Hotel Room 12 th Floor. Norman MacCaig. Setting. A hotel room on the 12th floor of a hotel in New York. The poet describes what he sees from this room in both day and night time. Content.
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This morning I watched from here
a helicopter skirting like a damaged insect
the Empire State building, that
jumbo size dentist’s drill, and landing
on the roof of the PanAm skyscraper.
But now Midnight has come in
from foreign places. Its uncivilised darkness
is shot at by a million lit windows, all
ups and acrosses.
Simile comparing a helicopter to a wounded insect. The comparison is effective as at a distance the size, sound and movement of the helicopter resemble an insect. The helicopter may be moving about erratically / buzzing around like a flying insect. ‘damaged’ hints at the speaker’s pessimistic view of the world: it is broken and imperfect. Furthermore, insects also are often found around decaying remains so the image reminds us of death and dying.
In addition the metaphor he uses to describe the Empire State Building emphasises this idea. The shape of the building resembles ‘that jumbo-sized dentist drill’ because it narrows towards the top and has a long thin radio mast. The image of the drill suggests pain and suffering. It also reinforces connotations of decay. Again MacCaigseems disturbed by what he sees. His tone is dismissive, as the word ‘jumbo’ suggests something oversized, almost comically so. He is unimpressed by these symbols of wealth and human achievement. For the poet these modern wonders are a veneer of civilisation over the true nature of the city.
Shift from day to night. Use of present tense creates sense of danger, immediacy.
Midnight (with a capital M) becomes a person / entity (personification). ‘foreign places’ suggest it is something unknown: alien and unpredictable. Any sense of ease brought by the recognisable landmarks is erased as night arrives.
Metaphor / Word Choice: ‘shot at’ suggests a war. The futility of the battle is obvious: the darkness of night is inevitable. ‘all / ups and acrosses’ might represent a crossword puzzle (the lit and unlit windows beings the contrasting squares). This is an enigmatic (mysterious/unknowable) idea as there are no clues, and fits nicely with the notion of darkness representing the unknown.
But midnight is not
so easily defeated. I lie in bed, between
a radio and a television set, and hear
the wildest of warwhoops continually ululating through
the glittering canyons and gulches –
police cars and ambulances racing
to broken bones, the harsh screaming
from coldwater flats, the blood
glazed on the sidewalks.
Entering physical darkness and the mental darkness of despair.
Metaphor: midnight (and darkness) become a foe. The speaker sees night as the unknown, a formidable enemy. The sense of helplessness is revealed through this recognition of the situation.
Suggests that the city’s symbols of wealth and progress are not enough to wipe away the propensity to violence that exists in all societies.
Structure: As the poem progresses, the speaker’s interaction with the world recedes. He is no longer standing at the window (as he was in the first stanza) but has withdrawn to his bed.
He is in between symbols of modern technological advance. He is attempting to use them to drown out the violent noises from the streets. He is unable to do so. At this point the speaker appears isolated, passive and enclosed by the trappings of modern life.
Word choice: ‘wildest’ ‘warwhoops’ and ‘ululating’ suggest a cacophony of unknown, aggressive noises. The city becomes a wilderness, an alien environment that frightens the speaker as each unknown noise is interpreted in a negative way. Onomatopoeia of ‘ululating’ emphasises how meaningless, loud and frightening the noise is.
Alliteration of ‘wildest’ and ‘warwhoops‘ draws attention to the noise
MacCaig creates a contrast between civilised and uncivilised society by comparing the noise outside and the layout/appearance of the streets to the Wild West, with its associations of violence, ambushes and battles. This similarity between America ’s past and present suggests that although mankind has advanced economically and technologically we are no more civilised in relation to how we behave and interact than we were in our barbaric past.
A figure of speech where a part stands in for the whole:
Police cars and ambulances are symbols of authority and can only arrive after the violence; are are powerless to stop it.
Synecdoche of ‘broken bones’ depersonalises the suffering and so highlights that anyone can fall victim to violence. It also refers to the aspects of society that are broken.
The sounds of pain are emphasised by the word choice of ‘harsh’. His words emphasise the pain and suffering that poverty brings. This contrasts with the superficial wealth of the first stanza.
The word choice of ‘screaming’ emphasises the impression of fear and violence.
The word choice of ‘coldwater’ effectively conveys the living conditions of the poor; living in primitive and comfortless conditions in run-down buildings without hot water. This is where the screams are coming from.
The broken bones beneath the surface of America are poverty and need.
Imagery: The comparison of blood to a sheen that covers the sidewalk is an unpleasant one. It symbolises the aggression and savagery of ‘civilised’ society.
This suggests that violence and the pain and suffering it causes are always among us. Evil therefore is not just our violence but also the way society neglects the poor. The quantity of blood envelops everything, mirrors darkness.
Structure: shorter, simpler sentences.
Helps to create a tone of total despair.
Two emphatic statements.
Frontier is an area near or beyond a boundary. It is a term associated with the ‘Wild West’. It would be the fringe of areas taken by the settlers.
Theme: Civilisation versus savagery. The pessimistic speaker feels that we do not exist in a civilised society. He appears to live in fear of ‘the unknown’: savagery seems to seep into society unabated. ‘frontier’ suggests a barrier between civilisation and savagery: to the speaker, there is no such division.
Write about a poem which creates a strong sense of place.
Consider how the poet creates this sense of place and how this enhances our understanding of modern civilisation.