The Poems of Nissim Ezekiel

The Poems of Nissim Ezekiel Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Refer to the poem “The Female Image,” from Ezekiel’s second collection of poetry, Sixty Poems, which was published in 1953. As you read this poem, take note of which characters seem to have power and agency and which characters are denied power. Is the “female image” in this poem a woman at all, or perhaps something else, like a photograph or a painting? In other words, does “The Female Image” merely perpetuate the same objectification and dehumanization that woman in literature have faced for centuries? Or is the poem doing something more? What is Ezekiel ultimately trying to say with this poem? Who does it condemn?

    Even though “The Female Image” can be jarring for readers at first who are not used to or don’t like seeing women written about in a way that takes away their personalities and voice, there is so much more beneath the surface of the poem that shows Ezekiel’s complex argument surrounding sexuality and personhood. Ezekiel consciously made the choice to include an inanimate object, a “female image,” in the poem rather than a living, breathing woman. Even though his description has been seen by some as an act of dehumanization, it can also be seen as a way of revealing the problems in society's treatment of women. In this way, this poem is not a condemnation of the woman herself, nor of the way she presents herself. Instead, it criticizes the man who gazes upon her, as well as the society in which this interaction is taking place. In this way, Ezekiel offers a realistic view of human relationships and sexuality in the modern world, one that places most, if not all, of the sexual agency and power in the hands of the man, who can do what he pleases with this image: “There / He will watch the virgin / Wear his fever, wait or turn, / Arrange her limbs as he desires” (68).

  2. 2

    Find the poem “Conclusion” from The Third. In this poem, the speaker suggests that in order to live a happy life one must enjoy all the fleeting pleasures that one can get and strive for harmony. The speaker makes a list of items that one may lavish in once one adopts this mindset: “Searching for the point of it / The meaning and the mood, one learns / Over and over again the same thing: / That women, trees, tables, waves and birds, / Buildings, stones, steamrollers, / Cats and clocks / Are here to be enjoyed” (96). Do you agree with Ezekiel? What do you think about the list of items that the speaker thinks are meant to be enjoyed? What might you change about this list? What might you add?

    One could argue that the list sets up a false equivalency between women and inanimate objects. Additionally, the poem suggests that a happy life consists solely of bodily pleasure. But is there really nothing else? One of the largest factors in living a happy life is having family, friends, and a larger community that supports you.

  3. 3

    In “Midmonsoon Madness” (p 104), the speaker feels terrified that he is stuck in a life he has not chosen. Similarly, in “What Frightens Me” (106), the speaker worries that he has made all the decisions of his life “remotely,” as if on autopilot, ignoring the true wishes of his “naked” inner self. Compare and contrast these two poems in order to construct an argument about self-knowledge in Ezekiel’s poetry. How are the speakers of each of these poems similar? How are they different? Are the problems that they face universal or particular? What might Ezekiel be trying to say about the human condition through these poems? Remember that a strong essay anchors its evidence in the text and uses literary elements such as (but not limited to) imagery, tone/mood, line breaks, rhyme, and repetition to support its claims.

    While at first glance, the speakers in “Midmonsoon Madness” and “What Frightens Me” seem eerily similar, there are several significant differences between them. Close-reading each of these poems and outlining where they are similar and different from each other reveals Ezekiel’s belief that the function of memory is vital for self-knowledge, even if those memories, and the knowledge itself, is uncertain.

  4. 4

    Creative writing prompt: Read the poem “Virginal” from The Exact Name on pages 138-39. Consider what the woman described in the poem might say in response to the speaker, who believes that she merely “pretends that it does not matter” that she does not have a husband. Make sure to respond to the final two lines of the poem, in particular: “The universe is much too small to hold / Your longing for a lover and a child” (139). What might this woman reply to the speaker? Would she defend her previously professed emotions and maintain that she does not care? Would she agree with the speaker and lament her lack of a husband? Try to write a 14-line poem with two stanzas (8 lines in the first stanza and 6 lines in the second stanza) detailing her response. Use any literary elements you can to make your character’s voice jump off of the page. Make sure that it is evident you are taking a stance on the poem, whether your character agrees with the speaker or not.

    You huff the conceited air of manliness

    too haughty to understand

    the ability to make one's own decisions

    when for you the power was always given.

    I am a woman.

    I am expected to carry

    to clean

    to marry

    to bear children. God

    forbid I want

    to write and travel

    instead. No,

    I am not sad to be missing a husband.

    I could do

    without the burden.

  5. 5

    Choose a specific poem throughout the Collected Works and use close reading techniques to construct an argument about a particular theme.

    The meter and rhyme scheme in "Psalm 151" reinforces the religious tradition that the content of the poem implies. Neither the form nor the content of the poem, however, are consistent throughout all 16 lines: the rhyme scheme is inconsistent and the speaker of the poem focuses on worldly things rather than on simple religiosity. The tension caused by the inconsistencies speaks to the speaker's ambiguous feelings about religion. The place of religion in the speaker's life is like the rhyme scheme in the poem: it holds a very important place in the poem but by no means does it overtake an entire page.