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
water to me
deep and bold and fathoming
moon's eye to me
pull and grained and mantling
sunrise to me
rise and warm and streaming
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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