What are the rhetorical effects achieved by Gwendolyn Macewan's use of the first person speaker in the following poems? Describe the tone and what type of figurative language is being used....

What are the rhetorical effects achieved by Gwendolyn Macewan's use of the first person speaker in the following poems? Describe the tone and what type of figurative language is being used.


"Nitroglycerin Tulips"


"Ghazala's Foal"

"Tall Tales"

"A Breakfast for Barbarians"

"Notes from the Dead Land"

Expert Answers
Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

[The reason why it has been a few days and your question hasn't been answered is that, without a hard copy of Gwendolyn MacEwen's poetry at hand, eNotes Educators are unable to review the poems.  Neither are the poems you are asking about some of her most well known nor is the text of those poems available anywhere on the internet because of copyright infringement.  Even readings of Gwendolyn MacEwen's poetry on youtube.com don't include any of those poems!  I was, however, able to find a copy of "A Breakfast for Barbarians."  I included the link to the text below my answer.  As it is also written in the first person, I will answer your question using quotations from that particular poem.  You will see that many of my comments below can be applied to her other poems you mention.]

Your first question speaks of "rhetorical effects." For this let's look at one of Gwendolyn MacEwen's favorite rhetorical devices: repetition.  She repeats words and especially loves to repeat blunt consonant sounds that give her poems the sound of discord.  This is especially true with "A Breakfast for Barbarians."  In this poem, her favorite use of repetition is within the alliteration device and, most notably, the repetition of the very curt "b" sound.  Note the following lines:

bursting, bleary, / we laugh, barbarians / ... / the brain's golden breakfast / eaten with beasts, / with books on plates

Her use of the repetitive "b" sound helps to augment the very abrasive idea behind her poem: we all have unspeakable desires that can't be fulfilled.  Gwendolyn MacEwen also uses repetition of full words as a rhetorical device.  Note her use of the repeated phrases "let us" and "we can."  They both serve to bolster the confidence of her argument.  I saved the most important for last, though, because you specifically mentioned the effects of her using the first person.  Put simply, Gwendolyn MacEwen, by using the first person, makes herself one of the barbarians.  She is one of us, also an "insatiate."

Further, you asked about the tone.  Gwendolyn MacEwen often writes poems with a tone of

A sense of magic and mystery from her own interests in the Gnostics, Ancient and magic itself, and from her wonderment at life and death, makes her writing unique. ... She's still regarded by most as one of the best Canadian poets.

The other poems you mention are no exceptions.  Mystery and magic surround a sarcastic tone, even one of retribution or "getting back at" our desires by consuming them in this way.

This leads us perfectly into theme that we have to speak about if we are to approach the extended metaphor of the poem.  The theme of the poem is most certainly the nontraditional fulfillment of the basest desires.  What should come to our minds are lust and murder and anger and envy, or any of the deadly sins that tantalize our minds most.  These are "unspeakable appetites" that we long for, but that we are unable to ever experience because of society's norms.

This perfectly fits Gwendolyn MacEwen's use of extended metaphor here.  The entire poem is a metaphor comparing our fulfillment of those desires to eating a good meal, specifically breakfast.  She speaks of the fulfillment AS that consumption of breakfast and does not use the terms like/as which would connote a simile.  According to Gwendolyn MacEwen, we can devour our "unspeakable appetites" and experience them through the "breakfast" of literature: by writing about them!  Gwendolyn MacEwen continues to coin a new phrase by calling us "insatiates," showing that we will never be satisfied anyway.  (If you want to make this a bit autobiographical, you can say that it was Gwendolyn MacEwen's addiction to alcohol that led to her early death at 46.  Her own unspeakable appetite killed her, so she wrote about it before she died.)

Further, there is an importance in this nonconformity and in "sticking it to the man."  It is an all-important process for us to consume these desires in a "safe" way so as not to kill or rape or steal to our hearts' content, damaging society.  The sarcasm reaches its height in the final moments of the poem with the last words: "by God that was a meal."

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