“How I Learned to Sweep” is written by talented Dominican-African poet Julia Alvarez who is also a novelist and essayist. She devotes her literary works to a cultural division. Julia Alvarez writes not only for young adults but also for children. Her essays and poetry are inspiring, psychological, social, motivated and deep. The current paper reveals the peculiarities of the poem “How I Learnt to Sweep”. It is devoted to the structure of this poem and its symbolic meaning.
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The poem “How I Learned to Sweep” is rhythmic and melodic, it sounds like a song. It is written in pentameter and it means that every verse consists of two dactyls, one stressed syllable, two dactyls, and a final stressed syllable. Every line is like the continuation of the melody. End rhymes reinforce the meaning of “How I Learned to Sweep” and prove that Julia Alvarez follows traditional and classical ways of creating poems. However, this traditionalism does not make this poem banal, on the contrary, simple structure with intricate and deep meaning create intrigue for the reader. Julia Alvarez combines uncombined things: the sweeping of the weeds from a helicopter dropping off troops and sweeping with a broom. Beautiful mental pictures are created with the help of symbols and metaphors. The power of this poem can be seen from the first lines and in the word “mother”, the most important person not only for her but for everybody (Alvarez, 1996).
Every line of “How I Learned to Sweep” is carved in the readers’ minds. One can notice that the author constantly engages the reader in order to make him be active and reflective. A poem is a way of depriving of dirt, violence, and everything that destroys people. Nature in this poem is a symbol of innocence and purity that is under a threat of corrupting.
I have chosen the poem “How I Learned to Sweep” by Julia Alvarez because I am interested in the personality of this poet and I wanted to observe how her talent is expressed with the help of poetic lines as she is a wonderful novelist. Julia Alvarez remembers her mother in this poem and her positive experience of mother’s education. Sweeping in this poem has a negative meaning connected with the words ruining, destroying, killing, burning and others that are associated with military actions. In this poem, Julia Alvarez describes children’s minds as joyful and innocent, but it can be destroyed by violence and crime. What impresses me the most is that the poet contrasts pure, innocent and peaceful life to violent, cruel and destroying war.
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This poem also reveals the negative impact of media (TV) on the minds of children as TV shows crime scenes and great violence. The author shows the dependence of children on TV programs, and, consequently, the severe influence of TV leads to war, violence, and crimes. Julia Alvarez describes that when a mother does not teach her children about anything, then children can make the wrong decisions about what they observe. “How I Learned to Sweep” is based on psychological motives, as it reveals such notion as perception. The author proves that perception defines children’s way of life and is a defining factor, especially when a person observes scenes with violence, crimes, and military actions.
Julia Alvarez accentuates her attention that a mother’s positive influence cannot protect a child from violence as mass media devotes too much attention to it. She underlines the direct connection between what one sees, perceives and understands. It means that the author believes that a person should observe only beautiful in order to have a kind-hearted soul and positive thoughts. There is nothing strange that in this poem the mother is against TV and violence and one can understand her happiness when a TV screen becomes dark.
- In which form is the poem written (for example, is it a sonnet? Free verse? Lyric poem?
“How I Learned to Sweep” of Julia Alvarez is not divided into stanzas, it looks like a free rhymed verse (Lines 1-4). It means that Julia Alvarez gives the reader the possibility to divide this poem into stanzas and underline the most important moments. “How I Learned to Sweep” belongs to the collection of poems “Homecoming” that was published in 1996. The poetic form of “How I Learned to Sweep” sounds as a rhymed life story (Alvarez, 1996).
- Does the poem demonstrate a rhyme scheme? If so, what is it?
“How I Learned to Sweep” of Julia Alvarez follows an AABB rhyme scheme (floor/before, able/table and swept/kept – Lines 3-4, 9-10). Such using a rhyme scheme makes this poem more melodic and rhythmic (Alvarez, 1996).
- What are the setting and social context of the poem?
