Preparing GCSE English Literature Unseen Poetry

For many English Literature exams at GCSE, there’s a requirement to respond to unseen poetry. Most students do really well on this, and examiner reports say the responses are fresh and interesting. Nevertheless, it does instill a great deal of fear in the hearts of many candidates and the following four posts are designed to help you get your head around some of the most challenging poems ever written in order to help you revise and prepare for the unseen poetry questions.

There are three main things you’ll need to look at when responding to poetry: form, structure and language.

Most of you are fine with the language bit. You can spot similes at fifty paces; you know how to write about metaphors, and pathetic fallacy doesn’t phase you.

But many students really struggle when it comes to writing about form and structure. So the following posts are designed to look at three poems that will really develop your response to these two aspects of poetry.

Let’s define our terms first, though, so that we know what we’re dealing with.


How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Form is what makes it a poem and not prose. Why does it look the way it does? What decisions has the poet made about what he has put on one line and what on another? Why this form?

When I approach a poem, I start first by identification of what’s there. Sometimes, if I don’t know where to start, I identify everything I can see.

When I’ve identified and can describe what the poet is doing with the form of the poem, then I start narrowing down. What’s unusual? What’s interesting? What links with the ideas in the poem? What supports the ideas in the poem?

Because I might be able to say 200 things about the form of the poem, but I can’t write 200 things in one paragraph in a short exam essay. Maximum, I’m looking for is a single paragraph on aspects of form and how they link to the ideas in the poem.

One thing we have to do, though, is step away from comments about how the poem LOOKS LIKE something. Really. Time to put those comments behind us.

Please don’t tell me the poem looks like blah blah thing in the poem.

I don’t know why students do this.

Ok, I kind of do. There’s a branch of poetry called ‘Concrete Poetry’, also known as ‘shape poetry’ or ‘pattern poetry’ where the poets wrote in shapes that reflected the content.

George Herbert’s The Altar is an example of this. Another of his poems, Easter Wings,  also does this:

It would be, then, perfectly reasonable to say you need to turn this poem on its side and then it looks like a pair of wings. I’m guessing angel wings on account of the fact that a)I’ve never seen an angel so I don’t know and b) they look like butterfly wings to me, but the poem isn’t really about butterflies.

But… BUT….

There are so few poems like this in the English language that you shouldn’t have to resort to comments like ‘If you turn the poem on its side, it looks like…’

And if you come across a poem that IS a Concrete poem, you’ll probably know.

Don’t be tempted to say anything about turning poems on their side or what the poem looks like. I hate this and most of the time it’s not at all what you say it is – your comment could be applied to thousands of other poems that look the same as the one you’ve got.

Pattern poems absolutely exist. Mostly, you’ll know that’s what you’ve got.

Do you see?

You’ll generally know without having to puzzle over it. I promise.

So now I’ve said ‘Don’t say the poems look like…’ where does that leave you? What can you say?

To start, we’re going to have a look at one of my favourite weird poems and think about form. I’m going to tell you what I see – all of it – and describe the form. Then I’m going to narrow down and think about what’s useful. Then I’ll think about what relates to the content and what I want to put in my single paragraph about the big idea.

And I’m starting with one that will REALLY make you think.

It gets worse, I must admit, but by the time you’ve read and thought about these poems in this series, you’ll be so happy to write about form that you’ll realise that you can do anything once you’ve tackled the meaningless and the complicated. The poems you’ll get in the exam will never, ever be this hard. So if you can happily write about the form in the poems that are coming up, nothing will ever be that difficult in the exam.

So let’s have a look at our first unseen poem: Ezra Pound’s brief “On a Station in the Metro” written in 1907

Yes, this is all of it.

Yes, it’s a poem. Well, at least those who know more than I do say it is. You might want to use this as a starting point to consider what makes ‘a poem’ – what the things we need to make a poem?

For me, I’m going to say: it’s not a play. It doesn’t have characters. That said, some plays are composed in poetry, like the early plays. It’s also not narrative.

In fact, it’s form that makes this a poem at all. Form is the very thing that makes something ‘not prose’. Cutting things up and putting them on the lines you want them to go on is the very essence of poetry. But you can have some very interesting discussions about ‘what is a poem?’ using this as a staple. It makes for some very interesting discussion.

So, let’s look at that form and I’ll tell you all the things I can see. You may see more, and that’s great – leave me your thoughts in the comments if you like.

Just a reminder… this is what I’m asking myself:

How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Eighteen interesting things about the form:

  1. It’s a couplet.
  2. There are two lines.
  3. One line is longer than the other.
  4. The second line is shorter.
  5. There’s a title.
  6. The title tells us where it takes place.
  7. The first line has 12 syllables.
  8. The second line has 7 syllables.
  9. It reminds me a bit of a haiku (will come back to that later)
  10. There’s something rhythmic about the last words.
  11. ‘Crowd’ and ‘Bough’ have a ‘ow’ sound. Not rhyme, but assonance.
  12. Both lines contain an entire phrase.
  13. Neither idea or line has a verb.
  14. It’s a bit like a short list of two timeless things without those verbs.
  15. I really, really, really want to talk about that semi-colon.
  16. The semi-colon turns these into two linked ideas.
  17. It’s a pivot, a mirror, a turning point, a volta (that’s structure, I know).
  18. If you take the poem’s title as a line in the poem, you’ve got 7 – 12 – 7.

Now I know myself. I think I could easily write about the relevance of at least ten of those things. But I have about 12 minutes to write one section on form and it’s not possible.

From there, I have two options. One is to group them for an overall impression. There is, for instance, quite a lot of balance in those two lines – something even in the cadence. Not perfect, slightly offset by the length, but the ‘crowd’ and ‘bough’ are pleasant and smooth, long vowel sounds, mellifluous even, and they help create a sense of balance. The fact there is one statement on each line, neither with a verb. That semi-colon. The parallel monosyllables of ‘in the crowd’ and ‘wet, black bough’ which both have two short vowels and then a long vowel to finish. I could talk about why Ezra Pound does so much to make it neat and balanced.

Or I can drill down into one specific thing. Like the semi-colon for instance.

But Ezra Pound is long since dead and I can’t ask him what he meant by this poem. That means that everything I say about it is speculation, hypothesis, theory. An educated guess. So I can’t say ‘Pound did this because…’, only ‘The effect this has on the reader is…’, or ‘this makes us think that…’ and so on. Because I do know what people think about it. And whilst I may say ‘the reader’ or ‘we/us’, what I mean is ‘me’. I mean how could you possibly think otherwise?

Oh, okay. You do. That’s great. All I’m asking you to do is explain then to me and justify why you think this way about it. I write sometimes as if there is only one way to take a poem, when this is so untrue. You take from it what you like. As long as you can justify it, you’re on solid ground. That’s not to say that anything goes – it’s doesn’t. There are reasonable, rational evaluations, and there are crazy notions that don’t bear any real weighing up and fall apart under scrutiny.

For instance, let’s look at those two lines.

You might think ‘metro’… metros have two platforms. The two lines are like the platforms. So you could write “The two lines could represent the two platforms in a metro station”

And that might very well be true, except for the fact that one of those lines is shorter, and platforms are usually of fairly equal length. Also, lots of stations have more than one track, and some have only one.

You might as well say, “the poem looks like an equals sign”, or “the poem looks like a parallel line” or “the poem is like a double-yellow line” or “the poem is like metro train tracks”

Even if these things were true, would they add to the meaning?

So what IS worth commenting on?

For me, the couplet. The two lines seem very neat. In fact, you could also consider the title to be a third line I guess, in which case it would be even more like a haiku.

It’s at this point knowing some of the context for Pound is helpful, but in the unseen question, you don’t have any of that. I did want to explain a bit about the haiku statement, because no doubt, you’re scratching your head saying, “Really? But it’s two lines!”

If you knew that Ezra Pound was very interested in Japanese poetry (and also in Dante’s famous poem, Inferno, about hell) and you knew that he was interested in those neat little moments of Japanese poetry, then you can see why I might say this.

But you don’t have to know he was interested in Japanese poetry to see that this is a very simple, singular, timeless moment. Just looking at the ‘haiku’ page on Wikipedia, you can see it’s about the ‘juxtaposition of two images’. Does this poem do that? I think it does – the apparition of the faces and the petals. Haiku have a ‘turning word’, a pivot. Does the punctuation at the end of the line do that? I would argue that it does. Plus, different variations of this poem have different punctuation at the end of the line – which alters the meaning in interesting ways once you know what semi-colons and colons do, but a semi-colon is a joining thing. It says the ideas are connected. Second thing in common with a haiku. Also, a haiku may have a reference to a season. I think you could make the argument that the petals are evocative of spring, since spring is when most trees blossom, unlike flowers which may have flowers at other times of the year. A final thing is that haiku should be everyday kind of events, which seeing people on the metro station undoubtedly is.

