Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

“Girlfriend” is a poem about memory. The speaker is committed to exploring the past and examining how his past actions are revised by his memory. This speaker does not express a desire to change any of the details of this drama about the loss of virginity. Instead, he hopes to come to an understanding of how this one small incident from the past helps make him the person that he is today. Therefore, the work of a poetic project such as this is never finished; it is ongoing because any one person’s life has too much complexity to be resolved in one poem. In many of Shapiro’s poems, past interacts with present as he engages in his quest to understand all the complex factors that have contributed to his becoming the person that he is today. Thus, the drama that the speaker in “Girlfriend” reveals is more than an anecdotal remembrance of something that once took place. It takes on a dimension of heroic proportions when one recognizes that the adult speaker is wrestling with all of his personal history.

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There is also an instructive quality to such a confession. Without telling its readers that similar explorations are necessary in order to understand all the history that goes into the creation of each person’s self, it displays a person engaged in such exploration. Readers will realize that if they are to understand themselves they must also engage in a similar exploration of their past experiences and actions. One’s whole life is constantly reexamined and explored in order to understand one’s experience. Poets such as Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and W. D. Snodgrass are famous early examples of the confessional tradition in American poetry.

The poem is notable for what it discovers about the self. Instead of being able to look at this somewhat humiliating experience and laugh at it, the speaker admits that the girl’s giggling still haunts him and that he cannot escape the burden of this memory. In this brief drama, the older and experienced speaker remembers one incident that led to his loss of innocence. The loss of innocence that occurs is not necessarily the loss of sexual innocence. Instead, it is the loss of solipsism. The young, virginal speaker was not at all concerned with the pleasure or desire of his partner. In his unwise and innocent state, he was only concerned with his own pleasure. His memory of this experience reminds him that he cannot return to such solipsism, that her reliable “tune/ of scorn” will not allow it. This constant reminder forces the speaker to be wiser. He will always remember the possible pitfalls when he might “grow too free/ in pleasure.” This memory of his girlfriend’s scorn is an inescapable reminder of the young, overly self-aware, pathetic young boy that he once was. It is the act of remembering this drama that keeps the adult speaker from returning to his youthful, unwise solipsism.

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