Checking Out Me History

I’m just writing about this John Agard poem for my next e-book and I thought I’d share a little about his use of patois… I like John Agard’s choices. If he’s writing about a general subject, he chooses Standard English forms, and if it’s personal to him, dialect sits right with him… so here’s an extract of what I’ve been writing…

The poem is written in first-person narrative, from his perspective. This allows us to see things from his point of view, especially when he polarises it with ‘me’ and ‘Dem’. We’ve got a choice: do we want to stand with ‘Dem’ who have ‘purified’ and ‘cleansed’ history, literally ‘white’-washing it, or do we want to see things from his point of view? This is a big theme of Agard’s poetry, about colour and race and culture, and ultimately, his view seems to be that he wants to be seen as an individual and to be free to make his own choices. In this poem, he wants to see ALL history in order to pick out what is meaningful to him, not be given a white-washed version of it.

He also chooses to write in a form of patois – the dialect of his home region, informal language if you like. Patois is a word that’s come to mean ‘English from overseas’ – where dialect is ‘English from the UK’ – I don’t like that distinction. It’s as if it’s okay for Norfolk and Newcastle, Lancashire and Cornwall to have their own dialect, and we’ll call it dialect and celebrate it as holding on to out roots, and look at Standard English dismissively, as if it’s somehow foreign to us, but Patois – that’s a whole other thing. In reality, it’s just dialect words and regional accent. I don’t like that word Patois because it has connotations for me of something ‘lesser’, like ‘dialect’, but worse. It literally means ‘rough speech’ – and it’s as if it hasn’t managed to throw off it’s ‘roughness’, whereas dialect comes simply from the word meaning ‘discourse’ or conversation. It’s like ‘Standard English’ is the acceptable ‘standard’ – the level to which we should all aspire, the ‘polished perfection; then ‘dialect’ comes next, like some quaint throwback to the past: either you use dialect grammar and accent and words because you’re ‘too dumb’ not to, and – for example- you don’t know that you can’t say ‘I were’ in Standard English, or else you use it anyway, kind of ironically, knowing it’s ‘wrong’ but proud of your roots. Then it’s as if the UK has abandoned its Empire and Commonwealth territories and whatever ‘they’ speak is like a lesser dialect. How very rude!

Here, John Agard is choosing the root I do: to use dialect and be proud of it, because it’s your heritage. It’s part of the very fabric of you. Standard English is a nice way to communicate with people in a ‘standard’ agreed way, those who might not share your understanding of your dialect rules. Standard English is very helpful in bringing together English as a global language, and making sure that Indian-English speakers and Australian-English speakers, and Canadian-English speakers and English-English speakers and Scottish-English speakers (ad infinitum!) all play by the same rules, otherwise we’d have to learn everyone else’s dialect rules and words as well, but dialect is ‘who you are’. John Agard often chooses dialect and dialectical spelling to reflect his accent when he’s making a point about himself. I find his dialect poems the most personal of all. It’s like we see the real him.

It’s a choice he’s made that felt right for this poem, the content of this poem.

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About the Clown Punk: “Can’t Sleep. Clown will eat me.”

I’d imagine it’s pretty hard for teenagers today to realise how different punks were – and just how many people would stop and stare. Punk has long since become mainstream, and modern ‘Punk Pop’ just doesn’t have the edge…

First, you’ve got to understand what happened before…

Here’s Led Zeppelin in action…

And then you’ve got this:

Armitage is a couple of years older than me, and I can just remember seeing my first punk on the streets. To teens these days – anything goes. Semi-naked, skin-tight leopard-skin, hair colour any colour, piercings, make-up… I can still remember the first person I met who had their nose pierced, yet when I was teaching a couple of years ago and one of my year nine students had his nipple pierced, it was just something fairly standard – not shocking at all. So we don’t have that sense of shock any more about people’s clothes or appearance or values.

Yet punks got public tellings-off in the streets from other people’s parents! People would stop them and tell them they were a bad influence, or they were causing the downfall of society. And that’s pretty much what they meant.

Now, punk is a look. It’s not a state of mind any more. In the past, punk was about rebellion, about not fitting in, about people who didn’t feel they had a place in society. And that’s precisely what this punk does.

