‘You Cannot Do This’ by Gwendolyn MacEwen is a three-stanza poem that is separated into two sets of four lines, known as quatrains, and one set of six, known as a sestet.
MacEwen makes use of a number of poetic techniques within ‘You Cannot Do This’. One of the most prominent is repetition. It can be seen through the use of a refrain and anaphora. The refrain is the first line of the first stanza, “You cannot do this to them, these are my people”.The phrase appears again as the last line of the last stanza.
Anaphora is another technique that appears throughout the poem, but most obviously in the final stanza. It is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. In the last stanza, “it has something to do with” begins four of the six lines. Then, the word “and” begins two more.
A number of the end words, also in the final stanza, are half-rhymes. The first three, “horses,” “trophies” and “lions” are all connected due to their similar consonant sounds. There are also examples of internal full rhymes such as in line four of the final stanza with “good” and “food”.
Summary of You Cannot Do This
The poem begins with the speaker using the phrase “You cannot do this to them, these are my people”. It appears again at the end of the poem, bookmarking the verses. She tells the reader and her intended listener that what she is talking about is not “poetry” or “art”. It is not made entirely clear who she is speaking about, but it is likely the people who make art and poetry.
She does not want her people mistreated. Their “horizons,” representing hope and the future, are not going to be hacked away on her watch. She plans to chronicle whatever happens to them, just as their graves will.
In the last stanza, she tries to make sense of what, presumably writing and art are for “[her] people”. They are vices similar to the desire to win trophies and be around horses. They are related to food and music, as well as dancing and power. Her people are more like scientists than artists.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of You Cannot Do This
You cannot do this to them, these are my people;
you cannot hack away the horizon in front of their eyes.
In the first stanza of ‘You Cannot Do This’ the speaker begins by making use of the phrase which came to be used as the title of the poem. She addresses a listener, telling them the they “cannot do this to them”. The “them” she refers to is not entirely clear, but is usually assumed to be a group around the writer. Perhaps writers, or poets in general.
She tells the listener that they are her “people”. She speaks about them tribally and personally, as if an offense to one of them is an offense against her.
The next two lines provide a little more detail about what she’s speaking about. She states that she is not speaking about poetry itself, or about the arts itself. Rather, the people associated with it.
The final lines tell the listener that they can’t take the “horizon” from the eye of her people. This is an interesting line as it references the present and the future. The horizon generally represents the future and by taking it away, one would be removing another’s hopes and dreams. The use of the word “hack” in this line is very violent. It increases the negative associations one should have with the act.
the tomb, articulate, will record your doing;
I will record it also, this is not art.
this is a kind of science, a kind of hobby,
a kind of personal vice like coin collecting.
In the next set of four lines, the speaker tells the violent listener that they better not try to “hack” the horizon as it will be recorded. Their act, of attempting to do away from her people’s future dreams, will be recorded by “the tomb”. This is another multilayered reference which brings up a wide array of images and connections. The tomb is the record of what happened to someone. Perhaps she is imagining an inscription on a tombstone, declaring what happened to her people. Or, the tomb itself is a marker of someone’s, or multiple people’s, lives going badly.
In the next lines she states that as a writer, she is also going to record history. She adds, that what she is doing is closer to science than it is to art. Her writing, and the writings of those she considers her group, are hobbyists who care deeply about their “personal vice”. The writing of poetry, or writing in general, are to the speaker something that one in her tribe can’t help but indulge in.
it has something to do with horses
you cannot do this to them, these are my people.
In the final stanza of ‘You cannot Do This’ MacEwen makes use of anaphora. This is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. In this case, three of the six lines begin with “it has something to do with” and two of the six start with “and”. This kind of reception makes the lines read like a list, and the content supports that.
She goes through the different ways that, presumably, writing is like other activities. She speaks on horses and trophies, as well as “the pride of lions”. The speaker is touching on the different things that people love, strive for, and how they work together. Writing also has to do with “good food and music” as well with “power and dancing”.
Finally, she ends the poem by repeating the opening phrase, “you cannot do this to them, these are my people.”