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Exploring Diverse Cultures

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`Diverse Cultures’ are the study of other cultures and opinions of major issues from different origins and ethnic backgrounds. I will examine different points of view of various poets from diverse cultures and how they express cultural ideas in their poems. I have chosen to study three poems, which I researched, with different ideas and cultures. These poems are by Benjamin Zephaniah, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Robert Lowell. The poem by Zephaniah that I have chosen to study is called “Kill Them before Ramadan”. I have chosen it because it made me think and I feel that it is quite appropriate to write about it at this time with the Iraq issue brewing again. Zephaniah is a black British poet, whose family originated from Jamaica. He feels that he has strong Jamaican roots and he often reflects this in his poetry by his use of Jamaican dialect and oral style.

However, he also sometimes writes in formal English, showing his ability to switch between the two for maximum effect in his poetry. Zephaniah’s poetry is meant to be read aloud and holds his viewpoints of the world. He expresses himself in his poems and tries to give the reader his views. His views tend to be those of the minority, and he tries to make you think about his subject matter. The second poem that I have chosen to study is called “Rage”, written by Kwesi Johnson. Linton Kwesi Johnson was born in Jamaica and came to England when he was about 11 years old. Like Zephaniah he uses an oral style and can use both Jamaican and formal English dialects. His poems tend to be about racial oppression and prejudice. I have chosen this poem because I feel that it really addresses race issues and opens doors into the mind of a minority race. Robert Lowell was a white American poet from a wealthy background. His poetry is typical of a more complex literary style and is in formal English.

He often hides his ideas in abstract idioms with deep meanings not always seen the first time a poem is read. His view is much more objective, and the language more calm and less `in your face’ than either Zephaniah or Kwesi Johnson. The poem by Lowell that I have chosen to study is “For the Union Dead” because although it may not echo the views of modern America, it struck a chord with me. Firstly, I shall write about “Kill them before Ramadan” by Benjamin Zephaniah. In 1991, Saddam Hussein the (then and current) leader of Iraq invaded Kuwait. It became clear that he not only wished to invade Kuwait but also wanted to move troops into Saudi Arabia. Consequently, acting on a UN mandate, coalition forces moved into the region (known as the Gulf) to oust the Iraqi army and restore order to the region. The President of the U.S.A., George Bush senior, whose army supplied the majority of equipment and manpower conveyed to the media that it would be wise for the issue to be dealt with before Ramadan, the Muslim holy time.

The operation was launched and was named `Desert Storm’. I feel that I should write about this poem as it has many parallels with the current situation, with George Bush junior planning to take over Iraq, liberate the people and instate a democratic government. The poem starts with a description of what Muslims do during Ramadan. Zephaniah uses this to give the reader an idea of what Ramadan means to a Muslim: “Ramadan is a time for reflection Contemplation and meditation.” He continues to describe Ramadan and builds up to a final blunt statement: “So we must (we are told) Kill them before Ramadan” The writer uses irony to point out that we will be killing them before they can reaffirm their beliefs and ideals. Zephaniah seems to be ignorant to the fact that many Muslim fanatics would not stop to think of our holy time, Christmas.

It seems that it is acceptable for them to preach death during our holy time, but for us even to think of doing such a thing is atrocious. By placing “we are told” in brackets, he implies that it is not our decision, but that of Bush and Thatcher, and that we have no say in the matter, and that it is propaganda. The next stanza is synonymous with the first in that it talks about what happens during Ramadan, and it ends in a similar blunt statement: “We should do the right thing, We must Kill them before Ramadan.” He uses irony again to emphasise that the so-called “right thing” is to kill them. The subsequent verse talks about how we would feel if we were told that we would be killed before Christmas: “And God knows we love Christmas.” Zephaniah goes on to talk about how it is not the fault of the Iraqis that they live under a dictatorship despised by the West: “But someone must be unfortunate enough To live under a rogue regime” Here the poet emphasises that the West seems always to have a scapegoat.

However in the 60’s the Iraqis voted Saddam into power, and in the recent election (where Saddam was the only candidate) 100% of the voters voted for him. The Iraqi peoples may well be unfortunate “To live under a rogue regime” but they appear to be quite happy that way. Zephaniah then accuses the West of being hypocritical because they possess weapons of mass destruction: “Great hypocrites shed your plutonium tears.” We may well possess them, but the UN regulates them and we do not have a mentally unstable psychopath behind the controls. The use of the phrase “plutonium tears” is unclear; he may be warping the phrase “crocodile tears”, meaning fake sorrow. Zephaniah may also be implying that our pity soon turns to destruction and death. He then launches an attack on the media: “Why should you not believe That the only innocent victims Are your innocent victims?”