Not only that, he’s a clown-punk. Maybe that’s because he’s funny, but clowns are terrifying to a lot of people. You’ll need to buy my next e-book on Character and Voice if you want my thoughts on why, but the whole notion of clowns is that we think they are fun, yet lots of people are completely terrified. Whether it’s the uncanny laughter of the clown in the box at the seaside, or Pennywise in It, lots of people have a genuine phobia of clowns. Including Phil in The Modern Family (if you haven’t seen The Modern Family yet, you should. It’s great!)

And this might be why…

Even Bart thinks Krusty is a little sinister…

AQA English Literature GCSE – poetry anthology Contemporary Conflict poetry

I’ve finally finished my second e-book which you can get on Kindle – you can buy it to read on your PC, so you don’t need a Kindle to read it – or any kind of e-reader. If you’re reading this, you can download my book!

Of course, this is because it’s F-A-N-T-A-S-T-I-C! But I would say that! It’s 30,000 words and 58 pages of analysis of the eight poems in Conflict: Contemporary poetry, including Flag, Mametz Wood, The Yellow Palm, Poppies, The Right Word… and I’ve put a sample GCSE essay in there too. At £1.14 including VAT, that’s cheaper than most exam guides!

Anyway, here is a sample from it – it’s on Belfast Confetti which is one of my top three favourites in the contemporary conflict section – I guess, up there with Mametz Wood and The Yellow Palm (though there’s only one poem that I can’t really get a feeling for – and I love The Right Word about as much as these three…)

The Form of Belfast Confetti

The poem is the most fragmented of all – I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it looks like a bomb has blown it up – but it’s definitely doing something visually that represents the conflict and the fractured land it creates. Not only that, when you read it, that sense of disharmony and chaos is emphasised once again by the line breaks, the use of caesura and the enjambment. Mind you, that’s the whole point of it. He uses language, and punctuation, to help create this fractured image. In fact, the punctuation itself becomes part of the break.

Here, before we really get into it, you have to think about what the whole point of space and punctuation is.

For many, many years, punctuation didn’t really exist. You won’t find hieroglyphs with full stops and commas! In fact, punctuation was invented to help people read when books became more readily available with the printing press. Spaces between words, paragraphs, verses, they just didn’t really exist. Some speakers who wrote their speeches down in order to be able to read them added some to show where a pause would be.

So, if I had the first couple of lines of the poem, it would look like this:

belfastconfettisuddenlyastheriotsquadmovedinitwasrainingexclamationmarksnutsboltsnails

And different people would do different things with it. Like this:

belfast.confetti/suddenly.as.the.riot.squad.moved.in/it.was.raining.exclamation.marks.nuts.bolts.nails
But as time evolved, and as printing presses made things the same, we came up with a system. It’s not always set in stone, and it’s easy to forget that it’s really only existed as we know it for the last four hundred years.

Some people go with the ‘musical beat’ of the four main types:

, ; : .

with a comma being a short pause, the semi-colon being a longer pause, a colon being a longer pause still and then the full stop.

But punctuation does other things too. For instance, a comma can be a pause for emphasis (like the one after ‘instance’) and a semi-colon can mark a balance, like the centre of scales or a see-saw:

Peter has been working hard

;

Paul has been acting the fool

And a colon can introduce an explanation or example: like this one. It’s kind of like an equal marks to me. So punctuation is not just a marker of a pause, like a comma marking ‘Give Way’ and a full stop marking ‘Stop’, but can tell you what type of thing is coming next.

That’s not all. Some punctuation helps us get emotions across. To be fair, emoticons do a far better job, and a 🙂 or a 😉 or a  :-p can do wonders. But before the wonderful world of emoticons, we had the ? and the !

And they did okay.

We know ? is a question.

We know ! is emotion.

However did we survive?!

This is what Ciaran Carson really plays around with here – the visuals of punctuation, the effects of it. And its entire purpose is to show the city under attack.