It doesn’t have the three lines of a haiku, or the syllabic patterns, which is why I’m saying this is ‘like’ a haiku rather than it is a haiku. But the point would be about what haiku DO. They capture a moment. They capture everyday events or occurrences and make poetry out of the mundane.

Couplet or haiku, that’s what I think this poem is doing. It makes you reflect on the world around you.

So what can I say in my one paragraph about the form of this poem? Let’s have a go:

In a Station of the Metro is a brief, two-line couplet. In itself, the couplet is complete and neat. Like the moments when waiting for a metro train, it’s brief and fleeting, just as those thoughts and impressions you get about the people who are waiting. It’s a fragment, a flash of a thought, like the couplet has captured that brief thought. Because it’s so brief, it helps us understand the brevity of the moment, yet also that it was complete in itself. The ‘apparition of the faces’ is made to seem like a short, transitory, fleeting thought. It’s a stark, simple image that is reinforced by the stark, simple form. Although it may not have much in common with Japanese haiku in terms of form (unless you consider the title to be a third line), it has some features in common such as the ‘volta’ or turning point, and the way that it captures a single moment or thought. The simplicity is deceptive: we end up doing as much thinking about it as we would for a longer poem, but at the same time, when we read it, we too experience the same transitory and fleeting moment as the poet does.

As you can see, I’m trying to move on from describing the poem and into evaluation. I say that it’s complete and neat, which is more of a judgement than “it has two lines” and then I go on to spend the rest of my paragraph explaining what the effect is. I’m not saying “Pound wants us to think” or trying to explain what I think Pound is doing. I don’t know. He’s dead. I can’t ask him. Even if I could he may not have replied. But I can say what we think when we read it. What I hope you can also see is that I’ve got three mini-descriptions and then three comments that explain my thoughts about that.

Now if I can say something sensible about two lines (yes, I’m aware of the irony that my commentary on form is longer than the actual poem) and if you have some ideas too about why it’s two lines and why you think it’s so simple, then you’re a long way on to making comments on a poem that is FREAKISHLY unique. If you can comment on this, then you can comment on longer things for sure.

That brings us to a very simple thing to consider, no matter what poem you’re looking at:

Is the poem brief and neat? If so, why do you think that is?

Is the poem waxing lyrical and dedicating hundreds of lines to the topic? Why do you think that is?

And how much of the poem is dedicated to one single idea?

Next time, I’m going to have a brief look at another freakishly unique poem and think about other aspects of form that might help you analyse poems in the exam. After all, if you can have a SENSIBLE thought about this ^^^^^^^ poem, you can have sensible thoughts about much less complex ideas without resorting to painful comments like “it looks like train tracks”.


How to revise for AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2 Question 4

This post is the last in a series looking at the reading section of Paper 2 for AQA’s GCSE English Language paper, specification 8700. You can find guidance on revising for question 1, question 2 and question 3, or for Paper 1 here.

Question 4 is the question with the highest marks on Paper 2. It allows you to build up to it and as it is worth 16 marks out of the 80 available on the paper, it is a question that needs a bit of practice and development.

Let’s look at the question first.

So as we go through the question, you can see that some things stay the same and that some things change. The first thing that stays the same is the guidance about what to explore:

For this question, you need to refer to the whole of Source A, together with the whole of Source B. 

That’s just a reminder of what the focus of the question is: your ability to write about both extracts and compare key aspects of it. As you may remember, the focus of paper 1 is exploring how writers create texts, and the focus on Paper 2 is how writers express viewpoints and perspectives. 

As we move on to the second part of the question, it tells us to compare how the two writers convey their 

At this point you could be asked about perspectives or attitudes – how they see things and how they feel about things. You’re being asked to look at their point of view and the way they share what they think about the topic that binds the two extracts together.

Now let’s look at the markscheme and pick out what you’re being assessed on.

Like question 4 on Paper 2, you are assessed on four things here. That often means that there will be one or two things that you’ll forget, as you’ll be concentrating so hard on doing the others.

As I wrote on the previous post about question 3, we’re going to discuss levels here, not grades. The 16 marks are split into 4 levels. I can’t tell you what grade you’re working at because grades are for the whole paper and your mark out of 160 across the two papers, not how you do on a particular question. So I can’t say ‘this is a Grade 9 answer’ because such a thing doesn’t really exist. I can say ‘this is a 13 mark answer’ though and I can say that, very very roughly as a massive generalisation, the grades might be split like this:

Level 1 (1-4 marks) = Grade 1 to somewhere in Grade 3
Level 2 (5-8 marks) = Somewhere in Grade 3 to Grade 4/5
Level 3 (9-12 marks) = Grade 5 to somewhere in Grade 7
Level 4 (13-16 marks)  = Somewhere in Grade 7 to Grade 9

So you can adjust yourself accordingly. If you’re aiming to get Grade 7, you should be aiming to get to the top of Level 3 or into Level 4 on all aspects of the paper. Were you to do that across the whole paper then you’d be hitting Grade 7 kind of territory. At the end of the day, though, it depends on a set of really, really complex mathematics and assessment of standards, so those grade boundaries change for every paper – and even every year group that take it.

Cautionary waffle over.

Let’s look at those four strands a little more carefully:

The first is about comparing the ideas and perspectives.

The second is about writers’ methods

The third is about references

The fourth is about identifying the ideas.

For each of those four strands, there is an increasing difficulty or complexity as you’d expect. It’s not that L1 students DO different THINGS than L4 students: they do things DIFFERENTLY

Let’s take each strand in turn, starting with the main one: comparison.

Level 1 responses will be making simple cross references. That means you’re making simple links between the two texts. At Level 2, responses are attempting to compare. Level 3 responses have a clear and relevant comparison and Level 4 responses have a perceptive and detailed comparison

That works with the next strand about references.

Level 1 responses will be have simple references or detail. At Level 2, responses have some appropriate detail. Level 3 responses have revelant detail and Level 4 responses have a range of judicious supporting detail

You can see this continue in the strand about writers’ methods:

Level 1 responses will be make simple identification of methods. At Level 2, responses have some comment on methods. Level 3 responses have clear explanation of methods and Level 4 responses have analysis of how the methods are used

Finally that works in the strand about ideas and perspectives:

Level 1 responses will be make simple awareness of ideas and perspectives. At Level 2, responses identify some ideas and perspectives. Level 3 responses have a clear understanding of ideas and perspectives and Level 4 responses have a detailed understanding of ideas and perspectives.

So I’ve got a loose framework to support me:

Ideas and perspectives – detail – methods – comparison

One thing to be especially focused on though, and absolutely not to forget, are the writers’ methods.

My loose framework turns into a more clear structure:

  1. Identify an idea or viewpoint in Source 1
  2. Use a quote to support my point
  3. Mention the method and say what the quote means
  4. Explain the method and effect
  5. Link to point in Source 2
  6. Use a quote to support my point
  7. Mention the method and say what the quote means
  8. Explain the method and the effect

Method, by the way, simply means anything the writer is doing. It doesn’t mean to drag out your asyndetic listing again. It’s really such a lovely, vague term that you shouldn’t need to go feature spotting. Don’t feature spot – it will severely hamper your response.

So where do you start?

Start by your identification of quotes from both texts. Do your broad brushstrokes underlining, by going through both texts and underlining or highlighting literally anything that is a viewpoint or perspective, attitude or feeling, or suggests one. Don’t be stingy. Underline everything that’s useful, even if you end up with 75% of the text underlined.

When you’ve done this for both texts, you can then narrow down.

For a 16 mark question, you’re looking to write about 16-20 minutes, which gives you time to write about 3 good paragraphs. That means you’re looking for 3 pairs of linked quotes across the two texts. So I look at my two texts and I then narrow down on things that match. And then I might even narrow down one more time if I have too much to go off.

First is my long list of quotes from Source A, then Source B, then I’ll narrow down.

  • the longest and shortest year of my life
  • it’s felt as if my son has always been part of this family
  • I simply mean that I haven’t slept for a year and I don’t really know how time works any more.
  • It’s honestly quite hard to grasp.
  • With every tiny development – every new step he takes, every new tooth and sound and reaction that comes along to ambush us – we’re confronted with a slightly different child.
  • He’s leaving milestone after milestone in his wake and tiny parts of me along with them.
  • He’ll never again be the tiny baby who…
  • But I’ve had a year of this and it’s ok.
  • He’s never going to stop changing, and I don’t want him to.
  • This sadness, this constant sense of loss… is an important part of this process
  • the silly old fools who tell him how much he’s grown.
  • You just have to make the most of what you have.

