Janice Mirikitani’s “Suicide Note” and Robert Burns’ “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose” are both poems that are extremely simple to read and understand. Yet, on comparison, the wide contrast between them is more glaring than the similarities. The context behind Janice Mirikitani’s “Suicide Note” is included within the poem and informs the reader that the poem is a suicide note left by a young Asian American woman who apologizes to her parents for not attaining a perfect grade-point average and expresses her intent to end her life. Robert Burns’ poem “My Love is like a Red, Red Rose” on the other hand has no such serious background. It is a simple translation of a Scottish folk song. However, they are similar in that the poets have a foreign cultural link in these two poems- Janice Kirikitani to Asian American cultural issues and Robert Burns to the Scottish musical scene.
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Janice Mirikitani’s “Suicide Note”, the voice in the poem, a female voice, shows the reader what it is like to feel desperate, lonely, and suicidal. The poem is in an apologetic note and the girl apologizes to her parents for failing to live up to her parent’s high expectations of her. Her reason for her desperation is well etched out in the recurring line: “not good enough not strong enough not good enough”. The poem also provides a clue to the character of the girl as one who is a perfectionist – unable to handle the failure to get high grades. ‘A Red, Red Rose’, was first published in 1794 in A Selection of Scots Songs, edited by Peter Urbani. In “A Red Red Rose” Burns is telling us what the epitome of love is to him. He talks about the grandness of love in simple terms. He compares his love to a rose and a melody, indicating that love is beautiful and precious. Burns also talks about the permanent nature of love and how it can exist no matter how near or far the two people may be from each other.
The poem “Suicide Note” is written in a modern poetry format with crisp words and deep meanings. The poem “My Luv is like a red, red rose” on the other hand is written in ballad stanzas, with rhythm and repetition. The dominant meter of the ballad stanza is iambic and this pattern exists throughout the poem giving it a musical feel. The second and third stanzas discuss the deeper impact of time. In trying to quantify his feelings – and in searching for the perfect metaphor to describe the “eternal” nature of his love – the poet mentions the limiting factor to love, “the sands o’ life.” This suggests the image of an hour-glass and seemingly brings to mind the transient nature of the life of the red rose that is “newly sprung” only “in June” This treatment of time and beauty predicts the work of the later Romantic poets, who took Burns’s work as an important influence. The young woman in “Suicide note” metaphorically refers to her suicidal jump to the swallow’s flight: “It is snowing steadily/ surely not good weather/ for flying–this sparrow/ silly and dizzied by the wind/ on the edge.
Both the poems make use of similes to convey feelings. The suicidal young woman calls herself a sparrow who can’t fly in snowy weather and the ledge from where she wants to commit suicide an altar: “I make this ledge my altar to offer penance”. Both the poems make use of repetition to emphasize their feelings. “Red, red rose” emphasizes the extent of vibrant love the poet feels because of his love. The repetition of words: “not good enough, not smart enough, not strong enough’ emphasizes the weakness felt by the poet in the poem “Suicide Note”. Both poems utilize powerful imagery of various elements in nature to convey the intensity of emotions. The poem by Mirikitani uses the following references to nature: bird prints, snow, sunset, pine, light, currents in the bed of wind, glacier, ‘ice above my river’, ledge, sparrow, wings, air, snow, feathers, and earth. The poem by Robert Burns has words like red rose, seas, rocks, and sands – referring to native elements of nature.
The narrator in each of the poems is quite proud and passionate. It is her pride that makes the young woman unable to accept failure in stride. It is her passion that makes her so sensitive to the world around her. To her, each failure is “a glacier” and disapprovals are like bootprints, and disappointments are like “ice above my river”. She desires to see the “light in my mother’s eye or the golden pride reflected in my father’s dream”. However, her overwhelming sense of worthlessness is conveyed through the recurrent words: “not good enough not strong enough not good enough”. She is passionate in the manner she deeply feels about her parent’s disappointment in her. In the poem by Robert Burns, the narrator is proud of his love and calls it as a rose ‘newly sprung in June’, ‘melodie that’s sweetly play’d in tune. His passion is evident in the way he admires his love and says that he would love her till the seas go dry and the rocks melt with the sun. He also promises to return to her from wherever he needs to go. The overall tone of the narrator in “Suicide note” is sad and pessimistic, whereas the tone in “My love is like a red, red rose” is optimistic and happy.
The character of the narrator is well etched in the poem by Janice Mirikitani, whereas nothing much is revealed about the character of the narrator in the poem by Robert Burns- just that he is in love and feels that he would love her forever, wherever he may be, indicating a loyal and passionate heart. The young woman in the poem “Suicide Note” on the other hand reveals a lot about her inner self. She is someone who loves her parents a lot and worries about their disappointment. She also feels she must make their dreams come true. This attitude is seen in the lines: “I apologize/ for disappoint you”. They are the center of her world and her efforts at studies are mainly to please them. She wishes she was a boy with great physical strength so that she could make her parents happy through hard work. Subtly, the poem reveals a slight inferiority complex she has concerning boys: “I would swagger through life/ muscled and bold and assured, / drawing praises to me /like currents in the bed of wind, virile /with confidence”. She nurtures idealistic views regarding gender and feels that as a boy she would be bold and assured and most capable. This reflects her negative self-image. She correlates womanhood with fragility, sacrifice, and weakness: “not strong enough”. Her comparison of herself to a sparrow show how small and weak she feels. She visualizes her death and notes drifting around her broken body whispering ‘sorries’. This shows how deeply she regrets not being able to meet the expectations of her parents. Overall, through her character, the poem deals with the undue pressures suffered by the minority immigrants to make it big. It is a current issue and relevant to the immigrant population even today.
Compared to Robert Burns’s “My love is like a red, red rose”, the poem “Suicide note” by Janice Mirikitani carries a lot of depth, emotions and even has a message – parents should not over-demand performance and success from their children. But it does not have the musical tone, rhythm, and theme of romance that is evident in the poem by Burns wherein every stanza, the second line ends on a syllable that rhymes with the last syllable of the fourth line. In short, both of the works, like all good poems have the power to touch a chord in the hearts of the readers but differ radically in the theme, tone, and structure.
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