*

shows an explosion

——- becomes a rapid-fire of bullets.
! ! ! become the components of a bomb (maybe?)
. : . :::: . show the rubble and the broken city

This is a fragmented, fractured poem. It’s almost like a typewriter exploded. I say ‘almost like’, because a typewriter or keyboard exploding would be random, and this is very purposeful indeed.

So, in summary, Carson uses punctuation, pauses, breaks and space to show the effect of this conflicted space.

You can read more analysis in my e-book!


If you want to read more about the AQA poetry anthology contemporary poetry, you can find my ebook here. Remember, you don’t need a kindle or e-reader to read it; just download the ‘Kindle for PC’ software. If you want an hour’s lesson with me (or even half an hour!) you can find all my details on my website. One hour via skype is £10.00 only! By the end, I promise you will OWN the poems!!

New Amazon stuff for the AQA GCSE English Literature poetry anthology

I am currently writing about Belfast Confetti, which I absolutely love. It’s amazing. It goes back to what I was saying about shock-and-awe with E. E. Cummings – this does the same. I wouldn’t even think to use punctuation in the innovative way that he has – it’s just genius. I love the way the explosion is represented by the asterisk – the rifle fire by the — – and how he doesn’t just pick out punctuation that visually represents these things, but connects with it in ways that are to do with meaning as well. Genius.

But I’m also working on (21,000 words in!) the ‘contemporary poetry’ e-book to accompany the ‘literary heritage’ poetry. I’ve got a couple of essays to stick in to show you how they might look and I need to finish my analysis of Belfast Confetti before moving on to Poppies and the Simon Armitage extract about 9/11. I keep getting side-tracked by how wonderful these poems are – like really, really wonderful. I loved Mametz Wood and it sent me off in a spiral of information hunting. I loved The Yellow Palm and The Right Word and I can’t for the life of me pick out a favourite, because they’re all masterpieces. I thought I was going to struggle to form my own words on Belfast Confetti because it is fairly complex to write about, and I absolutely cannot distinguish a favourite.

However, this is the new cover of the second book in the series, and I’m mighty impressed. I’m going to do one for the existing e-book on ‘literary heritage’ poems in ‘Conflict’ – the one I did was functional, but not flashy.

Here’s a preview:

And on the subject of Belfast Confetti, search on Google Maps for the streets in the poem – and add ‘photos’ – have a look at the murals around the area. And then listen to this:

I think this poem touched me the most because a couple of my best friends are from Belfast and because I grew up with this conflict so near to me. It was only in 1996 that Manchester was bombed by the IRA; it was only 1993 that Shankill Road was subject to a huge bomb. It might be 20 years ago, but it’s fresh to me. Plus, I grew up with Joan Lingard’s ‘Across the Barricades’ stories of love across the lines. These stories were my Romeo and Juliet.

Because all of this is recent, there’s a lot of excellent footage on youtube of Shankill and the Falls areas, and it’s something that definitely influenced the music I listened to, growing up. Here’s another:

If you want to read more about the AQA poetry anthology contemporary poetry, you can find my ebook here. Remember, you don’t need a kindle or e-reader to read it; just download the ‘Kindle for PC’ software. If you want an hour’s lesson with me (or even half an hour!) you can find all my details on my website. One hour via skype is 20.00 only! By the end, I promise you will OWN the poems!!

Is John Agard’s poem ‘Flag’ set out like a flag?

Errrrr….. no!

This is precisely what I’m fighting against! Is it set out like a flag? I guess you could say so. It’s flat down the left side. Mind you, so are most poems. Are they about flags too? Rubbish!

Maybe it’s set out like a pennant?

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

XXXXXXXXXXX

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Err…. NO! Hardly any countries have a non-rectangular flag. Two have square flags and only Nepal has a pennant flag. And it looks like this:

Most are rectangular, like this:

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

You might as well say that the poem looks like lava, looks like waves, looks like a weird vase on its side. What IS this preoccupation with saying a poem looks like something else?!

And where did I read this? In a Hodder Education revision guide. Note to kids: don’t believe everything you read. And if you write that this poem looks like a flag, I will cry. This is why I only trust my own word on things 😦

Dear Lord of English teachers, give me strength.

