‘I Do Not’ by Michael Palmer is a reflective poem that explores the frustrations and limitations of the speaker’s lack of English proficiency. The poem delves into the challenges of communication, highlighting the speaker’s isolation and alienation due to this linguistic barrier. Through introspective and melancholic tones, the poem addresses themes of identity, misinterpretation, and the longing to connect with others. It conveys a sense of resignation and the profound impact language has on one’s ability to navigate and engage with the world.
Explore I Do Not
The poem ‘I Do Not’ by Michael Palmer expresses the speaker’s inability to understand or communicate in English.
Due to this linguistic limitation, the speaker feels disconnected from the world around him, particularly in relation to significant events like war. He emphasizes his lack of English knowledge as a barrier to engaging in discussions or expressing opinions on the ongoing conflict.
The poem highlights the speaker’s frustration with his inability to communicate basic needs, such as hunger, apart from gesturing towards his mouth repeatedly. However, the speaker acknowledges that even such a gesture can be open to interpretation, possibly conveying multiple meanings.
The poem also explores the speaker’s inability to navigate social protocols due to his lack of English. They cannot seek permission to engage in affectionate gestures or understand the response they receive. The speaker laments his inability to convey personal experiences and preferences or share anecdotes, jokes, and stories.
The lack of English proficiency prevents the speaker from writing letters and comprehending the letters received, particularly those discussing abstract concepts and the convergence of the visible and invisible worlds. The poem portrays the speaker’s struggles in distinguishing and articulating various terms, places, and experiences, including aspects of nature, scientific concepts, and emotional states.
Throughout the poem, the speaker remains isolated and unable to fully participate in the world due to the language barrier. He is subject to ridicule and has received various derogatory names. The war mentioned in the poem is declared ended, ironically and abruptly, before it truly begins, accentuating the speaker’s detachment from significant events.
Structure and Form
The poem ‘I Do Not’ by Michael Palmer follows a free verse structure with irregular line lengths and no consistent rhyme scheme. It consists of multiple stanzas that are structured in sixty lines. The poem’s structure mirrors the speaker’s disjointed thoughts and his struggle to express themselves coherently in English.
The poem begins with the repetitive refrain of “I do not know English,” establishing a consistent pattern that emphasizes the speaker’s lack of language proficiency. This refrain acts as a structural anchor, recurring throughout the poem to reinforce the central theme.
The poem consists of fragmented sentences and concise statements, often presented in short lines, which contribute to its fragmented structure. The use of brief, straightforward sentences and direct language enhances the poem’s clarity and emphasizes the speaker’s straightforwardness and directness in expressing his limitations.
The lack of punctuation in many parts of the poem contributes to its fluidity and the seamless flow of thoughts. The absence of punctuation allows the ideas to blend into one another, further reflecting the speaker’s stream-of-consciousness style of expression.
The poem includes several rhetorical questions and enumerations, creating a sense of inquiry and exploration. These rhetorical devices add a layer of complexity to the poem’s structure, inviting readers to ponder the implications of the speaker’s limitations and the broader themes of communication, understanding, and isolation.
The use of repetition throughout the poem, such as the repetition of phrases like “I do not know English” and “I cannot,” reinforces the speaker’s limitations and adds to the poem’s rhythmic quality.
In ‘I Do Not,’ several themes emerge as the speaker explores the limitations imposed by his lack of English proficiency and the resulting disconnect from the world around them.
The first theme that arises is the theme of language barriers. The speaker repeatedly emphasizes his inability to understand or speak English, which becomes a significant obstacle to communication. For instance, the line “I do not know English” is repeated throughout the poem, underscoring the theme of linguistic limitation.
Another theme that surfaces is the theme of isolation and disconnection. The speaker’s inability to communicate effectively isolates them from others, preventing meaningful interaction. This theme is illustrated when the speaker laments his lack of English preventing him from sharing personal experiences, telling jokes, or engaging in social interactions.
The theme of identity is also explored as the speaker struggles to express his preferences, experiences, and thoughts. His lack of English prevents him from sharing his past, hopes for the future, and even the simplest of desires. This is exemplified in the lines “No way to speak of my past or my hopes for the future” and “No way to tell how I dismantled it myself at this desk.”
Additionally, the poem touches upon the theme of power dynamics and control. The speaker acknowledges his inability to seek permissions outlined in a protocol, highlighting a power imbalance and the constraints imposed by language.