Then I do the same with Source B

  • But my eyes are aching for the sight of cut paper upon the floor
  • I want to see crumbs on the carpet,
  • But my ears are aching for the pattering of little feet
  • I want responsibilities
  • My little boy is lost, and my big boy will soon be.
  • I wish he were still a little boy in a long white night gown
  • If I only had my little boy again, how patient I would be!
  • I wonder if they know they are living their very best days; that now is the time to really enjoy their children!
  • I think if I had been more to my little boy I might now be more to my grown up one.

As I read and outline all the things that could possibly be an attitude or viewpoint, I’m starting to get a feel for the big ideas.

For instance, in Source A, he feels that “it’s okay” that his son is changing, whereas Source B seems filled with a sense of profound sadness and loss.

In Source B, she mentions fretting and scolding, and things she found annoying, whereas in Source A, he just seems amazed by his child, if a little bewildered. Source B, however, finds the grown boy in front of her to be bewildering.

I’m aiming for three differences for my plan though, so I need to look closer. Both have a sense of regret (though this isn’t unlike my first paragraph) but Source A seems to be “ok’ with the future. I think I can develop that idea into two paragraphs. Also though when I look back at my quotes, Source A says that he feels like his son has always been a part of the family, whereas Source B seems to see her son as a stranger.

So let’s narrow down. I need three pairs of quotes (and supporting bits that will go with it.

Feelings about child growing up:

  1. They’re part of the family, “it’s felt as if my son has always been part of this family” vs “He calls me mother, but I am rather unwilling to own him.” as if he is a stranger to her. He feels his son is part of the family even though he jokes about it, whereas she feels as if he is a stranger.
  2. “It’s ok” vs regret. “He’s leaving milestone after milestone in his wake and tiny parts of me along with them.” and “he’ll never again be the baby who…” but ” it’s ok.” vs “But my eyes/ears are aching” My little boy is lost, and my big boy will soon be.”
  3. Child is incomprehensible ” irrationally terrified of my dad.  “for reasons I don’t think I’ll ever work out.” He doesn’t understand his child as the child grows, vs ” How much I would bear, and how little I would fret and scold!” but her regrets and wishes come from the fact her son is older and she can’t change what she’s done, whereas for Source A, the writer has yet to really see his child grow up and regret (or not) the role he played in that.

So then it comes to the writing. Can you see how a good plan, some narrowing down and some re-reading really helps me get to the bottom of those viewpoints? Time thinking and planning is never time wasted.

Just a final reminder… this is a question about methods!

I’m going to add some methods to my plan.

  1. They’re part of the family, “it’s felt as if my son has always been part of this family” vs “He calls me mother, but I am rather unwilling to own him.” as if he is a stranger to her. He feels his son is part of the family even though he jokes about it, whereas she feels as if he is a stranger. Explaining feelings. 1st person narrative viewpoint.
  2. “It’s ok” vs regret. “He’s leaving milestone after milestone in his wake and tiny parts of me along with them.” and “he’ll never again be the baby who…” but ” it’s ok.” vs “But my eyes/ears are aching” My little boy is lost, and my big boy will soon be.” Metaphor and contrast. Making the abstract imaginable. Helping reader understand and empathise with emotions.
  3. Child is incomprehensible ” irrationally terrified of my dad.  “for reasons I don’t think I’ll ever work out.” He doesn’t understand his child as the child grows, vs ” How much I would bear, and how little I would fret and scold!” but her regrets and wishes come from the fact her son is older and she can’t change what she’s done, whereas for Source A, the writer has yet to really see his child grow up and regret (or not) the role he played in that. Some conditionals. Source A isn’t conditional. Some future tense.

That’s better! Saved me from falling into the big Question 4 trap!

Once I’ve done that, I’m ready to write. 16 marks should be about 20 minutes, so I’ve time to write 3 longer paragraphs using the formula outlined above.

This is the final post for the essentials for AQA GCSE English Language 8700 Paper 1 and Paper 2. You can find all the links by clicking – and there’s plenty there to keep you busy. Good luck in your exams!

Revise AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2 Question 3

This post is part of a series on AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2 to help you revise each question and prepare for your exams. You’ll also find posts on Question 1 and Question 2. If you are looking for materials on Paper 1 or the writing sections, you can find those by clicking here.

Essentially, Question 3 on Paper 2, also known as ‘the language question’ is similar not only in style but also in markscheme to Question 2 on Paper 1, also a ‘language’ question. Like that question, it was dogged by poor preparation and an over-reliance on subject terminology at the cost of evaluation. This question is worth more marks, and so there are some small but subtle differences that you might want to focus on.

How you prepare is exactly the same as you would for paper 1, and so a lot of the advice is going to be the same.

Let’s start by looking at the question.

So as you can see, it tells you to look at one specific source text, and refers to the lines you’ll need to stay within (on the two ‘live’ papers, at least – the last is from the specimen paper). It starts with how does [writer] use language to… 

After that, there are subtle differences which are dependent, I’d guess, on the purpose of the source.

The question is worth 12 marks, so look to spend between 12 and 15 minutes on it. I would be looking to write three developed paragraphs in that time.

The reason it asks you to stay within the lines is that the best and richest language use will be focused on those lines, so it is an attempt to help you, not hinder you. Don’t try to be smart and work outside the lines given. Put a box around the lines and make sure you stick to them.

Now let’s look at how you’re being assessed: what is it that you need to do in the exam to gain marks?

As you may know, there are four levels. These don’t mean grades. It’s meaningless to tell you ‘this is how you’ll get Grade 9’, because it depends on the year, the cohort, the test, maths, statistical analysis and analysis of standards which are waaaaay above most people’s tolerance for waffle. Roughly, though, you might want to think of it this way:

Level 1 = Grade 1 to somewhere in Grade 3
Level 2 = Somewhere in Grade 3 to Grade 4/5
Level 3 = Grade 5 to somewhere in Grade 7
Level 4 = Somewhere in Grade 7 to Grade 9

Like I say elsewhere though, that is absolutely my spin on it. You don’t get a grade for the question. You get a grade for the total mark across both papers. So I can’t tell you how to get Grade 9 on this question, and neither can anyone else. If they say they can, they are most probably a charlatan and a rogue!

But I can tell you how to get Level 1 (1-3 marks) or Level 2 (4-6 marks) and so on.

Let’s look at the assessment features for Level 1, right at the lowest end.

Now, like Paper 1, these bullets are not equally weighted. The first is the most important and it decides whether you come in at 1, 4, 7 or 10 marks. One comment could mean you’re 1 mark or you’re 10 marks depending on the quality of it.

If you make a simple comment, you’re Level 1, an attempted comment, you’re Level 2, a clear comment you’re Level 3 and a perceptive comment, you’re Level 4. It’s why you can write 4 sides and still be 3 marks, or write 1 side and be 12 marks. It all depends on the quality of what you write.

So, your comment is much of everything.

Why do so many candidates fail to get out of Level 1? Almost 20% of June 2017’s marks were 1, 2 or 3.

First, because they make such general, waffly comments that could apply to literally any text ever committed to paper. It makes you want to read on. It hooks the reader. It tantalises the reader. It engages the reader. It baffles the reader. It arouses the reader’s curiosity. You can be as fancy as you like, but if you really mean ‘it makes us want to read on’, you’re going to get stuck at 3 marks.

Second, because identifying synaesthesia, asyndetic listing, synecdoche or hyperbole isn’t what’s being assessed here. You could spot zoomorphism at twenty paces and still not get out of Level 1. Even if you’re right. And most people aren’t. To misquote TS Eliot, the naming of words is a difficult matter. It also won’t lead you to twelve marks. There is no hierarchy of language features. Nowhere in the markscheme is anaphora marked more highly than ‘the writer describes’.

This is straight from the examiners’ report, which is now in the public domain. So you don’t just have to take my word for it.

So how do you go about preparing for this question?

A lot of it is actually in the things you do before you answer. That comes down to your identification of ‘juicy’ bits of the text to explore. Believe it or not, given all those words, better candidates rely time and time again on a very narrow bank of useful quotations. They won’t mean to select from such a limited range, but by and large, candidates at the top end have unconsciously focused in on the exact same kind of quotes.

A lot of how you can prepare is in doing a double read through.

First, put a box around the given lines.

Then take a highlighter or pencil and underline absolutely everything that is interesting to you. You don’t need to be selective or precise. This is a lot how middle grade students read – they think everything is useful. It stops you focusing in on random things or things just from the beginning.

