“Limbo” by Edward Kamau Braithwaite

This seems to have been the most popular question on this year’s GCSE paper 2, from my experience. But, it’s been problematic. The problem seems to be that many teachers are obsessed by the notion that ‘structure’ = the poem’s layout looks like something. Because they know pupils get asked to comment on structure, there seems to be a lot of encouragement for pupils to say bizarre and random things about the structure. Poem layout often has little to do with some kind of ‘concrete’ representation. Why are teachers obsessed that poets write a poem to make it look like something??!

I have to say, this has been driving me crazy.

Some things I’ve read and heard about the structure of poems from the AQA Anthology:


  • Limbo is set out like a song. What, precisely, does this mean – like a song? If I gave you some lyrics and I gave you a poem, I daresay they’d look quite alike. If I gave you some words and asked you to set it out ‘like a song’, you’d do it like a poem. Lyrics, poems…. all alike in that they use line breaks for breath/sense breaks. Bah to this notion of being ‘set out like a song’. What you mean to say is ‘it has a chorus or refrain, like songs do’ (as opposed to most poems) I read this on the third site up on Google. No wonder kids write nonsense like this. You can say it has some rhyming detail, more like a song. But not all songs rhyme either…

  • Limbo is set out so it looks like people going under a limbo stick. Well, not really. Some lines are longer and some are shorter, and that’s all to do with the rhythm at those points.
  • If you turn it on its side, it looks like… waves, the boat going up and down, the ups and downs of slave life. I can’t begin to express how wrong this is. You shouldn’t have to turn a poem on its side to ‘see’ anything. This is not a Metaphysical George Herbert poem, nor a Concrete Poet’s piece. It’s just a poem. If you can say it looks like waves, well a lot of modern poetry does. Is it all about the sea??! If you are as yet unconvinced, look at George Herbert’s poem, Easter Wings in print and then compare it to how some vandals have misrepresented it by ‘removing’ the structure. If you Google ‘George Herbert poetry easter wings’ you will see just exactly how some internauts have violated the form. So, no… don’t turn it on its side and say anything about it at all!

If you are in any doubt, remove all line breaks from the poem and then decide where you would put them, bearing in mind, Edward Kamau Braithwaite uses them as punctuation. Put them where you’d take a breath, put a comma or otherwise. Are you very much different from where the poet put them? These are natural line-breaks that go with the flow. They emphasise the pauses. If it’s a little one-word line, you’ve got a pause before and a pause after. It’s more musical, maybe. It emphasises the content of those lines.

More interesting things to discuss:

  • The rhythm stresses
  • The way the last line stands out – it’s very different for many reasons – not least because it’s separate and has a full stop, but also because the rhythm is totally different. You’ve got a lot of musical dissonance in there. Why is this?
  • The lack of punctuation/capitalisation/’traditional’ features.

When I teach this cluster of poetry, I always start by ‘what is the structure of a poem?’ – and I give the pupils something VERY traditional, from the pre-1914 poets. I pick something with verses in 4 lines, rhyming – either alternate or couplets, capitals at the beginning of the line, commas within the verse, then a full stop at the end of the verse, left-justified, no enjambment, no caesura use: totally traditional. It should also have a regular meter and rhythm, ideally iambic pentameter. And we discuss how these were ‘the rules’. You didn’t disobey them, you followed them. Even Shakespeare, subversive as his sonnets are, followed the rules.

So, when did we stop following the rules? Gradually, poets started to do their own thing. Some metaphysical poets did away with left-justification. Caesura became a more regular feature. But, my answer to this question, basically, is ‘during The Great War’ – thus tying in with the Department for Education deciding on the not-so-arbitrary-after-all date of 1914 for ‘modern’

And WHY did poets start breaking the rules?

For some, it’s a personal style thing. It’s like painters who broke the rules. Why did Kandinsky do something so different? Where did Monet get Impressionism from? And when a personal style becomes ‘the fashion’, everybody starts doing it (like the Sonnet infatuation of the Elizabethans) – so sometimes you’re a style icon and sometimes you’re a trend follower.

