Poem Comparison: Sonnet in Primary Colors by Rita Dove and Girl Powdering Her Neck by Cathy Song


Sonnet in primary colors is a poem by Rita Dove. The poem has two stanzas and it is relatively rich in its wording. In the poem, Rita Dove a reticently uses a colorful language vividly describe a woman’s love escaped. On the other hand, Girl Powdering Her Neck by Cathy Song Richly describes the life pattern of a courtesan obsessed with beauty. The two poems have a pensive mode in some way and the personas or voices in both describe a woman who is obsessed with earthly things. Moreover, both poems leave the audience in suspense; they end without a clear statement on what happens to the women being described. This means that both poets choose to indulge the audience’s imagination with their pieces. While the two poems seem similar in terms of the voice, theme and imagery, the poems have apparent differences in terms of diction and choice of words. 

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In Rita Dove’s poem, the voice is that of an observer who is watching from a distance and thus describing what they see. They speak of the woman in the poem as a character that they know but they do not interact with personally. There is nothing in the poem that implies an interaction with the character being described. This can be interpreted to mean that the voice is merely that of a curious on looker is probably unknown to the woman. The way the poem describes the character also indicates some level of understanding, such that one may think that the persona was describing more out of personal experience than anything else. Reading the poem gives one the feeling of a close observer, with some level of one-sided intimacy where the on-looker knows the subject of observation very closely and yet they are not known.

In Cathy Song’s poem, the observer appears to be just as close to the subject of their observation as in the first poem. More so, in the poem, the voice is that of a persona that is in the same room with the described woman on a consistent basis enough to know her routines and even some of her thoughts. The similarity in this voice and that presented in Dove’s piece is in the intimacy and the detail with which the persona knows the object of their observation. For example, both voices indicate that they know the thoughts of the women being described. To some extent, the voice seems to get into the heads of the women being observed.   


Without spelling it out too obviously, Dove’s poem is about a woman who seems lost despite also appearing to have many things under control. For example, Dove, in her poem, “Sonnet in Primary Colors”, describes the woman as “lovely Frida, erect among parrots…”. In this line, one may appreciate that the woman being described is one who is not only very pretty and attractive but rather one who is also confident and able to take care of herself. She wears ‘stern petticoats’ that imply she is a working woman based on the time setting of the poem. However, there is also an element of being lost in time in that Frida is not entirely in a happy place with regards to her life. The line about laying down in ‘pain and rose’ indicates some stagnation in Frida’s life where she is stuck and unable to move past something. This could be some pain she is harboring or some challenges that she has had to go through in her life. Dove’s mention of her “Beloved Dead” indicates that she may have lost someone or many people for that matter. The main idea from this poem is that the woman character is in a lot of pain thus the need with no hope for a better day. The poem actually ends with no mention or insinuation on the woman’s life. Song’s poem is also very sad as a young woman kneels in front of a mirror and paints her face and neck but she does not seem to be able to identify herself. She is described as a very pretty and relatively young woman who appears both traditional and modern within the contexts of the Japanese culture. Her pose in front of the mirror, along with her facial expression and the fact that she barely moves her lips all indicate that she is in deep thought and yet she managed to come to no conclusions at all. Basically, the Japanese woman is just as lost as the ‘priestess’ in Dove’s poem. The description on the petticoat and corset in Dove’s poem can be considered as a reminder of the cultural contexts within which the poem is being told and this is also seen in Song’s poem with the mention of the kimono.   


The imagery in both of these poems are also rather similar despite the fact that the setting is not the same. It can be noted that in either case, there is more effort in describing the women’s person and their immediate surroundings. For Frida, the description is rather vivid with the voice considering not only the details of Frida’s being but also the immediate surroundings including the flaming pillar and the celluloid butterflies, the Lenin, Marx and Stalin at Frida’s footstead as well as the a hundred dogs panting on the sidewalk.

The poem presents in such high levels of detail the precise environment within the main character is in. It can also be appreciated that the author of this poem was able to bring out the time setting of the piece by describing Frida’s dressing, with an emphasis on the petticoat and the corset. In Song’s piece, the imagery is just as detailed. First, the poem mentions the position of the slippers, rice paper door, low table and buckwheat pillow among other things. The author generally pays so much attention to giving the audience a clear picture of where the character is. Moreover, the character’s face is described in detail, along with the color of her kimono, the color of the powder she is using and the berry-stain on her lips. The poems in this case thus both show a depth in their imagery as both authors give the audience ample details for visualizing the characters.

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Diction or Choice of Words

This is the only notable difference in the two poems. Dove’s poem appears very well crafted with the use of word play as in seen in the way the word ‘present’ is used in the first stanza. The line about Frida painting herself a present could mean a couple of different things and the author leaves it open to interpretation. For Song’s piece on the other hand, the wording is considerably direct with limited consideration for the specificities on the wording and their implications. This is probably because Song’s poem is more direct, without having to necessarily be direct compared to Dove’s poem. 


Dove and Song are very different in terms of the two poems discussed above. It can be appreciated that while they focus on the same theme, use the same voice, and even the same depth in terms of the imagery, these authors use a different choice of words and this may be the specific factor that causes the difference in length for the poems. Considering that both have a very vague ending, it would be expected that the longer poem would at least say more about what happens next but both pieces simply leave it to the audience to decide.