Criticism – not always a bad thing (Post 27)

In day-to-day life, criticism tends to mean disapproval, an observation of something badly done, or something we think is wrong.

In the world of the arts – writing, music, painting, etc – criticism is a less loaded [biased] word. To criticise a work of art is to analyse it, and to make both positive and negative comments about it, backed up by evidence.

Analysing a poem is one of the least popular parts of English and English Literature courses for many pupils. It has a reputation for being difficult, and/or boring and pointless.

If you have to analyse poetry – or even if you’re just interested in how it’s done – try to get rid of those off-putting barriers; if you are prepared with a range of things to consider, and prepared to be honest in your reactions and to say WHY you react in that way, you’ll be fine!

Let’s look at a poem which has been set in exam courses over the years. Relatively modern poetry is often set by examiners because they think it will be more appealing to teenagers. Sometimes that is the case; sometimes it’s not.

Valentine

Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

Here.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Lethal.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

(written by Carol Ann Duffy)

Suggestion: if you can, print the poem out or find it in a book. Then you can look at the whole poem at the same time, which is useful.

Suggestion: you might want to look back at Post 15, which is about poems, to remind yourself of a few things about them.

1 What does the title – Valentine – make you think of? Today St Valentine’s Day is a big commercial occasion, with card, gift and flower shops making a great deal of money out of objects covered in red hearts, and the exorbitantly high mark-ups on the price of red roses. So perhaps this poem is about that sort of thing.

2 The first line (also the first stanza) tells us immediately that this is NOT going to be about conventional Valentine-related things. So that’s one remarkable thing about this poem: the writer has set up an expectation in the reader that she immediately overturns.

3 So, if it’s NOT about the conventional Valentine’s Day things, what IS this Valentine poem going to be about? Line 2 tells us: “I give you an onion.” Now, an onion is a very everyday, unromantic thing indeed. It is ordinary – round, and brown – and quite cheap; and once cut into it smells (and not a very nice smell at that). Many people find that their eyes water painfully when they are cutting up an onion, which is because of the chemicals released at that point.

4 Let’s look at the whole of the second stanza (I’m not calling it a verse because it doesn’t rhyme and it doesn’t have a pattern of rhythm – but we’ll get to those things later). It describes the onion in two ways that we’d never have expected. The onion “is [like] a moon wrapped in brown paper”. And “it promises light/ like the careful undressing of love.” Both the moon and love are things traditionally associated with Valentine’s Day – so perhaps this poem is more romantic than we thought!

5 Writing about the onion as a moon is an image. Imagery is used to describe one thing in terms of another. The poet writes that the onion “Is a moon”. That’s a metaphor: a description of one thing in terms of another – usually things that we wouldn’t normally associate with one another – without using the words like or as. (If the poet had written, “It is like a moon” then that would have been a simile – the same as a metaphor but using either like or as.)

6 Is the onion = moon metaphor an effective one? (Try to avoid using “good” in your criticism; it is too vague to be helpful.) The onion is like the moon in that it is round. Also its skin is brown and has a texture rather like paper – so the brown paper wrapper is an effective way of describing the object too.

7 And “It promises light” is also part of the moon metaphor: the onion is a soft, pearly white inside its brown skin, which when removed will show a pearly white orb like a small moon. The point of imagery is to make us look at (or think about) things in a new way – so I’d say that this image is an effective one. You might disagree, of course, and that’s fine as long as you can support your opinion with evidence.

8 “Like the careful undressing of love” is the first of the erotic images in the poem, suggesting one lover undressing another in an atmosphere of gentle expectation. Again, I’d day that that is effective, this time because it creates atmosphere – and gradually builds our realisation that this is a poem about love, even if it’s not about the conventional aspects of Valentine’s Day.

9 “Here.” The one-word line is an effective way of focusing the reader’s attention. This one also suggests action – that the writer is handing the onion over to the reader NOW. It refers to the first line of the previous stanza – “I give you an onion.” This sense of immediacy – that is, that the action that’s being written about is happening NOW – gives the poem a freshness that isn’t present in many poems, where there is a tendency to write in the past tense.

10 “It will blind you with tears” – yes, we know that that is true of onions. “like a lover” – she puts this in a separate line, so that it comes as a bit of a surprise to us. Here’s something not so romantic about love: the people we love can make us cry. This – for me – is another way in which this is an unusual, and therefore interesting, poem.

11 “It will make your reflection/ a wobbling photo of grief.” When our eyes are stinging and overflowing with the tears caused by the cut onion, we won’t be able to see clearly. When we look at ourselves in a mirror, our reflection will seem to be wobbling because we are looking at it through tears. I like the fact that she describes the reflection as “wobbling” even although it’s not; it’s the tears that make it seem to us, the viewer, to wobble. It also makes me remember that lovers can make us cry too – the “photo of grief” may foreshadow the future of the relationship.