For some, it’s not just ‘breaking out’ of the confines of poetry, but out of society. Ferlinghetti is a prime example of both of these. For those teachers who say ‘two scavengers in a truck, two elegant people in a Mercedes’ is like ‘cars revving up at traffic lights’ or ‘divided like the scavengers and the people in the Mercedes’ – no, no, no! It’s just his thing! Take a dip into Ferlinghetti if you don’t believe me. Think about the whole Beatnik movement and what it stood for. Think about those jazz cats in smoky Beat cafes in San Francisco. Jazz is just like Ferlinghetti. It breaks the rules. It messes with them for fun. It makes the rhythm do what it wants.

So… please don’t teach that the structure must necessarily ‘look like’ something. It’s a ridiculous, uneducated statement and it’s causing children to get into a right pickle. I had one pupil tell me a Simon Armitage poem turned on its side (of course!) is like flipping the bird to society. Fine, but if Armitage, a Yorkshire fellow, was going to gesticulate via a poem, I’m sure it would be a two-fingered salute, not the American ‘bird’. And… if you have 45 minutes to write about a poem, and that’s all you can come up with, then you’re missing the whole point!!

Football commentary

I’d placed a small wager on teaching last week with one of my students who is very bright, but very bored. We’ve been studying the excellent ‘Knife of Never Letting Go’ which he has been enjoying. However, it was time for a bit of a break from routine. We were discussing who would win in the Portugal/Spain match, and I said Portugal. If it was Portugal, Abid was going to have to study Shakespeare next. If it was Spain, Abid would be doing a ‘mini-break’ World-Cup-based activity. He won.

I’d planned on writing some commentary, since the match commentary for the football has been dire, and I’m a huge fan of commentators in general, usually. I love Brian Moore’s rugby commentary, Murray Walker’s F1 commentary and Benoit’s commentary at the cricket. In fact, sometimes we listen to the cricket commentary of the match we’re actually at, we enjoy it that much. A good commentator can make or break the match. England’s commentary has been as dull as their play.

So… we discussed what the purpose of commentary is, including to inform (more so on radio) to explain (definitely with the cricket) and to entertain. I used a couple of famous examples, including the Norwegian commentary of the 1981 match…

“England, England… Lord Nelson… Lord Beaverbrook… Sir Winston Churchill… Sir Anthony Eden… Clement Atlee… Henry Cooper… Lady Diana… Maggie Thatcher… Can you hear me?? Your boys took a hell of a beating!”

And Kenneth Wolstenholme’s oft-quoted “There’s some people on the pitch, they think it’s all over… it is now!” from the World Cup final 1966 is also an excellent example of what good commentary does – inspires, entertains and reports.

We also discussed the audience: a nation of people who are already interested and knowledgeable. When we’d decided that, we thought about what they wanted from a commentary.

I modelled a bit of my own commentary, picking up on key points of the convention:

  • it’s designed to sound like spontaneous spoken English
  • it’s in the present tense
  • Football commentary is notoriously bad: “Rooney… to Giggs… back to Rooney”
  • we need to include pauses, sentence fragments and some ellipsis, but maybe also questions
  • it should include our opinions on moves and players
  • it should be biased if it’s national level
  • we can vary the length of our sentences so that we can speed up with short, dramatic sentences, have slow-motion sentences with many verbs and commas in one long continuous action and have long sentences ‘outside of the game’ to build up tension through delay

We both read aloud our commentaries alongside clips we were watching of various sporting manoeuvres. I took Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal against Australia in 2003. I have to say, not only was it very enjoyable, but we really came out with some memorable commentary!

Grammar that’s fine for informal speech, but not for formal writing…

There’s a preponderance of ‘we was’ and ‘they was’ constructions on this year’s GCSE papers, I’ve noticed. I know we might tend to say such things, but they’re in my ‘pet hates’ list. I remember my English teacher drilling verb tables into us when we were 11, although we already accepted that what was said wasn’t often written. It’s a simple case of learning by rote, I’m afraid. No games. No fancy patterns. If I were teaching it (ah, there’s the grammatically accurate ‘I were’, as it’s conditional … IF … ) I’d probably go for the mix-and-match card sort activity, based on ‘pairs’, or some kind of matching activity like that. I should imagine MFL teachers (what the heck… OFL teachers as well!) would have numerous games for this, but they’re all based on the same principle – match the verb form to the noun or pronoun.

I was

you were (either singular or plural!)

she was

he was

it was

And then the plural forms

we were

you were

they were

Oddly, I enjoy learning verb tables. I don’t know why. I think it’s the whole logical system of it.

