Tuesday, 27 July 2021 07:29

MEMENTOS, 1 BY WD SNODGRASS GRADE 12 NOTES - LITERATURE; POETRY STUDY GUIDE

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Mementos, 1 by W.D. Snodgrass

This poem was written by W.D. Snodgrass (1926-2009). He was an American poet who won a number of prizes for his work. He also wrote essays and was an academic who taught at several US universities, finally retiring in 1994.
He is best known for writing very personal poems about his own life and loves. His poems are often about the pain of life that we do not show to one another when we meet in our busy lives: the pain of love lost, divorce, death, unsatisfying jobs and dreams which are not achieved.
Snodgrass wrote another poem, called Mementos, 2, which is why this poem is called Mementos, 1.

1. Themes

The theme of this poem is memory, and the power that mementos (such as photographs) have to bring back feelings and memories from the past.
The poet is looking through a collection of old papers when he comes across a photograph of his ex-wife. After his first shock, he feels glad for a moment. It was taken at their first dance and she looked young and very pretty. He remembers how that picture had helped him cope with his fear during the war, but then he feels bitter as he remembers how their marriage failed and ended in divorce.
However, he puts the photograph back to look at it again one day, which may mean that he still has some feelings for his wife. In this poem, he addresses his words to “you” — referring to the person in the photograph.

Fun fact: 

  • Mementos are small objects that we keep to remember our friends and special times in our lives. Examples are photographs or letters.

Mementos, 1 by W.D. Snodgrass

Stanza 1

Sorting out letters and piles of my old
Canceled checks, old clippings, and yellow note cards
That meant something once, I happened to find
Your picture. That picture. I stopped there cold,
Like a man raking piles of dead leaves in his yard
Who has turned up a severed hand.

Stanza 2

Still, that first second, I was glad: you stand
Just as you stood – shy, delicate, slender,
In that long gown of green lace netting and daisies
That you wore to our first dance.
The sight of you stunned
Us all. Well, our needs were different, then,
And our ideals came easy.

Stanza 3

Then through the war and those two long years
Overseas, the Japanese dead in their shacks
Among dishes, dolls, and lost shoes; I carried
This glimpse of you, there, to choke down my fear,
Prove it had been, that it might come back.
That was before we got married.

Stanza 4

Before we drained out one another’s force
With lies, self-denial, unspoken regret
And the sick eyes that blame; before the divorce
And the treachery. Say it: before we met. Still,
I put back your picture. Someday, in due course,
I will find that it’s still there.

Words to know 

Definitions of words from the poem:

Line 2:

canceled checks

old cheques that have been paid up, no longer of value

clippings

cuttings from newspapers and magazines

Line 4:

cold

frozen, still

Line 5:

raking

using a rake to collect leaves

Line 6:

severed

cut off from the body

Line 8:

delicate

small

slender

slim, thin

Line 9:

gown

dress

lace netting

delicate fabric

daisies

small flowers

Line 10:       stunned

amazed

Line 12:       ideals

ideas of perfection / can also mean beliefs, goals

Line 13:       the war

reference to World War 2

Line 16:       glimpse

sight (the photo)

choke

hold back

Line 19:       drained

emptied

force

energy, life

Line 20:       self-denial

give up something, deny yourself something you want

regret

feel sorry

Line 22:       treachery

disloyalty, unfaithfulness

Line 23:       in due course

later on

2. Type and form

This poem is of the type known as confessional poetry, in which the poet confesses or shares very personal and private thoughts and feelings. In this case, he shares his memories of and feelings about his first marriage.
One of the formal elements in the poem’s structure is that there are four stanzas of six lines each and the lines are similar in length.
The poet uses some rhyme, but in no set pattern. For example, look at “old” and “cold” in stanza 1, or “force, divorce and course” in the last stanza.
He also uses half-rhymes, which are words that almost rhyme, but not quite. For example, look at “years / fear” in stanza 3.

3. Analysis

Stanza 1 (lines 1 – 6)

Sorting out letters and piles of my old
Canceled checks, old clippings, and yellow note cards
That meant something once, I happened to find
Your picture. That picture. I stopped there cold,
Like a man raking piles of dead leaves in his yard
Who has turned up a severed hand.

This stanza describes the poet’s reaction to finding an old photograph of his ex-wife. He is sorting out old papers, probably to throw away what he no longer needs. There are “Canceled checks” which are old cheques that have been paid and returned by the bank.
There are also pieces cut out from old newspapers or magazines that had interested him at the time, and old note cards which have turned yellow with age. Note how the words “canceled / old/ yellowed” (line 2) tell us that these papers have been there for a very long time; they had been important to him (“meant something”) long ago.
Suddenly he finds a photograph of his ex-wife; perhaps he had forgotten about it, for he is shocked. Notice the short, sharp punctuation in line 4, with two full stops in four words: “Your picture. That picture. I stopped there cold”. The short phrases and full stops make us stop short so that we experience the shock that the poet feels when he sees the picture. The italics used in “That picture” are for emphasis. We realise that he knows this photograph and it is a special picture of someone who was once very important to him.
The poet’s use of the word “cold” in line 4 helps to describe his shock at seeing the picture. He then explains how he feels with a horrifying simile: he feels like someone innocently tidying up his garden when he finds, among the dead leaves, a “severed hand” (lines 4 and 5).

