Simple Gift - Stephen Herrick
"The Simple Gift", Stephen Herrick's narrative poem demonstrates elements of belonging and acceptance through the 'pain and suffering' of rejection, 'homelessness' and 'dealing with death' by the characters Billy, Caitlin and Old Bill.
The protagonist Billy Luckett sixteen years of age ventures into the world; leaving home on his own decision. Billy reveals himself as a reject, a thief; and a troubled character who rejected a restrictive regimented irrelevant education system. The cause of his alienation appears to be physical and psychological abuse from his father, lack of caring from his school and his run down neglected neighbourhood with its “truck still on blocks” “unmown grass”, “broken windows” and which he derisively refers to as “each deadbeat no hoper sh-thole lonely downtrodden house in Longlands Rd, Nowheresville”. All the symbols pointing to a decaying, decrepit, depressing environment.
The school also receives a blast from Billy’s poisonous pen. Why 4:30? Most schools would have emptied two hours earlier, however the rest of the stanza rings true as Billy sets the scene on a windy rainy day with the Principal’s run down car blowing smoke, the rubbish strewn oval, Mr Cheetam (Cheater?) notes on Japan to 26 bored students and Billy self described as “one lucky bastard” admitting to have ‘stolen’ the lipstick used for his graffiti. He leaves an elliptical epithet: "Billy Luckett rhymes with..." revealing his frustration through a loss of words
Another evocative portrait is reminiscences in the poem "sport" in chapter one. The 'pain and suffering’ of 'soulless tyranny' endured by him from 'the old bastard' his father. This technique of expletive language is used to depict the poor relationship he shared with his father "he gave me one backhander... I felt the blood” and his attitude toward the world he's living in.
Whilst catching a train, uncertain where the train will take him, bad weather, wind and rain recalls the violent significant memory of his father "with the forces of a father's punch". The metaphoric terms further reveal Billy's harsh living environment he is seeking to escape.
Herrick induces us to feel empathy rather than antagonism to the protagonist. This is accomplished through the intimate use of language, changing perspectives and personal anecdotes.
Ernie's train whistle symbolises the beginning of Billy's new life contrasted favourably by Ernie’s ‘not bossing you around’. His next positive role model is Irene, Bendarat’s Librarian, who welcomes him and encourages him to borrow books. Billy faces many obstacles or challenges in his new environment, such as lack of accommodation and food, because he has no income. An old train carriage becomes the protagonist's new accommodation while he feeds off scraps of leftover food at McDonalds where he catches the attention of Caitlin.
Another self imposed exile is, Old Bill, who suffers trauma due to the loss of his daughter Jessie, after an incident of Jessie falling out of a tree. This led Old Bill to ‘homelessness’ as his home reminds him too much of his daughter, which eventually brings him to the streets turning to alcohol to relieve the pain.
After this loss, Old Bill's 'pain and suffering' that he endured means he doesn't care much about life. Billy and Old Bill developed 'a friendship and sense of camaraderie' as he treats Old Bill as his 'father figure'. "I like the kid...I like his company" contrasts the lack of love and relationship between Billy and his real father. Old Bill’s emotive language as he explained to Billy "and I fell with her, and I've been falling ever since" emphasizes he's still not over it. The bond of friendship is important, it emphasizes the strength in one's relationship, yet it doesn't grieve nor boast but helps one another through rough tough times, which is portrayed as Old Bill becomes less alcoholic, and slowly recovers from the loss of his daughter as "he experiences life that we planned".
Growth in maturity is shown as both of the two protagonists show signs of growth as they help each other. Billy's growth is demonstrated as he becomes a 'different' individual from the beginning of the narrative poem showing positive thinking “sure there's hope in the world...even for hobos like us". Whilst Old Bill's relationship with Billy and Caitlin, Old Bill’s view of the world slowly starts to change, as the protagonist reduces his consumption of alcohol and ventures to achieve plans that were made with Jessie. While Old Bill demonstrates the symbolism of 'A Simple Gift' when he gave his keys to his old home to Caitlin and Billy.
Caitlin also feels as a misfit in her affluent society. She feels discomfort in her uniform, her school, and her luxurious home due to a whispering in her heart that it is all false, superficial, affected and pretentious, so she escapes by slumming it, looking for real values to replace the artificial ones in her world. She is attracted to Billy because of his self assurance and his genuine intelligence. It is the interaction between these three characters and the sharing of gifts, coffee and food, that unites them against a cold, callous and uncaring society. As St Francis of Assisi says “For it is in giving that we receive”.
This narrative novel/poem/drama (?) is very successful and appeals to young people. In a recent poll it was voted the best drama in Australia despite the fact that is generally categorised as a narrative poem. It is fairly realistic and credible though there are parts that stretch the imagination. Caitlin comes across a bit contrived but her portrayal is plausible.
There are many reasons for individuals to venture into the world as the text "The Simple Gift" shows to achieve self-reliance and independence, even so, many individual's personality in life may change as they experience parts of life first hand. Many would like to experience their own mistakes, which is dealt with in texts like “Ten Things I Hate about You,” "Looking for Alibrandi" and "the Simple Gift" yet to find eventually that their perspective was completely opposite. Like most clichés "don't judge a book by its cover". The Simple Gift illustrates that gain acceptance from others by uncritically accepting them.
