GCSE Poem Analysis: The Yellow Palm by Robert Minhinnick

March 24, 2015 by Breanna
Image English Literature GCSE Poem Analysis: The Yellow Palm by Robert Minhinnick

What is it about?
The poem is a colourful but sensitive account of various sights in Baghdad, each affecting to the poet, who travelled there in the late 1990s.  It describes the results of violence and implies a dreadful explosion without directly showing the reader.

The Yellow Palm by Robert Minhinick

As I made my way down Palestine Street
I watched a funeral pass -
all the women waving lilac stems
around a coffin made of glass
and the face of the man who lay within
who had breathed a poison gas.

As I made my way down Palestine Street
I heard the call to prayer
and I stopped at the door of the golden mosque
to watch the faithful there
but there was blood on the walls and the muezzin’s eyes
were wild with his despair.

As I made my way down Palestine Street
I met two blind beggars
And into their hands I pressed my hands
with a hundred black dinars;
and their salutes were those of the Imperial Guard
in the Mother of all Wars.

As I made my way down Palestine Street
I smelled the wide Tigris,
the river smell that lifts the air
in a city such as this;
but down on my head fell the barbarian sun
that knows no armistice.

As I made my way down Palestine Street
I saw a Cruise missile,
a slow and silver caravan
on its slow and silver mile,
and a beggar child turned up his face
and blessed it with a smile.

As I made my way down Palestine Street
under the yellow palms
I saw their branches hung with yellow dates
all sweeter than salaams,
and when that same child reached up to touch,
the fruit fell in his arms.

Although the poet says he travels down the street, really we see a parade of characters come past us: a funeral, the faithful responding to the muezzin’s call, ex-soldiers begging for money, the river, a missile and a beggar child.  The missile must explode, but we only know because of the verb ‘fell’ as the dates collapse into the outstretched arms of the beggar.  The poet hides the violence with the picturesque scene – but not entirely.

Form and Structure
The poem is written in six stanzas of six lines, in ballad metre.  The rhyme pattern (which can be notated xaxaxa) is an extended version of simple four-line ballad, which was originally a folk-poem form, but Minhinnick is following in the footsteps of poets like Wordsworth and Auden and many others who have chosen to use the strongly rhythmical pattern to tackle serious subjects.  By doing so in six-line stanzas he has a little more time to develop each image, while still staying true to form and changing the focus regularly.

There is a very strong rhythm to the form, with four stressed beats in the first of each two lines and three in the second, leaving a pause that readers or listeners associated with ballad form.  This means that although when read aloud the poem might go faster or slower, it won’t substantially change the emphasis a reader places on the words.  Sometimes there are conflicts with the natural stresses in words, when the rhythmic scheme (the metre) wants us to stress them one way and their normal pronunciation prefers another, such as ‘dinars’ and ‘beggars’.  However, this uncertainty challenges each reading to be thoughtful and considerate of the meaning of the words when perfectly regular verse would not.

Rhyme is very important in ballad verse and it’s worth looking at the patterns the poet creates.  In order, the rhyming words of each stanza are ‘pass, glass, gas’; ‘prayer, there, despair’; ‘beggars, dinars, wars’; ‘Tigris, this, armistice’; ‘missile, mile, smile’; ‘palms, salaams, arms’.  The strongest rhyming of the three is arguably the last, meaning that the poem ends with a strangely warm and comforting group of words, quite at odds with the violence unleashed by the explosion of the missile.

[If you are a northerner and pronounce ‘pass’ and ‘glass’ with the same short ‘a’ as ‘gas’, then the first trio really rhyme very strongly indeed, which would work to establish the regularity of the verse form.]

‘Tigris, this, armistice’ are a diverse group of words, including one of the very few proper nouns in the poem and coupling it with an abstract noun of particular intangibility.  No-one can touch an ‘armistice’ and it is even hard for troops to maintain one.  In contrast, the wide Tigris has been written of and spoken of for centuries: its existence cannot be in question.

We’ve already begun to consider the words Minhinnick chooses, so now we might focus on the strongest of his word pictures.  The dates, ‘sweeter than salaams’, mix a literal sweetness of the fruit with the metaphorical sweetness of the welcome the poet has found in Baghdad.  The smile of the beggar child with which he ‘blesses’ the passing cruise missile shows how innocent he is, and how undeserving of suffering.

The ‘cruise missile, / a slow and silver caravan / on its slow and silver mile’ has a really sinister air when described like this.  ‘Slow’ is of course impossible for a flying weapon, even though the poet repeats it.  Perhaps he is thinking about the way time seems to slow when we see something awful like a bomb about to hit...  Giving the missile possession of the mile by the little word ‘its’ also gives the weapon a life of its own.  We have to ask why ‘silver’?  The missile might be silver, but the mile it has travelled...  Unless that route has been marked with a streak of fast-moving metal, or perhaps if that silver has again been transferred in our mind.  It might be tempting to say that this is ‘just poetry’, but the power of this poetry is that it sparks a hundred other ideas and thoughts in our head.  And to call the missile a ‘silver caravan’ is a dreadful joke: it doesn’t bring prosperity, but pain and grief.  It might have been expensive and valuable, but nobody wants it to arrive at the market on Palestine Street.  The people there have already seen enough suffering.

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More GCSE poem analyses: Praise Song for My Mother, Nettles, My Last Duchess, and Medusa

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