To what extent is a focus on metaphor and symbol central to an analysis and understanding of Douglas Dunn’s poetry? (The Kaleidoscope/Sandra’s Mobile/Second Opinion) It is considered more difficult for a poet to grab the attention and imagination of an audience than it is for an author. The use of metaphor and symbol in poetry means that the poet can say one thing and invoke a whole range of possibilities, be it love, anger, jealousy or envy; an old memory or a new wish.
The use of metaphors and symbols enables the audience to see what they believe Dunn meant, by imaging his true meaning of a word.
The three poems I have chosen to study are: ‘’The Kaleidoscope’’, ‘’Sandra’s Mobile’’ and ‘’Second Opinion’’. These are all part of the Elegies, a selection of poems written after his Wife died. As a result, much of the language used in the poems tends to signify memories or personal belongings.
The way that Dunn tells his poems are very emotive, and as it says in the Critical Anthology ‘It is typical that metaphors use concrete images to convey something abstract, helping to communicate what is hard to explain’.
The first two poems, ‘The Kaleidoscope’ and ‘Sandra’s Model’ feature a lot of physical items that are metaphors for emotions and feelings. The doves representing love, the tray representing burden and it is through this conceptualisation that the reader can truly relate to Dunn’s imagery. There is, however, a problem with symbolisms; there is never a guarantee that what the reader reads is what Dunn means. ‘In Literature, the symbols employed by writers can sometimes be private or personal, and this can pose problems for the reader in the interpretation of what the writer actually means’.
As a reader, we encounter this problem a number of times in Dunn’s poetry, because each poem symbolises a certain memory of his wife, and while Dunn was there, and experienced it, the reader didn’t, and, as a result of this, we don’t know what Dunn means. For example, in ‘Sandra’s Mobile’ we know that his wife is in possession of a mobile, yet why is it called ‘Sandra’s mobile’? There are gaps in the readers understanding which influence their grasp of the true meaning of the poem, and, as a result of this, we have to make do with what we see and imagine, as opposed to what we are told.
If we go through the poems just reading and assuming, we see a man, driven half mad with guilt and despair for the loss of his wife, when in fact, we have a man, remembering both the good and the bad times he shared with his wife, and whilst we don’t feel the full power of guilt and blame, we understand, to a degree, what he is going through. Throughout the poems we have studied, there is never the mention of a name or relationship, the closest we get to Dunn’s wife is the use of the word ‘her’, in the poem ‘Second Opinion’.
This could symbolise a multitude of things, it could suggest a grief so terrible that Dunn has detached himself from his relation, but the poems themselves prove this to be unlikely. Another reading could be that Dunn blames his wife for leaving him alone in the world, as in ‘The Kaleidoscope’ Dunn refers to dying as ‘as if preparing for a holiday’ implying a willing choice to leave and a desire on Dunn’s part, for a return. ‘’The Kaleidoscope’’ is a sonnet which seems to focus on the struggle and turmoil involved with the pain of losing a loved one.
It can be seen that Dunn is being held back by the memory of his wife in her final days. The use of the words ‘’I climb these stairs a dozen times a day and, by the open door, wait, looking in at where you died’’ implies a direct link back to those hard days of turmoil in which his wife required constant attention. The idea that he has the time to climb these stairs dozens of times a day could symbolise that he is lost without her, that he has nothing to do, and, as a result, he tries to anchor himself back to those days.
The punctuation used in these lines slows the poem down, with particular emphasis on the word ‘’wait’’. This could be in an attempt to show the audience the agonising time that Dunn had to endure, and the patience that it required. Throughout the poem, Dunn recollects and remembers the memories, however, the use of the word ‘’wait’’ could symbolise the wait involved in grieving, finally accepting that your loved one is gone and beginning to piece your life back together.
The repetition of ‘wait’ in line 13, in reference to an absurd forgiveness shows us that Dunn blames himself for his Wife’s death, and it symbolises the amount of guilt he is carrying, especially when combined with the line above in which Dunn begins to resort to desperation through the use of the verb ‘offering me’ followed by the triad ‘my flesh, my soul, my skin’ which could symbolise the ultimate sacrifice. In line 7, ‘A symmetry of husbands, each redesigned’ shows the imperfections that Dunn believes he has, not even symmetry, the idea of an exactness to two halves, could stop Dunn being redesigned.
