agree with this statement in your reading of Grandmother, by Kemala? Support your answers with reasons and examples drawn from the poem. [12 marks]

The symbolic qualities of the mengkuang mats form the backbone of the poem Grandmother, allowing the poet a way of saying one thing while meaning another. On the surface, the poem is about the mengkuang mats that Grandmother makes. However, the mengkuang mats and Grandmother’s attitude towards them can just as well be applied to her relationship with her children. We are told:
She is very old. And apart from God,
She most loves the mats she weaves.
She takes the thorny menkuang from the deep
She knows the cruel sting of its thorns and the pain
Of torn flesh as the thorns strike deep.
She has boldly drunk from the ancient waters of this
A parallel can be drawn between the weaving of Grandmother’s mengkuang mats and her bearing and raising of children. The thorns of the mengkuang that tear at her flesh are strongly reminiscent of the tearing of flesh during the birthing process. Yet, she is able to clear away the thorns to weave and order the mengkuang into beautiful and unique mats the way she was able to endure the difficulties of raising children into beautiful adults that then went on the set up homes and lives with others.

From “the criss-sross of flowers”, just as through the raising of children, Grandmother “learns answers to the riddles of life”. From them, she “knows the meaning of love and ordered devotion”. And just as she has to part with her mats when she sells them to her customers, she has to endure the “high price of parting” with her own children when they have grown.

A. i hope they become what they want to become
as long as they are not thieves, robbers and philistines
as long as their coming manhood and womanhood
do not become the fuel for the technological fire
burning us, making us useless and spent kayu bakau

My Clever Pupils, Omar Mohd. Noor
In the stanza above, what are the teacher’s hopes for his pupils? [5 marks]

The teacher does not seem to have very high hopes for his clever pupils. Although he hopes that they will achieve their own goals he fears that their ambitions are not very high, the repetition of “as long as” indicating this. Most of all, he hopes that they will not be made obsolete by technology (“do not become the fuel for the technological fire / burning us, making us useless and spent kayu bakau”), especially if they were to end up being manual labourers of factory workers – due to their apparent lack of ambition to be more -- whose tasks will eventually be replaced by automated machines and robots.

B. What is the speaker’s attitude towards the future in the poem Nocturne by Muhammad Haji Salleh? [8 marks]

The poem Nocturne harbours – both literally and metaphorically – much hope for the future and this is communicated through its central metaphor of a ship being urged on through the darkness of night by a comforting concert of natural forces – the sea, sky and winds – into a dawn that represents the future. Despite the onset of technological advances that threaten the natural rhythm of humanity, the spirit of Nocturne insists that nature will be able to adapt to the brave new world of “machines”. The second stanza of the poem reads:
“late tonight we borrow the music of nature
to mend the rhythm of our souls
newly broken by the pace of machines
i hold your hand
to marry my body to your lucidity”
It is ultimately the “music of nature” that will assist souls adjust to the “pace of machines”. The rift in humanity caused by the new pace of machines is surmountable if we allow the music of nature to bring us together. Once this is done, humanity will be able to sail into a new dawn of mutual understanding and harmony. This is evident in the last stanza that reads:
“in this dawn
we find a world
that understands us.
we string our experiences
as proof of our humanness.”

C. “Sometimes the social gestures we make in the name of civility hide rather than communicate our true intentions and feelings”
Discuss this statement in relation to the poem Once Upon a Time by Gabriel Okara. Support your answer with reasons and examples drawn from the poem. [12 marks]

Once Upon A Time is a poem that is based on this view that social gestures often hide rather than communicate our true intentions and feelings. The speaker of the poem tells his son about a past where people were genuine where “they used to laugh with their hearts / and laugh with their eyes.” In the speaker’s present, however “they only laugh with their teeth” even as their eyes “search behind” the speaker’s “shadow”. In other words, the people of the speaker’s present harbour sinister hidden intentions which social gestures such as smiling, greeting, and the shaking of hands are used to hide.