He uses repetition to make the reader feel questioned and uncomfortable, so they will question themselves and their beliefs, the underlying point of the poem. Zephaniah then talks about caring for your children, and making sure that they are comfortable. Then he says: “Do not tell them that Iraqi children shit themselves Every time the President of the United States has an erection.” He uses the expletive to express anger and to shock the reader, especially when used with the idea of children. He then accuses the President of the United States of getting some sort of sexual kick from wars and making people fear him. He continues: “Let us remember that some Iraqis are Christians” Here he seems to have the misconception that the war is against Islam, not Iraq. Some Iraqis may well be Christian, but we are not attacking any specific religion or its followers.

He talks about people worrying about their husbands or sons fighting and talks about how: “Saddam is bad Saddam is bad” “War is bad War is bad” He uses repetition to reaffirm the beliefs of many, and also to emphasise that everyone agrees on the statements, whether Muslim or Christian. However there is a problem; to get rid of Saddam (who is definitely bad) we have no alternative but to go to war (which is definitely bad). It is therefore up to the reader to decide which is the lesser of the two evils. Zephaniah talks about `Desert Fox’, an operation launched in December 1998 after UN weapons inspectors (who ensure that countries do not develop weapons of mass destruction) were rejected entry to the country. Is it not suspicious that they are not allowed in and that intelligence reports that Iraq may be developing nuclear weapons?

He talks about people having Muslim friends and Muslim stories, however the war is against Iraq, so why make an irrelevant comment like that? At the end of the last stanza, he bitterly retorts that we should not: “Intrude on their spirituality Or disrespect their religion So we must Kill them before Ramadan.” It is ironic that we must not treat their beliefs with contempt, but we should kill them. Zephaniah is a British man, but with Jamaican origin. He experienced the feeling of being a minority group and being the victim of it. This is why in a dispute he will always argue for the smaller side, the minority group. Another example of this would be in “Christmas Has Been Shot”. Linton Kwesi Johnson is, as I mentioned above, also a black poet, but he tends to write about issues which are `closer to home’, i.e. racism and prejudice in Britain. I have chosen to study his poem “Rage”. The poem begins: “Imprisoned in memory of the whip’s sting,” This stanza implies that a person has been beaten, and that they are forever stuck with the memory of the pain and suffering they endured.

It is likely that as the poem is written by Kwesi Johnson, who tends to write about racism, that they person in the poem was beaten by a racist. He describes the pain: “tear in the flesh and the fire burning within,” The phrase stretches over two stanzas, a technique that is called enjambment and Kwesi Johnson uses this to help the poem flow. He describes how the whip damaged the skin, and how the pain was like fire inside the body, giving the reader a graphic impression of the event. This helps the reader to both understand the awfulness of the attack, and place the reader “into” the poem, helping them to understand the underlying meaning of the poem. He uses an interesting paradox: “his eyes sing pain silently” By using it, he describes the look in the man’s eyes, one of pain. Eyes can’t “sing”, they are silent, but the way they show the pain may be so vivid that it is almost as if they are singing it out loud for all to hear.

Kwesi Johnson continues: “His hatred created swift and sweetly” This shows how easy it is to create anger and hate. The man may well have been a good member of society, but one incident has changed him forever. The next two lines of the stanza read: “he waits with rage clenched tightly in a fist.” These lines show how his rage is contained in his hands, ready to be released on whomever may incense him again. He continues with: “Soon some white one will stroll by, and strike he will to smash the prison wall of his passion and let his stifled rage run free.” A “white one” probably refers to a white person, and the other lines are metaphors. The passion refers to the mental wall inside him stopping his rage from getting out, but his feelings have been so incensed by the beating that he had, he will break it down inside him and release his fury. Kwesi Johnson has shown how racism is made in the mind of a black in a world were prejudice is rife. This is an effective way of showing the effects of racism and how it peoples should always be unprejudiced and fair-minded.

The poem that I shall write about now is called “For the Union Dead”, and is by Robert Lowell. The poem is about America 100 years after the Civil War. It is about the changes that happened in the period and how values have changed. The Civil War was fought between the North (Union) forces and the South (Confederate) forces. The Unionists were fighting for the freedom and liberation of slaves, and the Confederates were fighting to keep the 4 million slaves that produced the crops of the South. Within the poem, Lowell describes the way the only black regiment was led by a white man and how they marched through Boston. Underneath the title, there is a Latin epigraph: “Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publican” This means “They gave up everything to serve the Republic” which describes how the black soldiers gave up their lives to defend a cause, and how that must have been very important for them to die for it.

