May 13, 2008

a twenty-minute poetic analysis

Yeah, I'm practicing. I make my students do this all the time, so this should be easy, right?

The poem: "Shampoo & Sponge Bath" by J.W. Marshall.

The challenge: write a coherent commentary on a poem I've never before seen, covering at least three specific features, all within 20 minutes.

The results:
The poem presents a vivid and shocking picture of the frailty of human existence. There is nothing so humbling, the speaker of the poem obliquely suggests, as a shampoo and sponge bath: being taken into someone else's care, someone else who may only partly understand the "mess" that the speaker has become due to the ravages of age or extended illness.

The poet employs several literary devices to amplify the reader's sense of the speaker's humility and humiliation, and to strike up empathy; the reader is meant to not only visualize, but feel the speaker's plight.

One device, polysyndeton, in the fourth stanza, illuminates the comprehensive and cumulative nature of the speaker's hapless and somewhat helpless situation: the water from the bath covers his "gown and skin and sheets." (The lack of punctuation and the additional conjunction suggests the totality of the spill--the reader rushes through the line, much like the water "slopped" all over.) The staff assisting the speaker are careless and hurried, so that the speaker's humiliation is magnified by a form of psychic isolation.

The immersion becomes almost like a baptism; the speaker dies "and happily that time" when his head is placed in a metal basin for washing. This form of hyperbolic symbolism suggests that the immersion, much like the spiritual awakening of baptism, opens the speaker's eyes to his place in the cosmos: feeble, small, and sopping wet.

The poet further describes the smallness by recourse to simile--"Like a tuber on the pillow"--though this is offered only provisionally, since it is contrasted immediately with an alternative, "or the shadow of a spade." On the literal level, the speaker is physically shrunken by extended bed-rest. Figuratively, the speaker has been dug up from life; the reference to the spade might also ominously presage the approach of death and burial. (The hyperbolic death at the end of the first part lends to that particular reading.)

So, not only in the first part but in the poem's entirety, the theme of human frailty in the face of death, the existential crisis upon the discovery, through sight and sensation, that humans inhabit a shriveling body, tiny compared to the "terrifyingly large sky," is made clear and powerful. The reader, influenced by the surprising confluence of banal detail and philosophical observation, cannot go away unmoved.
There are a few reaches, but overall, passable. I use semicolons only when in a hermeneutic mood, I've noticed.

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