Don’t think about language features at this point. I promise you that if you go looking for similes or zoomorphism, you won’t do as well as you would with this method.

So once you’ve underlined everything that could be useful, it’s time to think like the most successful students do: narrow down and focus in on three or four really, really interesting bits. By and large, you’re looking for single words or short phrases, not huge chunks. It’s also generally true that the longer your quote, the fewer marks you’ll get. I want to see you focus in on a small number of words.

I’ll show you how here:

A year ago, he was a sleepy ball of scrunched-up flesh, but is now determinedly his own person. I can see everyone in him – me, my wife, my parents – yet he’s already separate from all of us. He’s giddy and silly. He’s a show-off, albeit one who’s irrationally terrified of my dad. He loves running up to people and waiting for them to twang his lips like a ruler on a table. When he gets tired and barks gibberish in the middle of the room, he throws his entire body into it, like he’s trying to shove the noise up a hill.

With every tiny developmentevery new step he takes, every new tooth and sound and reaction that comes along to ambush us – we’re confronted with a slightly different child.

Photos of him taken in the summer seem like dispatches from a million years ago. Photos of him taken last week seem like a different boy. He’s blasting ahead as far as he can. He’s leaving milestone after milestone in his wake and tiny parts of me along with them.

As you can see, there’s quite a lot there on my first go-through. Lots of those bits are interesting.

When I narrow down, you can see what I’ll focus on:

A year ago, he was a sleepy ball of scrunched-up flesh, but is now determinedly his own person. I can see everyone in him – me, my wife, my parents – yet he’s already separate from all of us. He’s giddy and silly. He’s a show-off, albeit one who’s irrationally terrified of my dad. He loves running up to people and waiting for them to twang his lips like a ruler on a table. When he gets tired and barks gibberish in the middle of the room, he throws his entire body into it, like he’s trying to shove the noise up a hill.

With every tiny developmentevery new step he takes, every new tooth and sound and reaction that comes along to ambush us – we’re confronted with a slightly different child.

Photos of him taken in the summer seem like dispatches from a million years ago. Photos of him taken last week seem like a different boy. He’s blasting ahead as far as he can. He’s leaving milestone after milestone in his wake and tiny parts of me along with them.

Whilst I could happily have explored everything I’ve underlined, I’ve got to be more careful than that. Better candidates hone in on things, selecting. They are judicious and wise about their quotes. That requires elimination of the crappy quotes.

Once I’ve got my quotes, I’m ready to start answering.

I’m going to start with the words of the question, give a little away about what the writer is trying to show, use my quote, mention the language feature if I know it and then try to put it into my own words and explain the effect. Just like Q2 on this paper and on Paper 1, I’m going to use some of the following starters to get me going on my explanation:

  • it suggests that
  • it makes us think
  • it is designed to
  • it gives the impression that
  • it could be that
  • it may indicate that
  • it sounds as if
  • it seems
  • it’s described as
  • this indicates that
  • this could be associated with
  • this may be
  • this is shown to be
  • this shows
  • the writer hints that
  • this adds a sense of
  • we can assume that
  • the writer could be
  • it’s as if
  • the writer purposely
  • this allows the reader to

Let’s put that all together:

The writer describes how his son has changed, saying he “was a sleepy ball of scrunched up flesh” but “is now determinedly his own person”, with the tense change highlighting what he once was and  how he now is. It’s the way he described his son as having been a “ball of scrunched-up flesh” that is most interesting, with the “flesh” sounding like he’s almost not even alive or human, that he was unrecognisable even as a human being, but as he has grown older he is described as being “determinedly his own person”, which shows how he has grown up not just physically but developmentally, becoming “determined” which could suggest he is strong-minded or stubborn, certainly that he is has become an individual – and that he is almost driven to be individual – rather than that unidentifiable “ball” of “flesh” he once was. It sounds as if the writer is both proud and a little scared of how single-minded and obstinate his son is at being “his own person”. 

Those words were actually very juicy indeed, looking back on them! I certainly could tie it in easily to the next bit about his son throwing “his entire body” into barking “gibberish”.

If I want to take it further, I’d certainly look at that quote, as well as the sense of being “confronted by” the changes, which make the parents seem passive and powerless, like the changes are sometimes incomprehensible, sometimes amusing and sometimes terrifyingly fast, as well as a little heart-breaking, since the writer finishes by saying he leaves a little piece of himself behind with each milestone.

If I have to summarise:

  1. Use the reading time well to outline the broad brushstrokes and narrow in on the right details that give you plenty to discuss. This double-layer reading allows you to sift and synthesise, prioritising the important and weeding out the less relevant or less useful.
  2. Remember that effect is everything. Your comment on the effect of language is what puts you in a level.
  3. Use subject terminology appropriately and carefully, but do not use it to have a feature-led approach.

Next time, a look at Question 4 on Paper 2 to complete the series. Don’t forget, you can always find the full index here.


Advice and revision for AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2 Question 2

Following on from the previous post about Question 1 on AQA’s GCSE English Language Paper 2 Question 1, this time I’m looking at Paper 2 Question 2 to give you a few revision tips and hints for the exam.

Let’s have a look at the question first of all.

This is June 2017

and here is November 2017

As you can see, some things change and some things don’t. Let’s look at the ones that don’t.

First, it says You need to refer to Source A and Source B for this question. 

That gives you your first indication of the marking. This is a question asking you to handle two different sources of information.

What follows is then a statement that focuses you in on a small part of both texts and tells you the focus point for those differences.

You’d do well to underline the subject and the focus point as this will help you narrow in on what to look for. After all, this question is actually asking you to look at a very small part of the text.

So I know I need to look for stuff generally to do with ‘the boys’ in both texts, and specifically ‘how they spend their time playing’. This second statement tells me how to narrow down and where to look.

The third bit has some bits the same Use details from both sources to write a summary of the differences/different and then it repeats the subject ‘boy’ and the focus ‘activities’ and ‘enjoyed’.

So, it’s telling you in two different ways what to focus in on.

The final thing the question tells us is that it’s worth 8 marks. That means I need to spend about ten minutes on it. I won’t need extra paper and I don’t need to write three paragraphs or find four differences or any nonsense like that.

What I do next is locate everything to do with what the boy does in Source A. I underline all of it. This is a technique that I call ‘broad brushstrokes’ and whilst it means a double read-through, it really does help get to the ‘right’ quotes. So often teachers find that students who hit the top grades are really picking from a very small range of quotes available to them, whereas lower down the grades, it’s more hit and miss. Using broad brushstrokes helps you focus in and then narrow down.

Already you can see there is not much to work with – and that’s fine.

I do the same with source B and underline absolutely everything that the boy in Source B seems to enjoy doing.

Then I go back to Source A, having Source B fresh in my head, and focus in on the points that are connected or come under a bigger idea. For instance, both sources refer to the boys making noise, or their relationship with adults, enjoying contact with parents.

So I underline once again and pick out a few pairs of things that are different.

‘he throws his entire body into … bark[ing] gibberish’ vs ‘a habit of whistling’ and ‘pop guns’, ‘a hearty shout, a shrill whistle, the crack of little whips’

and then I do the same with another difference:

‘rests his head on my shoulder whenever he gets tired’ vs ‘holding his hand in mine’

But when I think about it, it’s the boy in Source A who initiates contact whereas the boy in Source B doesn’t. He bounds ‘away to school’ with ‘nimble feet’.

So now I’ve got some differences and some quotes, I’m ready to look at the markscheme and what it is I need to do.

Like other parts of the markscheme, there are three parts to this question. They are also not equally weighted.

The first bullet point is about the differences between the two texts.

The second is about your use of textual detail.

The third is about inferring meaning from what this tells us.

Some comment then from the principal examiner’s report that will help you understand what’s being assessed and what’s not…

This question is testing your ability to synthesise, as is Question 4. That’s crucial. You absolutely need to find those differences and bring them together. You are looking for connecting points. Weaker responses will mostly be making a connection and giving a quote, whereas better responses will be inferring meaning. You also need to remember that the focus of this question is very narrow – the boys and their activities – and so you’ll need to only look for those things and write about those things. You also need to make sure you aren’t mentioning language features. That’s Question 3 and can’t be marked here. It may be the very best language analysis that has ever existed, but it’s like you’ve started writing chemical formulations rather than answering about inferences relating to a specific focus. It may be the best chemistry that has ever existed but it’s not what the examiner is looking for. Also, don’t write more than you are being asked for. Two paragraphs is more than enough for 8 marks. Unless you have incredibly large handwriting, you don’t need extra paper to respond to this task.

