Yet another "up-so-I-can-print" essay...XD Use anything you want.

The Almond Tree - Jon Stallworthy

TASK: Poems are often written as a result of reflecting on an intense emotional experience or on a significant event. Examine the techniques used by the poet to convey the significance of an experience which gave rise to the poem.

Jon Stallworthy's "The Almond Tree" could easily be considered a poetic story which describes both an intense emotional experience and a significant event. The majority of parents claim their child's birth is the most defining moment of their lives, making it clear that the idea of a child's birth is generally accepted as an amazingly significant event. The Almond Tree covers both experience and event through literary techniques, relating to the reader as the poet describes the intensity of the ups and downs of the birth of the narrator's son, from the elation of the journey to the under-exaggerated anguish of the discovery of his son's Downs Syndrome.

The stanza structure of The Almond Tree could be considered an important factor in the reflection of the narrator's significant event. The verse sections are numbered, from I until VII, which heightens the tension experienced by the reader and narrator. It is almost as if what he is experiencing is steady and rational, not dissimilar to a clock's ticking, which coupled with the ABAB rhyming scheme lulls the reader into the almost robotic calm of the sensation that this doesn't feel like it is happening to him, a point backed up by his out-of-body experience upon discovering his son has Downs Syndrome:

"The 'I' ascending on a slow

Last thermal breath

studied the man below"

This shows he feels as if he isn't really a part of the situation, as he finds himself unable to accept his son as his own.

However, this dream-like state differs greatly from the previous idea of disassociation with the event:

"I were the lucky prince

in an enchanted wood

summoning summer with my whistle,

banishing winter with a nod."

This particular dream-state contains a fairytale element, as if the imminent arrival of his son grants him power over life and death, symbolised by summer and winter. The enchanted woods add more of a dream-like element, as it is only in dreams that enchantments and such wonder exist. It is this wonder that he feels towards his unborn son, prompting the reader to be excited for this father-to-be.

The luck mentioned in the narrator's dream-state is a continuation of the opening two lines of the poem:

"All the way to the hospital

The lights were green as peppermints."

This shows that everything is going well and hopefully, as green is equated with optimism and the idea that everything will go well. Comparing the lights to peppermints indicates that they seem to be being sweet and giving him the opportunity to race to the birth of his son, a good omen for the future.

The technique of word placement comes into play in this intense rush of feelings and experience as he reaches the hospital and parks his car under the cause of the title; an almond tree:

"I parked in an almond's

shadow blossom, for the tree

was waving, waving at me

upstairs with a child's hands."

The tree initially appears to be a metaphor for his (at this point) unborn son, shown by the branches being described as "child's hands". Repetition of the word "waving" indicates he is being beckoned, or drawn to the maternity ward in the hospital, yet the reader is fleetingly filled with doubt with the juxtaposition of "shadow blossom", for the purpose of drawing the reader's attention. The child is being compared to the shadow of the tree's flowering, as an ominous omen that something bad is going to happen.

Yet more rise is given to the significance of the poem with the rhythmic journey towards the room in which his son is being born. The language at this point is abrupt, almost as if we are following him with one-word lines which emphasise the movement of him, such as "Up" and "along", pulling the reader alongside him.

"the blood tide swung

me swung me to a room"

This indicates a vibrant urgency as he causes two swing doors to propel him towards his partner and child. The "blood tide" is the adrenaline that rushes through his bloodstream in his excitement for this significant event, influencing the reader to feel the same for him.

As the poem appears to be coming to a climax, the rhythmic, pulsating usage of techniques gives rise to the poem:

"Under the sheet

wave after wave, wave

after wave beat

on the bone coast,

bringing ashore - whom?"

Literally, this segment describes the contractions and childbirth, comparing them to the constant, steady waves of the ocean. The bone coast is the sterile hospital room, and repetition of the word "wave" so close to each other shows how swiftly each contraction is coming, showing how near the child's arrival into life is. The undisclosed beginning is referenced in the question after the dash. He does not know what lies ahead.

In stanza segment V, the author's use of words out of context builds to a pivotal point, such as "scissored" when talking about a bell. Bells are traditionally used as a form of celebration and this harsh, destructive verb warns the reader that what should be a cause for celebration is not as it seems. It seems that the doctor is the bearer of bad news:

"your son is a mongol

the doctor said."

The word mongol, nowadays politically incorrect, is not the current medical term for Downs Syndrome, and "mongol" has horrific connotations in history as well as what it means. This is the last line in the stanza segment, indicating shock. The sheer simplicity of what the doctor says shows there cannot be a mistake; the son the narrator has been so excited for is not the son he had dreamed of, "my best poem".

The author's reference to death and conflict, rather than birth, give us an insight to the inner workings of the narrator's brain whilst also giving rise to the intense emotional experience of the poem:

"clean as a bullet…

…stopping the heart within it.

This was my first death."

This reference to shooting implies a reference to war and conflict, which has suddenly entered into his mind with the discovery of his child's disability. He is warring with himself as he knows he should be celebrating this new life, yet the news of his son's disability has killed him emotionally. He denies his own feelings, "feeling no pain", in shock. He is full of anguish and horror, yet does not use words that emphasise this, understating it by using lies to convince himself and us that he doesn't mind. The narrator's denial, however, contributes strongly to the intensity of this experience. "I wrestled against gravity" shows he fights as hard as he can to keep himself from having to face reality.

The final event of the poem gives a final rise to the significant event of the poem. As the narrator is about to leave, the almond tree of the title allows him a little perspective:

"On the darkening wind a pale

face floated. Out of reach."

He has been out there for hours watching as the almond tree blooms. This tree of beauty and life has shown him the illusion of his son's face in the blossoms, yet the image of his son is out of reach due to the disability and the idea in the narrator's mind that he'll never be able to communicate with his son for the same reason. The sight of this tree makes him see himself:

"I, too, rooted in earth

and ringed by darkness, from the death

of myself saw myself blossoming"

He had been steadfast in his despair, truly believing he would never be able to communicate with his son, still emotionally dead from the bluntness of the news. Yet the blossoming of the almond tree has shown him that even the deepest of roots can change into a thing of beauty, and he applies this newfound knowledge to his son.

The narrator's catharsis throughout the poem is also significant and triggered by his son as shown in the last lines:

"fathered by my son,

unkindly in a kind season

by love shattered and set free."

His son has taught him a valuable life lesson, through anguish and pain, much like a father would teach his son, thus reversing the roles of father and son. The use of opposites link back to the previous idea of inner turmoil, now resolved as shown by the implications of freedom. This is highly effective in that it makes the reader smile; the father still loves his son.

To conclude, Jon Stallworthy has used a variety of highly effective literary techniques to give point to the significant event and intense emotional experience which together build the story of the poem up until the climax. The catharsis of the narrator allows the reader to feel sympathetic towards his character as the story progresses toward the final pivotal moment when he accepts the reality of his son's disability.

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