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“People change and encounter different experiences as they make transitions”
Discuss this view with reference to your prescribed text and ONE other related text of your own choosing.
People may change after experiencing a new perspective of life such as improved circumstances of wealth or security. However, a holistic transition is only possible when there is an altruistic connection established with the world around us and the people within it. The Simple Gift by Steven Herrick is one such text, in which the author circumvents the traditional avenues of change such as wealth and class, but instead focuses on the transformative power of love, of bonds, and of friendships. Similarly, The Last Leaf by Henry O Keefe explores the power of connections and self-sacrifice resulting in a positive transition. Hence, through the positive and negative experiences we must face it is clear that we are able to transition into a new life through overcoming challenges and resolving barriers.
The Simple Gift, is an analogy for the gift of human connection. For Billy, he must use his experiences of family and friendship to overcome fear and isolation. Initially, Billy’s world is filled with apprehension, the use of assonance in his foul language, “each deadbeat no-hoper Shithole lonely downtrodden house,” emphasizes the resentment he feels towards the world. His transition involves making holistic bonds with Old Bill and Caitlin. The tri-colon of,” I saw past the shiny watch… the beautiful woolen overcoat. I saw Caitlin,” exemplifies Billy’s engagement with others on a genuine level, an interpersonal bond independent of class and wealth. Through this authentic transition Billy Is able to achieve a transformative change conveyed through Herrick construction of a new Billy that is antithetical to the moody teenager we first encounter, “It was like falling headlong into the clear waters of Bendarat River and opening my eyes to the beautiful phosphorescent bubbles of light…” The use of the beautiful, natural imagery creates the mood of peace and happiness juxtaposing the dark and claustrophobic world of his old home. The particular emphasis of the ‘clear water’ symbolically represents cleansing, further highlighting Billy’s transition into a new phase of life. This overall transformation is only possible because Billy chose to see Caitlin and Old Bill as equals, as human beings, and not as a spoilt rich girl, or as an old hobo. Therefore it is through these new experiences that Herrick depicts Billy’s transformation.
Another text which examines a similar aspect of transformation is The Last Leaf by Henry O Keefe. The Last Leaf introduces how a new perspective of the world can change and transition the lives of individuals.Initially both Johnsy and Behrman are faced with individual struggles. Johnsy’s depression is expressed through her sickness of “Pneumonia”. She confesses to Sue through the analogy that when the “Last Leaf” of the vine outside their apartment falls, “I must go, too.” The vine is symbolic of hope, and it’s shedding of leaves is representative of despair. The intervention comes from an older artist, Behrman. For Behrman, who is “always about to paint a masterpiece, but had never begun it,” he is paralyzed by indecision and a fear of success. The moment of holistic connection which occurs, much like the humanistic bonds that spontaneous connects Billy, Caitlin and Old Bill, is when Behrman finally paints his ‘master piece’- a photo realistic “Last Leaf” on the vine outside Johnsy’s window. This self-sacrifice transforms Johnsy and her world view. She witnesses the persistence of a single leaf that simply “would not fall”. The vine transitions into a symbol of a life that persists in living. It is because of this renewed hope, and the didactic lesson of persistence and tenacity taught by the ‘leaf’, that Johnsy survives her Pneumonia.Conversely, whilst Behrman perishes from the act of painting through the wintery cold, he has created “his final masterpiece”. The plight of Johnsy transforms Behrman through the urgency of the situation as well as giving him a subject worthy of his passion and talent. Both individuals are utterly transitioned by the single act of human altruism. Keefe therefore portrays a powerful depiction of how these unique connections and acts of kindness impact the individual and transition them into new states of being hopeful for the future.
Likewise the wound in Old Bill’s heart is caused by the disconnection experienced through the death of his daughter and his wife. The transition which Old Bill must undergo is the ability to love again, to create bonds with others which are altruistic and meaningful. This is created through his choice of seeing the goodness in Billy, and the purity of Caitlin’s love for his friend. Like Billy, Old Bill begins in darkness. “I haven’t done anything in years” and that his only actions were to “Drink it, drink it probably, and piss it all away.” His actions show a sense of alienation and isolation, where he feels that he connect make connections with others – he is afraid to love again. This is highlighted by the metaphor of Billy’s observation, Old Bill is “afraid to forget because without his ghosts he’s afraid he’ll have nothing to live for.” Hence, like Billy, the transition only emerges when Old bill can resume his role as a father, a friend, and a mentor. In doing so, Herrick expresses that, “His laugh becomes real and it’s a good laugh, a deep belly roar,” where the onomatopoeia and assonance captures a mutual feeling of respect and happiness. As such, Old Bills very perspective shifts, and his world view changes, “I hadn’t thought of anything but how pleasant it was to sit with these people.”The simplicity of this satisfaction is the heart of the title “A Simple Gift” – for the gift is the gift of connection, of friendship, and of empathy with another human being. It is through this connection that Old Bill is able to “Push away the cobwebs,” reinvent himself, and finally, “felt something I hadn’t felt in many years.”
Therefore, we can clearly discern that people change as they encounter new experiences. In A Simple Gift, and The Last Leaf, transitions emerge from the holistic bonds and connections, lesson of friendship and morality learned from these experiences.