Before we start writing, then, some final words from the examiner’s report, which is now in the public domain:

Students still aren’t moving past 4 marks on average though, which means you have a bit of work to do to make a clear inference.

We’re going to look at how you make those clear inferences today.

So, I had my quotes in response to the June 2017 question above:

I’ve decided that I don’t think I will look at the way they seek out parents as it’s not about how they play. I will however look at the fact the second boy in Source B plays loads more with toys and things, compared to Source A where the boy seems to rely on human interaction.

I’m going to follow the guidance from the examiners’ report and start with a difference, a quote, some inferences, then contrast, more quotes, more inference.

In Source A, the boy seems to enjoy making a lot of noise, as he ‘throws his entire body’ into ‘bark[ing] gibberish’ which suggests that he is so enthusiastic about this shouting that he does it whole-heartedly and without any reserve or hesitation. However, in Source B, whilst the boy also seemed to enjoy making noise as a child, as he had a ‘a habit of whistling’ and his mother mentions a number of noisy toys or behaviours such as ‘pop guns’, ‘a hearty shout, a shrill whistle, the crack of little whips’, it seems that he has a wider range of noises. Also, it may be that the ‘barking gibberish’ is related more to the fact that the younger child in Source A is ‘tired’ rather than actually enjoying it. It could be frustration rather than pleasure which is causing this behaviour. 

So here, I was trying to follow a loose formula …

a) In Source A [subject & focus from question] and make a point, followed by a quote.

b) Explain quote and make inference about what it means or suggests.

c) Contrast with Source B [using subject & focus from question] and make another point, followed by a second quote.

d) Explain quote and make inference about what it means or suggests and how that’s different from Source A.

e) Add an ‘also’ and take it further, explain the difference more deeply or give reasons for the difference.

Making inferences is the tough bit. You’ve really got to think about what it suggests or what it means. I like the following phrases for doing this:

  • it suggests that
  • it makes us think
  • it is designed to
  • it gives the impression that
  • it could be that
  • it may indicate that
  • it sounds as if
  • it seems
  • it’s described as
  • this indicates that
  • this could be associated with
  • this may be
  • this is shown to be
  • this shows
  • the writer hints that
  • this adds a sense of
  • we can assume that
  • the writer could be
  • it’s as if
  • the writer purposely
  • this allows the reader to

These are all really useful ways to explain or draw an inference from the text. Pick four or five that you feel comfortable with, and keep using them!

Next up, revision tips for Paper 2 Question 3.

Don’t forget you can find links to all my free material on 8700 AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 and Paper 2 here. All you could ever need, and more.

AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2 Question 1 revision

If you’re revising for AQA GCSE English Language, you’re probably not spending much time on Question 1, although it’s definitely worth a quick look and a bit of revision.

You can find guidance on Paper 1 Question 1 here. They are different in some ways although they are assessing the same skill. If you ask me, Paper 1 Q1 is harder. Most people get three or four marks on both questions, though. They’re both designed to ease you into the paper and so they shouldn’t be too terrifying. Paper 1 Q1 can be a little bit harder because you’re not given the phrases, so there’s more potential to go wrong – to pick quotes or details from the wrong part of the passage or to make a poor inference – but Q1 on paper 2 presents challenges of its own.

Let’s look at a sample question, from June 2017.

First, you’re asked to look at a bigger section than Paper 1, so there is more reading to do. That means it can take you a little longer than you might expect.

Second, most of the problems on this question come from not following the guidance given you. It tells you to shade the circle if you think it’s true. If you make a mistake there are things you need to do, but shading a circle for the true statements is your first thing.

That looks like this:

It doesn’t really matter if you colour in the lines. It matters if you use black (you should) and that’s all you need to do.

But over 10% of June 2017 students did other things instead…

Like this:

Now AQA aren’t going to fail you for doing this (although SHADE THE CIRCLE is simple advice) but you can see the problem of this script – and I’ve chosen a font that is a bit indecipherable. For most people T or F are quite distinguishable, but if that horizontal line though the F is not very long or clear, then it could be a T. And this is an examiner headache. Examiners aren’t paid to peer at your scruffy handwriting and try to work out if you’ve done an F or a T. That’s why it says SHADE THE CIRCLE. That way, we don’t need courses in Advanced Graphology to decipher your hieroglyphics.

So shade the circle. Don’t. Do. Anything. Else. Just shade the circle.

That said, it looks like far fewer students made that mistake from June to November if you read the examiners’ reports (available online) but it’s worth remembering.

Now if you are anything like me, you are fraught with uncertainty and doubt. Does the statement mean exactly this? Is it a trick? Will I fail the whole paper if I get this wrong?

To help you more, there’s a rough sequence to the statements

It’s not like you have go hunting back and forward around the text. So if you are of an anxious disposition, you can always highlight the text as I have done.

You may also then want to write T or F IN PENCIL down next to the letters before you shade the circle in pen and rub out the T or F so as not to leave any doubt. If you’re not sure, you can always use a question mark.

So do this:

And this:

Before you do this:

Although that may take you a ridiculous amount of time for what is just a 4 mark question. 5 minutes max.

This is an easy question, but don’t be hasty. There are some inferences you’ll need to make. Some are straight deductions. Sometimes they swap a ‘has’ in the text for a ‘has not’ in the answer, or use loose antonyms like ‘quite hard’ and ‘easy’ in the text and answer booklet. Sometimes they’re just rephrased. But don’t overthink it. It’s not that tough, honest!

Next up, a look at Question 2 on Paper 2


An analysis of the context of War Photographer by Carol Ann Duffy

It’s not often I spend a full post on context, but I think this will cover much about the role of the artist in documenting history, warfare and tragedy, as well as thinking about the role of patriotism in the Power and Conflict poetry, so it seemed like a worthwhile detour. It picks up on aspects of power & conflict from OzymandiasMy Last DuchessCharge of the Light Brigade and War Photographer.

Images of conflict have been around practically as long as art and conflict have co-existed. If we think about why art exists – and I’m going to take poetry as a part of that – some of it is wishful thinking, visualisation or creative imaginings. Some is record-keeping: it is a narrative designed to document significant events. Some of it is planning. Some of it is celebratory, designed to celebrate this or that god. Art can tell stories or express a truth, just as poetry can. It can imitate reality or can even inspire reality.

We first come across art in Ozymandias: the sculpture of the long-dead king. The statue is at once a symbol of his might and power – or at least Ozymandias’s own thoughts about how big and mighty he is. Lots of that early art is very good at capturing “Look how great I am!”

Much of that ancient Egyptian art is about preservation of the past and it reflects the beliefs and values of those who commissioned it (by which I mean the people who paid for it or commanded that it be built). Just because Ozymandias thought he was an unholy terror who should make other kings tremble in their togas doesn’t mean the sculptor did. That said, it’s the traveller’s opinion that the sculptor captured “those passions” and emotions very well. Egyptians were also very good at using size to show value. I am big therefore I am important. And the bigger my stuff is, the more important I am.

Art also starts to indicate wealth. If you have an empire that can employ artisans, sculptors and musicians, then you were an empire who was doing pretty well. By the time words came along and ways of preserving events on paper, civilisation had already got pretty good at documenting things and exaggerating their own importance, especially if you were the victor.

Lots of early art was commissioned. Much of it was a way of remembering or memorialising events or as offerings, or even as a way to mark graves. Sometimes they represented an idea or an ideal. In that way, we’re already seeing the early commemoration that art (and poetry) can be, as well as a way of representing an ideal.

So you go from the ‘Look how absolutely marvellous I am!’ to the ‘Look how rich I am!’ to the ‘Here’s an idea in a statue form’ kind of stuff.

And then you’ve the obligatory ‘Look how many people we quite literally trampled on!’ stuff.

Not to denigrate the Romans, but I’m pretty sure they added very little to the genre. No offence to any Roman or anyone who has spent their life in pursuit of understanding the Romans. A huge generalisation, I know, but the Romans weren’t great at artistic innovation.

What happened next in Western art is the rise of Christianity and religious art. This reflected the kind of Europe-wide changes going on and in turn influenced what happened with the Renaissance – the birth of what we may consider to be ‘real’ art. Religious art didn’t contribute much to the artistic representation of warfare, so you have almost a thousand years where the West had very little in terms of either empires or full-on takeovers. Between the Scandinavian Vikings – not particularly known for their military art history or their contributions to literature – and the Church, more focused on buildings and religious art, surprisingly little happened in the world of Art & Literature in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Renaissance.

