Question set:
Explore how both poems deal with the theme of Identity.

It’s hard to figure out what is meant by the word ‘identity’, but it can be summed up in these poems as ‘thinking about the meaning of life, sense of self, life as a journey, sense of scale, proportion’.

It isn’t clear at first, how ‘The Cockroach’ deals with identity. This is revealed only gradually. At first, Halligan plays with proportion; the cockroach is ‘giant’ and seems to expand to fill his field of vision. Halligan is focussed on something outside of himself. Its journey as it starts to ‘pace’, ‘skirting’, to ‘trace’ then ‘jog’ seems to echo the journey of life. The mood seems fairly negative, with words like ‘dust’ echoing the words of the funeral service, with ‘rusty’ suggesting decay. The poet seems to view the cockroach from the outside fairly impassively (neutral mood) at first, but the imagery gradually darkens with words like ‘attack’ and ‘vicious crime’ – picking up on the idea of reincarnation, as the poet seems to wonder if the cockroach was a person in ‘a former life’ who behaved badly. The poet almost seems to put himself in the cockroach’s position by the end of the poem – at the volta – where he says ‘I thought I recognised myself’.

Equally, ‘Summer Farm’ focusses at first on the external world and gradually zooms into the poet. We see the detail of the farm one by one, starting with blades of ‘grass’ and ‘straws’. He hovers over the water in the ‘horse trough’, sensory details of the ‘ducks’ ‘wobbling’. This seemingly vacuous detail spins us round from a hen’s ‘eye’ up to an ‘empty sky’ then ‘falls’ and ‘dives’ again – as if the poet is delighting in throwing us about. The perspective keeps shifting, but it’s always close-focus – as if to recreate the disorienting experience of life – that we can only see one thing at a time, and our field of vision is limited.

In the third stanza, the mood becomes fearful with the word ‘afraid’, and we go into the poet’s point of view. He says he’s afraid of ‘where a thought might take me’ – into ‘space’. This idea of space – of nothingness, is terrifying, the opposite of close focus – it’s so zoomed out that we become insignificant. He considers the nature of ‘self’ through repetition, ‘self’ is buried, ‘under’ self ‘threaded on time’. The scale shifts to a cosmic one, creating an overwhelming effect: identity is under threat. He creates a picture of the farm as unreal, as if he’s questioning the validity or reality of his own existence.

In conclusion, both poems take a challenging, rather troubled view of identity. Halligan compares himself to a cockroach, suggesting darkly that he may have committed a ‘vicious crime’, and he gains self-awareness; he ‘recognised’ himself in the cockroach. MacCaig uses the scale of the universe – in space and time – to show human insignicance, but also shows us his power as a poet to create something that seems real but unreal at the same time. He’s tiny, in the centre of the farm, but also huge: he can ‘lift the farm like a lid.’

This is a brief essay, to which you could add plenty more.