Grace Nichols Praise Song For My Mother Essay 10

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Grace Nichols was born in Georgetown, the Caribbean country of Guyana and moved to the UK in the 1970s. Her poetry is inspired by her Caribbean heritage, folk tales, tradition and her move between cultures.

We have written a GCSE poem analysis of Praise Song for My Mother by Grace Nichols.

What is the poem about?
A praise song is a traditional African form in several traditions, increasingly made relevant to Western world in recent decades, used to list and explore the attributes of a person.  There is an easily grasped relationship behind this one, which really invites a reader to consider their own relationship with their mother.

Praise Song for My Mother by Grace Nichols

You were
water to me
deep and bold and fathoming

You were
moon's eye to me
pull and grained and mantling

You were
sunrise to me
rise and warm and streaming

You were
the fishes red gill to me
the flame tree's spread to me
the crab's leg/the fried plantain smell replenishing replenishing

Go to your wide futures, you said

The poem is written in the past tense, prompting a question.  When written, was the poet’s mother dead or simply so distant that the memory of what she once was had priority over what she still was?  But this means that either way, the poem is an exploration of memory and descriptive power.

Form and structure
The poem has five brief stanzas of uneven length, the first three regular, the fourth extended and the fifth very brief.  The lines themselves are not metrically regular, making this really a piece of free verse.  The poem is strongly repetitive but also has a strong shape on the page and when spoken aloud.   There is a real sense of growth as the lines increase in length, then contract again, something like waves on the sea.

The poem is a collection of metaphors, each depicting the subject from a different point of view.  ‘Water’ is the easiest place to start – life-giving, flowing, liquid and expressive – and it prompts the poet to describe her mother with three words ‘deep and bold and fathoming’.  To call a person ‘deep’ may now have the sense of complexity or seriousness, but here it summons up deep sea water, ‘bold’ the braveness of waves.  ‘Fathoming’ is slightly nonsensical.  To fathom something is to sound it – to test its depth – but is the poet’s mother trying her own depth?  No – rather she is being fathoms deep.  She is active, not passive.

The way the poet stretches the sense of this word is itself repeated.  ‘Mantling’ must be an action related to a ‘mantle’ or cloak, but how?  Did the mother wrap herself around her daughter in protection?  Did she clothe her daughter with her own resources, her own wealth, her own skills?  Nichols is very ambiguous with her language here.

To be ‘rise’ is another of these tests.  The poet’s mother was, we are told, the rise that brought as much to her daughter as the sun rising in the morning, yet the exact manner of what that gift was and how it was brought is hidden from us, both by the inability of language to really express it and by the shield of privacy that the poet holds.  Yet she seems to let these go as the poem continues.

The next images will all have very personal connotations, and perhaps that is the point.  The poem describes a generic feeling of awe, love and gratitude to a parent while keeping a little specific mystery.  The ‘fishes red gill’ seems to me to be another image of vitality, since the oxygen-rich gills quickly fade in colour once a fish has been taken out of the water.  The ‘flame-tree’s spread’ implies a degree of shelter, although an exotic one, and the ‘crab’s-leg’ a favourite, well-loved family treat.  I would interpret the / marking as an indication of quick movement – of one idea breaking in on another, and the image – or flavour – of fried plantain over-taking the poet’s imagination and demanding priority!  Even tastier than crab – even more precious – fried plantain!  And all of this is the mother’s habit of ‘replenishing’ – filling up her daughter – filling her up so full that even the word is repeated.

Yet finally the mother’s greatest gift is the freedom she gives her daughter to leave and live her own life.  The ‘wide futures’ might well be outside traditional African or Caribbean heritage, yet however far the poet has travelled, and however far she has ended up from her mother, she has remained able to talk to her directly, privately, colourfully, humorously, and with love.

Free verse - Poetry without a regular fixed pattern of metre or rhyme

Metre - The pattern of stress, beat, rhythm or emphasis that is created by words in a sentence or line.

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Here is an analysis of Grace Nichols’ poem Praise Song For My Mother.  Nichols was born and raised in Guyana, a nation that is considered to be a part of the Caribbean, even though it is located in South America.  Much of Nichols’ work is influenced by the Caribbean culture in which she grew up.  She held teaching and reporting jobs in Guyana after finishing her university work, and she immigrated to the United Kingdom in 1977.  Her first book of poetry, called I Is A Long-Memoried Woman, won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1983. Nichols is known not only as a poet, but also as a children’s author; in addition, she has written one book for adults called Whole of a Morning Sky.


