‘Song’ by George Szirtes is a poem dedicated to Helen Suzman, a famous anti-apartheid campaigner from South Africa. Szirtes is well known for both his poetry and his work translating Hungarian prose into English. He was born in Hungary in 1948, but moved to England as a refugee aged just eight. From 1973 his poems began to be published in national magazines, winning various prizes since then, including the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2004. This poem was written on the request of the magazine ‘The Liberal’ and is available to read here.
This poem is no longer part of the set of prescribed poems that could be included in the Edexcel English Literature exam, however it is still useful for practice as an unseen poem. Click here to see a full list of revision notes for the examined poems.
Interpreture gives ‘Song’ a difficulty rating of 4, meaning that it is deemed to be a relatively difficult poem. The meaning may initially be hard to understand because it is dealing with a more abstract concept that many other poems from the ‘Poems of the Decade’ anthology. This in turn makes it more difficult to identify a range of themes for this poem. In addition, the structure is quite different to many other studied poems which makes this poem more challenging overall.
The title of the poem is relatively ambiguous, particularly as there is extensive crossover between poetry and songs within literature, although it does indicate that the form and rhythm of this poem will be one of its most important aspects. The subtitle of the poem states that it is “for Helen Suzman” which indicates that this is an elegy (an elegy refers to a poem or song in tribute to a person, whereas the more commonly used term eulogy refers to a speech or written tribute to an individual). Helen Suzman died aged 91 in 2009 after a long life campaigning against the South African apartheid, meeting Nelson Mandella and achieving international recognition for being one of the few vocal advocates for change within the country’s white minority. Her campaigning and advocacy is one of her key qualities which is reflected within ‘Song’ through links to activism and freedom of speech.
A key aspect of ‘Song’ is the way in which it is a highly cyclical poem, with many different elements and phrases repeated and reflected. With six stanzas, an ‘even’ reflection is achieved between the first and last, and second and fifth stanzas, with the third and fourth in the middle being more individual and unique. The use of italicised text can also be referenced, as this would indicate to a reader that it is meant to be sung, or read in a more rhythmic and fluid way. The way in which this ‘bookends’ the central part of the poem could be very effective for a reader, as it makes all parts of the poem more memorable through the shifts in tone and rhythm, while also showing that the middle two stanzas are where a key message of the poem resides.
The use of sound is also an important factor, which would likely be expected with the title being ‘Song’ although some of the specific sounds may be interpreted as unlikely choices. For example, there is the repeated use of “buzz” where the use of onomatopoeia would be noticeable to a reader, helping to build emphasis on this particular word. Similarly, there is an end rhyme pattern for the first and last stanzas in which this same sound is used, which is very effective at building sound, particularly one that could be interpreted as ‘rising’ and therefore demonstrating ideas in the poem which relate to joint action and activism.
By being a poem so focussed on the sound of words and sentences, the use of end-stopped lines and caesura is an important part of the poem to consider. It is notable that there are very few caesura, with most pauses taking place in the form of end-stopped lines. As such, this makes the few caesura even more noticeable and effective for the reader, such as the breaks in the fourth stanza where there is a clear list. As part of the ‘reflection’ of the opening stanzas at the end of the poem, one of the key differentiating features is the presence of caesura, such as “hands, however small” and even on the last line with “Of nothing happening. Then something does.” This is very effective at breaking the expected flow of the poem, which some readers may interpret as representing the break in ordinary life as a result of the loss of Helen Suzman, or alternatively to add emphasis and the idea of strength to the sentences through this more precise and controlled phrasing.
Clear imagery helps to build upon the various key ideas in ‘Song’ with descriptive language helping to control the potential interpretations a reader is likely to have. For example, the description “one pale feather tip // the balance on a sinking ship” is notable due to the use of adjectives and verbs. Similarly, the use of contrasting ideas and images in particular with this description will gain a reader’s attention due to the unusual imagery. A key message within ‘Song’ relates to how small individual actions can act as a tipping point to change, for which this description works very well and a reader is likely to understand successfully due to the clear descriptions.
Another important technique in the poem is the use of semantic fields, in particular ones which can be interpreted as linking to the power of states, governments or organisations against individuals or protestors, with words such as “oppose” “crushed” and “hushed”. The various negative connotations of these words act as a contrast to the power, which is indicated from others, such as “weight” “fate” and “voices”. As such, the reader may identify these contrasting semantic fields and consider the implications and inferred meaning, perhaps focusing on the way that the poem can be seen to support change and activism, which would be very fitting due to its dedication to Helen Suzman.
While there are various metaphorical descriptions in the poem in addition to the range of structural techniques, it can be seen that there are a fewer number of poetic devices. As such, the presence of the simile “the heart like a weight begins to lift” is made more noticeable to a reader, with added importance due to the infrequency of poetic devices. Some readers may find that the order of words in this simile is more confusing than, for example, ‘like a weight, the heart begins to lift’. This would indicate that this line is specifically phrased in order to draw emphasis to “heart” and “lift” (particularly as “lift” continues the rhyme scheme). The focus on these words can once again be associated with various positive connotations as part of the semantic field of power from joint action.
“A lot of small hands in a monstrous hall”
The use of “monstrous” is very effective because not only is it a very striking image, the multiple syllables and sibilance would make it very noticeable to a reader. The way that this world builds from “small hands” is also interesting in the idea that this is an audible representation of individual elements coming together to make something more powerful and striking.
“the broken voices of the hushed”
Both “broken” and “hushed” can be interpreted as having negative connotations, and the use of “broken” to describe “voices” would be quite an interesting description for a reader because it could imply very strong emotions, or alternatively the idea of someone being denied their right to freedom of speech and expression. Both of these ideas would be very applicable to the campaign work undertaken by Helen Suzman.
“a lever, a fulcrum, a weight”
The idea of the “lever” is a very important part of ‘Song’ and one which Szirtes has previously explored on his blog. This relates to the idea by Archimedes regarding how a long lever and a fulcrum (the object the lever is rested against) would enable him to move the entire world, which in turn is based on the laws of mechanics. As such, this concept can be interpreted as being a metaphorical representation of how an individual voice and action can have a huge and lasting impact on society and the world as a whole.
‘Song’ Key Themes
- Power: ‘Song’ mixes ideas of individual power with collective societal power, specifically in how individuals can take action and cause change which while initially it may seem inconsequential, it actually has very powerful repercussions and impacts.
- Society and Culture: Helen Suzman’s activism and work throughout her life had a huge impact upon wider society in South Africa, so it is natural that this elegy reflects that through incorporating ideas about society and the way that individuals can have an impact, specifically through descriptions such as “A lot of small hands” and “Then something does.”
Quick Focus Questions
- Many readers may not know about the work of Helen Suzman. What is a reader likely to understand about her just from the poem itself?
- What is the impact of the rhyme scheme of the poem? Does this specific structure make the poem more effective?
- Some readers may relate “even shake the wall” to the Berlin Wall. How could reader interpretations relating the poem to other world events impact a reading of the poem?
Initially when first studying ‘Song’ it may appear quite difficult to understand due to the repetition of phrases and mirroring ideas, along with the added complexity through important contextual information. However, reviewing it helps to highlight the really interesting imagery and structure for the poem, and how it compares and contrasts with other poems. Similar ideas of mirroring of structure and form are found in ‘Genetics’ whereas a very different structure is found in ‘The Fox in the National Museum of Wales’ and ‘The War Correspondent’.