Another way of tackling it is to look at a transcript of a person speaking using irregular verb patterns and then alter it to become grammatically correct. Dialect is the main offender here, and being a fan of dialectical forms, I’m not going to suggest for a minute that pupils abandon their dialect. I do know, however, that I don’t go with these irregular patterns any more in English. Not with anybody. I guess I am so used to making the correct noun/pronoun + verb agreements here that I just can’t bring myself to say ‘you was’ in the manner of my fellow Northerners.


Discuss why it’s fine for speech and not for writing

Bring it to pupils’ attention


Try and abolish it… dialect is part of language, just as it should be.

Ignore it

Keep all your comments about it in written marking.

Ironically, it seems only to be with forms of ‘to be’… no-one seems to say ‘I has’ once they’ve learned the fundamentals of grammar. Likewise with ‘we has’… so it’s only a 10 minute discussion, at best!

“I were” seems to be a peculiarly regional thing that seems to run mainly up the east coast of England with a few examples in the South West. As a north-westerner, it sounds very ‘Yorkshire’ to me. Similarly “he were” and “she were” with “it were” seem to be limited to the top half of the country, with a diagonal line starting at Chester, cutting across Birmingham to Peterborough and into East Anglia. I wonder if these single noun/pronoun + plural verb is related to Danelaw? Mercia seems to be free of ‘I were’ and so on.

“You was” is fairly widespread, with examples in London dialects and all the way across the country. Likewise, “They was” and “we was” are fairly widespread. It seems Mercia, too, fell under the dialect variations, using a singular verb form for a plural noun/pronoun.

When you compare the map of noun-verb agreement in dialect with the map of the extent of Danelaw it’s very clear to see the parity for ‘I were’ and the expanse of England covered by Danelaw.

If you haven’t used the British Library website, you should. It’s excellent. It has sound clips, transcripts and linguistic artefacts. It’s an English teacher’s treasure chest. I could teach a hundred lessons from here!

So… how would I go about teaching dialect noun-verb agreement of ‘to be’ in English? I’d like to think I’d have a bank of sound clips from across the country, and ask pupils to locate them on a map, coming up with a ‘pin’ map themselves, much like the British Library one. I want them to work out themselves where the border lies. I may even then bring in the Danelaw map and get a little history demo of a helmeted Viking fighting King Arthur with a battle of “I were winning!” against “No… I was winning!” with two prepared pupils at the end of the lesson. I’d finish with the moral that we all use these forms, but we need to know not to use them in English. If we all used dialect phrases with unfamiliar groups, especially in non-transactional (or not immediately transactional!) writing, we’d never understand one another at all.

Ain’t that right, pet?

If I wanted to drive the point home, I think I’d start with a little bit of a Robert Burns poem, just to bewilder them. I’d love to do this teaching within a wider unit on dialect, especially if they are sent out to collect the dialect phrases from the most entrenched regions. Westhoughton, for me, has a lovely group of unaffected dialect-speakers who have not lost the original Lankisheerness of their talk. “I’m clempt” is one of my absolute favourites. Indecipherable to all but the shared Lankysher world in which it’s uttered, and, unfortunately, in which utterances are becoming fewer and further between. Clemped, Klempt, Clempt and clemmed are all variations of this. In Dutch, a klem is a clamp, clip or a pinch, so words from Old English, influenced by Old German might be in effect here. Funny that this little word which has much more in common with Dutch should be found nestled in the heart of Lancashire!

If pupils can find one lovely dialect phrase they adore and source it (using, more often than not, German, Danish or Dutch dictionaries), they just might awaken their love of the wonderful world of etymology.

Of Mice and Men: Curley and his wife

I’ve been teaching “Of Mice and Men” this morning. It never fails to intrigue me, though I’ve taught it over 20 times. I always get something else out of it. I also have to note that the less I ‘teach’ it, the more pupils give me from it, although I admit to a little ‘steering’ from time to time.

What I wanted my pupils to understand better:

  • how we form an opinion of Curley’s Wife
  • what connections there are in Steinbeck’s literature to other texts

I also wanted them to develop their ability to comment on a text and pass judgement, responding to characters and respond critically, using evidence from the text, thinking about that A grade skill, ‘interpretation‘.

I set them a ‘big question’ – what do we think of Curley’s Wife, and why? – and asked them to explore the introduction to her character. We read the passage together, and discussed some key vocabulary – what ostrich feather mules are (strictly for ladies who stay at home and don’t have to walk far; highly inappropriate for farm duties!) and then we discussed some of the more meaningful details from the text.

