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Poetry explication: Olive Senior’s 2005 poem “Plants”

While transcendentalist poets like Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself often portray a friendly and collaborative relationship between humans and nature—including plants, Olive Senior’s 2005 poem “Plants” tells a very different story that entails a more complex relationship between humans and plants. Using deliberately designed syntax and the use of enjambment, figurative language and vivid imagery, and through apostrophe and the use of first and second person pronouns, the poet portrays plants as powerfully deceitful and proliferate (as compared with human beings) to render humans—the usual center of attention of the planet—as futile and fragile.

Throughout the poem, the unconventional syntax—including enjambment in every quatrain—help paint a picture of the explosive characteristics of plants and thus reveal something about human beings. Olive Senior not only uses enjambment in each stanza but also uses it when transitioning from one stanza to another: the last line from the second quatrain goes all the way to the third quatrain, leaving only the phrase “grand design” as the first two words in the third quatrain. Similarly, the transition from the fifth to sixth stanza engages in another enjambment—as the poet leaves “—don’t deny it, my dear” alone in the sixth quatrain. While such a technique seems to disrupt coherency of the poem, it perfectly reveals the dominating and strength of the plants—who could spread from one place to another—just like the lines in the poem. Therefore, the very sentence and stanza structure support the overall message in the poem and work very well with the extensive imagery and diction that render the plants “invasive” and “imperialistic”.

The poet uses his literary talents to create compelling images of plants—instead of humans—as the ones conquering the world, using personification and the juxtaposition of adjectives to describe the unconventional relationship between plant lives and human ones. In the first stanza, for example, the poet uses both simile and personification and describe the plants as “always running around” and “leaving traces”—characteristics that again manifest the liveliness and power of the species. The figurative language and imagery of the poem shine through in the first stanza, where Senior directly speaks to the less perceptive human and reminds them of the “colonizing ambitions” of the plants. Painting images like “armies of mangrove/on the march,” “roots in the air,” and “clinging/tendrils anchoring themselves everywhere,” the poet creates a kingdom of aggressive plants with characteristics that would more often be associated with human beings.

Finally, what connects the speaker, the implied audience, and plant life is the use of apostrophe throughout the poem—a literary technique that not only adds a sense of humor but also successfully exposes the tricky deception of plants and thus the weakness of human beings. Besides using first person single pronouns, the speaker uses “we” to elevate the conversation as pertaining to all human beings, and from apostrophe starting from the fifth stanza, the speaker directly engages with other human beings without a similar revelation as the speaker. Connecting imagery and selected details with apostrophe, the poet points out that plants are so deceptive that humans fail to notice their slightest traces like “the/colonizing ambitions of hitchhiking” on the sweater and “surf-riding nuts/bobbing on the ocean.” Addressing the audience as “Innocent” and deceived by the plant, the speaker establishes a sheer contrast between the “intelligence” of plants and the gullible nature of humans—who are deceived into “scattering plant progeny.” In the final stanza, the speaker returns to the use of first-person plural pronoun “we” to convey a sense of resignation and admiration for plants—a species that “outlast” human beings.

The poem is an unconventional one—with its use of syntax and other devices, the poem challenges common celebration of plants and addresses plants as “profligate/ extravagant, reckless, improvident” to characterize the complex feelings towards plants—which include the contrasted powerlessness of humans and the eventual respect and admiration for plants.


Published by Sunny

I am a high school rising sophomore and I love to read and write.

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