Or, how the student made progress with Sylvia Plath, Ingrid de Kok and Ingrid Jonker.

In my theory of literature course, Structuralism and Semiotics of Literary Genres, I received the high mark of 90% for my essays on syntactic foregrounding in poetry.

All my professor had to say on these essays was ” Excellent “, and so from that remark it was difficult for me to measure just how concise my own analytical observations were. I leave it for you to decide. Before I began to study the poems and write the essays I remarked as follows;

” Three beautiful poems; CHILD by Sylvia Plath, WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST by Ingrid de Kok and BITTER-BERRY DAYBREAK by Ingrid Jonker are the subject of a structuralist and semiotic analysis of poetry. When the theoretical side of my work is finally completed I look forward to expanding my creative horizons further by commenting more emotively on these sorrowful sojourns of life, love and everything else. CHILD is from Plath’s anthology ARIEL and BITTER-BERRY DAYBREAK from Ingrid Jonker’s posthumous anthology BLACK BUTTERFLIES put together by Antje Krog and Andre Brink. Our professors have quite generously given us free rein when choosing our subject matter and even themes when working with theories of literature and in this context the intricate world of poetic devices. I am at least grateful. ”

For me, the reading and writing of poetry, has always been daunting. It has been a long journey from rote-learning to analysis. Where once I despised opening a book of poems, I now look forward to the memorization of so many beautiful words of verse worth hanging on to and applying to everyday life.

For the benefit of my blog readers I have pressed the three poems written by Plath, de Kok and Jonker. These poems, written by women, will probably carry more resonance with female readers. Nevertheless. For the readers familiar with the era of sestigers (Afrikaans writers from South Africa who rose to prominence during the nineteen-sixties), they may notice the sad irony of Ingrid Jonker’s translated poem. Ingrid Jonker was rejected by none other than Andre P Brink.

After the poems, my analyses are included. I hope it is a pleasurable journey on how words are interpreted and experienced.


By Sylvia Plath


Your clear eyes is the one beautiful thing
I want to fill in with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new

Whose names you meditate-
April snowdrop, Indian pipe

Stalk without wrinkle,
Pool in which images
Should be grand and classical

Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star.


By Ingrid de Kok

It’s always been so.
This makes it worse.
Women and children first.

First to be hurt
Last to be nursed.
Its always been so.

When rumour stalks
First to be cursed.
And worse.

Turned out, inside out.
Only safe in the hearse.
Women and children first.


By Ingrid Jonker


Bitter-berry daybreak
bitter-berry sun
a mirror has broken
between me and him

I try to find the highway
perhaps to run away
but everywhere the footpaths
of his words lead me astray

Pinewood remember
pinewood forget
however much I lose my way
I step on my regret

Parrot-coloured echo
tricks me tricks me on
until I turn beguiled
to retrieve the mocking song

Echo gives no answer
he answers everyone
bitter-berry daybreak
bitter-berry sun

In this essay forms of syntactic foregrounding are analysed when referring to poems. I have chosen the poems of Sylvia Plath, Ingrid de Kok and Ingrid Jonker for my analysis of; accentuation, creation of hierarchies, shifts of accent, ambiguity, semanticisation and the creation of hierarchical relationships.


In all three of the above poems accentuation is evident in order to highlight a particular human emotion.

In CHILD the last verse is prominent in highlighting a woman’s emotion towards her child which also carries the title of this poem. There is a sense of motherly longing and concern in the poem’s imagery, as evinced in the first line; ” Your clear eyes is the one beautiful thing “. The first line of the last verse deviates from conventional grammar when it begins with the negative expression ” not “. It continues its negative plain with a line break into the next line. THe grammatically incorrect ” troublous ” foregrounds the expressive human action of the wringing of hands which is usually carried out when expressing despair or a sense of hopelessness.

WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST displays a different form of accentuation, that of repeating words and phrases. The title WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST is repeated twice at the foot of both the first and last verses of the poem. It is done to emphasise and foreground the plight of women and children in society, particularly in the context of a patriarchal society. The repetition of these phrases is effective in highlighting the irony of these words where in the context of a crisis such as a shipwreck or township fire it was a convention of humanity to allow women and children to escape these crises first.

These ironic lines are supported by the second and third verses where it is remarked that while they are meant to be first in the event of a crisis they are now usually the first to be abused or harmed. This is emphasised by the repetition of ” first ” and the use of a rhythmic and rhyming scheme in both lines;

First to be hurt / Last to be nursed …

First to be cursed. / And worse.

A similar convention of the deliberate repetition of lines and extra-patterning of words is followed in BITTER-BERRY DAYBREAK where the expressive ” bitter-berry daybreak / bitter-berry sun ” is carried rhythmically over two lines and in both the first and last stanzas of the poem.


The creation of hierarchies is visually prominent in CHILD where a child’s eyes are described throughout the poem. It initially appears that this is done only within the first three verses where the actions of the child’s eyes are described as in “whose names you meditate” and “stalk without wrinkle” , but in the last stanza the allusion of staring into a ceiling is created.


