If you’ve never thought of essays as a creative genre of work, this essay might persuade you otherwise. The writer of this essay pushes the boundaries of what might be considered an academic essay by foregoing polished prose for a stream-of-consciousness thinking aloud juxtaposed alongside essay-worthy literary analysis. Part pastiche, part serious mulling over what it means to study literature, Ivan Sim‘s essay manages to convey a student’s struggle with the commonly-feared unseen poems. Pulling together social media references, essay-writing jargon and a good dose of self-deprecation, this writer reminds us all that the journey to understanding literature always begins with courage and an honest struggle to understand the world around us.
I remember how scary and confusing it used to be, facing these random poems picked by our teachers and the blank piece of foolscap paper next to them, my pen uncapped at the ready. What am I supposed to write about them? Why can’t I seem to find the hidden meaning? Why don’t I get it? No wonder so many friends of mine ditched literature after Secondary 2. I don’t get it, no point studying this poem stuff. Not for me, I’m not that kind of literature person.
I was thinking about all this after I saw the graphic promo on Facebook calling for responses to these unseen extracts. I read the three excerpts offered by the Unseen Team: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Acropolis at Mid-Season by Lisabelle Tay, and Youth by J M Coetzee. I haven’t written one of these essays in over six years. I remember them from JC. I won’t say which one.
I’ll probably take much longer than an hour to finish it. I’m probably rusty by now. It’ll take longer. Now the first problem: deciding which one/s to respond to. I print the extracts out so I could annotate, just like how I was taught.
I start with Ozymandias. I circle “traveller from an antique land” and “This too is a kind of pilgrimage”, reckon there is something in the opening of both poems about journeys. This begs the question: what kind of journey? Travel so far, for what? At first glance, I can’t tell yet, but at least it seems that the persona in the extract from Coetzee is also searching for a better life in London from 1960s South Africa. I remember always choosing to write on unseen poetry, simply because there were fewer words to get through! I know some friends say unseen prose is easier to understand. But I’m a slow reader so with fewer words, it’s easier to focus my attention. Sorry Coetzee, I am dropping you in favour of the traditional comparative essay between two unseen poems.
(I am thinking of consulting Sparknotes, Cliffnotes, Shmoop for help. But I think the editors will know if I do that. It’s not fair anyway. It’s not true to the spirit of the hallowed ‘Unseen’ essay.)
I look at the paper I have printed. Ozymandias looks very compact, whereas Acropolis at Mid-Season appears looser in shape. What can I say about that? I count the lines and scan the last words of each line for patterns and rhymes. Ten-twelve-fourteen: aha! I can confidently declare Ozymandias is a sonnet and Tay’s poem is not. Okay, so what? Surely the different forms affect the meaning of both poems, but it’s not apparent to me at the start now what I can write about comparing a sonnet to free verse. Maybe I’ll check out the volta in Ozymandias, watch how it turns.
Hang on, Ozymandias seems to read a little like a dramatic monologue. I need an authority on this to confirm, but by the laws of responding to unseen poetry I cannot call upon secondary material. Nonetheless, who is the persona speaking to? And then there’s the sign on the statue that the traveller and the persona are both looking at? Or is that a complete misinterpretation? I re-read the poem again. Ah, it seems like the traveller is telling the persona what he saw out there in the desert.
Now I find myself drawing lines out into the margins, scribbling fragments of my thoughts like “legacy”, “wants to be remembered”, “storytelling”, “control of one’s own story”, “(mis)representation” – loose concepts I have heard of before and which seem productive for my critique. Right now I am groping around the cage of words on the page. Right now I need to understand exactly what’s happening in both poems. It’s already been ten minutes and if I only have an hour in an examination, I would probably have to start writing by now! Do other people just get it faster than me, or am I just slow?
Perhaps Acropolis at Mid-Season will give me the clues I need to unlock Ozymandias. They don’t pair up poems at complete random. You can always count on them sharing at least a couple of thematic strands!
I read the poem twice over, because the first time the words just glaze over me and I don’t register anything concrete. Right, so I am thinking Acropolis is reaching across the times to compare how people in Ancient Greece and present day visit the Acropolis and what they did. And this is presented in the direct address reference in “The wine-God devotees who wore these stones down to bone, it is their work / You are continuing, you who have come / From Taiwan and Canada and Korea” –
OH WAIT I GET IT.
It’s about tourists who come to see the Acropolis! So they are the ones making the so-called ‘pilgrimage’. Mid-season: of course! That’s when the weather is good for travel! And the persona is observing them, just like the persona who is speaking to the traveller in ‘Ozymandias’. OH NOW BOTH POEMS MAKE SENSE! At least in the wordless spray of thought in my head it makes sense.
In the midst of my great epiphany, I reward myself with a Facebook break. Two scrolls down my wall and I see this appear on the side:
Keep your wanderlust alive ⚓
Isn’t that what Tay is writing about! The state of modern-day tourism, package tours and backpacking trips to all these ancient sites, taking pictures (that must be what ‘scrabbling for the right angle’ is referring!) to prove to other people (maybe on social media, to extended family and friends or someone who sieves through your stuff when you die) that you were there!
