Can you help in analyzing the meaning of this poem, "A Life" by Raul Banuelos?A Life by Raul Banuelos A fish told me some long, awful things about the river. It told me that the river stones are so...

Can you help in analyzing the meaning of this poem, "A Life" by Raul Banuelos?

A Life

by Raul Banuelos

A fish told me some long, awful things about the river. It told me that the river stones are so hard because of the water beating against them. And that it's rain that hurts and overjoys it more than any other thing whatsoever.

A fish told me some broad, awful things about the sea. It told me that its waters are more hurt and overjoyed by the river than by any other thing whatsoever.

And that its bitterness comes from the raining water beating down on it.

A fish told me some long, broad and awful things about man. It told me that his hardness comes from the bitterness beating on him. And that it is life that hurts and overjoys him more than any other thing whatsoever.

A life told me some long, broad and awful things about man. It told me that his bitterness comes from not being either sea or a river or a rain and from being a man, like any other thing whatsoever.

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kplhardison's profile pic

Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted on

There are two main parts to analyzing poetry: structure and poetic devices. Analysis of these two parts will help you arrive at a poem's meaning. The structure of this poem is non-traditional. What stands in place of lines are barely discernible as poetic lines because they are grouped as paragraphs. What makes them distinguishable as poetic units is the repetition of key phrases such as "A fish told me some ..." and " ... other thing whatsoever":

A fish told me some long, awful things about the river. It told me that the river stones are so hard because of the water beating against them. And that it's rain that hurts and overjoys it more than any other thing whatsoever.

The repetition of phrases represents a dominant poetic device employed, as said, to define structure but also to enhance meaning, imagery, and intensity of the message: fish and life don't lie, thus they know true Truth. These sorts of repetitions have rhetorical names and are used with great deliberation and intent. Repetition of an opening clause, like "A life told me some (a variation on "A fish ...")," is anaphora. Repetition of an ending, like "other thing whatsoever," is epistrophe. Repetition in the middle of sentences, like "broad and awful things about," is mesodiplosis.  

These rhetorical devices of repetition build upon and compound upon each other to reveal the sad meaning of the poem. While the river, stones, and sea are made hard and bitter, are given hurt and joy from things outside themselves, "man" (meaning humanity) is hardened, embittered, hurt, and overjoyed by humanity itself and by the very life that is lived. The lot of "man" is long, broad and awful because, unlike the river, stones, and sea, there is no way to avoid, escape, hide from, have respite from that which hardens, embitters, hurts, and yet brings joy to "man." In sum: Humanity hardens and embitters humanity. Life hurts and overjoys life. Escape is no escape. [This last form of repetition is epanalepsis.]

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jlbh's profile pic

jlbh | College Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

Posted on

This poem reads simply at first. It is almost a fable, with a talking fish, a fish of wisdom that knows not only things about its own element, water, but about Man. The language is simple in the manner of fables and fairy-stories. The narrator-poet is important too - a passive but present character in this 'drama': the fish has things to tell him which he seems not to know, or wishes to learn. Later his informant is a 'life', an apparently independent thing (we are not told whose)and which adds a greater sense of the surreal. And note that 'man' does not speak for himself at all.

The simplicity is deceptive therefore. Think about that use of 'hurts and overjoys', repeated in each section. What conflict is being set up here? Is it possible to feel both of these things? At once? And is it possible that both of these things can arise from the same source? We also have 'long, awful' and 'broad, awful', and 'long, broad, awful'. These words are repeated several times. What do we understand by them? Does 'long' refer to the fish's story, or does it also suggest the physical length of the river? And take 'broad' - which can mean 'wide-ranging', but also might suggest a physical property of the sea. There are other senses of 'broad' too -'general' and  'plain, obvious', and even 'coarse, crude'. And 'awful' - does it simply mean 'dreadful', or 'very bad', or does it have a meaning closer to 'awesome'? Do any of these words have the same meaning from the beginning, or do they change subtly by the end? 'Bitterness' might refer to the saltiness of the sea, just as 'hardness' describes stones, but what about when either applies to Man? Why might 'bitterness' be overjoying? It is a property of poetry that words can be made to mean a great many things simultaneously.

Then take the phrase 'any other thing whatsoever'. In the case of the river, we can perhaps take it that rain is most important to it. How does this phrase read when applied to man?  Are we surprised by the ending? Do we expect to be told that man is un-like any other thing whatsoever? And what is the significance of that last 'and'? Did we expect 'but'? Why?

 

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