Does it look like a flag fluttering in the breeze? Only as much as most poems do. Did Agard WANT it to look like a flag? Not unless he’s never seen a flag before. Does he write concrete poetry like Herbert and Edwin Morgan. No. Please think before you take statements like this into the exam room, and please read my post on Flag which I hope is based much more on sensible things to say.

If you want to read more about the AQA poetry anthology contemporary poetry, you can find my ebook here. Remember, you don’t need a kindle or e-reader to read it; just download the ‘Kindle for PC’ software. If you want an hour’s lesson with me (or even half an hour!) you can find all my details on my website. One hour via skype is £10.00 only! By the end, I promise you will OWN the poems!!

How to write a GCSE English Literature poetry essay

I get a few hits for this, and I’ve marked a lot of papers, so I thought I’d give you an insight into my own process. I really hate those ‘teachers’ who never have a go themselves. Whilst I understand you don’t have to be great at something to be a great coach (see Alex Ferguson and the Man United team!) I think you should be able to articulate the process of what good essays do. You might not think that’s very humble of me – here’s my great work of art essay! – it’s not. It’s average. But it’s a starting point for you. Many of us never actually see what it is we’re ever asked to produce at the end of reading all these poems. It’s like someone gives you all the nuts, bolts, panels and cogs to make a car, but you’ve never seen a car – and what you produce might not look like ‘a car’. That would be fine if some examiner didn’t then compare what you’d made to a car and mark it on how much like a car your thing was. So that’s why I’m saying this is an example of how I do it. It’s one way. Plus, it ticks all the things on the mark scheme.

I’m going to take the hardest type of Literature essay (the one that candidates avoid like the plague and examiners wonder why they didn’t choose to do it…) – the ‘say whether you like or dislike this XXXXX poem and compare it to another one’ essay. Here’s a made-up example based on one from the specimen GCSE English Literature paper.

Readers like poems and dislike others. Write about whether you like or dislike Mametz Wood and compare your response to one other poem you either like or dislike. Remember to write about how the poems are written.

This type of question often foxes people in the middle or lower grade bands. It’s easy to say you dislike it, if you do, but it’s hard for a GCSE candidate to articulate why they might dislike it. Often, it’s the subject matter that is hard to explain your dislikes. Sometimes it’s just a gut reaction.

Remember, you are not a poet and it’s easy to criticise what is written; it’s more appropriate to say that you like it, or to find three or four things about it that you can live with, unless you are VERY, VERY good at poetry critique. Most sixteen year olds don’t like poetry. Fact. Survey 200 and you’ll find 100 really don’t like it (hint: they’re the ones that groan when the Anthology comes out) and only 10 really like it. I’m with the ‘really like it’ group. Always have. I know. I’m a geek.

Where’s all this going?

Say you like it, even if you don’t. My thoughts when I read an essay if someone has criticised the poem ‘I don’t like this bit and this bit is crap, the poet could have done this bit better’?

Really? You’re sixteen and you think you know best! Published any poetry recently have you? AH, the arrogance of youth! I bet you’d tell Ferrari they don’t know how to make cars and criticise Marc Jacobs’ new fashion line! 

I’m going with why I like the poem here. Some teachers avoid this question and many students often avoid this type of question, because it asks you to put your thoughts on the line. Instead of being marked on poetry analysis, you THINK you are being marked on your views. You aren’t. You’re still being marked on your analysis. In fact, this type of question lends itself really well to A and A* grades because if you say you like something and explain, you’re ‘evaluating’ – a word from the higher grades on the mark scheme. Also, you can pick out what you like about the poem and focus on that.

I’m going to talk you through how I’d think about the response first… all of this goes on in my head, and a little bit on paper before I start writing. Good essay writers think first and then write. You’d be amazed by how many people miss the thinking step out.

To start… I pick four things I particularly like about the poem, remembering the golden rule to focus on the form of the poem if it’s helpful, and the organisation – the way the ideas build up or are revealed. And then I pick another poem that has similar qualities. In this case, I’m going to pick The Golden Palm by Minhinnick, because it’s another of my favourites.

