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Interpretation of "The Contrapuntal Civilization"

Alles zu Michael Kammen  - The Contrapuntal Civilization

Interpretation of ’The Contrapuntal Civilization

The Contrapuntal Civilization is a poem from Michael Kammen and was written in the years of the Vietnam War in 1971.
After reading the poem my impression was mixed because the poet mentions good as well as dire aspects of American policy. The poem shows the deplorable situations America has and demonstrates its position in the world. In addition he points up its accomplishments.
To start with the poem is divided into 13 stanzas and they consist of 3 (tercet) or 4 (quatrain) lines. The poem ignores the fixed rhyme scheme and has no metre in order to concentrate on the context. One part of each stanza is loaded with words having negative connotations, like “died” or “bad” and the other part with words having positive connotations, for example “magnificent”. Furthermore the contrasting ideas are balanced against in grammatically parallel syntax. These formal means and the repetition of “I have […]. But I have […]”emphasize the contrasting arguments and the mixed opinion of America. Antitheses and the parallelism of sentence structure pass through the whole poem. The poet speaks to the reader directly and I can’t help thinking that the lyrical I in the poem stands for America itself.
“I have died in Vietnam” (ll.1-2) is the beginning of the poem. Kammen used this hyperbole because the Vietnam War was the first war the Americans lost. Moreover it had a hugely detrimental effect on the US economy, for instance the urban decline, pollution and welfare problems, inflation and unemployment. For proof the second and fourth stanza deal with pollution problems like befouled water and air or littered land. The contrasting argument in the first stanza is the landing on the moon as great event. With “I have walked the face of the moon” (ll.3-4) the poet thinks of the American Neil Armstrong who was the first man on the moon.
The fifth stanza illustrates the conditions of blacks. The poet focussed on the prejudices against blacks and the situation that they couldn’t go to the same schools as white people. At this time public services were segregated, too.
With help of focussing on the good things America has done the poet plays the bad sides of American happenings down. For proof I want to refer to the seventh stanza. There the space based nuclear program is the main aspect for the reason that the first atom bomb was built by Americans. The destruction of a whole generation of nuclear weapons ensue until the INF treaty was signed. To belittle the purpose of such a bomb - “to destroy the world” (l.23) – Kammen uses an understatement and states it was used “to light a light” (l.24).
Clearly, the last three stanzas tell a personal experience, are written from the view of an American and haven’t the same beginning like the stanzas before. On the one hand he/she is ashamed for the mistakes America has done and on the other hand he/she is proud to be an American. Lines 39 and 40 indicate the patriotism of the Americans as well as the though of America to be “the greatest country in the world”. These stanzas seem to be a conclusion of the poem that illustrates the contrasting opinion about America in the world.
To put it all in a nutshell the poem deals not only with the Vietnam War but also with political, military, environmental, social and economic problems in America. The lyrical I sees the pros and cons of American achievements in history, policy and society. The antithetic structure of the poem demonstrates the oppositional view of a contrapuntal civilization.
Maria Hentsch 12/2
604 words
Gedichtinterpretation des Gedichtes "The Contrapuntal Civilization" von Michael Kammen
(englisch, ) (610 Wörter)
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