Lastly, the poem alludes to the theme of the inexpressible or the ineffable. The speaker is frustrated by his inability to articulate certain experiences, concepts, or emotions due to his lack of English. This is evident in lines like “No way to differentiate the hall of mirrors from the meadow of mullein” and “Cannot tell how I dismantled it myself at this desk.”
Poetic Techniques and Figurative Language
In the poem ‘I Do Not,’ Michael Palmer employs various poetic techniques and figurative language to convey his message of language limitations and disconnection.
- Repetition: One of the techniques used is repetition. The phrase “I do not know English” is repeated throughout the poem, emphasizing the speaker’s linguistic barrier and reinforcing the theme of language limitation. This repetition creates a rhythmic quality and adds emphasis to the central idea.
- Figurative language is also employed to enhance the poem’s imagery and evoke emotions. For instance, the phrase “flowering through a night-scope in the evening sky” creates a clear image of war seen through a scope. This metaphorical language conveys the speaker’s distance and inability to comprehend the war due to his lack of English.
- Rhetorical questions: The poet also utilizes rhetorical questions to engage the reader and prompt reflection. For example, the lines “May I utter a term of endearment; may I now proceed” pose questions regarding permission and social interaction, highlighting the speaker’s struggle to navigate social protocols.
- Imagery: The poem contains graphic and specific imagery, such as “glasses mysteriously shattered in Rotterdam” and “the sudden, shrill cries in the streets of Sao Paulo.” These images convey the speaker’s personal experiences and contribute to a sense of vividness and authenticity.
- Irony: Additionally, the poet employs irony in the poem. The title itself, ‘I Do Not,’ is ironic as it becomes evident that the speaker does have something to say, despite his lack of English. The irony underscores the frustration and complexity of his situation.
- Tone: The poem also features shifts in tone, ranging from frustration to resignation. This tonal variation helps convey the speaker’s emotional journey and his evolving attitude toward his language limitations.
Through the use of repetition, figurative language, rhetorical questions, imagery, irony, and shifts in tone, Michael Palmer effectively communicates the speaker’s struggle with language and the resulting disconnection from the world.
I do not know English.
I do not know English, and therefore I can have nothing to
say about this latest war, flowering through a night-
scope in the evening sky.
I do not know English, and therefore, when hungry, can do no
more than repeatedly point to my mouth.
In the opening lines of the poem, ‘I Do Not’ by Michael Palmer, the speaker declares his lack of knowledge of the English language. This statement serves as the foundation for the poem’s exploration of the speaker’s limitations and inability to communicate effectively.
The repeated assertion of “I do not know English” highlights the central theme of language barriers. By emphasizing his lack of English, the speaker emphasizes his inability to engage in meaningful discourse or express themselves fully. This theme resonates throughout the poem, underscoring the challenges faced by the speaker in his attempts to communicate his thoughts, desires, and experiences.
The following lines introduce the consequences of the speaker’s language barrier. The phrase “and therefore” establishes a cause-and-effect relationship, suggesting that his lack of English directly affects his ability to engage with certain aspects of the world. The speaker specifically mentions his inability to discuss “this latest war,” emphasizing his disconnection from significant events and his inability to contribute to conversations about current affairs.
The imagery of the war “flowering through a night-scope in the evening sky” creates a vivid and unsettling image. The metaphorical language suggests a distant, detached observation of the war, reinforcing the speaker’s sense of being on the periphery, unable to fully comprehend or engage with the conflict. The phrase conveys a sense of the war’s impact on the world while highlighting the speaker’s isolation from it.
The next lines introduce a practical limitation resulting from the language barrier. The speaker explains that when he is hungry, he can do nothing more than repeatedly point to his mouth. This imagery emphasizes the frustration and simplicity of his communication attempts. It symbolizes his reliance on basic gestures to convey his needs, highlighting the limitations imposed by his lack of English.
Through these initial lines, Palmer effectively conveys the poem’s overarching message. The speaker’s admission of not knowing English sets the stage for contemplation of the barriers he faces in expressing himself, engaging with the world, and participating in significant discussions. The imagery and language choices in these lines evoke a sense of disconnection, isolation, and frustration, capturing the emotional and practical consequences of the language barrier.
Yet such a gesture may be taken to mean a number of
each breast? And so on.