Where the Romans might not have added much value to the history of art, the Renaissance certainly did. All those big names you may know, from Michelangelo to Leonardo Da Vinci, Botticelli and Raphael. What made it happen comes down again to money, and we move from the artistic world of Ozymandias to the world of My Last Duchess. Because of Italy’s (and more specifically Florence’s) structure, it meant that there were a number of rich merchant families who’d profited hugely from Italy’s central position in the Mediterrenean and who could turn to that good old tradition of employing minions to churn out stuff that made them look cultured. Not a world different from the Kardashians really. Have money but no talent? Hire talent and show off to your friends. And what happened in Florence was then copied by lots of other city states in what we now call Italy. Poetry changed. Music changed. Art changed. And then Italy exported. The Renaissance found a home in France and in England.

Nothing much changed with art when you get down to it though.

Have more money than sense? Get someone to paint a portrait of you so everyone will know how marvellous you were when you’re dead.

Want to leave a legacy behind? Find an architect, a sculptor or an artist and get them to commemorate stuff for you. Build an enormous statue. In fact, think bigger. Build a castle. Build a church. Build a university!

Art didn’t deviate much from its original purposes: commemorate, remember, preserve; show off, boast, brag and posture; imagine perfect ideals to which we can all aspire; frighten your competitors and see off your rivals.

Post-Renaissance Europe didn’t change much. The Dutch masters liked to paint naval battles and you start to find artists who actually specialised in battle scenes or in naval battles. It’s the first time war gave artists a job to do. But guess what? Those Italian merchant families also paid for a lot of the specialist art too. Who pays for military art is always interesting.

So you get the general images of victors vanquishing their enemies, trampling them underfoot (and which gives rise to some discussion for Checkin Out Me History) and that continues at a happy pace throughout the European wars from the 1600s right up to Napoleon in the 1800s.

The Napoleonic Wars changed the way conflict was depicted no end. You start to get bloody scenes of loss that are much more realistic and less about bragging and looking marvellous in battle dress. You also find some paintings by “the vanquished” – the nations who lost or who lost heavily.

Soon, everyone was at it. The Spanish were depicting how Napoleon’s troops sliced and diced them – in scenes reminiscent of Macbeth with the carving of passages through battlefields:

Art takes on two roles here: commemoration of the successes and victories, portraying the soldiers as glorious and noble when faced by swarthy adversaries, and depictions of the realities of war – the lootings, plunderings and such like. You can loosely term these as ‘propaganda’. Two sides of the same coin: glorification of war vs the realities of war.

Want to make your enemies look like immoral sadists? Get someone to paint a picture of it.

1824 brings a major change in depiction of war with a four-metre-long frieze of Greek citizens in the aftermath of an attack from the Ottoman empire forces painted by Eugène Delacroix.

The invention and development of photography as an art form changed things a little. First, we all know that art isn’t real. Nobody sat around posing for their painting after they’d been stabbed on the battlefield. Art is construction. It is about representation, and how the artist (or the patron/country/organisation bankrolling it) wants you to see things. It’s a staged mise-en-scène, theatre designed to evoke emotions, designed to bolster beliefs.

Photography was more ‘real’ – or at least it offered the opportunity to be so. You can’t depict (well, you couldn’t as easily in the days before Photoshop) things that weren’t there. You can stage it, certainly, but photography is instant and easily portable. Some of Great Britain’s Victorian wars started to make use of an employed photographer – not least because lots of those battles were in faraway places like China and India, Prussia and Crimea. Mr & Mrs Joe Bloggs had no way of knowing how the war was going. It wasn’t like you could just step outside your door and see with your own eyes.

An 1862 photograph from the American Civil War.

War photography, then, less good at the ‘glorious’ and ‘noble’ and pretty good at revealing the horrors or realities of war. Not much of a shock that people’s views about war and death began to change around the same time. Hard to say if this was influenced by images that captured the realities of war but it’s pretty hard to imagine soldiers as fine, strong, heroic victors when you’re looking at photos of them with their heads and limbs blown off.

By the time we get to the Crimean War, and Charge of the Light Brigade, war photography was a well-established genre. The more portable and accessible cameras became, the less of an artist you needed to be to use them. Still, some of the most powerful and most moving images of war have come from professional war photojournalists.

We move then into considering the role of a photographer, or a photojournalist. What is it that they are doing? For some, they are clearly there – paid for – to capture material that can be used as propaganda for either side. Whether they’re showing the atrocities of the enemies or glorifying acts of bravery, much is designed as propaganda.

Some are there to present the realities of war or conflict Even that comes with a ‘why?, a ‘who for?’

Often that can be something as simple as ‘to raise awareness of what’s happening’ or ‘to show people what’s going on’, but there is the knowledge that the ‘right’ image can change things for good.

What they are, though, is trapped behind a camera with a job to do. Your job is to document and to preserve, maybe to raise awareness.

Just as a side note, by the way, this is clearly a topic that interests me. I love photography and did a lot of hours in darkrooms in my youth. I even have a full darkroom kit, though I haven’t used it in ten years or so. Photoshop takes the fun out of chemicals and hanging around in darkrooms. I’m also the photographer for the animal shelter where I’m a trustee. It’s my job to photograph things that happen, so I’m more than aware of the power of the photo. I don’t, for instance, take adoption photos of our dogs with the kennels in them. Whilst getting a bleeding-heart adoption might be okay for some, it’s not ethical for me. I don’t want people to adopt a dog because they feel sorry or guilty. That way is a way to massive problems. It’s also manipulative and cynical. I don’t share photos of wounds or where I’ve had to document the condition in which animals arrive. Those photos are to document impartially and they go to court to help the judge decide what should happen in abuse or neglect cases.

But taking those photos can be hard, and you’ll often find me weeping. I have to take photos of wounds, of starving animals, of animals near death, or even animals who have died. I have to catch them at their worst without being emotional about it or trying to do anything other than be impartial.

That can be hard when you want to punch an owner in the face and you want to take a dog home with you because it’s clearly suffered so much.

And I have NOT to intervene. If I see maggots in ears, I can’t stop to clean them out. I just photograph them and move on to the next thing to photograph. In fact, if I start cleaning and treating the dogs, it stops me doing my other jobs. Sometimes, it is horribly emotional and I have to stop.

And I’m just talking about animals in a shelter, not children in a warzone.

Sometimes you’ve got to consider the ‘greater good’ and forget trying to help at all, knowing that you can help more by sharing.

Sometimes, with humans, you have to photograph them or document them, take their stories, when they are at their very worst. You have to remain impartial, and that means not intervening.

But that is very hard and you have to try to compartmentalise. The camera becomes almost like a protective bubble that stops you seeing things first hand. The camera protects you and acts as a buffer or a barrier between what you’re doing and what you’re seeing. It’s like you lift that camera up and you have a job to do.

Video comes into this too. When I was 10 or 11 or so, the BBC showed video of what was happening in Africa – the same footage that inspired huge interventions for famine relief such as Live Aid and Band Aid, Comic Relief and so on. You know, when you capture these things, that you are having more of an impact by sharing than you can ever have by intervening.

1984 changed everything for me.

If you ever have the chance to read Michael Buerk, Kate Adie or George Alagiah writing about reporting on war or catastrophe, it’ll really give you such a good insight into their roles and how they feel about it. George Alagiah, in particular, in A Passage to Africa in the old Edexcel IGCSE anthology, writes much more emotionally about his feelings about documenting tragedy. He writes about how ‘ghoulish’ he felt, preying on the tragedy of others to ‘make news’ (which is often profitable, too, don’t forget). He writes too about how he felt innoculated against what was happening – how he came to feel impassive and unemotional because he’d seen it so many times. You become habituated to it and almost immune. Seeing it that often, not being able to do anything practical and knowing you are hunting for that ‘one’ image that will sell papers can turn you into a hardened cynic.

He says, “The search for the shocking is like the craving for a drug: you require heavier and more frequent doses the longer you’re at it. Pictures that stun the editors one day are written off as the same old stuff the next. This sounds callous, but it is just a fact of life. It’s how we collect and compile the images that so move people in the comfort of their sitting rooms back home.”

I think that is probably the best explanation of the feelings behind being a journalist or photojournalist. It’s your job to ‘move’ the people back home, but they too become immune to the images so that you are constantly searching for something more shocking, more horrible.

You can read the full extract here and I would recommend it since it describes in detail how it is to be caught up in a tragedy.

Of course, these are not about warzones.

War photographers and journalists have a good deal of power, although they too must realise they need to search for more and more shocking images to get the reader to feel anything at all.

I want to finish by talking about what you HOPE will happen…. and a story about an image that changed things for many of my friends.