All three poems show patterns of expectation where a positive, thematic tone is heightened until it respectively takes a negative turn in the last verse. In CHILD a sense of expectation is created when the signifier describes the eyes of a child. The child’s “clear blue eyes” is the main theme of this poem where everything it sees appears to be beautiful, “grand and classical” , as shown in the penultimate verse of the poem. Negative connotations of despair as expressed with the “wringing of hands” and the colour scheme of “dark” turn this poem on its head after a positive train of thought appears to be broken.

sylvia film

WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST, the poem’s title, is also its theme. The plight of women and children is commented on throughout the poem, but when the poem’s apex is reached the receiver is left with a sense of loss and bereavement when reading of the subjects’ death being alluded to in the line “Only safe in the hearse”. A sense of a journey, of being carried to or by death is created.

In BITTER-BERRY DAYBREAK the remembrance of lost love and betrayal is the central theme which runs its course throughout all five stanzas. Metaphorical language is used to foreground feelings o not being listened to or being heard. For instance, the personalised “Echo” is all that is left of the betrayed lover’s voice, and yet it is also the betraying “other” who has chosen to take his emotions on an alternative route. He does not answer the spurned lover’s pleas, but chooses to reply to other voices;

” Echo gives no answer
He answers everyone ”


WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST to my mind, as both the title of the poem and its subject matter, shows a good form of ambiguous deviation. As mentioned above, the intertextual reference to placing women and children first in a crisis is clearly alluded to, yet in the context of the poem, it also clearly carries a different and complex meaning. Statements of a believed fact are made in the second and third verses where a rhyming scheme is used to foreground the phenomenon of human nature of women and children being the “first to be hurt” and “the / first to be cursed”.


The lines in the third verse of CHILD can be re-written as; the images in a pool should be grand and classical. The noun “pool” is displaced and inverted to the beginning of the line to highlight the metaphorical comparison with ” your clear eyes ” in the first verse. This association with a pool of water emphasises the allusion to tearful eyes, or more succinctly, a pool of tears. This sorrowful meaning is carried into the last verse and coupling of a troublesome “wringing of hands”.

WOMEN AND CHILDREN shows a complex example of semanticisation where most of the lines can be paraphrased. I propose that it can be written as follows; It has always been the case that women children are the first to be hurt and cursed when there are rumours, and are the last to be nursed. This form of semanticisation and deviational shifting of words to emphasises meanings and in this case, a statement of fact, is complex because the poem has to be read in its entirety and scanned in full in order to grasp the context in which the plural nouns are placed. The deviational shifting of “first” and ” last ” is done to foreground the position of women and children in society.

The external deviation in the fourth line of BITTER-BERRY DAYBREAK, “between me and him” is intricate and may be debated at length. Although not immediately evident to the reader, the poem BITTER-BERRY DAYBREAK is an English translation of an original Afrikaans poem. Words can portray different emotions or different meanings when read in different languages. The linguistic turn is also evident where the intention is to place the messenger at the forefront of an emotional bond.


There are a few examples of forms of repetition in the poems WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST and BITTER-BERRY DAYBREAK which “serve to connect metaphorical constructions across syntactic boundaries” (Oliphant, 2010:31). The parallelism in WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST occurs in the first two verses, and last verse of the poem, where two syntagmatic constructions are repeated. They are both grammatically correct in the sense that as a construction on its own there is no deliberate deviation.

The first line of “its always been so” is repeated as the last line of the second verse. Its purpose is to assist the paradigmatic relationship of the construction of ” Women and children first “, the last line of the first verse, and repeated as the last line of the last verse which is also the second syntagmatic construction of the poem. Taken as a whole, the two phrases can be combined into one metaphoric construction which is indicative of the plight of women and children in a patriarchal society. Taken on its own, it can be rephrased as “Its always been so, women and children first” where the pronoun “its” serves as a link to the nouns “women” and “children”. The rest of the poem then serves as a supporting argument to this profound statement.

The syntagmatic and paradigmatic constructions are more complex in BITTER-BERRY DAYBREAK where no less than six syntagmatic constructions occur. These are listed chronologically as; “bitter-berry daybreak, bitter-berry sun, pinewood remember, pinewood forget, tricks me, tricks me on”. In the fourth verse we can also see that parallelism can occur within one line in “tricks me tricks me on”.

The metaphorical construction in BITTER-BERRY DAYBREAK is similar to that of WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST where the paradigmatic expression of the first two lines “Bitter-berry daybreak / bitter-berry sun” are repeated in the last two lines of the poem. The descriptive “bitter-berry” also operates as a paradigm as it can be broken down into two single words. Ultimately the purpose of these constructions serve to describe the feelings of a jilted lover who is finding it difficult to deal with separation.

The syntagmatic and horizontal construction of “Pinewood remember / pinewood forget” also serves as an intricate construction of binary opposites where the metaphoric construction of noun (pinewood) / adverb (remember) / noun / adverb (forget) is used to compare the messenger’s feelings of despair to nature. The messenger argues that it is a force of nature to be rejected and the paradigm of “the battle of the sexes”, between male and female, is alluded to, where the receiver of this message, understanding the forces of nature, may assume that it is a male rejecting a female.

black butterflies

Look out for future reviews on the works and lives of Sylvia Plath and Ingrid Jonker, as well as the film biographies of these two poets whose lives ended tragically.


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