In lines 7-15 of the poem ‘I Do Not’ by Michael Palmer, the speaker delves into the consequences of his lack of English proficiency, particularly in terms of seeking permissions and navigating social protocols. Through these lines, Palmer explores the theme of communication barriers and the limitations they impose on the speaker’s interactions with others.
The speaker acknowledges that his gestures, such as pointing to his mouth when hungry, can be subject to various interpretations. This recognition highlights the ambiguity and potential miscommunication that arises due to his inability to express himself clearly in English. It emphasizes the challenges faced in conveying intentions and desires accurately.
The lines continue by expressing the speaker’s inability to seek the necessary permissions outlined in a recent protocol. The phrase “I do not know English, and therefore cannot seek” establishes a cause-and-effect relationship, emphasizing how his language barrier directly hinders his ability to navigate social protocols. This reinforces the theme of limited agency and isolation resulting from his lack of English proficiency.
The subsequent enumeration of specific permissions showcases the range of interactions the speaker is unable to engage in. The list includes intimate gestures like uttering terms of endearment, embracing, applying gentle pressure, and even kissing specific body parts. The explicit nature of the permissions emphasizes the speaker’s desire for closeness and connection, which he’s unable to fulfill due to the language barrier.
These lines highlight the speaker’s frustration and longing for connection, as he is unable to partake in physical and emotional interactions that require permission or consent. The detailed examples serve to emphasize the depth of his limitations and the inability to fully engage in intimate and nuanced social exchanges.
Would not in any case be able to decipher her response.
abruptly stopping in Paris
Through lines 16-24 of the poem ‘I Do Not’ by Michael Palmer, the speaker continues to explore the limitations imposed by his lack of English proficiency, particularly in terms of communication, self-expression, and sharing personal experiences. These lines highlight the theme of isolation and the frustration resulting from the inability to convey preferences, memories, and hopes effectively.
The speaker acknowledges his inability to decipher a response from someone else, emphasizing the challenges he faces in understanding and interpreting the communication of others due to his lack of English. This reinforces the theme of disconnection and the barriers he encounters in establishing meaningful connections.
The next lines express the speaker’s frustration at his inability to communicate his aesthetic preferences. He explains that he cannot convey his preference for a painting of nothing over a painting of something. This inability to express his artistic taste reflects his overall struggle to articulate his thoughts and emotions, deepening the sense of isolation and the limitations imposed by his language barrier.
The subsequent lines emphasize the broader scope of the speaker’s communication limitations. He is unable to speak about his past or express his hopes for the future. The specific examples mentioned, such as the shattered glasses in Rotterdam, the statue of Eros and Psyche in the Summer Garden, the cries in the streets of Sao Paulo, and the abruptly stopping watch in Paris, symbolize personal experiences and significant moments that the speaker is unable to articulate or share.
These examples underscore the speaker’s desire to communicate his unique life experiences and the frustrations arising from his inability to do so. The imagery evokes a sense of nostalgia, mystery, and fleeting moments, representing the rich tapestry of memories and emotions that remain locked within the speaker.
No way to tell the joke about the rabbi and the parrot,
and the lens of dark matter.
In these lines of the poem ‘I Do Not’ by Michael Palmer, the speaker delves into the limitations of his language barrier in terms of sharing humor, engaging in correspondence, and comprehending complex ideas. These lines emphasize the theme of the speaker’s isolation and his inability to fully connect with others due to his lack of English proficiency.
The speaker laments his inability to tell jokes, specifically mentioning the jokes about the rabbi and the parrot, the bartender and the duck, and the Pope and the porte-cochere. This highlights his frustration at not being able to participate in the joy and camaraderie that humor can bring. The mention of these jokes also symbolizes the broader realm of cultural references and shared experiences that remain inaccessible to the speaker due to his language limitations.
The following lines address the absence of correspondence between the speaker and the recipient. The speaker suggests that the recipient has received no letters from them, and likewise, the recipient’s letters have gone unread. This lack of communication further underscores the speaker’s isolation and inability to engage in meaningful written exchanges. It emphasizes the profound impact of the language barrier on his relationships and his sense of connection with others.
The specific mention of the content in the recipient’s letters adds another layer to the poem. The speaker mentions the precise writings about the “confluence of the visible universe with the invisible” and “the lens of dark matter.” These concepts allude to deep and complex ideas, representing intellectual and philosophical discussions that the speaker is unable to comprehend or participate in. It underscores his frustration at being excluded from conversations about profound and abstract subjects due to his language limitations.
