“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!!

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