Note: 

  • Cancelled checks is American spelling. We use cancelled cheques.
  • Font means the type of print or writing used. There are three main fnt types;
    • Standard
    • Bold - is used for emphasis
    • Italics - also used for emphasis and for words which come from another language
 Stanza 2 (lines 7 – 12)

Still, that first second, I was glad: you stand
Just as you stood – shy, delicate, slender,
In that long gown of green lace netting and daisies
That you wore to our first dance. The sight of you stunned
Us all. Well, our needs were different, then,
And our ideals came easy.

This stanza describes the poet’s memories of the time when the photograph was taken. In spite of the shock, the poet feels glad for a moment as it brings back a happy memory. The photograph was taken of his ex-wife at the first dance they had gone to together and she looked very beautiful in a lovely green lace dress with little daisies on it. Everyone there admired her (“stunned/ Us all.” – line 10 and 11). In the 1940s people often went to dances, so their first dance suggests they had not been going out together for very long. At that time she was shy, small and slim, perhaps a little uncertain of herself.
The poet must also have been very young, about 18 years old. He reflects that when they were young, they had simpler needs and less complicated expectations of each other, and of life itself, perhaps. Their “ideals came easy” (line 12): young people are usually more idealistic and hopeful about what they believe and about their goals in life.

Note: 

  • In the second World War the Americans fought against the Japanese in the Pacific, and the poet joined the American navy in 1944, when he was about 18

Stanza 3 (lines 13 – 18)

Then through the war and those two long years
Overseas, the Japanese dead in their shacks
Among dishes, dolls, and lost shoes; I carried
This glimpse of you, there, to choke down my fear,
Prove it had been, that it might come back.
That was before we got married.

Now the poet remembers how this photograph had helped him cope with his fear during the two years he had spent at war.
By describing the two years as “long” (line 13), the poet tells us that this was a difficult and unhappy time. He saw the horrors of war in which not only soldiers but also Japanese civilians (ordinary people) suffered. He refers to Japanese people lying dead in their “shacks” amid the ordinary belongings of their everyday lives: “dishes, dolls and lost shoes” (line 15). In writing of this, the poet shows little emotion, unlike the feelings he expresses when he describes finding the photograph or the failure of his marriage.
He carried the photograph with him in the war as the “glimpse” (line 16) of her gave him comfort. A “glimpse” is a quick look at something. This does not mean that he took only quick looks at the picture. Rather, the picture itself is just a “quick look” at the real person.
The photograph helped him to push back (“choke back”) his fear and reminded him of a happy time in his life; it gave him hope that that he might find that happiness again. Notice the metaphor “choke” (line 16). When you choke, something is stopping your breathing, and so “choking” something down suggests that this is not an easy or comfortable thing to do. The poet ends this stanza by saying with a bitter tone that the photograph comforted “ ... before we got married” (line 18).

Stanza 4 (lines 19 – 24)

Before we drained out one another’s force
With lies, self-denial, unspoken regret
And the sick eyes that blame; before the divorce
And the treachery. Say it: before we met. Still,
I put back your picture. Someday, in due course,
I will find that it’s still there.

In this stanza, the poet recalls the breakdown of the marriage and the unhappiness this brought.
The first line continues the thought of the last line of stanza 3. Once they were married they “drained out one another’s force” (line 19). In this metaphor the poet compares the way they took away each other’s enthusiasm for life (“force”) to the way water drains out of a pipe. When a pipe, or bath, is drained, it is left empty, and they were emptied of happiness. Notice that the poet says we – they were both to blame for their unhappiness.
The poet says the causes of this were the lies they told each other, and their self-denial (line 20). “Self-denial” suggests sacrifice. Perhaps they both felt they had given up dreams or things they wanted to do for the other person’s sake and then resented it and felt bitter about it. Both felt “regret” (line 20) - felt sorry - but did not say so; their feelings remained “unspoken” (line 20). The poet does not say what they regretted.
They blamed each other for their unhappiness with “sick eyes” (line 21). Their eyes were not literally “sick”; this is a metaphor suggesting that their feelings were reflected in their eyes - they felt anger and dislike and their eyes showed how each blamed and accused the other, neither taking responsibility for what they were doing to their marriage. Eventually they got divorced. The poet refers to their ‘”treachery” (line 22); perhaps this was their betrayal of the ideals they used to have, or perhaps they were unfaithful or deliberately hurt each other in other ways.
He addresses his ex-wife directly when he writes: “Say it: before we met” (line 22). This line may have many meanings. The poet may mean that they were happy before they met. It could also mean that each had not known what sort of person the other would turn out to be.
However, he does not throw the picture away, but puts it back to look at again some other time. There are a number of possible reasons why he keeps the photograph:

  • At a later date he may feel differently about these
  • He still cannot cope with the hurt, but may be able to deal with it better in the
  • In spite of painful memories of marriage, the photograph still reminds him of a time when he and his ex-wife were happy and in
  • He has not come to terms with the divorce
  • He still has feelings for his ex-wife.

