The Poems of Nissim Ezekiel

The Poems of Nissim Ezekiel Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

"The stubborn workman" as the poet (Allegory)

In "A Time to Change," the opening poem of Ezekiel's Collected Works, the speaker focuses on the writing process and language. The speaker meditates on "the perfect poem," which is characterized by its accuracy and specificity: "Precise communication of a thought, / Love reciprocated to a quiver, / Flawless doctrines, certainty of God" (5). The poem portrays these qualities through the allegory of the poet as a "stubborn workman" who labors over language in order to use it correctly: "breaks the stone, loosens / Soil, allows the seed to die in it, waits / Patiently for grapes or figs and even / Finds, on a lucky day, a metaphor / Leaping from the sod" (5).

The city (symbol)

Throughout Collected Poems, the city is a symbol for the chaos of modernity, which separates man from the natural world and his natural state of being. For example, we see the city as a symbol for working-class people who are so exhausted that their working hours "flow towards futility" ("Morning Prayer," 20). In "Encounter," the speaker describes a city scene that expresses the chaos of humanity: "The city pressed upon me; shops, cinemas and business houses spoke in unambiguous accents. Only the people said nothing. They bought the evening papers, hurried to a tube station, ceasing to exist" (35). In this passage, the speaker describes the city as a force that overtakes people and in turn erases their individuality, even their existence.

The wind (motif)

A motif is an image that recurs throughout a literary work that helps to communicate a particular theme. The wind is a recurring motif throughout Ezekiel's works, particularly in his earlier collections, A Time to Change (1952) and Sixty Poems (1953). Ezekiel consistently uses the wind to signify a search for meaning in the face of the indescribable. In "A Word for the Wind," the speaker laments being unable to find a word that describes the wind. Similarly, in "Words in a Gentle Wind," the speaker emphasizes the uncertainty of language and links it to the wind: "The hope of words and symbols / Gambles, in a gentle wind" (23).

Bones (motif)

Bones act as a recurring motif that stands for hardness. In "The Stone," the steady structure of the object that the poet is describing is likened to a bone: "[the stone] holds itself together as a bone" (40). Similarly, in "Lines," the speaker calls upon the reader to "know the hardness / Of the hidden and oppressive bone" (43). Ezekiel also calls upon bones to signify harness in his poem dedicated to another poet, "For William Carlos Williams." While lauding Williams' poetry, the speaker describes the poem's texture: "I feel the flesh / Of the poem / Firm / And the bone hard" (46).

Music and Song (motif)

Music and song regularly act as motifs for language and knowledge throughout Ezekiel’s poems. References to music and song regularly hold positive connotations, as Ezekiel uses song to exalt, celebrate, and rejoice. Often, Ezekiel refers to the poems he writes as songs themselves, as is the case in “Song for Spring”: “Spring, you are here, you are now. / I see you face to face, I know / Your exits and your entrances, / With cue and movements on the stage. / Your prodigality of love / Will live upon my waiting page” (57). In this poem, Ezekiel’s tribute to spring becomes a “song” because of his joyous exaltations. In other instances, songs hold a powerful weight within a poem as indicators of creativity, emotion, and artfulness. In “A Song, A Violin,” the speaker pines after a song that wafts into his home, and wonders who created it: “Salvation / is in that song, / that violin / across the road; / song and stars / violin and winds / can be drawn / closer to the great within / where love is trapped” (65). In this second instance, the knowledge that song represents is self-knowledge and access to the collective unconscious that lies within all of us, the “great within.” It is thanks to the musician’s song that the speaker can access this collective “love” and bring it to life again on the page.