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‘You Cannot Do This’ Gwendolyn McEwen.

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1 ‘You Cannot Do This’ Gwendolyn McEwen

2 GET FLIRTY!!! F L I R T Y Focus on the form of the poem , looking at the structure, punctuation, line lengths and the arrangement of the poem’s stanzas. How do these features add interest and meaning to the poem? Also examine the arrangements of the words, phrases and sentences in the poem. Examine the language used in the poem, looking at the meaning of words and whether they have negative or positive connotations. Look at the techniques, imagery and poetic language that has been used? How do these techniques bring out the main themes and ideas in the poem? How does the poet make use of rhyme, repetition and rhythm? Why does he do this? What are the poet’s main ideas that he brings out in the poem and how does he do this? Explain the feelings that the poet conveys throughout the poem. Describe the poet’s attitude to his subject. Does this change as the poem progresses? Carefully examine the tone throughout the poem and find vocabulary to back up your discussion. How do you react to this poem? Does it bring any particular thoughts to mind? Which poems would you compare this one with?

3 Author Gwendolyn MacEwen was born in Toronto in 1941 to a mother who spent much of her life in and out of mental health institutions and a father who died young from alcoholism. She dropped out of high school – to study on her own terms – and eventually taught herself Arabic, Hebrew and Greek. (It’s worth noting, if only to appreciate the symmetry, that she later wound up with corresponding lovers for each language.) As a young woman in the early sixties, she earned a reputation as a precocious regular at Toronto’s legendary Bohemian Café, where she wowed Margaret Atwood and other early CanLit luminaries with her powerful readings – and where she also met Milton Acorn. Their brief marriage, lived out mainly in a rough little cottage on Ward’s Island in Toronto Harbour, was seen by many as a “beauty and the beast” match. MacEwen visited Israel and Egypt in a time when a woman journeying alone in the Middle East was rare and when neither country was particularly tourist friendly. Throughout her life, she moved from apartment to apartment, travelled the city by bicycle, and survived on little money. Like her father before her, she struggled with alcoholism, an addiction that led to her premature death at forty-six. Her first poem was published in The Canadian Forum when she was only 17, and she left school at l8 to pursue a writing career. With her first husband, MacEwan operated a coffee house in Toronto, The Trojan Horse, in the early 1970s. During her lifetime, MacEwen published fifteen collections of poetry, as well as several works of fiction and drama. She won the Governor General's Award at the age of twenty-seven for her poetry collection The Shadow Maker. MacEwen served as Writer in Residence at both the University of Western Ontario and the University of Toronto. Gwendolyn MacEwen died in 1987, at the age of 46. She died in November of 1987.

4 Judith Fitzgerald (identified in her bio as a close friend of the poet’s in her final decade) introduces MacEwen’s literary accomplishments as follows: “Unimaginably wounded by grief (dolor), passion (furor), and hardship (labor), heart-broken beyond belief, inexplicably abandoned by those who called her friend, MacEwen still somehow managed to stay the writerly course… always mindful of her place in the holy acts of destruction and creation…” Indeed, we are told, she “sears” pages, “miraculously reshapes them after the fashion of the phoenix,” and remains true to “the long charred night of the ashen soul.” She performed her poetry (by heart) wearing long, velvety dresses, her eyes outlined in black kohl. As a youth, she avidly studied the Hebrew and Gnostic mystics, and incorporated ideas from these belief systems into her writing. She had a thing for mysterious beings such as magicians and escape artists, who turn up frequently in her poems, as do prophetic children, “cosmic” objects, alchemy, princes, gods and kings.

5 FIRST READING SIFT through the poem after your first reading:
Inform us of the intention of the poet and his main ideas overall; Focus on the form (structure/punctuation) and the feelings conveyed (poet’s attitude/tone used) and how this highlights the main ideas; Specify the subject matter and sense of the poem through a brief summary; Tell us about the techniques, imagery and poetic language that show the ways themes and ideas are presented.

6 Stanza 1 The narrator’s opening voice is brash and confrontational. Her command that ‘you cannot do this’ brings a sudden challenge, made as if direct to the reader with the use of the second person, and the suddenness emphasised by the lack of an opening capital letter, suggesting that we enter the poem in the middle of an argument. The opening is also disconcerting because we do not know who is actually being addressed, nor what they are guilty of doing to the narrator’s people. To ‘hack away a horizon’ is unlikely to be taken literally and a number of metaphoric interpretations are possible.

7 Stanza 2 The central stanza seeks to assure that events will be recorded; the poem itself ‘is not art’ but a ‘record’ of the threat, or atrocity, and its effects.

8 Stanza 3 The third stanza, with its repetition of ‘something to do with’, extends the refusal to be explicit, encompassing small tangibles, such as ‘signet rings’ to large intangibles, such as ‘power’. In between, most aspects of human hope, aspiration and culture are included, which suggests that humanity itself is under threat.

9 Questions ‘you cannot do this’. Discuss what the narrator may be referring to. What is the effect of MacEwen’s avoidance of capital letters at the beginning of sentences? Identify the narrator’s tone and mood and explain your answer with evidence from the text. What are the connotations of the word ‘hack’? Identify two examples of repetition in the poem and explain the effect.

10 Questions Contd. The personal pronoun ‘I’ is the only capitalised word in the text. What might be the reason for this? ‘it has something to do with horses and signet rings and school trophies’. What associations can be derived from these images?

11 Compare with Cambodia James Fenton Attack Siegfried Sassoon Anthem For Doomed Youth Wilfred Owen My Dreams Are of a Field Afar A. E. Housman

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