The poem highlights the speaker’s deep sense of isolation and his yearning to connect with others on intellectual, emotional, and cultural levels. The inclusion of specific references to jokes and complex concepts serves to emphasize the vast range of experiences and connections that remain beyond his reach due to the language barrier.
Lines 32- 39
No way to differentiate the hall of mirrors from the meadow
In lines 32-39 of the poem ‘I Do Not’ by Michael Palmer, the speaker continues to explore the limitations of his language barrier, focusing on his inability to differentiate between certain objects and concepts, as well as his inability to articulate specific words and describe natural phenomena. These lines highlight the theme of the speaker’s linguistic confinement and his struggle to comprehend and express nuanced aspects of the world.
The speaker expresses his inability to distinguish between various elements. He mentions the inability to differentiate “the hall of mirrors from the meadow of mullein, the beetlebung from the pinkeltink, the kettlehole from the ventifact.” This lack of differentiation suggests a broader difficulty in grasping and categorizing objects, places, and phenomena. It emphasizes the speaker’s limited understanding of his environment and his frustration at the blurred lines between distinct entities.
The next lines emphasize the speaker’s inability to articulate certain words. He mentions his inability to utter the words “science, seance, silence, language, and languish.” This inability to express key terms further emphasizes the speaker’s linguistic confinement and his struggle to convey precise meanings and concepts. The inclusion of these particular words touches on themes of knowledge, spirituality, communication, and emotional states, highlighting the breadth of the speaker’s limitations.
The final lines of this excerpt describe a natural phenomenon that the speaker cannot effectively convey. He mentions the “arboreal shadows elongated and shifting along the wall” as the sun’s angle approaches maximum hibernal declination. This imagery evokes a specific visual experience, emphasizing the speaker’s frustration at his inability to describe the beauty and intricacies of the natural world. It underscores his longing to articulate the details of his surroundings and engage in poetic expression.
Lines 40- 47
Cannot tell of the almond-eyed face that peered from the
the Angel of Erasure.
In lines 40-47 of the poem ‘I Do Not’ by Michael Palmer, the speaker highlights his inability to share specific experiences, observations, and knowledge due to his language limitations. These lines emphasize the theme of the speaker’s frustration at his inability to communicate significant details and the sense of loss resulting from his linguistic constraints.
The speaker expresses his inability to narrate a particular event or sighting. He mentions the “almond-eyed face that peered from the well” and the “ship of stone whose sail was a tongue.” These vivid images evoke mysterious and intriguing encounters, emphasizing the speaker’s desire to convey unique and captivating experiences. However, his language barrier prevents him from sharing these specific observations, heightening the sense of isolation and the loss of opportunities for connection.
The next lines focus on the speaker’s inability to report certain details about a rose. He mentions his inability to describe the rose’s twenty-four petals, one of which is slightly cankered. This inability to articulate specific features of the rose underscores the speaker’s longing to capture and communicate the beauty and intricacies of his surroundings. It emphasizes his frustration at being unable to convey even the simplest aspects of his observations.
The speaker further emphasizes his linguistic limitations by mentioning his inability to explain how he dismantled the rose at the desk. This highlights his desire to share his creative processes and actions, but his lack of English prevents him from doing so. Additionally, he expresses his inability to ask for the name of the rose, indicating a broader difficulty in seeking information and engaging in meaningful conversations.
The final line mentions the speaker’s inability to repeat the words of the Recording Angel or the Angel of Erasure. This signifies his inability to access or convey profound knowledge or spiritual insights. It reflects his frustration at being cut off from important sources of wisdom and understanding, deepening his sense of isolation and the limitations imposed by the language barrier.
The poem highlights his longing to express unique encounters, capture beauty, and engage in meaningful conversations. The lines emphasize the profound frustration and sense of loss resulting from the linguistic constraints, contributing to the overarching theme of isolation and the struggles imposed by the language barrier.
Can speak neither of things abounding nor of things
In lines 48-53 of the poem ‘I Do Not’ by Michael Palmer, the speaker reflects on his inability to effectively communicate and participate in conversations about the flux and transience of life. These lines highlight the theme of the speaker’s linguistic confinement and the sense of detachment from the ongoing activities and changes in the world around him.
