If this is a man, a poem written by Primo Levi, serves as an introduction to the Auschwitz memoir of “If This is a Man”, stating its subject, scope as well as his aim. The purpose of the poem is to contrast the lives of those who live inside and outside the concentration camps. The poem evokes strong emotions of guilt, accusation and resentment within the reader and sets a tragic mood for the succeeding memoir that continues to develop and expand the description of the prison life at Auschwitz. By analyzing its structure, imagery, repetition and word choice it will be more understood why it impacts the reader so strongly.
The structure of a poem is often used to support its ideas and tone as well as improve its overall presentation. In addition, structure allows for the poem to flow more smoothly as it acts as a support to the rhythm. “If this is a Man” is written in free verse and consists of four stanzas, distinguished by indents. The first group of lines serves as a summary of the lives of those who lived outside of the concentration camp. The first indent visually separates the first and second stanza, which describes the life of the prisoners in the camps. Here, Levi contrasts two extremely different situations and makes it ever more clear by separating them with an indented line. In the third stanza Levi again speaks of the people on the outside of the barbed wire (concentration camps) and ends addressing the reader challenging them to remember what occurred (during the Holocaust) by repeating it to their children or may their “House fall (…) illness bay their way (…) and loved ones turn away”.
One of the most significant elements in the poem is Levi’s use of imagery as it plays a vital role in delivering the message to the reader. The vivid and detailed images depicted aid to contrast between the lives of very different people. Images of “warm houses” and “hot food” establish a comfortable and tranquil atmosphere and most importantly an environment that the reader can relate to. A drastic shift is seen as Levi takes us from this image of a warm, cozy, sheltered house to that of a concentration camp. Phrases such as “works in the mud”, “bit of bread”, and “no peace” create images that are the opposite to those visited in the previous stanza. Starving men working amongst the filth, in a hostile environment is something that the readers cannot identify themselves with. There is the use of a simile to relate a woman to a cold frog in the winter in the third stanza serving not only as a continuation of the shift in imagery but it is also dehumanizing. The woman has been reduced to the small insignificant frog stripping her of all human characteristics.
A change as abrupt as the one seen between the first stanza and the second and third evokes fear, uneasiness and apprehension as well as leaves the reader in a state of shock. The fifth and final stanza focuses mainly on delivering threats to the readers/audience that beyond being specific and detailed are also tremendously alarming. Levi threats are frightful images of falling houses, impeding illnesses and family members becoming distant strangers. It is possible to assume that Levi is warning the reader about the horrifying things that could occur to them and their loved ones if they dare ignore or write off the horrific events that took place in the concentration camps but more generally the entire Holocaust.
Levi includes repetition in the poem “If This is a Man” and uses it to reinforce his ideas as well as amplify the effect of the poem on the reader. In the second stanza the reader comes across the word “who” at the beginning of lines 6-10. As the word is found at the start of each line the repetition is also known as an anaphora, it is used to string ideas or images in this case, parallel to each other. The repetition puts emphasis on the lives of those who lived in the concentration camp, builds momentum and slowly but steadily accumulates the horrible misery and suffering lived by the victims helping to convey the melancholic mood to the reader with greater ease. As mentioned previously, the threats in the last stanza are disturbing and shocking and presented through the use of an anaphora. The word “may” is repeated three times almost as if they are being placed one on top of the other, increasing accumulation with the aim to make the threats ever more harsh.
Word choice is very important as can either succeed or fail to convey the correct message and mood to the reader. Levi made careful selection of diction when contrasting the ‘two worlds’ (one being the inside and the other the outside of the camps). Words such as “safe”, “warm”, “hot food”, and “friendly” allow the reader to relate, living lives of happiness, security, and success. On the contrary, unlike in the first stanza, the following stanzas are concentrated with words such as “work”, “mud”, “fights” “bit of bread, which though the reader know not through experience, is able to link them to misery and suffering. In addition, in lines 11, 12, 13 the words “empty”, “without”, “With no name” are excellent ways to show that the meaning in the lives of the prisoners is gone as well as a possible feeling of emptiness. The word “carve” used in the third stanza the mere use of the word “carve” has a violent connotation. When something is carved into, the mark is there forever, thus, through the choice of this word, Primo Levi wants the reader to acknowledge the scares that the prisoners where given and were forced to live with.
In conclusion, the poem’s structure, imagery, repetition and word choice conjure in its audience a feeling of guilt as well as pity. The poetic voice is strong making the tone ever more angry and affirmative when addressing the “you” in the poem also known as the people outside of the camps. With this said, the tone and mood manages to come across empathetic when describing the lives of the prisoners. Levi speaks only the truth and the reality of what occurred and combines unsettling descriptions with what it means to be human, the importance of warmth, compassion and food – the things the reader ultimately takes for granted. The poem is an excellently composed preface for the memoires that recount the true experiences of Primo Levi in the Auschwitz concentration camp.