Advice and Guidance for planning GCSE English Paper 1 Question 5: Narrative writing

Last time I was looking at Paper 1 Question 5 – descriptive writing – and today it’s the turn of narrative writing.

You can find information about Section A Questions 1 – 4 here:

You can find information on Section A here:

And some general guidance about question 5 here.

Personally, I prefer the narrative response, and my students generally tend to get better responses and marks with it, but that’s not to say you should always choose the narrative, should it be available to you. Don’t forget, there will be times when you will have a choice of TWO narratives or TWO descriptions, and that the description may not always be based on the photograph. You could easily get a narrative based on the photograph given too. The moral is to be prepared for all eventualities.

Whilst I prefer the narrative, it is easy to do a simple descriptive piece and cram a lot in, whereas a narrative can get a little unwieldy. Sometimes, you’re just stuck for a storyline. Description tends to be based on things most students are familiar with, and so it’s not as challenging if you are stuck for an idea.

If you prefer to avoid the fragrant romps with purple prose, narrative may well be the option for you.

Narrative in itself has a sense of chronology or time progression. The moving on of time gives you an innate structure. That’s something that descriptive writing doesn’t always have.

You can use this innate structure to help you plan.

Beginning – Middle – End.

It can be that simple.

You can make it more complicated if you think of

Situation – Complication – Resolution.

But again, it’s the same as Beginning – Middle – End, it just sounds more fancy.

And really, for a 50-minute narrative, you really do not want to be more detailed than that.

Things to avoid:

  • Casts of thousands. One or two characters, maybe three. That’s it. The November 2018 paper had a narrative based on a photo that had one person in it. If you write a story with one person in it, or one main character, you’ll be less likely to end up overcomplicating things. If you think simple stories with a limited number of characters can’t be developed, you need to have a look at Z for Zachariah, The Road or I am Legend. But you’ll rarely (ever?) find a short story with an enormous cast.
  • Starting the story way before the action. I don’t care that you woke up and ate your cornflakes if it has nothing to do with what later happens. Why do people think that stories must start at the very beginning of the day? Start in the moments before the action.
  • Feeling like you need to give an explained ending. Many of the stories I’ve read would have been much better without the last couple of paragraphs. If you write yourself into a corner, stop. Stop right where you are. I’ve seen too many good stories ruined by some kind of attempt to finish it off. If you get to the point where you can’t find a solution to your story, just leave it on a cliffhanger. I’d prefer a cliffhanger than a ‘and then I woke up’ or ‘it was all a dream’, I promise.

Start your plan with the solution. A simple twist in the tale is always nice.

Like… what if a school bully turns out not to be a school bully? What if the mild-mannered janitor turns out to be a spy? What if the dog saves the day?

And then work back.

Why would someone think the bully was a bully? Why would someone think the janitor wasn’t a spy? Why would a dog need to save the day?

That’s then the ‘complication’ or problem.

And then put them in a scene in which that problem can happen.

A scene where someone thinks the school bully will hurt them – turns out the bully isn’t a bully.

A set of spies have a meeting – a janitor clears up – he’s the spy

A school picnic – a boy gets lost – a dog finds him

Now I know they don’t sound like the most scintillating of plots. But they are the basis for so many stories. See how we all thought Snape was going to be the bad guy in Harry Potter? Story two is essentially Hong Kong Phoey-meets-Scooby Doo, and the last is every plot of Lassie or the Littlest Hobo. Simple plots are the stuff of our lives. It’s how you write them that counts.

And you’ll find another list of three to help you with that, too.

Narration (action) – Description – Dialogue.

I like to kind of portion it out. Start with a bit of action. Then add some description. Then some dialogue. Then some action.

I loosely plan three or four lines of conversation, then a bit of description using the same method as I used in the previous post.

Here’s an example short story that I wrote in the time. I typed it, which gave me a bit of a handicap. It runs in at about 600 words.

Although the safe haven and familiarity of school was only minutes behind him, the darkness made easy work of its last remnants of light and security. It cut him off from everything that was comfortable, everything that was known, and cast him out like a hesitant explorer. The inky darkness spilled through the cracks, forcing its way into forgotten corners, slipping through the streets, eating up the vestigial remains of the day. Beyond the distant gates, you could just see the faint lights of the estate; one by one, they were all turning off for the night, until he was left standing in the darkness. Staring at the darkness. He stood completely alone, between the isolated street lights, his only connection with the rest of the universe. 

Everything was silent, except for the flicker and hum of the lights above.

Daniel hated the walk home. He hated the darkness. He hated the long passageway that cut under the railway tracks. Most of all, he hated the boys who hung around at the tunnel, waiting for boys like him. Maybe tonight, they’d all have gone home. He’d been so long at the club in school that they were sure to have gone home by now, weren’t they? He hoped so. The silence seemed to confirm his thoughts.