It could also symbolise, through the idea of husbands, the huge workload that was placed on one man. This links with the triads placed in the poem, the idea of constant simultaneous actions, ‘stand, and wait, and cry’, ‘foresight, prayer and hope’, having to juggle the knowledge of The ‘tray’ mentioned in line 1 and line 10, could symbolise the idea of slavery, to be carrying a tray, responding to every movement and request, and yet, the reader can see that Dunn does what he does out of love, he puts himself through unimaginable turmoil to prolong the time with his wife, to share the love that they have.
Love is portrayed very positively in Sandra’s Mobile, the lines ‘On her last night, Trying to stay awake, I saw love crowned in tears and wooden birds and candlelight’ which could symbolise the idea of Apotheosis. Love has been raised to a divine status in Dunn’s eyes and it has required the death of his wife for him to realise exactly just how much he loves her. In line 1, the descriptive element of ‘A constant artist’ could symbolise the never-ending imprint that his wife has left on Dunn.
The idea of constancy, a permanent addition to his life, coupled with the ‘artist’ showing that Dunn will remember her for what she loved, which contrasts greatly with other poetry we have studied, particularly Thomas Hardy, who focussed on the loss as opposed to the memory. The model referred to in the title is a triad of gulls, circling above his wife. Gulls are scavengers, so this could symbolise the inevitable death of his wife. Birds are often shown portrayed as circling over their meals; however, as shown in the following paragraph, they never get the chance to prey.
Perhaps the most symbolic element of the poem is the final two lines. ‘She did not wake again. To prove our love, Each gull, each gull, each gull, turned into dove. ’ The dove, in a religious context, symbolises peace, whilst gulls are scavengers. His wife is finally at peace, as opposed to holding on to life whilst in pain and suffering. The triad could be a reference to the Holy Trinity, as we have just seen the idea of love being elevated to a divine status, and his wife is what he loves most, so there is the idea that she would be elevated too. ‘Second Opinion’ is perhaps the most distressing of the three poems I have studied.
The previous two were personal memories, of a time in which Dunn knew he had to make the most of the time he had left with his wife. ‘Second Opinion’ shows the moment in which Dunn found out that his wife had cancer. The third line shows us what Dunn is feeling ‘I waited among the apparently well’ symbolising the fact that Dunn, whilst physically okay, is suffering the same torment and anguish that his wife is going through, that they are joined in love, we see a link to this theory in line 15, where Dunn says ‘My body ached to suffer like her twin’ showing a link that is the nearest thing to a biological link.
Another quote which I found particularly haunting is ‘the minutes went by like winter. ’ This suggests an incomparable darkness, as Winter has the shortest amount of light, which would symbolise hope, and the largest amount of darkness, which symbolises doom. To conclude, the combination of metaphor and symbolisms are the key to understanding Dunn’s poetry, as the reader has to feel what he felt to truly understand the poetry.
The Critical Anthology says ‘a variety of devices enable a conceptual projection to be made from the physical body of the poem into the more abstract world of human relationships’ this is a key feature in Dunn’s poetry, and we can see that the emotions that he feels couldn’t be described as an emotion, and instead he uses the idea of physical images to show us the mental images he sees. The intertwined complexity and simplicity in some of the metaphors just shows the true turmoil that Dunn is undergoing, as there are so many plausible reasons regarding the use of his language, and all of them point towards confusion, guilt and remorse.
However, Dunn makes the most of an unimaginably bad situation, and decides to mix these awful moments with the memory of his wife in her prime, a prime which could symbolise the times in which she was alive. The metaphors and symbols used are vital to the understanding of Dunn’s poetry; the interpretation of certain objects as representing emotions opens the poems up to the reader, allowing them to see a wider view of the emotions and turmoil that Dunn went through. ‘Critical Anthology for A Level’
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