Travel blind

‘A piece of art, as well as being a creation to be enjoyed, can also be a mirror…If a country or culture lacks such mirrors it has no way of knowing what it looks like, it must travel blind’ (Margaret Atwood). Examine the ways in which three of four poems create a ‘mirror’ of national or cultural identity. The mirror, according to the Collin’s English Dictionary is a “surface that reflects light without diffusion and produces an image of an object placed in front of it.

A thing that reflects or depicts something else.” Mirror used as a verb means, “to reflect, represent or depict faithfully. A person may use a mirror to see what they look like. His or her physical features are portrayed on the surface of the mirror. The saying “a mirror does not lie” although outdated as well as overused is nevertheless true. The mirror shows all blemishes, ‘warts and all’ (Oliver Cromwell). It also shows the true beauty and wonder of a person. It depicts the intricacies, which can be examined and scrutinised. Used as a guide one looks to make one look more presentable. The mirror is an instrument used in the process of self-improvement.

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The figurative mirror then, which Margaret Atwood refers to, should be thought of in a similar fashion. A piece of art or poetry should act as a looking glass within which cultures and nations can seek identity. Poetry should enable them to look at their own imperfections and aid in correcting them. It should also show the positive aspects of a particular culture or country and celebrate the qualities that set standards for others to imitate.

According to Williams in Keywords (pp.87-93) the word ‘culture’ is on of the two or three most complicated words in the English language. Culture refers to a whole range of history, language, way of life and knowledge shared by a particular group or society. National identity refers to the identification with one’s nation. This nation does not necessarily have to be the one in which they were born in. It could be where their parents are from, or even a nation that one feels passionate about and recognises oneself with having characteristics and attitudes similar to people from that nation. National identity can also mean the nature and character of a nation as a collective body.

Poetry should be as Margaret Atwood says a ‘creation to be enjoyed’. This is achieved through the different elements of poetry. The language may be elegant and grand or plain and simple, it can have an equally pleasing effect. The narrative of the poem can create fictional situations that can open up new windows of experiences for the reader. The use of imagery can be utilised to describe common conventional ideas and images in novel and intellectually stimulating ways.

The structure and form may unravel deeper understanding to the message of the poem and the intent of the poet. The tone of the poem gives an insight into how the poet wants the reader to understand certain passages. It provides us with the feelings of the poet. The way the poem makes the reader feel, its mood, can be a personal experience. Some poems may develop or change moods as they progress, as a result creating a cascading flow of emotions.

The sound, its rhyme scheme, the beats, stresses and meter are important in enjoying the aural qualities of the poem. The conventions of hearing poetry as opposed to reading it, concedes that the sound can be a potent tool of the poet. All these characteristics of poetry although used in one sense to give the reader pleasure, are the very resources that the poet uses to construct a mirror for nations and cultures to discover their identity.

I will be drawing on four poems in this essay to examine how they create mirrors in different ways to reflect cultural and/or national identity. “Search for My Tongue”, by Sujata Bhatt, is anxiously concerned with the difficulties of having to use a language which is not your own and the fear of losing your ‘mother’ tongue. ‘Nothings Changed’, by Tatamkhulu Afrika deals with a period straight after the end of the apartheid (racial separation) in South Africa.

It comments on the existing differences in the lives of the black and white people living in Cape Town. Linton Kwesi Johnson’s, ‘Inglan is a Bitch’ is about the economic poverty faced by black immigrants. Not written in Standard English, it conveys the poet’s feelings on being shunned by the mechanics of British Institutional racism. “Dulce Et Decorum Est” is Wilfred Owen’s proclamation, in which he denounces that the Great War will make heroes of those who die such horrible deaths. The poem describes the gruesome demise of soldier in a gas attack. Portraying the true images, it rails against patriotic zeal and the way that war is glamorised by the media.

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