The speaker asserts his inability to speak about the abundance or disappearance of things. This suggests his frustration at being unable to engage in discussions about the dynamic nature of existence, the ebb and flow of life, and the continuous processes of growth and decay. It emphasizes his lack of agency in expressing and understanding the impermanence and constant transformation of the world.
Despite his linguistic limitations, the speaker acknowledges that life and its activities persist. He describes a scene where a muscular man waves a stick at a ball, a woman in white carves a true circle in space with her arms outstretched, and a village turns to dust in the chalk hills. These images represent different aspects of human endeavors and the ever-changing nature of existence. The actions of the man and the woman depict physical activities and gestures, while the village’s transformation reflects the ephemeral nature of human settlements.
The juxtaposition of these ongoing activities with the speaker’s own linguistic confinement creates a sense of detachment and isolation. The speaker observes these actions from a distance, unable to fully participate or engage in conversations about them. It underscores his sense of being an outsider, disconnected from the vibrant and evolving world due to his inability to communicate effectively.
The poem here emphasizes the speaker’s frustration at his linguistic confinement and the resulting detachment from the dynamic nature of existence. The lines highlight the speaker’s longing to fully engage with and express the perpetual changes and activities happening around him, adding to the overarching theme of isolation and the challenges imposed by the language barrier.
Because I do not know English I have variously been called
I do not know English
In lines 54-60 of the poem ‘I Do Not’ by Michael Palmer, the speaker reflects on the consequences of his lack of English proficiency and the impact it has on his identity and perception by others. These lines emphasize the theme of the speaker’s alienation and the misunderstandings that arise due to his linguistic limitations.
The speaker begins by stating that he has been given various names or labels because he does not know English. He has been called “Mr. Twisted, The One Undone, The Nonrespondent, The Truly Lost Boy, and Laughed-At-By-Horses.” These names highlight the misinterpretations and misconceptions that surround the speaker due to his inability to effectively communicate. The labels reflect the perception of others who may find his lack of English proficiency peculiar, frustrating, or even comical.
The following lines introduce the declaration of war, named “The Ultimate Combat Between Nearness and Distance.” This war is described as ending almost before it has begun, suggesting a sense of irony and futility. The naming of the war emphasizes the contrast between closeness and distance, underscoring the vastness of the linguistic barrier that separates the speaker from others and intensifies his sense of isolation.
The repetition of the phrase “I do not know English” at the end of this excerpt reinforces the speaker’s central predicament and emphasizes his limited ability to navigate the world due to the language barrier. It underscores his frustration and the ongoing challenges he faces in connecting with others, understanding his surroundings, and expressing himself fully.
These lines of the poem highlight the impact of language on identity and perception, as well as the isolating effects of the language barrier. They reveal the speaker’s frustration at his inability to effectively communicate and the resulting challenges he faces in forming connections and being understood by others. The repetition of “I do not know English” reinforces the speaker’s predicament, adding to the overarching theme of alienation and the struggles imposed by his linguistic limitations.
The tone in ‘I Do Not’ is reflective and introspective, conveying a sense of resignation and isolation as the speaker grapples with his inability to express himself fully and participate in conversations and experiences.
The mood of ‘I Do Not’ is one of melancholy and frustration, evoking a sense of longing and detachment as the speaker navigates the challenges of his linguistic confinement and the resulting isolation from others.
‘I Do Not’ is a poem written in free verse, characterized by its lack of a specific rhyme or meter. It belongs to the genre of contemporary poetry, exploring themes of language, identity, and the limitations of communication.
The values represented in the poem are the importance of language as a means of connection and understanding, as well as the significance of empathy and communication in fostering human relationships.
The poem evokes feelings of frustration, isolation, longing, and a sense of being misunderstood, highlighting the emotional impact of the language barrier and the limitations it imposes on the speaker.
If you enjoyed this poem by Michael Palmer that evokes frustration, you might also like to explore the following other poems by different poets:
- ‘A Jet Ring Sent’ by John Donne describes how a speaker’s beloved returned his promise ring. The speaker meditates on the nature of their relationship and how it is symbolized by the black ring.
- ‘Abuelito Who’ by Sandra Cisneros is a powerful poem about the importance of family. The poem conveys the ways that illness and change within the family dynamic can have an effect on a child.
- ‘Ah, Moon–and Star!’ by Emily Dickinson is an unforgettable love poem. The poet skillfully uses the universe to depict what it’s like for two lovers to be separated.