Semi-Splendid by Tracy K. Smith explores an argument between the poet and, we can assume, her boyfriend. The poem focuses on the difference between allowing people to walk over you and actually standing up for yourself. Smith focuses on the empowerment she feels as she decides to not just ‘smile’, but actually fight back and argue for herself.
Semi-Splendid by Tracy K. Smith explores an argument from two perspectives. Both perspectives come from Smith, yet one is from a ‘nice’ perspective, in which the poet typically just allows her boyfriend to win the argument, and the other perspective focuses on this moment, in which she stands up for herself and begins to fight back. The poem focuses on themes of gender and female empowerment, also touching on seemingly abusive relationships.
The poem is split by Smith into two stanzas. The first stanza measures eight lines, and the second measure six. There is no rhyme scheme, yet there are moments when internal rhyme and half rhyme occurs. The structure of the piece becomes less stunted, due to less caesura, as the poem continues, perhaps relating to the idea that Smith is becoming liberated from her oppressor.
The poem, having a total of 14 liens, could be compared to a loose sonnet. The idea of love which is commonly related to the sonnet form is here subverted, with the lack of rhyme scheme presenting the disharmony in their relationship, with Smith standing up for herself causing the breakdown of their unhealthy relationship.
Hand in hand with structural ideas, Smith manipulates the syntax of her lines to ensure that words such as ‘care’ and ‘my’ are placed last on certain lines, focusing the poem on the idea of taking your life into your own hands, being responsible for your own care and putting yourself, ‘my’, first.
Another technique that Smith uses within the poem, and one that occurs throughout, is alliteration. Especially in the first half of the poem, Smith uses fricative alliteration to give the poem an unsettling and combative tone, the words seemingly falling over one another as Semi-Splendid begins.
You can read the full poem here.
The poem beings with a short two word sentence, ‘You flinch’ characterising the actions taken within Semi-Splendid as something uncommon. This is the first time Smith has stood up for herself, making her boyfriend flinch due to her uncharacteristic rebellion against his oppressive anger. The harsh caesura after this phrase further emphasises the shock the boyfriend experiences, this is not typical for Smith, her breaking free from the role of subaltern within the relationship.
The fricative alliteration carried across the first line, ‘Flitch. Something flickers, not fleeing your face’ compounds a sense of discomfort, the release of air associated with fricative sounds being off-putting. The use of sound cleverly connects with the atmosphere of the poem, Smith disrupting the power dynamic of their relationship.
The first line ends with ‘My’ by itself, followed by enjambment, this could represent Smith’s decision to take matters into her own hands., with the syntactical positioning of ‘My’ suggesting that her happiness has become a priority in her own life.
Alliteration continues across the first four lines, ‘Heart hammers’ compounding a sense of the worry Smith feels in this moment. The double repetition of the ‘H’ sound mirrors the beating of Smith’s heart, tension rising in the poem. Sound is also repeted across ‘telling my tongue to turn’, the ’t’ sound feeding in to this moment of poetic and narrative climax in which Smith takes matters into her won hands.
The grammatical isolation of ‘Too late.’, being encased in caesura on either side draws attention to this moment as a poetic climax to Semi-Splendid . It is here that Smith has gone too far to stop, she is going to stand up for herself up disrupt the power structures that keep her subjugated within her own relationship.
She presents her speaking up as something ‘falling now across us like that plank of an icy’, the representation of the split in their relationship being suggested through the simile of a falling beam of ice that tears them apart. As soon as Smith decides to stand up for herself, she presents her words ‘climb[ing]’ and ‘leap[ing]’ down between them, shattering their relationship.
Although a little voice in Smith’s head, the old Smith that was oppressed within her relationship, tells her that she ‘chose the wrong word. I am wrong’, she dashes these concerns. The idea that her boyfriend has been abusing her emotionally to the point in which she fears to ‘choose’ the ‘wrong word’ demonstrates the toxic nature of their relationship. Although for a moment she fears the worst, she gathers her courage and ploughs forward in her argument.
Historically, in arguments like these, Smith would ‘merely to smile, to pull you towards me’, submitting to him. Yet, she draws away from these responses, instead fighting against him and arguing back.
The idea of ‘other me’ is Smith’s way of presenting the her that would take the abuse, and this new version that will stand up for herself. She argues that the past her ‘wanders lost among’, the idea that she has lost a part of her identity as she submits to her boyfriend, losing herself as she fails to fight. This is someone she is leaving behind in the past, she changes as Semi-Splendid progresses, coming in to her independence.
Smith presents a different perspective here, she has projected herself outside the situation, watching herself stand up to her oppressor from third person perspective, ‘I watch you watching her’. This part focuses on her ‘rage’, Smith experiencing liberation as she fights back.
She looks upon herself, seeing that she was just a ‘poor girl…who flits from grief to grief’ before she stood up for herself. This moment in which she argues and fights back separates a before and after in the poet’s life, she has become independent from this man who oppressed her for so long.
The man in this situation even goes as far to suggest that ‘Love is never fair’, not enjoying this new version of Smith. The closing line of the poem rallies against this, ‘But do we — should we — care?’. The double use of an extended pause within this sentence shows the difference in the poet, she is able to take her time, express herself exactly how she wants, not needing to comply with the desires of her boyfriend. She states that ‘should we’ even care about ‘love’. If ‘love’ is something that keeps you pinned down, ‘flitting’ from ‘grief to grief’, why should you care about it. Smith urges women to speak up, fight back, take control and grant self-empowerment.