Norman McCaig’s poem “Hotel Room, 12th Floor” initially seems to be a simple description of night falling in New York. However, on closer examination, it reveals that McCaig is, in fact, dealing with a more complex idea: the nature of violence in society and how this is an intrinsic part of the human condition. McCaig describes the changes in New York, from his hotel room from daylight to nighttime to show what happens when civilising influences are removed and man’s more primitive side emerges.
“Midnight” is the central metaphor in the poem “Hotel Room, 13th Floor”. “Midnight” is represented as an alien force that threatens the social cohesion of New York. It is describes as an “uncivilised darkness” suggesting the change from the civilised morning and daytime society before the carnage of the nighttime streets.
As evening grows closer the city inhabitants switching on their household lights illuminate night. As McCaig gazes out at the Manhattan apartment blocks the lights from the windows appear as if a crossword puzzle, “all ups and acrosses”. As the lights come on the bright flashes are compared to “shots”. This interesting word choice continues the violent imagery of nighttime and seems to represent the New Yorkers trying to repel the invading forces of darkness.
The imagery in the second stanza refers to a period in American history called the Wild West. The poem asserts that the chaos of those times is still prevalent every night in the streets of New York. Manhattan streets, because they are tall, straight and long, and towered over by tall buildings and skyscrapers are seen as “canyons and gulches”. Def. of canyon: a gorge or ravine. Def. of gulch: a narrow ravine cut by a fast moving stream. This precise visual image is drawn from the time of the Wild West and can be associated with the battles that took place to win land from the Native Americans. Any attempt to shut out the darkness of the city is futile: even twelve floors above the ground the absence of a distinct social order is clearly audible.
Theme (you may also refer to this section for points for your conclusion)
The nature of violence in society and how this is an intrinsic part of the human condition. OR
The constant battle between civilisation and the darker side of human nature.
The darkness that cannot be defeated is a moral darkness. It cannot be defeated because it is ingrained and everywhere. With a final ironic reference to the old West, whose savage ways are nightly reverted to in this supposedly most advanced of cities, McCaig closes the poem on a distinctly ominous note:
The frontier is never
somewhere else. And no stockades
can keep the midnight out.
McCaig clearly feel that not only is the violence of this city, New York, inevitable and ongoing, but that these reversions to primitive and violent ways of the past are a danger wherever human society flourishes. No “stockades” or any other barrier can stop these recidivist tendencies in humanity.
To the poet, the outward trappings of civilisation are fragile, as contained in the image of the helicopter as a “damaged insect”, suggesting the impressive buildings may conceal something darker.
The structure of the second stanza reflects the tense, immediate and threatening atmosphere of New York at nighttime. The long winding sentence that beings with “I lie in bed …” and ends with the closely packed build-up of “canyons … gulches … police cars … ambulances … broken bones … screaming … coldwater flats … blood … sidewalks”, with each item following on breathlessly from the last, creates a strong sense of the ever-present, inescapable violence. Not only that, but by the time we come to the reference to the blood on the sidewalks, the connection to the verb “hear” is lost (it is impossible to “hear” bloodstains on the ground), which again echoes what is going on outside:...