As he reached the edge of the tunnel, the last street light seemed to flicker and fade, fizzing and buzzing, then dying. It seemed to find life once more, spluttered into life, and then died one final time.

He took a deep breath. The tunnel seemed darker than ever, with only the faintest pinprick of amber light from the other side. Daniel picked up speed and decided to run for it. The mouth of the tunnel opened cavernously. It was far from reassuring. He took a breath. Then another. Then he ran.

Panting hard, his coat billowing, his rucksack marking out each pace thumping at his back, his legs pounding, arms pumping, he made it a quarter way. Fifty yards. Then a hundred.

“Oi you!”

Daniel pulled up to a stop, only metres before the end of the tunnel and the relative security of the street lights. He turned around, the dread surging up from the pit of his stomach and he choked a little. Behind him, he could see nothing. The tunnel swallowed up the light. He took a breath and tried to reason with himself. Maybe he’d imagined the voice. Maybe it wasn’t meant for him. 

It was then that the streetlight chose to flicker back to life. 

For one horrible second, Marvin McGoran was lit up in an amber spotlight before the light faded for good. 

Marvin McGoran. Known for his enormous bulk and his love of violence. Marvin, who was every cartoon villain rolled into one. Marvin, the terror of the tunnel. 

It couldn’t have been worse. 

Through the darkness, Daniel heard the sound of footsteps. Not the usual heavy, singular, staccato footfall of Marvin at rest. No. The fast thudding of Marvin on the rampage. A thudding growing ever closer, punctuated by huge exhalations of breath as Marvin steamed towards him. 

Nothing for it. He had to run. Daniel turned on his heels and started into an immediate sprint, hoping that he could find the energy to outrun the certain terror that lay behind him. He picked up speed, finding a motivation from within that he didn’t know he had. Twenty yards left. Then five. 

Behind him, Daniel heard a huge crash as Marvin came tumbling to the ground. An advantage for sure. He smiled and slowed his pace. He’d live another day. There were grunts and groans as Marvin struggled to regain his feet. 

“Stop will yer?!”

Something in the panic of that voice brought Daniel to a halt. He stopped and turned to take a look. Marvin lay belly down on the concrete, like a conquered bull. 

“Can you give me a hand?”

Daniel would never understand what drove him to go back and help Marvin to his feet. Stupidity perhaps. Bravado brought on by lack of oxygen? Camaraderie for a fallen comrade? He took tentative steps towards the boy on the ground and put out his hand, before pulling him with some effort to his feet. 

“Alright? Sorry… I don’t know yer name. I’m Marvin… D’yer mind if I walk home with yer? I hate the dark.”

And that, my readers, is where I would leave that story. No point explaining how they got home. No point labouring it and dragging it out. I know there are faults in this simple narrative. Of course they are. I am a humble English teacher, not a novelist used to churning out short stories without the benefit of a good editor and a proofreader. Nevertheless, it serves as a simple example of the kind of story that combines those triple elements of dialogue, description and action. I’m going to use it again to dissect in terms of punctuation and sentence structures.

You can see I’ve made decisions about where to slow down the pace and add a little description, trying to create a little atmosphere and intrigue. You can also see how I’ve used dialogue to interrupt the action and speed it up. I’ve got a simple two-character story that I’ve fleshed out, a simple situation – a walk home from school – and a simple twist in the tale. We’re not talking Booker Prize winning, but then this is GCSE.

 

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AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 5

So, we’ve worked our way through the reading section of Paper 1 on the 8700 specification, and now it’s time to take a look at an overview and some tips for Question 5.

So far in the series, you’ve had:

Today, we’re going to take a look at the writing question.

As you may know, on Paper 1, you have a choice of two questions.

There will always be a photograph that is loosely related to the text in some way.

You may be asked to describe, and you may be asked to narrate.

The two questions are most likely to be one describe and one narrate, but they won’t always be so and there will be years where there will be two descriptions or two stories. In other words, don’t only prepare for one!

You could find that the task related to the photo is to describe, but it could also be to narrate.

There are 40 marks available for Question 5, and they are divided into 24 marks for content & organisation, with 16 marks for technical accuracy. You’re going to want to spend around 45 – 50 minutes on this task.

Like questions 2 to 4 on the reading section, the marks are split into four levels. For content & organisation, those four levels are divided into sub-levels, ‘upper’ and ‘lower’. So level 2 goes from 7 – 12 marks out of 24, and is divided lower level 2 (7-9 marks) and upper level 2 (10-12 marks).

Let’s look at what is assessed on each strand:

Content and organisation:

  1. Is the way you’re writing matched to the audience?
  2. Is what you’re writing a clear narrative or clear description?
  3. How effective is your vocabulary, phrasing and use of language features?
  4. How clearly is your writing structured?
  5. Is the writing engaging? Are the ideas clearly connected?
  6. Are the paragraphs clearly linked and well-organised?