I start by thinking about what I want to write about:

3 language things and 1 thing to do with form (minimum)

  • The way the poem builds up to revealing the grave – a bit like the way the skeletons are revealed themselves – over time (form)
  • The idea of the earth being like a person with secrets that it needs to reveal – that image of the foreign body being worked out like a splinter
  • The ‘mid dance-macabre’ line – which reminds us of the brevity of life
  • The idea of the soldiers being linked in death, the care, the way it evokes real thought

And then I think about other poems that compare well. Do any other poems build up and reveal? I guess Bayonet Charge does. If I want to look at The Yellow Palm which I really like, does this build up? I think so.

  • The way Minhinnick builds up to the child – the future – and it blessing the cruise missile, and the way he builds up this surreal image of chaos and unnatural sights

Then I have to think about the ideas revealed – so what is Sheers revealing? What’s his central idea? I’ve got other poems where nature is used quite profoundly – like The Fallen Leaves and Futility where the poet uses nature to contrast with conflict. So what’s the idea?

  • The idea is that we don’t get the whole story – just clips of scenes of confusion, a world out of balance

I’m not quite sure of the connection, beyond ‘the idea’ but it’s enough to frame a paragraph. I guess the idea in Mametz Wood is quite well-formed and he uses the simile to help us understand, whereas The Yellow Palm doesn’t do that – it’s just frightening fragments, (actually like the bits of bones revealed…. there’s a connection… and it never builds up to reveal the entire thing – the whole picture – and although we finally see the entire corpse row in Mametz Wood, we don’t get to know the whole story, only guess at it. That’s the same idea.)

You see how thinking allowed me to find the connection. If I’m writing, I’m not necessarily going to stop and go down that route.

The next one is easier: the brevity of life is easy to find. There are no young men in this poem, and the children remind us of the problems yet to come.

  • The way the poet uses what’s not there, just like the story behind the linked arms, to reveal something profound: the men are missing.

Finally, I have to think about what idea I can compare with the idea of the linked soldiers. That’s a little harder. I have to think about what story this tells, what thought is provoked. I’m going to go with the utter chaos and fragmented sense of things, in this ballad form. I like the use of this quite jaunty form with this nightmarish scene. I want to write about that.

My next step is to write the essay!

You will be able to find this actual essay in my new Kindle book (which you can download to PC too if you don’t have a Kindle or e-reader) AQA GCSE English Literature Poetry: Conflict – contemporary poems. In the meantime, here’s a link to my guide to the Literary Heritage Conflict poetry. It’s fabulous, if I do say so myself. I would say that. I wrote it. But it’s got all of the poems and the most in-depth analysis you will find on the web. That’s not a lie. Most other guides touch on each poem but you won’t find such a detailed analysis of each poem. I’ve tried to cover everything in there – far too much to write about in 45 minutes – but I know some people want to know everything inside out. If you find a bit I’ve missed, email me, I’ll add it and credit you, of course!

The Contemporary Poetry version will be out in about a week.

If you don’t ‘get’ these poems, if they don’t make sense, or even if they do – and you just don’t know what to write or how to write, then this might help you. Remember, it’s just my view – if you think something else, let me know and I shall endeavour to add it and credit you.

Yesterday, one of my students enlightened me about Crooks in Of Mice and Men. I’ve taught that book to over 500 students, and still 16 year olds teach me new stuff about it.

If you want to read more about the AQA poetry anthology contemporary poetry, you can find my ebook here. Remember, you don’t need a kindle or e-reader to read it; just download the ‘Kindle for PC’ software. If you want an hour’s lesson with me (or even half an hour!) you can find all my details on my website. One hour via skype is £20.00 only! By the end, I promise you will OWN the poems!!

Flag by John Agard

I love this poem. I love the simplicity of this poem. But before you get into it, you have to understand JUST why a flag is so important…

A flag is used as a symbol of pride in nationality. Consider the Dixie Flag, the ‘Confederate’ flag. Millions of homes in the southern states of the USA still have a Confederate flag outside their home. The Confederate army hasn’t existed for over two hundred years, so why do people still use it? Partly it’s pride. It’s a statement. It says you’ve signed up for all the values that the Confederates stood for. It’s a universal V-sign saying ‘Up Yours!’ to the Yankee Northerners with their Stars-and-Stripes flag. So partly it’s pride and partly it’s defiance. Nobody puts a flag outside their house and doesn’t expect some kind of reaction.