12 “I am trying to be truthful.” Like the one-word line, the one-line stanza can also be used to focus the reader’s attention. This is a statement of the poet’s purpose – or, if we have already picked that up from what’s been written in the first stanzas, a reminder that she is not writing about conventional Valentine’s gifts and sentiments, but about real life.

13 And here’s another part of the reminder: “Not a cute card or a kissogram.” Another one-line stanza focuses our attention. Writers have to be careful not to over-use devices such as this, or they lose their effectiveness, but I think three one-line stanzas in a poem of this length is a reasonable rate – especially as this third one reminds us very strongly of the first one – “Not a red rose or a satin heart.”

14 “I give you an onion.” Repetition of an earlier line reminds us of what’s happening, here in this poem. “Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,” is another image; the taste of the onion is like a kiss because the raw onion has to touch our lips in order to create the taste. And the taste is strong, “hot” and fiery: it is a “fierce kiss”. And as anyone who has ever eaten raw onion will know, the taste does indeed stay in your mouth for a long time afterwards.

15 So the “kiss” of the onion is “possessive and faithful” – the taste dominates your tastebuds (“possessive”) and it lasts for a long time (“faithful”).

16 “as we are”: that’s a pleasant (Try to avoid “nice”: like “good” it is an overworked word that doesn’t convey very much nowadays.) message: the lovers – the writer and the reader – are in a close and mutually loyal relationship.

17 “for as long as we are.” Again, a new line for this means that we come across it rather unexpectedly. Just when we were enjoying the pleasant feelings of the lovers’ relationship, here’s a reminder that it won’t last for ever!

18 “Take it.” This command to action is again in the present tense, and it’s the next action after the writer has given the reader the onion, an action which she marked with the word, “Here” earlier. The action reminds us – or perhaps helps us to imagine – that this exchange is happening NOW.

19 “Its platinum hoops shrink to a wedding-ring”: an onion consists of concentric skins of that translucent, pearly white that we noted earlier. As you slice it, each skin becomes a ring in the slice, like the rings in sawn-up trees except that each ring of the onion will separate from the others if you press them. The rings towards the centre of each slice are small, and some could indeed fit round your finger like a ring. Platinum is a slightly less shiny, slightly greyer metal than white gold. I think the metaphor here is effective because it is very unusual but also has a basis in physical similarities between the two objects being compared – the onion-rings, and a platinum wedding-ring.

20 “if you like”. This for me is the point at which the poem turns. Up until now it’s been clever – witty – with its comparisons of the onion and traditional romantic thoughts and actions; there’s also been a suggestion of true love, desire and care between the lovers. Here, however, the writer’s casual, “if you like” suggests to me that she isn’t as keen on the relationship being formal and long-term as we might have expected after everything that’s come before this.

21 The final verse reveals a pessimism and possible bitterness that undercuts much of the playfulness that has gone before. “Lethal” means deadly; it will kill. What is it that is lethal? Is it the onion – or the wedding -ring? And what will it kill? Your tastebuds (for quite a long time afterwards) – or the relationship between the lovers?

22 “Its scent will cling to your fingers” suggests the onion – but in a metaphorical way the “scent” of a wedding-ring might cling to the wearer’s fingers. “cling to your knife” again suggests the taint of the onion being transferred to other things cut by the same knife – but what else might the reader’s tainted knife be used for? Perhaps I’m getting carried away here – and I certainly don’t think the writer’s suggesting that the reader might stab her! – but the last picture we hold in the poem is of the reader’s knife, which to me suggests the possibility of the relationship being cut through.

23 Look at the poem on the page. The layout is irregular: the lines are of different lengths and so are the stanzas; there is no over-all pattern to them (although we have seen some patterns within the poem); there is no rhyme-scheme. (Re-visit Posts 16 and 17 if you want to be reminded about rhyme and rhythm.) This suggests to me that the poet wants us to pay more attention to the line-divisions and stanza divisions that she chooses to make within the poem, rather than to an over-all pattern; and that she wants us to pay more attention to the meanings and echoes of the words within the poem than to any pattern of sounds they might make. I think it works; I wouldn’t want to be distracted from her message by the patterns imposed by regular rhythm and rhyme.

So there you have it: read the poem; explain your reactions and how the poem has caused these reactions. Say whether you think the poem was effective or not, and how/why. Not so difficult after all!

PS I have referred to the writer and the poet as if the poem were the thoughts and views of Carol Ann Duffy. Actually this is not ideal because writers are great at using their imagination and Duffy might well be imagining how someone in the poem’s situation might feel. You can avoid this problem by referring to the voice in the poem as “the protagonist” or “the narrator” – although “the narrator” is normally used when a story is being told. I wanted you to focus on analysing the poem, so I didn’t add more to absorb by using “the protagonist”.

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