Summary of Praise Song For My Mother

In African poetry, a praise song is a poem comprised of a series of epithets that laud the subject of the poem.  In the case of this poem, it is probably safe to assume that the speaker is Grace Nichols, who is writing a praise song in honor of her mother.  Nichols uses a series of metaphors to show just how much her mother meant to her.  The poem is five stanzas long, and each stanza, with the exception of the final two, is three lines each; the fourth stanza, the poem’s longest, contains five lines.  The poem ends with only one line in the final stanza.  It reads, “Go to your wide futures, you said.”


Analysis of Praise Song For My Mother

The first noteworthy aspect of this poem, which can be read in full here, is the verb tense Nichols chooses.  When speaking of her mother, Nichols writes in the past tense, and one can assume that this is because her mother has passed away.  For instance, the first stanza reads, “You were/ water to me/deep and bold and fathoming.”

This first stanza sets up the structure of the poem, which Nichols follows until the final line of the work.  In each stanza, Nichols uses metaphors to compare her mother’s worth to something in nature.  For instance, in the first stanza, Nichols compares her mother to water, something that is essential for survival.  Her mother was not just any water, however: she was powerful and deep and bold.

Another interesting aspect of the poem is just how intimate and personal it is.  Nichols is directly addressing her mother in the poem, referring to her as “you.”

Much like the first stanza, Nichols continues to speak directly to her mother, and this time, she compares her to the moon.  The reader can almost detect a Caribbean accent here, as Nichols omits the word “the” between “were” and “moon’s”.  The meaning of this stanza is somewhat ambiguous, but perhaps the phrase “moon’s eye” is an expression native to Guyana, where Nichols was raised.  Nichols probably uses the word “pull” to describe the moon’s control over the oceans’ tides.  Just like the ocean, Nichols cannot help but be pulled toward her mother.  The word “grained” could refer to the physical appearance of the moon, with its rough and uneven surface, which could possibly symbolize her mother’s experiences in life.  Nichols diction continues to be perplexing in this stanza with her use of the word mantling, which is defined as a piece of cloth used to decorate various items, such as clothing and helmets.  It is possible that Nichols is referring to her mother’s physical beauty in this metaphor.

The third stanza mirrors the first and second in terms of structure and style, but it is much more simplistic than the previous stanza.  Nichols seems to be commenting on her mother’s dependability.  Just as the sun rises every morning, so could Nichols depend on her mother to always be there.  And not only was her mother dependable, but she was also very loving and radiant.  Nichols’ use of the word streaming presents the idea that her mother radiated a vibrant life wherever she went.

The fourth stanza takes on a different style compared with the first three.  Structurally, this stanza is two lines longer than the first four.  The content of this stanza is also different from the previous ones.  In this particular stanza, Nichols uses images from her native country of Guyana to compare what her mother means to her.  She is the red gills of the fish; not only was she colorful, but she was essential to life, much like she appeared in the first stanza when Nichols compared her to water.  Nichols next compares her mother to a flame tree’s spread.  A flame tree is a big tree that usually has vibrant red leaves.  It is beautiful and stands out from other types of trees, which is presumably how Nichols feels her mother was when she was alive.  In the fourth line, Nichols compares her mother to the foods she ate while growing up: crab’s legs and plantains.  One’s sense of smell is the most powerful in terms of conjuring memories, and Nichols probably associates her mother with these smells. The stanza ends with repetition of the word “replenishing.”  Nichols emphasizes here just how vital her mother was to her.  Not only was she a necessary part of life, though, she also constantly restored her daughter and made her better, healthier, and stronger.

The final stanza is a complete departure from the others, and it is just one line long.  It reads:

Go to your wide futures, you said.

There is no comparison in this final stanza, but it is just as powerful as the other lines of the poem.  Instead of comparing her mother to something else, Nichols is revealing the encouraging and inspirational woman she was by telling the reader exactly what she used to stay to her daughter.  Pluralizing the word “future” is an interesting choice for Nichols; however, a person can certainly make more than one future in life.


Historical Background of Praise Song For My Mother 

Nichols’ Caribbean upbringing directly influenced her writing, although the influence in this poem is much more subdued than it is in Nichols’ other works.  Nichols wrote this poem after her mother’s death, which also makes this much more personal than the majority of her other poems.

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