Having read the section, pupils then had to pick out their own Top Ten quotes about Curley’s Wife, which we discussed together before they wrote these up into a personal response using evidence to support what they are saying.

Just for the record, my Top Ten Curley’s Wife Quotes:

“… the rectangle of sunshine in the doorway was cut off.”

“A girl was standing there…”

“[she was] looking in”

“Full, rouged lips… heavily made up”

“Her finger nails were red”

“red mules… [with] little bouquets of red ostrich feathers”

“Her voice had a nasal, brittle quality.”

“You’re the new fellas that just come, ain’t ya?”

” ‘I seen him goin’ in your house.’ – She was suddenly apprehensive.”

A girl who is looking for attention (perhaps not for the reasons you’d think!) looking for company, gossip perhaps, scared of her husband, an outsider looking in. She’s a ‘girl’, young and inexperienced, chatty and lonely, desperate for someone to talk to. She is a misfit on the farm, as out of place as a beauty queen. She’s shallow and fragile, ‘brittle’, nervous and edgy, and about as transparent as its possible to be. When Whit later accuses her (behind her back) of having the eye for everyone, including Crooks, it doesn’t ring true. This is a girl in a completely male environment, unable to adapt or see how she should dress and behave. She could be a misplaced Scarlett O’Hara (published a year before Of Mice and Men in 1936) thinking she can flirt her way through life, instead only ever running into trouble. Curley’s wife is cut from a similar, cheaper fabric as Scarlett.

Key thoughts today:

1. I feel, a little, for Curley’s Wife – she’s not even given a name. I got my pupils to read through the introduction to Curley’s Wife, where she stands in the doorway. My first thoughts have always been that she seems so out of place and so needy, despite only having been married a short time. I thought she’s associated with shadows, when she brings the darkness with her, but one of my pupils said today that it’s like she’s in the spot light, and indeed she is. All lights on her. It’s interesting he picked up on this, since she wanted to be in movies, but her ‘nasal, brittle voice’ at this point in history would mean there was no place for her in the world of movies. Key question then: is she just looking for attention, or is it something more? Personally, I think she’s looking for attention. Slim, who knows people beyond their words, says ‘Hi Goodlookin’,’ like he knows instinctively all she needs is a little reassurance. George’s reaction, though, is perfectly reasonable: it’s how most people react. She’s a flirt. She’s ‘jail-bait’ and she’s a trouble maker. She is, of course, Eve (also unnamed until after The Fall) and thus she is damned by Steinbeck in the same way Eve has been damned through 2,000 years of Judeo-centric tradition. I still think she’s bored, she’s got nothing to do, she has no-one to spend time with and the farming life is her ruination. We were talking about her make-up, and why women wear make-up – whether it was slutty or something more. Another pupil said it’s like the more make-up you wear, the more ugly you feel. Young girls without make-up feel ugly and vulnerable – I go with this theory: she may feel unattractive. All of these farm-hands avoiding looking at her, when all she wants is a little friendliness. Instead, because of her husband, she’s treated like ‘jail-bait’.

Key thoughts: Does Steinbeck think she’s anything other than ‘just a tramp’?

2. I feel nothing for Curley. I never understand the ‘glove fulla vaseline’ bit. It’s for keeping his hand soft, of course, but to beat her with or to touch her with? I’ve seen teachers teach it one way for certain, but I’m not sure. Either way George’s reaction, as well as Candy’s suggests it’s something deeply unpleasant. He’s got small-man syndrome and he wants little more than to pick a fight. I always like the bit about eating raw eggs, just like boxers today, maybe, and the bit about the patent medicine houses. I get the feeling this would be a man who’d buy exercise equipment from QVC ¬†and buy creatine and other bulking agents from ‘health-food shops’. Two people with huge self-esteem issues then! And as to the vaseline thing… I personally think it’s for touching her up…. kind of enhancing his reputation as a lover? Urgh. That’s like a man using chapstick to keep his lips soft for kissing, or exfoliating his nether regions.

Key questions: Is there anything that redeems Curley? Does he represent the ‘average Joe’ of America at that time – hotheaded, racist, sexist, swaggering and filled with misplaced machismo?

Finally… Slim. Charismatic, ‘royalty’ – the natural precursor of Shane?