In order to reveal the meaning of this poem, it is necessary to address the setting and social context of the poem. This poem is the way of Julia Alvarez of returning to her childhood in the Dominican Republic. One may feel that “How I Learned to Sweep” is autobiographical in nature. Deep emotionality in combination with observation of life creates a real-life picture. This poem sounds like an instruction for living as it includes social, psychological and even political aspects (Lines 16-18). The main events of this poem take place in the room where mother sweeps and daughter watches TV. This room is the place where the daughter can undergo a positive impact on a mother’s side and the negative impact of TV (Alvarez, 1996).
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- Point out any similes that you find in the poem. How do they contribute to the overall meaning of the poem?
“…Swept like weeds seen underwater” and “... As if their dust fell through the screen upon the floor I had just cleaned” (Lines 21-22, 29-30) are similes in this poem. The author compares soldiers with weeds that are swept by helicopters and dust that was cleaned. Weeds are symbols of life and growth. The helicopter is a symbol of destruction and death in this poem. Dust is a symbol of something unimportant. The author shows that during military actions, soldiers are really dust and nobody counts them during the fighting. To my mind, Julia Alvarez uses these similes for reinforcing of absurdity and stupidity of military actions where soldiers suffer and die (Alvarez, 1996).
- Point out any metaphors that you find in the poem. How do they contribute to the overall meaning of the poem?
“How I Learned to Sweep” of Julia Alvarez is metaphoric in its whole entity. The TV has a metaphor for a leader who inspires people to do such ridiculous things as to fight and take part in war (Lines 2-3, 9-10). The author personifies TV as a living being that is more powerful than people. It has the possibility to hypnotize using the magic of words and beautiful images. A mother is a metaphor of reason, common sense and moral principles (Lines 1-2).
- Point out any instances of personification that you find in the poem. How do they contribute to the overall meaning of the poem?
“How I Learned to Sweep” of Julia Alvarez is full of personification. It means that the author turns inanimate things in animated ones. Broom in the mother’s hand is a symbol of the direction of destiny. With the help of broom, a mother teaches her children to direct their destiny. The TV is the personification of a person who is a leader, who has much power and this power is destructive and very dangerous (Lines 10-11).
- Point out any imagery that you find in the poem. How do they contribute to the overall meaning of the poem?
This poem is full of imageries that are connected with symbols, metaphors, and personifications. The most important imagery of this poem is Mother. Mother is not only the character of this poem, but she also is the most important person in human life. In this poem, she is a teacher of life, a protector against the negative influence and a symbol of reason and logic.
- Are there other instances of figurative language that you see (metonymy, synecdoche, symbols, archetypes)? Discuss.
As it was mentioned above, a mother is a symbol of a family. In this poem, a mother is an archetype of wisdom, reason, and logic (Line 1). Weeds are symbols of life and growth. In this poem, weed is an archetype of life. The helicopter is an archetype of destruction and death in this poem. Dust is a symbol of something unimportant. The TV is an archetype of a tyrannical leader. A dark screen of TV is an archetype of the end of the regime of tyranny (Line 23). It is evident that “How I Learned to Sweep” of Julia Alvarez is based on symbols or archetypes.
- Who is the speaker in the poem, and what is the significance of the person who is speaking?
The speaker of the poem is a young girl who tells about her mother and about the process of watching TV and the reaction of mother on this. It seems to me that this young girl is the author of this poem, Julia Alvarez. I would say that this girl is 14 years old. She is in the process of growing and becoming an adult that is why she is forming socially and psychologically. She is in a dangerous age when her own opinion can be influenced by other people (Alvarez, 1996).
- What is your personal reaction to what happens in the poem?
This poem is very psychological, socially sharp and deep that is why it impresses me. When I read it more and more, I always revealed something new for myself. I think that Julia Alvarez violates the issues that are always troubling for our society. First of all, this is war and military actions that are destructive and violent that is why it is evident that Julia Alvarez is against it. Secondly, Julia Alvarez exposes the negative impact of mass media (TV), as it has a psychological pressure on a human’s mind.