Hotel Room 12th 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 • The poet is visiting New York . Instead of enjoying the experience and being impressed by the sites of the city, he feels trapped in his hotel room by the violence on the streets below. During the day he comments on some of the famous building of the New York skyline that he can see from his window. These represent man’s economic and technological achievements. At night he concentrates on the sounds of the city below him. These represent the violence that it always close to the surface in human nature.
Title • Establishes immediately that the persona is in an alien environment. • Suggests somewhere anonymous and unknown. • Reference to midnight. • Also establishes that he is observing the city form a height. • Factual title highlights the importance of the setting to the poem’s central concerns.
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.
This morning I watched form here: • Word choice of ‘watched’ suggests that the speaker is a passive observer of civilisation (rather than a participant). This links with the sense of isolation established in the title. • Creates a sense of distance, both through time and space • Use of first person singular suggests he is alone. • The first stanza concentrates on the visual
a helicopter skirting like a damaged insect the Empire State building, 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. Again McCaig seems 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.
The Empire State building is not viewed as a symbol of mankind’s status and success, but rather as something that is painful / frightening. The dentist’s drill is not something that many people think of fondly! This reveals the speaker’s pessimistic tone as well as his fear.
on the roof of the PanAm skyscraper • Symbolism: the PanAm skyscraper and the Empire State building are symbols of American success / monuments to the ‘progress’ of civilisation. During this stanza, though not described in flattering terms, they are at least something recognisable. They give the speaker a sense of place (geographically) though not a sense of belonging.
But now Midnight has come in from foreign places. 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.
Its uncivilised darkness • Personification: the darkness is not a welcome visitor but rather something unknown, uncouth and unwelcome. The speaker’s fear of the darkness is apparent.
is shot at by a million lit windows, all ups and acrosses. 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 idea (as there are no clues) and fits nicely with the notion of darkness representing the unknown.
How is a sense of distance established in the poem’s opening lines? • Explain fully how MacCaig uses imagery to make the helicopter seem insignificant? • What impression of the Empire State Building is created? • What kind of change occurs in line six? • What impression of midnight is created? Explain fully how MacCaig does this. • How is a contrast between light and dark established?
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.
But midnight is not so easily defeated 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.
I lie in bed, between a radio and a television set 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.
and hear the wildest of warwhoops continually ululating through 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. ‘canyons’ and ‘gulches’ both suggest a wilderness / they are words we might associate with the wild west. This helps us to understand the theme of civilisation versus savagery: the ‘civilisation’ of the modern word is not so civilised as one might believe.
the glittering canyons and gulches • The ‘glittering canyons and gulches’ refer to the streets between the brightly lit modern skyscrapers and remind us of the landscape of the wild west where ambushes and violent battles took place. Again McCaig is juxtaposing symbols of wealth with violence and poverty. This similarity between America ’s past and present suggests that although mankind has advanced economically and technologically we are no more civilised than we were in our barbaric past.
police cars and ambulances racing to broken bones, Symbols of authority can only arrive after the violence, 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 harsh screaming from coldwater flats, The sounds of pain are emphasised by the word ‘harsh’. His words emphasise the pain and suffering that poverty brings. This contrasts with the superficial wealth of the first stanza. The broken bones beneath the surface of America are poverty and need.
the blood glazed on the sidewalks. 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.
What impression of midnight is created at the start of this stanza? • Make a list of all the sounds described in this stanza. • Most of this stanza consists of one long, complex sentence. What effect does this have? • List all the examples of Wild West imagery. Why do you think MacCaig included these? • Why do you think that MacCaig included the reference to ‘coldwater flats’? • ‘Broken bones’ is an example of synecdoche. Explain what this is and why MacCaig has used it here. • What is the effect of the stanza’s final metaphor?
The frontier is never somewhere else. And no stockades can keep the midnight out. Structure: shorter, simpler sentences. Helps to create a tone of total despair.
The frontier is never somewhere else. 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.
And no stockades can keep the midnight out. • Stockades were high fences built to protect those who live inside them. What McCaig is suggesting is that no matter how high we build our buildings, develop our technology or increase our prosperity, evil will always exist within us. The idea of midnight (and the unknown) attacking the speaker (and civilisation) continues to the end of the poem. ‘stockades’ are defences, but the speaker’s pessimistic admission underlines his sense of isolation and helplessness. He does not appear comfortable in the modern world. Modern civilisation is savagery.
What is McCaig’s message in the final stanza? • How is structure used to convey this? • How is imagery used to convey this? • How would you describe the tone of the final stanza? • Do you find the final stanza to be an effective conclusion to the poem? You should refer closely to both the poet’s ideas and techniques in your answer.