Grace Nichols was born in Georgetown, the Caribbean country of Guyana and moved to the UK in the 1970s. Her poetry is inspired by her Caribbean heritage, folk tales, tradition and her move between cultures.
We have written a GCSE poem analysis of Praise Song for My Mother by Grace Nichols.
What is the poem about?
A praise song is a traditional African form in several traditions, increasingly made relevant to Western world in recent decades, used to list and explore the attributes of a person. There is an easily grasped relationship behind this one, which really invites a reader to consider their own relationship with their mother.
Praise Song for My Mother by Grace Nichols
water to me
deep and bold and fathoming
moon's eye to me
pull and grained and mantling
sunrise to me
rise and warm and streaming
the fishes red gill to me
the flame tree's spread to me
the crab's leg/the fried plantain smell replenishing replenishing
Go to your wide futures, you said
The poem is written in the past tense, prompting a question. When written, was the poet’s mother dead or simply so distant that the memory of what she once was had priority over what she still was? But this means that either way, the poem is an exploration of memory and descriptive power.
Form and structure
The poem has five brief stanzas of uneven length, the first three regular, the fourth extended and the fifth very brief. The lines themselves are not metrically regular, making this really a piece of free verse. The poem is strongly repetitive but also has a strong shape on the page and when spoken aloud. There is a real sense of growth as the lines increase in length, then contract again, something like waves on the sea.
The poem is a collection of metaphors, each depicting the subject from a different point of view. ‘Water’ is the easiest place to start – life-giving, flowing, liquid and expressive – and it prompts the poet to describe her mother with three words ‘deep and bold and fathoming’. To call a person ‘deep’ may now have the sense of complexity or seriousness, but here it summons up deep sea water, ‘bold’ the braveness of waves. ‘Fathoming’ is slightly nonsensical. To fathom something is to sound it – to test its depth – but is the poet’s mother trying her own depth? No – rather she is being fathoms deep. She is active, not passive.
The way the poet stretches the sense of this word is itself repeated. ‘Mantling’ must be an action related to a ‘mantle’ or cloak, but how? Did the mother wrap herself around her daughter in protection? Did she clothe her daughter with her own resources, her own wealth, her own skills? Nichols is very ambiguous with her language here.
To be ‘rise’ is another of these tests. The poet’s mother was, we are told, the rise that brought as much to her daughter as the sun rising in the morning, yet the exact manner of what that gift was and how it was brought is hidden from us, both by the inability of language to really express it and by the shield of privacy that the poet holds. Yet she seems to let these go as the poem continues.
The next images will all have very personal connotations, and perhaps that is the point. The poem describes a generic feeling of awe, love and gratitude to a parent while keeping a little specific mystery. The ‘fishes red gill’ seems to me to be another image of vitality, since the oxygen-rich gills quickly fade in colour once a fish has been taken out of the water. The ‘flame-tree’s spread’ implies a degree of shelter, although an exotic one, and the ‘crab’s-leg’ a favourite, well-loved family treat. I would interpret the / marking as an indication of quick movement – of one idea breaking in on another, and the image – or flavour – of fried plantain over-taking the poet’s imagination and demanding priority! Even tastier than crab – even more precious – fried plantain! And all of this is the mother’s habit of ‘replenishing’ – filling up her daughter – filling her up so full that even the word is repeated.
Yet finally the mother’s greatest gift is the freedom she gives her daughter to leave and live her own life. The ‘wide futures’ might well be outside traditional African or Caribbean heritage, yet however far the poet has travelled, and however far she has ended up from her mother, she has remained able to talk to her directly, privately, colourfully, humorously, and with love.
Free verse - Poetry without a regular fixed pattern of metre or rhyme
Metre - The pattern of stress, beat, rhythm or emphasis that is created by words in a sentence or line.
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Explore how the parent child relationship is presented in “nettles” and “praise song for my mother” and comment on the feeling expressed in both poems
Both “nettles” and “praise song for my mother” focus on parent child relationships. “nettles” is a poem that tells a story about a little boy who falls into some nettles, and “praise song for my mother” is a poem that displays love and praise for someone’s mother. However both poems show the feelings of both the parents and the children. The poem “nettles” is a very strait forward poem and its main focus lays on one incident, which tells the story of a young boy who falls into a bed of nettles and his dad protects him. However “praise song for my mother” is completely different it’s more general than strait forward and each verse lists another reason why she loves her mother. Also “praise song for my mother” includes lots of metaphor’s and word play where as “nettles” just tells the story how it is.
Both “Nettles” and “Praise song for my mother” include lots of imagery. “Nettles” incorporates a theme of war and military the nettles that hurt the poet’s son are referred to as “green spears” and “that regiment of spite” this is strange as although nettles can cause irritation and sharp pain, they are not forceful like weapons used in war. The father finds it unbearable that his son has been hurt. Therefore he has a need to protect him and to prevent it from occurring again. The war imagery also suggests that the poet had been in the war or experienced what war was like. And in “Praise song for my mother” there is a consistent use of metaphor’s many of which include nature “you were the moons eye to me” and “you were sunrise to me” are just two of many used. In “praise song for my mother” the structure is very well noticed, the first stanza starts off with two syllables on the first line “you were” then go on to use four syllables “sunrise to me”, then generally it goes to six or seven “deep and bold and fathoming”.
And the first three stanzas are very similar in ways of structure they all use the same number of syllables and look very similar in the way that they appear. However the final section marks a break in the chain as it changes the structure pattern, “praise song for my mother” is very ambiguous and depending on which way you interpret it this could mean the daughter is moving away from childhood into adulthood. However in “nettles” it is very simple it has an easy rhyme scheme of AbAb, “bed, shed” and “tears, spears”. And is also written in iambic pentameter witch is a collection of two syllables one stressed and on unstressed. The poem “nettles” has 16 lines which is very similar to sonnet form, a sonnet has 14 lines.
The language in “praise song for my mother” is very different from “nettles”. In “nettles” it is very simple and easy to understand although it probably has ambiguous meanings you can read it and understand it because it is simply telling a story. But in “praise song for my mother “is a lot different the context is a lot harder to understand and has several ambiguous meanings so you can interpret it different ways. It also is confusing as it includes made up words such as “mateling” witch make you think poems give the readers can be different for everyone , but for me I like the idea in “nettles” of the father wanting to protect his son as this shows love to his son.
I also like “praise song for my mother” because it has many hidden ambiguous meanings so you can interpret it many ways I also like “praise song for my mother” because it isn’t just simple and easy to understand it has hidden meanings and made up words so you have to take it apart and analysis it which requires a lot of thinking. I like the imagery in both “”praise song for my mother” and “nettles” as it gives you a clear image of what the poets are thinking when writing the poem. However I prefer “nettles” to “praise song for my mother” because it requires less thinking it is simple and understandable at first glance.