When the football is on, England is awash with St George’s flags – the red cross on a white background. People paint it on their faces. They use the flag in bunting. It’s both a symbol of identity: “I’m English and I’m proud of it.” and a symbol of defiance: “We’re going to beat all of you!” – it’s no different with football colours, football scarves. It’s part pride and part antagonism.

The English flag is a great example to talk about, because it’s something we all know can cause arguments and antagonism. Racist or national extremist groups adopt it as a symbol of being racially pure and it engenders discussion about who ‘belongs’ and who doesn’t. It’s sometimes used as a taunt to people. Living in France, if I were to put up a St George’s flag, I’m saying: “I’m English and proud!” but I’m also saying: “I don’t want to be French. I don’t identify with you. I’m different. England is superior to France. This is English territory right in your territory! Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!” and I’m guaranteed to stir up emotion, mainly from either English people who believe I’m right to be proud of my nationality and to flaunt it in a foreign land that I’ve chosen to live in, or from French people who think ‘well, go back to England or integrate!’

As another example, a house down the road has a Welsh flag outside. Why doesn’t that do the same? Because there aren’t 1000 years of antagonism between the Welsh and the French. That Welsh flag isn’t a threat. It’s someone being proud to be Welsh. It just doesn’t stir up the same emotion.

Go to ‘border’ towns between England and Wales, though, and that flag becomes antagonistic, just like the flag on the Moon was an antagonism to the Russians, just like the Chinese flag is an antagonism in Nepal. Like dogs, it’s fine to piss in your own territory, but when you start pissing on someone else’s territory, they’ll get upset. There will be fights if they don’t want to let you take over their land. A flag brings out the primeval, the animal instinct in all of us.

Firstly, flags were used to make something recognisable – if you’re all in armour or all dressed in army clothes, a flag is a great way to identify yourself and distinguish yourselves. People use flags at big events, so that their friends can find them. It shows who you are, and where you are. After that, they began to take on a life of their own, representing a nation. In some countries, flags are everywhere: on churches, on town halls, on civic buildings. Each tiny village in France has a flag. It’s everywhere. Yet in some countries, like Japan, there aren’t many flags. Here, the flag has become a symbol of war. The Japanese rising sun is not flown in many places. The only place I saw it was at the war museum in Hiroshima. The flag is now more of a symbol of shame because it tells of things that happened in the war – things that should never have happened. National pride is one thing: flaunting it is another. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t see so many flags in Japan.

‘Capture the Flag’ was a popular game, and is the name for a series of games on war games as well as a popular paintball scenario. If you take someone’s flag, they’ve lost. That’s how important a flag is.

Comedian Tim Minchin wrote in The Observer about his arrival into Phoenix, Arizona:

“We drive out of the airport past the compulsory orgy of American flags, which despite their quiet fluttering still manage to scream: YOU’RE IN AMERICA! YOU’RE IN AMERICA! YOU’RE IN AMERICA!

Where am I?

Oh, yeah. Thanks.”

See. Flags mean something to everyone. Even Australian comedians.

Wow. That’s a lot of background to a flag. And a flag means all of these things. It has the potential to spur you on, to bring you to tears, to make you feel patriotic, to mark you. By using it, you’re saying ‘I’m here’ and ‘This is what I am’ and you’re also, potentially, goading anyone who doesn’t feel like you do about whatever the flag represents.

And as you can see, there’s no way on earth a flag is ‘just a piece of cloth’.

You’ll be able to read more about this poem in my ebook on Kindle, which will be up-and-running by the end of the week. In the meantime, feel free to check out my ebook about the Conflict poems from the Literary Heritage

If you want to read more about the AQA poetry anthology contemporary poetry, you can find my ebook here. Remember, you don’t need a kindle or e-reader to read it; just download the ‘Kindle for PC’ software. If you want an hour’s lesson with me (or even half an hour!) you can find all my details on my website. One hour via skype is £20.00 only! By the end, I promise you will OWN the poems!!