Accordingly, the speaker has had to adapt by himself becoming insincere in the form of wearing many faces “like dresses” such as his “homeface, officeface, streetface, hostface /… with all their conforming smiles”. He has “… also learned to say, ‘Goodbye’ / when (he means) ‘Good-riddance’”. Nevertheless, the speaker is not proud of this. On the contrary, he wants to re-learn how to be sincere. He says:
“But believe me, son.
I want to be what I used to be
When I was like you, I want
To unlearn all these muting things
So show me, son,
How to laugh; show me how
I used to laugh and smile
Once upon a time when I was like you.”
Ultimately, the speaker is asking to be returned to a state of innocence where communication and human interaction has yet to be “muted” or disguised by learnt social gestures of politeness which adults use to gloss over their true intentions.

A. Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all…
… I’ve heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Hope is a thing with Feathers, Emily Dickinson
In the stanzas above, how is hope represented? [5 marks]

Although never directly expressed, hope is presented as a bird. In other words, the metaphor of a bird is used to embody, as it were, the concept of hope. As such, the bird of hope that lives in the soul is simultaneously slight and strong; it sings the tune of hope incessantly through the most difficult times, yet it is free and costs us nothing.

B. What is the main image used in At the Door by Wong Phui Nam, and how effective is it in communicating the subject of the poem? [8 marks]

The central image or metaphor on which the poem At the Door hinges is that of plant, or sapling for a feotus that has been poisoned in order to be aborted. The voice of the poem is that of the aborted feotus who begs to know:
“Mother, why did you let
the poison seep down,
blacken leaf and stem
from overhead course down the roots
to pinch and disarrange
the bulging knob that was to find its shape
to be my head?”
In these lines, the speaker of the poem likens itself to a plant whose leaf and stem (body), roots (blood vessels) and bulging knob (head) is poisoned “from overhead”, presumably after Mother has ingested abortifacient (swallowed drugs that induce abortion). I find this metaphor highly effective in its graphic immediacy; the images of its bulging knob, or head being “pinched and disarranged” at once focuses the attention on the cruelty of the poisoning and subsequent abortion. This is especially so in the third stanza when the speaker says:
“… before I melted back
into the glistening bunched gel,
red grapes shot thick with ash,
as I, expelled,
made my way out in my sac
filming over so soon with death?”
Once again, the plant (red grapes) metaphor is used to great graphic effect to illustrate the actual process of the abortion. Red grapes which would have otherwise been sweet fruit, are “shot thick with ash”, or burnt and killed.

C. “Life is a tedious routine with very little to look forward to”
Can this statement be applied to the poem Miracles by Walt Whitman. Support your argument with reasons and examples drawn from the text. [12 marks]

The main message of the poem Miracles is the antithesis (opposite argument) of the claim that “life is a tedious routine with very little to look forward to”. One can only imagine the speaker of the poem balking at this phrase.

As far as the poem is concerned, life in itself is cause for celebration as everything around us is a miracle in its own right. Just by its title alone, one would expect the poem to be about awesome phenomena, however, the content and message of the poem debunks this expectation.

Everything in life that one would consider humdrum and mundane, the speaker insists, is a miracle to which he looks forward. From the very first line he declares: “Why, who makes much of a miracle? / As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles” and goes on to give us a seemingly inexhaustible list of “miracles” that range from roofs, to streets to sunsets and to every spear of grass.

Above all, “… the frames, limbs, organs, of men and women, and all that concerns them, / All these to me are unspeakably perfect miracles.” In other words, humanity itself and its surroundings is miraculous and therefore there should be much in life to look forward to.
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  1. wow. Mixing local slang with English! Is that a trend now in English papers?

  2. The idea is that we don't forget our roots. Hence we have a healthy mixture of local and foreign literature. The obviously Malaysian terms apparently makes it easier for us to relate to the text.

  3. FAMILY-- poem--


    "I am still afraid of cockroaches."
    So, it would seem, from this poem, that one’s mother is especially loved, missed and finally understood only when the child is faced by life’s dilemma’s and challenges that the parent had so willingly faced up to all in the name of love for her children. [/Q]

    In my oppinion, the point "cockroaches" that is the symbol of fear in the persona should be stressed.


  4. what is the theme and the meaning behind the poem Heir Conditioning by Shanmugalingam?


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