Creating a legacy for yourself and for it to be seen by others! Isn’t this similar to what Ozymandias yearned for? With his hired sculptor and the completed bust, he could proclaim “I was here! I was important!” People would “Look on [his] Works!” – and lo’ and behold – someone centuries later did! The persona who saw the statue and told another traveller about it and here we have a poem. There are two levels to this: the great individual men of history seeking to preserve their legacy in the grand sculptures and architecture, and the laymen looking to bask in reflected glory by association, by having been witness to these creations of grandeur! And so both poems are connected together by this – this – this sense of reaching for a kind of immortality! Yes, that’s it! Okay, so now let me try and cobble a thesis statement:
In both poems ‘Ozymandias’ and ‘Acropolis at Mid-Season’, Shelley and Tay explore the human compulsion to create lasting impressions of themselves, a sort of legacy for others to remember them by, which prompts at a human need for significance. Both poems show this by bearing witness to both the efforts of ‘Ozymandias’ and his time-worn statue, as well as the international tourists congregating at ‘Acropolis in Mid-Season’, all of whom seek to curate, capture and preserve the best possible sense of permanence of themselves, their experiences and identities. Although both poems foreground the importance of imagination in giving life to these historical traces, they also simultaneously reveal how future subjects can never fully grasp the significance and legacy of these historical claims, whether through casual neglect in passing or material decay.
Right, now I need to back up my points with literary devices and techniques. Back to that volta in Ozymandias. So this is a Petrarchan not Shakespearean sonnet, seeing as the turn comes only after the first octet into the final sestet after 8 lines. Also… there’s the alternating rhymes of ‘land/sand/command’ – but wait a minute – the other alternating rhymes are ‘stone/frown/read’… Maybe I won’t look at rhymes.
Instead, I’ll look at what the story is in the octet. Here, the traveller is describing his encounter with the statue of Ozymandias, and the word that leaps out at me is ‘abandoned’! Yes, so contrast the abandonment of the well-worn statue of Ozymandias and the reinvigorated Acropolis, which, while also well-worn, is given a new lease of life with throngs of ‘worshippers’ that try to piece together the history of this place. Tay’s line ‘Worship demands imagination’ is a useful counterpoint here. A concerted mental effort is needed at trying to reconstruct these histories, regardless of how many are up to the task. In ‘Ozymandias’ there is only a single traveller who seems to stand outside of time, and most of the poem really is filled with imaginative work of conceiving that seemingly unseen statue of Ozymandias in the desert. One could say the traveller’s recount, as an act of storytelling, almost recreates and reimagines Ozymandias into being. Whereas in Athens, I imagine there must be bus-loads of East Asian tourists, young groups and couples of backpackers braving the heat ‘jostling in the burning streets’.
But to what extent are they really ‘seekers of mystery’? Tay’s anaphoric “Here is what we think […] Here is where we think […] here is where there probably used” calls to mind a tour guide walking ahead of a camera-wielding, handkerchief-wiping group gesturing and reciting from either personal research or summary of travel guides. The lack of specificity in those lines and their quick succession suggests the treatment of these histories are brief and cursory, token nuggets of information that may prompt passages of imagination but are perhaps not dwelled upon for too long. But even with the closer attention to detail with which the traveller recounts the eroding facial features of Ozymandias’ statue, “whose frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command”, which is no less supported by his recital of the engraved words on the pedestal, both the traveller and the tour guide similarly demonstrate an awareness of the tension between trying to preserve one’s proof of existence in tangible form, and the vast indifference of the world that surrounds one.
I’ve stopped annotating by now, but I think I had better return to the titles of both poems which point me back to the physical presence of the decaying statue and the ruins of Acropolis, and focus on them for a moment. That they have lasted thousands of years and attracted the fervour of travellers suggests an exultation at the dogged persistence of their tangible forms of existence, perhaps there is a charm in witnessing their continuing on, at once invoking the presence of history, but not without opening up holes of absences to fill. Perhaps there is a relief that arises here, that there exists a real possibility “the earth will remember [them]”, but would that be enough?
I think I have enough points to go off and write the essay in full now, but I wonder about the standalone prose extract of Coetzee’s. I don’t think I’ve ever had to compare a poem and a piece of prose extract before. I wouldn’t really know where to begin comparing across different forms. But I will say this: I, too, relate to the persona in that extract, in his hunt for a job which will not only pay the bills with a little extra “to go to poetry readings, meet writers and painters, have love affairs”, but also a job that my family and friends will not believe I could have scored. (I’m sure a humanities graduate can do that today.) Just like the persona, I too hope I “will be able to write to [my] mother giving her the good news she is waiting to hear, namely that her son is earning a good salary doing something respectable”. But the difference is I don’t have to write to my mother. She literally lives next door. Like I can hear her playing GOLD 90FM through my bedroom wall and it is Billy Joel singing of the piano man…
IVAN SIM is turning 25 this year. Ivan Sim is struggling. Ivan Sim is single and struggling. Back in JC, the running theme of writing feedback from his teachers was that he was too convoluted, always going in circles and he should just be clear and direct and get to the point. Nothing much has changed, it seems.