It’s the photo of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy dead on a beach in Turkey.

He drowned in 2015 as his family attempted to escape war in Syria. The family were refugees hoping to find safety in Europe.

Now there is always hostility towards refugees. I can’t begin to unpick that. We rich, civilised Europeans in our safe and secure countries, with our spare bedrooms and our shiny cars, our iphones and our First World Problems feel righteously irritated that some other people – whose skin is different than ours or who wear different clothes than we do – want to save their children so much that they’ll uproot them from everything they’ve ever known and take them to a place of uncertainty, where the only thing they can do is put all their pride and dignity aside and ask for shelter from strangers who hate them. You go anyway, leaving everything behind that you can’t carry – your past, your present, your souvenirs, your photos, your family – even though you may have already had asylum applications turned down, hoping against hope that you will find safety there.

I think many of us who do care had a rude wake-up call with that photograph. It reminded us horribly of the brutal truth of what was – and is – happening. On the day the photo hit the news, many of my friends here in France decided to do something huge and positive – to do what they could. Some went up to the migrant and refugee camps in Calais, Dunkirk and Paris to see what was needed and what could be done. Three years on and their efforts still roll on. That photo changed their lives forever. It reminded us of our responsibilities. It reminded us that we are all “one body” and all those things the Inspector says in An Inspector Calls. Donations surged. Practical help surged. A few politicians here and there started making noise about it. And that photo, slowly, changed views. It changed hearts and minds. It changed political policy. Even the refugee-hating Daily Mail recognised how powerful the image was at painting an image of the human costs of the war in Syria. It comes to something when you can make a scurrilous, inflamatory rag like the Daily Mail take a step back and have a little sympathy.

The photo was highly debated. Some commentators thought it was manipulative – that there’s something ethically wrong with showing photos of dead children on beaches for whatever purpose that may be. You might think so too. A lot of people find images such as this disgusting and manipulative, or sick. Personally, I think there’s nothing wrong with the truth. Do refugees die in attempts to get to safety? Certainly they do. If you can’t stomach the reality, then you need to get involved and change reality.

I don’t know what your feelings about such photographs are. Personally, I see a huge value in them. We shouldn’t live in ivory towers protected from the reality of the world around us. Sure, I skip past some – we’re now into the seventh year of conflict in Syria and little has changed. The photographs dry up as does people’s interest. When you tap into people’s emotions, you have to understand how hard it is to remain emotional. It’s hard to be angry or frustrated or sad at the same intensity. But you can change beliefs and values, and that’s what I guess most photojournalists or photographers would aspire to do.

That, or it’s a way to make a living. I can think of better ways to make a living as a photographer though, when you’ve got people who’ll pay thousands for a wedding photo package, or pictures of their newborn. One of my photographer friends does nothing but photograph the interiors of buildings. He makes a good living. Whilst the cynic in me would agree that for some it’s a ghoulish way to make a living, there’s got to be some deeper motivation there somewhere – some desire to change the hearts and minds of people in their comfy armchairs enjoying a pre-lunch beer.

Capturing conflict and power through artistic means – be that sculpture, art, photography or poetry – has changed significantly from those early epic celebrations of heroism and the use of art as a way of demonstrating power. We move from those huge statues in the desert and cryptic relics of powerful, long-dead civilisations, or brash attempts to show off to your future wife’s family, or recording feats of glory and strength in the face of adversity to seeing things from the perspective of the artist themselves: a way to leave their own legacy and make a difference that has a huge emotional cost and leaves them often in an ethical quandary.

Next up: structure and form in War Photographer

An analysis of the context, language and ideas in Tissue by Imtiaz Dharker

In the last post I was looking at the form and structure of Tissue by Imtiaz Dharker. This popular anthology poet has been on every inception of the poetry anthology at least since I can remember, but she continues to both delight and baffle, so I thought I’d try to write something to settle the nerves of this year’s GCSE students who have asked for some support on this poem.

As I said, there is a crescendo towards the end of the poem, a sense that the poet is building up to something, and we finish with that final statement that reveals the poet’s illusion: the paper is a metaphor for humanity.

Today, I’m going to take a line-by-line approach, looking at the key ideas in the poem, and how they’re explored through the language. You can find Dharker talking about her poem here, and reading it.

She starts straight away with the word ‘Paper’, and the idea of how fragile it is: ‘Paper that lets the light/shine through’. We’ve already thought about how she uses the enjambment there to leave the word ‘light’ dangling at the end of the line, drawing our attention to it. Light is something positive, something that gives hope. Couple that with all the conditionals, and I see a poem that is very much about hope for humanity – and what we must do to save ourselves from the current conflict. This line reminds me of hoary old songster Leonard Cohen, the master of gloom, in his song, Anthem and his line that “there is a crack in everything.;. it’s how the light gets in” – which is a nice way of saying that it is our flaws and imperfections, the broken bits of us that allow the good to seep in somehow. In fact, if you’re feeling adventurous, there is a lot to be added to your understanding of Tissue by considering the great Mr Cohen’s song. It talks about hope too, in a cynical world.

The first quality of paper, then, that she finds interesting, is that it lets the light shine though. Light is such a powerful and well-used metaphor for all that’s good that I shouldn’t have to explain it to anyone. We’re surrounded by that metaphor.

In the second line, we also have a dangling word that is separated from the rest of its line with the enjambed line ‘this/is what could alter things.’ I wrote a little about the word ‘this’ in the previous post, but it’s interesting. We call it a deictic word, a pointing word. It’s a pronoun that refers back to something before. But what is ‘this’? Does she mean it’s the paper that can change things, or letting the light shine through that could alter things? Or a combination of both – paper that lets light shine through?

At the same as being quite a hopeful image, I think there is also a dark side to this image. Paper and skin and light makes me think of another, darker image. Anyone familiar with Lady Lazarus by poet Sylvia Plath (and it’s one of the most well-known post-war poems, so most poets would be) will be aware of a line in that poem, ‘My skin/ Bright as a Nazi lampshade’. This line is a reference to the ugly tale that certain Nazis in charge of concentration camps in World War Two made lampshades out of human skin. Whether it is true or whether it is propaganda, we are reminded in this image of not only the good things that humanity is capable of – our light and goodness – but also the darkness and the evil. What should be an image of beauty, like paper lampshades and light, is a thing that reminds us of the cruelty and depravity of humanity. I don’t think you can read a poem that compares paper to skin and to humanity without thinking of Lady Lazarus and these darker images.

That cruel image alters things too: it is the horrors of what happened in the concentration camps and extermination camps that is largely what has changed warfare around the world and should change how we see others. There are lots and lots of lessons to be learnt from the atrocities of the Second World War, and if that is one of the things that Dharker’s ‘paper’ image is referring to, then she is right indeed. It could alter things.

Still, I like to think of the hopefulness of the light and paper image, not its ugliness. She talks about how she found a connection with her father – and her past – on the paper she found.

Whether she means the way paper lets good shine through, whether she means it as a reminder of of mankind’s atrocities or whether she simply means it as the literal piece of paper she found in the back of a book, where she found a connection to her father.

The final line of the first stanza is also interesting as she describes this paper in a second way: ‘paper thinned by age or touching’ – this is paper that has a value, that has been kept or treasured, paper that is significant.

Now you are undoubtedly not as old as me, and you probably don’t have the stuff I’ve collected over the years, but there is a lot of stuff I can’t throw away. First off, I need to confess that I am an English teacher. That’s not confession material, I know. But English teachers often have a weird thing about books. Like books are our religion. Books are our safety blankets. So we have weird attachments to books that you probably don’t get unless you are a budding English teacher. So I can’t throw out my 40-year-old copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Stories that I got as a Christmas present from my Great Gran when I was a nipper. But I also can’t throw away books that were given to me as presents that people have written in – especially if those people are dead. That means I’m clinging on desperately to my illustrated Children’s Bible that I got from my grandparents in 1977, even though I’m not a child, I’m not religious and I have about 200 other Bibles, which makes me sound like a religious nut, but I can’t throw Bibles away, even if I’m not particularly religious and even though I don’t believe it’s the actual, literal Word Of God on paper. Neither can I throw away the Good News New Testament that I got from our vicar as a present (!) for going to Sunday School in 1981 (which was my parents’ great idea for free babysitting so they could have a Sunday morning without children and listen to The Carpenters or some such). I make no great claims to being religious, but if some day I am found dead and the police come round to my house, they’re going to think I’m a bit of a religious freak since I won’t be able to explain (and I can’t explain now, even being alive and all that) why precisely I have twenty copies of the New Testament and why I’ve got the world’s biggest collection of books signed by vicars.

