Jackie Kay

Divorce by Jackie Kay

‘Divorce’ by Jackie Kay is about parent-child relationships and how children are impacted by adults’ issues. The speaker is a teenager who is struggling to contend with her parent’s relationship with one another. 

This poem is from Jackie Kay’s Darling: New and Selected Poems, published in 2007 by Bloodaxe Books. ‘Divorce’ cleverly suggests that it will be about two parents divorcing. But, it immediately becomes clear that Kay is using the term differently. She conveys a teenager’s desire to escape her chaotic, “wild” home life and live somewhere peaceful. 

Divorce by Jackie Kay


Summary

‘Divorce’ by Jackie Kay is a poem about a child’s dissatisfaction with her parents and home life. 

In the first fourteen lines, the speaker begins by addressing her parents, who she cannot bear to live with anymore. She never pledged to stay with them until the day she died, so she’s planning on leaving at first light and divorcing them. She tells her parents that she’s longing for new family members who never shout and always create a peaceful atmosphere at home.

You can read the full poem here.

Themes 

The main theme of this poem is parent-child relationships. Specifically, the poet is interested in exploring a speaker’s reaction to her parents, how she feels they care (or do not care) about her, and her disappointment that her parents do not fit into her vision of what ideal parents should be. She is disillusioned with them and uses hyperbolic expressions to signify her frustration. 

Structure and Form

‘Divorce’ by Jackie Kay is a two-stanza poem divided into fourteen-line stanzas. These fourteen-line stanzas are written in free verse. It is possible to interpret the two stanzas as two contemporary sonnets, written without the traditional meter and rhyme scheme most fans of poetry will be familiar with. The lines vary greatly in length, with some stretching close to 10 words and many more only a few words long.

Literary Devices 

Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:

  • Hyperbole: an exaggerated statement meant to drive home a specific point more so than convey something accurately. For example, “All you do is shout.” 
  • Simile: a comparison that uses “like” or “as.” For example, “your breath / smells like a camel’s.”
  • Personification: occurs when the poet imbues something non-human with human characteristics. For example, the poet writes “the soft murmur of rivers.” 
  • Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “promise” and “part” in lines one and two of stanza one and “children’s cheeks” in stanza two. 


Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

I did not promise
to stay with you till death do us part, or
(…)
In this day and age?
I would be better off in an orphanage.

In the first stanza of the poem, the poet begins by expressing her speaker’s disillusionment with her parents. It soon becomes clear that the speaker is a teenager. She is angry at how she’s been treated by her mother and father and has decided to express her anger by divorcing her parents. She directs her words to them, telling them that she (unlike them) did not swear until “death do us part.

She has reached her breaking point. The speaker uses elevated-sounding language, portraying herself as emotionally and ideologically superior to her parents. But, it comes across as nothing more than teenage angst looking for an outlet.

She has failed to acknowledge everything that her parents have done for her. Instead, she directs her words to her mother and father individually, sharing these specific reasons why she feels better off without them. She’s annoyed by the chores she’s tasked with at home, the lack of appreciation she feels on behalf of her parents, and the way her father teases her. 

The speaker is incredibly melodramatic, and the reader is meant to pick up on that fact immediately. This makes her statements feel far more hyperbolic and metaphoric than genuine. For example, when she says that she’d be “better off in an orphanage.” No doubt she, at times, feels that way but likely, if she took the time to analyze her situation and see it from her parent’s perspective, she’d take that suggestion back. 

Stanza Two

I want a divorce.
There are parents in the world whose faces turn
(…)

I will file for divorce in the morning at first light.

The second stanza is slightly more serious-sounding than the first. Here, the speaker tells her parents, without hesitation, that she wants to divorce them. She envisions life with parents who never shout, always speak in the “soft murmur of rivers,” and “sing in the colorful voices of rainbows, / red to blue.” She’s longing for a calm and peaceful atmosphere at home.

The latter is certainly a reasonable desire on the part of a child. But, because readers are only exposed to the child’s interpretation of the situation, it is impossible to judge how truly “rough and wild” their home life is. It is certainly possible that the speaker is enduring far more fighting and emotional distress than the text initially implied. But, it seems far more likely that she’s expressing frustrations that almost every teenager endures. 

FAQs 

What is the purpose of ‘Divorce?’

The purpose is to convey a teenager’s frustrated and likely melodramatic attitude toward her relationship with her parents and her life at home. The poet is asking readers to consider the ways that children are affected by the adult issues in their lives. 

What is the theme of ‘Divorce?’

The primary theme of this poem is parent-child relationships. The speaker is a teenager who, throughout the lines of the poem, expresses her frustration with her parents. She wants them to fit into a certain idealized vision of who they should be, and she is irritated that they don’t.

What is the message of ‘Divorce?’

The message is that children are influenced by the emotions they interpret on behalf of their parents. This is particularly true of teenagers who are hyper-aware of how they are treated and what people think of them.

What kind of poem is ‘Divorce?’

The poem ‘Divorce’ by Jackie Kay is a two-stanza poem that is divided into two fourteen-line stanzas, which may be interpreted as free verse sonnets. These stanzas do not rhyme, nor do they follow a specific metrical pattern. 

Who is Jackie Kay?

Jackie Kay is a Scottish poet, novelist, and author who is well-known for Other Lovers, Trumpet, and a professor of creative writing. She’s published numerous poems, many of which have made their way onto syllabuses throughout the UK. 


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Jackie Kay poems. For example:

  • Brendon Gallacher’  – is a poem about stories, and it uses those stories, familiar to most, to discuss various themes, such as childhood innocence and the burden of knowledge.
  • Darling’ – describes a woman’s death on a beautiful summer day and her close friend’s reaction. It was inspired by a personal loss the poet experienced. 
  • Dusting The Phone’ by Jackie Kay is a monologue of a woman yearning for a single phone call from the man she loves.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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