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Tino Villanueva?S ?Day-Long Day? Essay, Research Paper
5 May 2000
Title: “Day-Long Day”
Abstract: This paper is a critical analysis of Tino Villanueva’s poem, “Day-Long Day”. It examines the work with regard to its diction, syntax, denotation and connotation, imagery, metaphor and simile, tone, rhyme and meter, allusion, and theme. (8.5 pages; 5 May 2000).
Tino Villanueva’s “Day-Long Day” is a remarkable work, for it captures in 34 short lines the anger, frustration, and cruelty of the life of Mexican migrant workers in Texas. The searing heat, the backbreaking and painful work of picking cotton—all of it is here in vivid detail.
“Diction” refers to the choice of words an author uses that distinguishes his “voice” from everyone else’s. That is, if you pick up a book by Charles Dickens, you don’t have to read very far before you know without looking who the author is—he has a unique style.
Much of that style depends on diction, which are the words a writer chooses to use and the way he constructs sentences. In Villanueva’s case, he uses many Spanish phrases, so that we know he is a Spanish-speaker.
He also uses sophisticated language and striking constructions, so that we know he is educated, even though he is a field hand:
“Daydreams border on sun-fed hallucinations,
eyes and hands automatically discriminate
Whiteness of cotton from field of vision.”
His choice of the word “discriminate” rather than “choose”, as well as the phrase “field of vision”, indicate a high degree of intelligence. Whether this is the intelligence of the poet or the field hand is immaterial at this point, for Villanueva has described the scene so vividly that we believe he is one with the other workers. The impact of the poem is not lessened if we find that he is not.
“Syntax” is the way in which words are arranged to form sentences. Construction is another good indication of intelligence, for it can be used to enhance the meaning of words. In the lines above, Villanueva might have said “…hands and eyes automatically find the cotton in the glare of the sun.” Instead, he says “…hand and eyes automatically discriminate whiteness of cotton from field of vision.” The words “discriminate” and “field of vision” are very sophisticated and again, indicate a high degree of intelligence at work here. But they are also loaded with other meanings: “discriminate” not only means to choose, it also carries an ugly meaning, as in “discriminate against”. Likewise “field of vision” reinforces the image of the workers in the field under the blazing sun.
III Denotation and Connotation
“Denotation” means the direct and explicit meaning of a word; “connotation” is an indirect reference, additional qualities suggested by a term in addition to the primary meaning (i.e., “politician” has different connotations from “statesman”.)
In “Day-Long Day”, Villanueva uses very little denotation, nor do his words carry different connotations. He works mainly in metaphors, simile, imagery and symbols.
Imagery is present when a poet appeals to our five senses. Imagery also includes such things as the sensations of heat and pressure.
In this work, the most powerful image, the dominant one, is the heat. It is mentioned over and over again, either directly or indirectly, as: “sun-fed hallucinations”, “Un Hijo del Sol,” “sweat day-long dripping”, “sun blocks out the sky, suffocates the only breeze”, “summer-long rows of cotton”, “sweat-patched jeans”, “the blast of degrees”, “sweltering toward Saturday”, “the day-long day is sunstruck.”
The entire poem is both a hymn to the sun and a curse at it.
V Metaphor and Simile
More definitions: a metaphor is a figure of speech which compares two incompatible things without the use of a connective term; a simile compares things of different classes through the use of a connector such as “as”, “like” “seems” or others. “My love is like the red, red rose” is a simile; “the curtain of night” is a metaphor.
I will admit that similes and metaphors are tricky little devils to catch. In this work, the one that stands out most clearly for me is “third-generation timetable.” This is a linking of two entirely incompatible terms. “Third-generation” refers to a family, while a “timetable” is a schedule, most often used in connection with finding out the times of trains.
Here, I believe he is saying that the family had hoped to break out of the cycle of poverty and migrant working by having the grandson (the third generation) go to school, but that plan (the “timetable”) is now upset, because the boss wants them to pick more cotton, even if it means sacrificing the boy’s education and the family’s dreams of getting him out of the fields. The lines that make this clear are:
“’From el amo desgraciado,’ a sentence:
I wanna bale a day, and the boy here
don’t hafta go to school.’”
“El amo desgraciado” means “the despicable boss”. Obviously the man doesn’t care what becomes of the child or the family, all he wants is to meet his quota—surpass it it possible—and if that means the child has no future except as a field hand, the boss couldn’t care less. He is going to stand in the way of the boy’s education for the sake of the crop.
“Tone” in written literature is somewhat vague. It generally means the way in which the poet hopes the reader will “hear” his words. Since he cannot speak aloud to us, he chooses words that will convey not only his direct meaning, but how he feels about his subject. I said that the tone of this poem is angry, and I believe it is, because that is what I feel when I read it. Certainly the blazing sun, the pain in the hands and backs of the pickers, the hopelessness of the boy who won’t be going to school, all these add up to a bleak and unpleasant situation. But there is an underlying feeling about it that indicates to me these people know they are being abused, and although they have been treated badly for three generations, I get a sense that they are ready to rebel.
Poetry is probably the most subjective of all the language arts, so each reader will take something different away with them. This is what I felt was going on under the surface, possibly because of the use of the strong “despicable” to describe the boss.
VII Rhyme and Meter
“Meter” refers to the pattern of stressed and unstressed sounds in the poem; when the work is read aloud, the stresses combine to form patterns that repeat. In this work, however, there are no such stresses, or repeating patterns. It is a free verse poem.
Likewise, it has no rhyme. Rhyme is the repetition of sounds that are identical: “the fat cat sat on the mat”. Villanueva does not use rhyme, perhaps because it has a distancing effect. When we read a poem that rhymes, we often get caught up in the rhyme scheme and then become aware that we are reading poetry. Villanueva wants us to remain in the field with the migrant workers, and so does not interpose the extra layer of distance between them and us.
An “allusion” is an “indirect reference” or “casual mention”; i.e., the speaker alluded to the budget amendment in the course of his remarks. In “Day-Long Day”, there are no such casual mentions. Everything is immediate, direct, and sensational (as in we can feel the sensation of the heat, the pain, the disappointment, the resentment). The work is not casual in any sense.
The main theme of the poem is the hopelessness of the migrants’ condition. They work as they do because that is all they know. This is the third generation to work in the fields in the sweltering Texas summer, and their hope for a better life—or at least for a better life for the boy—is dashed by the “despicable” boss who would rather have the child working in the fields than going to school.
The workers dream daydreams that are not far removed from heat-induced hallucinations, and their only relief is a drink of water from an old jug. They spend their lives in an endless cycle of misery and poverty:
zigzagging through summer-long rows
This work is all they know, and they are figuratively trapped by their ignorance as they are literally trapped by the closely-spaced rows of cotton plants.
This is a wonderful poem. The title itself is intriguing, as it can be read in many different ways: it’s a long day, to be sure, but is it only a day long? Or is this the life that these workers will lead forever? Villanueva tells us that they will never escape, and in so doing, reveals a powerful voice in the literary world.
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