Anyway, in this age of Kindles and e-books, of disposing of things, this age that lacks sentimentality, I thought it necessary to explain a bit how books, how paper and stuff can hold value for us old people with our whimsy and nostalgia.

In fact, even though I’ve moved house several times, gone through several purges of ‘stuff’ in the name of minimalism and had to squash a whole house-worth of things into a transit van to move abroad, there are some ‘paper’ objects that are still with me – things that are probably incomprehensible in this digital age.

Here, if you didn’t believe me, is my 1981 Good News New Testament (and this is the first time since 1981 that it has probably been opened)

And here is my Children’s Illustrated Bible (not Illustrated Children’s Bible, which sounds like a Jacqueline Wilson tale)

And here are letters I wrote in 1989 in GCSE History (NB: A Cautionary Tale… I got a C in GCSE History – and no doubt my poor performance was related to spending my time passing notes to my friend Pam about boys we liked)

So why do I keep this stuff apart from a weird sentimentality about religious things and holding on to the past?

Because they’re pieces of me. They are pieces of my life. They age, as I do. They get damaged, as I have. But they are the things that make me who I am. They are the reminders that those who have gone once lived. My friend Pam died of cancer in 2017, and although we hadn’t spoken for years, those letters are not just a reminder of one of my most rich friendships, they are physical and real evidence of that friendship. I can’t quantify that friendship. I can’t put it in a bottle and keep it on a shelf. But I can, when I open those letters, remember it and relive it a little. They are literally the only things left of it. They are the physical relics of a life. They are the archaeological artefacts of my past.

Some of those pieces become the artefacts of other people’s past too. I have slide films and photographs, school reports and letters from my other dead relatives. I’ve got my Great Grandpa’s St John’s Ambulance medals, and my Great Great Grandma’s teaching certificate. These artefacts – and stories about them – keep them alive. When I die, those stories may die too, but as long as someone keeps that box of relics from our family’s past, it’s as if those people are still alive.

I know that’s a hard and weird concept to get your head around when you are 16. I mean why not burn the whole stinking lot of it?

I think a lot has to do with our own mortality and how we are but tiny flashes of existence in an enormous chasm of time. Keeping hold of things makes them significant somehow.

It also, like Imtiaz Dharker, allows us to hold on to relationships that are gone. And when people have died, holding on to them is the one thing that becomes the most important of all. Coming back to the ‘lone and level sands stretch far away’ of Ozymandias, we’re a long time dead, and even if you are the ruler of the biggest empire that ever was, even if you were the ‘King of Kings’, give it some time and your life is going to be nothing more than a puzzle to future curious minds, should they trip over some remnant of your life.

Ironic how paper, something so fragile and so easily destroyed, can be as good as stone at preserving the past.

Anyway, a circuitous waffle about the marvels of paper. Like the sculptor in Ozymandias, we may not know the author, the creator of these artefacts as time passes, but what they capture may help us understand ourselves and the world around us. As Dharker says, ‘a hand’, not knowing whose hand was responsible for recording all the details of lives before ours, so we lose connection with the people who create records of the past. But the fact that there are records leaves us something. Whether it’s a painting of someone’s wife, whether it’s a photograph of lives destroyed during war, whether it’s half a statue in a desert, these artefacts aren’t just curiosities about “the way we used to live”, but they are things that hold a mirror up to us in the here and now. We can use them to learn from the past. We can use them to see how times don’t change – how dictators will rise and fall – how people will suffer at the hands of cruel tyrants – how husbands will be jealous of wives – how atrocities are committed across the globe – and if we’re wise, we can learn from these things that don’t change, but could – if only we were to learn from the past! 

Unlike, however, those Bibles that may pass down through the generations recording marriages, births, christenings, confirmations and deaths on the pages themselves, the Koran is different – not to be defaced. This might be why she says these details are written on slips of tissue paper that are perhaps tucked inside. It reminds me too of books I’ve read where I’ve marked the pages with receipts or tickets of the places I’ve been when I read them. I don’t just open a book when I get them out again, I recall all the details about where I was when I read it.

Paper, too, turns sepia with age – it yellows. It does this, as it turns out, even if you don’t look in the book all the time (hence the yellowing of my Good News Bible) and the sepia of the third stanza, like other references to age and use, reminds us that paper ages as we do.

As we move into the fourth stanza, we have the rhyme on ‘drift’ and ‘shift’, where the sounds of those words amplify the meaning, the movement of things, how things are not fixed or secure.

And that, I think, is the central message of Tissue. We might understand how fleeting life is, how brief it is, how easily wiped out, ‘how easily they fall away on a sigh’. And if we understood that life is fragile, we can also understand that, despite that fragility, humanity is still strong. Like paper, it endures. We might stop trying to build permanent things, raising ‘a structure never meant to last’ and start focusing on what is important in life – all those names and details recorded in the backs of books, all the relationships we had with people of whom little physical is now left. If we accept how fragile life is, we might start doing things that are much more meaningful, might fly our lives like ‘paper kites’ and ‘never wish to build again with brick’.

When it comes to it, then, I think the poem explores the pointlessness of building empires – not unlike Ozymandias in fact, and instead of being pessimistic about how ‘nothing beyond remains’ is left of huge empires, we should, instead, embrace what we have when we have it. We too should treasure the lives around us, focusing them until they ‘transparent with attention’, like we pour so much care and love and attention into them that they are worn thin with use. I’m reminded of the line in War Photographer where Duffy says ‘All flesh is grass’ where we are supposed to remember how fleeting and meaningless life is – how our stone empires, the ‘capitals and monoliths’ are pointless, and what really counts are the ‘grand design[s] with living tissue’. We may have made our preparations with our stone houses and our nailed-down rooftops like ‘Storm On The Island’ but the lives inside are fleeting and transient. You can batten down the hatches as much as you like, prepare yourself to ride the storm, but ultimately, you’d be better to remember that we’re paper, not stone, carried slowly on the air currents, like ‘paper kites’, ‘drifting’ and ‘shifting’ like paper ‘in the direction of the wind’.

Instead then of realising that everything will be destroyed by time eventually, we should embrace that. All of those conditionals, the ‘could’ and the ‘might’ reveal a poem of possibility.

We should realise too that something fragile, like paper, has the potential to change things. History – the names, details and inscriptions from the past – has the possibility to change things in the future. We can use it to create, to be an ‘architect’ of things for the future.

Paper has the potential to reconnect you with yourself. Fragile as it is, it connects you with a past that you can never get back again. I will never live a life again where so much lay before me and everything was an exploration. That’s why I keep those letters. I will never again have a friendship that was as silly and free and careless as I did back then. My Nana will never again write an inscription in a book and all I physically have to remember how much I was loved and cared for as a child are those inscriptions in books.

Like Ozymandias and Storm on the Island, I think the poem works as a metaphor about the battle between humanity and time, but instead of reminding us that we are a long time dead and that time will get the better of us eventually, even if we are the ‘king of kings’, we’d be better to ride out the drifting direction of the winds of time as ‘paper kites’ and celebrate ‘the grand design/of living tissue’. She finishes with three imperatives:

Let the daylight break/
Through capitals and monoliths,
Through the shapes that pride can make,

Find a way to trace a grand design

with living tissue, raise a structure
never meant to last

Those three imperatives also build to a conclusion. It’s her advice for life. Let the goodness in. Create something wonderful with people and relationships. Build something that you realise will fade to nothing. The poem, then, serves as instructions for life and guidance about how to resolve the age-old conflict within us related to our own struggles to create a meaningful legacy in life and leave something behind of us when we die. You don’t have to hunker down in a bunker like Heaney to ride out the storm, or build stone monoliths proclaiming how blinking MARV you are… build your legacy in relationships and create something meaningful with the lives around you.

There is so much more to say about this poem – which is why I think it’s such a rich and complex beast. I haven’t even touched on the maps and the paper kites, the irony of how buildings can be destroyed as easily as if they were paper, the importance of the grocery slips, the significance of credit cards… but then you’re gearing yourself up for a brief comparison in 45 short minutes in an exam, and I’ve already said more than you could possibly hope to deal with in that. If I have to focus on anything, go with the light images, the light shining through, the daylight… go with the ‘our lives like paper kites’ to explore the fragility of human lives, go with the imperatives that end the poem and lead up to the Big Reveal of the central metaphor.

And teachers, if you want to really get into it, you may want to look at Denise Levertov’s What Were They Like? about how cultures can be forgotten in the blink of an eye. It’s not in the current AQA anthology, but it sits nicely with this one in order to make it clear how so much history of a culture can be so easily destroyed.