The poem begins by talking about an old aquarium: “The old South Boston Aquarium stands in a Sahara of snow now.” South Boston used to be an area of pasture until 1803 when the area was developed to create more space for the increasing population of Boston. The South Boston Aquarium was built there as well as many other boat clubs and beaches. These attractions brought many people to the area so this reference could be interpreted as this rural getaway. However, more recently, there were riots in the 1970s to do with racism. This idea links in with Lowell’s poem and so could be another interpretation. But I still think the first is more likely because the poem was written several years before the riots started. In this quotation, Lowell uses an interesting paradox, “a Sahara of snow”. It has contrasting ideas, the “Sahara” which is hot, sunny and dry and “snow” which is cold and wet. This aids in describing the barrenness of the area, forever bathed in a blanket of snow.

He then describes the appearance of the aquarium: “Its broken windows are boarded. The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales. The airy tanks are dry.” The quotation shows the aquarium has been left to rot and is very run down and not used for a long time. The cod was a symbol of Massachusetts and mostly Boston. Cod was also the driving force of main slave trade so this could have been the reason for its inclusion. The poet goes on to describe fond memories of visiting the aquarium: “Once my nose crawled like a snail over the glass; my hand tingled to burst the bubbles drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.” He talks about his hand tingling, almost as though it was his hand, not his brain that wanted to burst the bubbles. He describes the fish as “cowed, compliant fish” illustrating the obedience of them to display their colours and shapes to the world.

He feels saddened that the aquarium is not still in operation: “I often sigh still for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom of the fish and reptile.” It is not only the aquarium that has been neglected. He talks about Boston Common being dug up to make way for a new car park: “as they cropped up tons of mush and grass” It seems to Lowell that everything that was once for the community, and for the people is being destroyed for money and commercialism. He reinforces this feeling with the next line: “Parking spaces luxuriate like civic sandpiles in the heart of Boston.” The “civic sandpiles” are the piles of old American values, and the poet shows his anger that the parking spaces seem more important than these value. He shows this by using repetition of “s” sounds, a technique called sibilance which creates a tone of contempt. The next line reads: “A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders braces the tingling Statehouse, shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw” It is ironic that the only Puritan idea that links with the Statehouse is the colour, not the values, ethics or ideals.

The poet also thinks that the placing of the statue in front of the Statehouse is ironic that Colonel Shaw should stand up for the values of the Puritan settlers. In the seventh stanza, Lowell mentions something that William James said: “at the dedication, William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.” He includes this to describe the statue and to show that when it was made, it was as if it was real. This might represent that once the statue stood for the Negroes and what they fought for, but now it is about money. Lowell goes on to use an interesting simile: “The monument sticks like a fishbone in the city’s throat.” He uses this to describe how out of place a statue that stood for freedom and the liberty of peoples is in a city were commercialism and money are the modern values. This also represents that the city is choking on it and wants to get rid of it. In the next stanza, he describes the Colonel using metaphors: “He has an angry wrenlike vigilance, a greyhound’s gentle tautness” These metaphors convey the idea that he is always watching, ready to pounce. A wren is a North American bird that is very protective.

Lowell could have been describing the way that Shaw was like to his regiment. He goes on to mention that: “he seems to wince at pleasure” He might wince in pleasure, because now is the century of the self, and people are only interested in themselves, unlike him who fought for the freedom of others. The poet then says: “He is out of bounds now.” This means that nothing can hurt him now because he has died and also the fact that he has been made a hero. Lowell continues: “The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier grow slimmer and younger each year” This stone `growing slimmer each year’ may be the literal erosion of them, but it may metaphorically be the erosion of their values, and what the fought for. The poet goes on: “Shaw’s father wanted no monument except the ditch, where his son’s body was thrown” Shaw’s father might not have wanted a monument because he could have believed that the blacks should stay as slaves, and that his son was wrong to fight amongst them. This is backed up by the fact that Shaw’s body was “thrown” like some rubbish. However, I believe that the interpretation is that Shaw’s father was proud of his son.

Those who died while in battle were allowed to have their bodies sent to their families for their funeral but Shaw’s father probably decided against this as he thought that a soldier’s most appropriate burial place is was the ground on which they had fallen. He continues: “There are no statues for the last war here; on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph shows Hiroshima boiling” Lowell feels that American values have deteriorated so much that they cannot even commemorate their war dead. They use pictures of death and destruction to advertise goods and they are obsessed with money. Lowell writes: “When I crouch to my television set” He is bending down to the television, he is a slave to its programmes and it is almost as if he is crouching down to worship it.

The penultimate stanza reads: “Colonel Shaw is riding on his bubble, he waits for the blessd break.” Colonel Shaw wants to be removed from this world of commercialism and money, he is waiting for the almost sacred break allowing him to be free. He is still waiting because his statue still stands, torturing him and making him see the world for which he. The last two lines read: “a savage servility slides by on grease.” This refers to the slavery of the people to money, and profit. Colonel Shaw fought in vain for the freedom of the peoples, for we have found another master, commercialism. Although the three poems differ in style and content, the meanings of them all are the same. They are all writing about ethnic minority groups and how they are looked upon and how this leads to racism.

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