The poet’s bitterness and pain are expressed in the first four lines, but the last two lines of the poem have a more gentle tone as he decides to keep the picture.

4. Tone and mood

Overall, the poem has a conversational tone, as though the poet were talking directly to his ex-wife.
However, the tone changes through the poem. The tone is one of horror when he first discovers his ex-wife’s picture, and changes to a happy tone as he remembers good times with her. The tone becomes bitter and sad as he remembers the war and the breakdown of their marriage. The final lines, though, have a hopeful tone.
The mood of a poem is how it makes the reader feel. How does this poem make you feel? For example, happy, sad, angry, or indifferent.

Summary
Mementos, 1 by W.D. Snodgrass

  1. Theme
    The theme is memory, and the power of mementos to bring back past feelings and memories.
  2. Type and form
    confessional poem
  3. Tone and mood

    Tone: Overall, it has a conversational tone. It shifts through the poem from one of horror; to a happy tone; to a bitter and sad tone; and ends on a more gentle and hopeful tone.
    Mood: How does this poem make you feel? Happy, sad, angry or indifferent? Always give reasons for your answer.

Activity 9

Refer to the poem on page 77 and answer the questions below.

  1. Complete the following sentences by using the words provided in the list below.
    stunned; mother; shocked; disappointed; ex-wife; glad 
    The speaker is sorting out old papers when he finds a photograph of his (1.1) ... Initially, he is (1.2) ... but then he is (1.3) ... to find it as it brings back old memories. (3)
  2. Refer to line 4 (“Your That picture. I stopped there cold,”).
    Explain why the words “That picture” are written in a different font (letter type).(1)
  3. Refer to lines 4-6 (“I stopped there ... a severed ”).
    3.1 Identify the figure of speech used here
    3.2 Explain why the poet has used this figure of speech (2)
  4. Choose the correct answer to complete the following In line 10, the word “stunned” suggests that the girl was ...
    1. gorgeous.
    2. scary.
    3. motionless.
    4. happy.                                                                                                (1)
  5. Refer to lines 11-12 (“Well, our needs ... ideals came ”).
    Using your own words, say what the speaker and his wife’s lives were like when they were young.                    (1)
  6. Refer to stanza (3)
    6.1 Quote THREE separate words to show that not only soldiers were affected by the war.
    6.2 Explain what the photograph meant to the speaker during the war (1)
  7. Refer to the last
    7.1 Is the following statement TRUE or FALSE? Give a reason for your answer.
           The speaker’s wife was responsible for the breakdown of their marriage.                                                (2)
    7.2 What does the speaker’s decision to keep the photograph reveal about him? (1)
  8. In the first stanza, the tone of the speaker is one of shock
    What is the tone in the last stanza?                                       (1)
  9. After reading this poem, do you think it is a good idea to use old photographs as a way of remembering the past?
    Discuss your view.                                                                  (2) [18]

Answers to Activity 9

  1. 1.1 Ex-wife ✓
    1.2 Shocked ✓
    1.3 Glad ✓ (3)
  2. It emphasises/shows the importance of the photo/It shocks him./It refers to a particular picture of relevance/ significance. ✓ (1)
  3. 3.1 Simile ✓ (1)
    3.2 Finding this photograph is as shocking/unexpected as finding a severed hand in your garden. ✓ (1)
  4. A /gorgeous ✓  (1)
  5. Simple/carefree/uncomplicated ✓  (1)
  6. 6.1 “shacks” ✓
          “dishes” ✓
            “dolls” ✓ (3)
    6.2  It helped him cope with his fears/it helped him to choke down his fears. ✓  (1)
  7. 7.1 False.
    Both of them were responsible. ✓✓
    OR
    They drained one another’s force. ✓✓ (2)
    7.2 He is not ready to let go./The photograph still has meaning for him./He has not come to terms with the divorce yet./He still has feelings for his ex-wife. ✓     (1)
  8. The tone becomes gentler/accepting/agreeable/forgiving. ✓ (1)
  9. Yes, people need real objects like photographs to remember the ✓✓
    OR
    No, memories should not depend on objects such as photographs. ✓✓     (2) [18]
Last modified on Wednesday, 08 September 2021 12:22