Analysis of the Poem "Testimonial" by Rita Dove

Updated on September 17, 2018
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Rita Dove
Rita Dove

Rita Dove and Testimonial

Testimonial is a poem about learning, experience and avowal. It focuses on the past to be certain of the future; it suggests innocence and ignorance and contrasts these with responsibility.

On the page it looks simple enough. Five neat stanzas, a formal arrangement. Yet there is ambiguity and a deeper aspect to some of the short lines. Reality mingles with aspiration, religious imagery with secular everyday.

Rita Dove, a former poet laureate, published this poem in 1998 in the magazine Poetry, and it also appeared in her 1999 book On The Bus with Rosa Parks, which has race and origins as its major theme.

  • So this poem Testimonial could be an exploration on behalf of the poet, a reflective look back at her personal origins. Equally, it could be any persona, a Rosa Parks for example, attempting to gauge just how far she has come to get where she is now.

Although the speaker, I, is first person this does not necessarily point to the poem as autobiographical.

And the title itself implies that this is a public statement acknowledging the existence of a human being. The script is person-centric, the stage is earth, heaven, the world.

The global reach of the poem has resulted in one of its lines being set in a mural outside the University of Virginia - the world called, and I answered - a fitting tribute to Rita Dove and all those inspired to reach out and go beyond the personal realm.

Testimonial

Back when the earth was new
and heaven just a whisper,
back when the names of things
hadn't had time to stick;

back when the smallest breezes
melted summer into autumn,
when all the poplars quivered
sweetly in rank and file . . .

the world called, and I answered.
Each glance ignited to a gaze.
I caught my breath and called that life,
swooned between spoonfuls of lemon sorbet.

I was pirouette and flourish,
I was filigree and flame.
How could I count my blessings
when I didn't know their names?

Back when everything was still to come,
luck leaked out everywhere.
I gave my promise to the world,
and the world followed me here.

Analysis of Testimonial

Testimonial is a lyric poem in which the speaker reflects on their life. They are looking back to when they were young, perhaps just born, or when they were first aware of the world into which they had grown.

The first stanza deals with dawning consciousness, when the earth was new, that is, fresh and unspoilt. Things had names, but the speaker quickly forgot them, they weren't yet able to retain.

There was a heaven—suggesting a religious element being present—but it wasn't yet fully formed so to speak.

The speaker does have a memory however and repeats that phrase back when...the repetition reinforcing that memory perhaps because the speaker is uncertain of the truth? Or is just re-discovering a part of themselves?

There is an image of a seasonal change and a specific mention of trees, poplars, line of them, with quivering foliage.

Here we have symbols of growth and change. The change is subtle yet powerful...the smallest breezes ...enough to elicit profound change in the seasons.

The first two stanzas build up to the third and arguably most important stanza. Here there is a turn.

  • For the first time, the speaker is conscious of there being a world, and it has a voice. There is communication, real, between inner and outer.
  • Whereas before there was only a surface contact now there is the true and fixed heat of living. The glance has become the gaze.
  • Breath is made tangible, held in the hand and given a name. This is the ego forming.
  • Life can be intoxicating. Lemon sorbet is delicious but potentially dangerous.

The extreme energy of the teenage years when we are dancing through life is a fickle phase. We're fragile, we're world beaters. We're ignorant, we become selfish and don't acknowledge all that is given us, gratis.

Luck helps us along, somehow we just get on with life and it works out, despite future projections of fear and worry, aspiration and dreams. The world is waiting for us and we commit.

The speaker makes a pact with the world and it goes on and on, right up to this moment, this second. It is here; it has been our partner, faithful, unpredictable yet present.

Rhythm and Meter - Analysis of Testimonial

Testimonial has just five stanzas and is free verse, despite the occasional 'accidental' rhyme, such as flame/names in the fourth stanza, and the half rhyme everywhere/here in the last.

Meter

There is no set metrical pattern to this poem, the lines varying between 6 and 10 syllables, the trimester of the opening line contrasting with the pentameter of the twelfth.

It begins with a simple stanza metrically speaking:

Back when / the earth / was new
and hea / ven just / a whis / per,
back when / the names / of things
hadn't / had time / to stick;

So you can see that trimeter lines dominate this opening stanza, three lines starting with the trochee foot, stress on the first syllable which is a bit like an announcement being made, the voice falling on the second syllable.

Iambic feet take over - line 2 is all iambic - and towards the ends of lines, that familiar beat reinforced.

As the poem progresses syllables generally increase, and the feet vary, reflecting life's complexities?

There is a subtle rhythm to certain lines which gives a gentle read, not too bumpy. The first line is a trimeter for example, three feet, two of which are iambic (daDUM) giving a regular familiar beat. This rhythm does change from time to time, which alters stress and so brings a challenge for the reader.

For instance, line 12, the longest with 10 syllables, has a pair of long vowels, making this a roller coaster of a line which isn't a straightforward scan:

swooned be / tween spoon / fuls of / lemon / sorbet

So this line could be a pentameter (five feet) consisting of a trochee+spondee+pyrrhic+2 trochees...not an iamb in sight, so a falling cadence rules.

What Are The Poetic Devices in Testimonial?

There are several poetic devices:

Alliteration

When two words are close to each other in a line and start with consonants, they are said to be alliterative, which adds to the sound texture, and brings added interest:

hadn't had...glance ignited to a glaze...caught my breath and called...swooned between spoonfuls...filigree and flame...could I count...know their names...luck leaked.

Assonance

When two words close to each other in a line contain vowels of the same sound:

hadn't had...summer into autumn...caught my breath and called...swooned between spoonfuls.

Enjambment

Lines that are ended with punctuation but continue on into the next are said to be enjambed. The reader flows into the next line, the meaning being retained:

Stanza 1 : new/and...things/hadn't

Stanza 2 : breezes/melted...quivered/sweetly

Stanza 4 : blessings/when

Personification

When human traits and attributes are given to objects and things:

the world called, and I answered

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Andrew Spacey

    Comments

    Submit a Comment

    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      8 days ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Yes, thanks. Rita Dove's Testimonial is a rewarding kind of poem.

    • Mark Tulin profile image

      Mark Tulin 

      9 days ago from Santa Barbara, California

      Nice job of interpretation on a very moving poem. Thanks

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