Technical accuracy:

  1. Is the sentence demarcation accurate?
  2. Is there a range of punctuation? Is it accurate?
  3. Are there a range of sentence forms?
  4. Is the language and grammar secure?
  5. How accurate is the spelling?
  6. How broad is the vocabulary?

As you can see, there are a lot of things to assess for those 40 marks.

Some of these, however, are quick to learn and sharpen. Others are lifelong projects. For instance, it’s easy to learn how to use different types of punctuation or sentences for effect. It’s not so easy to pick up a wide range of vocabulary and make sure your spelling is excellent. You can learn and practise good quality language features, picking up on the awkward phrasing. Structural features are also easy to learn and to do yourself.

For that reason, I’m going to focus the next five posts on things that will really make a difference in your narrative or descriptive writing:

  • advice and guidance for planning and writing descriptive writing
  • advice and guidance for planning and writing narrative writing
  • improving your structure
  • improving your range of sentence forms
  • polishing your punctuation

Okay… onto some bad advice floating around the internet. Let’s get the rumours and the really poor advice out of the way…

  1. Do not regurgitate the text in the Reading section! Although the tasks will be related by theme/idea, don’t think that a loosely rehashed version of the reading text will pass muster. Firstly, your examiners mark Q1 – 4 and know very well which combinations of words or ideas come up there, and secondly, plagarism is cheating! I’ve had a good number of my clients tell me they have seen advice to do this on Youtube or on the internet. Not worth it. Seriously. It’s a risk you don’t want to make with your marks.
  2. Avoid jubilant adulations. Another thing I know some students had been told to do – cram a load of words in there. If your work reads poorly because you have misused vocabulary in an attempt to impress, you won’t find yourself moving much beyond the middle mark. Now I was guilty of this – I did it right up to A level in fact. I had a thesaurus and I had no idea how to use it. I’d dip in, find some word I didn’t know the meaning of, and use that instead. Finally, I got such a poor grade because of it that I saw sense and didn’t do it any more. If I see anything that reads ‘it was a lugubrious and opaque morning.’ or ‘it was a tenebrous, crepuscular and night’, I’m finding myself stretched to the limits of my tolerance. I call these ‘jubilant adulations’ after a very poor episode of mine with a thesaurus. No Jubilant Adulations, please!
  3. There is no logical reason for you to only study description or narrative. If you only prepare for one, you may find that it doesn’t come up on the paper.
  4. Descriptive writing is not in some way implicitly superior or easier. Indeed, many of the top level scripts are narratives.
  5. Description is less easy in many ways (and you don’t get extra credit for choosing it) because we just don’t read as much description. We are surrounded by narratives from our earliest reading, listening and watching. Adverts, television, movies, novels, computer games… we live and breathe narratives. We just don’t have the same exposure to description.
  6. That’s not to say ‘don’t do the descriptive task’, but it IS to say it can be harder to do, harder to pull off and harder to get right unless you feel comfortable with it.
  7. Description doesn’t involve the five senses. We humans are visual creatures, relying mostly on sight and sound with occasional reference to smell. We may mention texture but as soon as I read about characters having to eat something just to describe it, it seems forced and laboured. Please don’t try to cover all of the senses. If you write about taste, it’s going to be pretty ‘ouchy’, I promise.
  8. If you’re describing, probably 80-90% will be visual, 10-15% will be sound, and you may find yourself mentioning a smell IF APPROPRIATE.
  9. Description CAN have dialogue in it. It reminds me of one of the chief examiners of years gone by saying how dialogue can ‘lift’ description. Description can have people in it too.
  10. Narrative is not something to bypass just because you want a 7, 8 or 9. Narrative can start with action, dialogue or description. I’m not sure you’d want to disagree with Ted Hughes’ narrative poem Bayonet Charge that starts in the thick of it… but narrative MAY have a bit of action, description and dialogue in there.

Overall, quality of writing is the most important aspect of content/organisation. One of the things that really impairs writing is the ‘ouch factor’. I’m going to give you an example from a very bad book I started to read and then put down because it hurt my English teacher sensibilities to read. The guy was trying to go for the Jack Reacher ‘lone wolf’ kind of character and it just made me cringe to read. When I started teaching back in the day in West Lancashire, the popular slang for this kind of writing was “fair cheesy” – and I still think that being “fair cheesy” is the best way to describe this kind of writing.

Here’s some fine examples of fair cheesy writing:

In an effort at stealth, the music volume had been turned down. Still, the thud-thud rhythm sounded like the heartbeat of a predator coiling for the death lunge. 

Fair cheesy. It sounds like that man who reads the previews for movies

Anything that sound like it should be read in the Preview Man Voice qualifies as Fair Cheesy.

I mean, what does ‘coiling for the death lunge’ even mean? Is he talking about a snake? Do snakes have noisy heartbeats? What’s a noisy snake got in common with the music in the car? It’s just needlessly melodramatic.

Staring down the barrel of a SIG is enough to motivate most men. He was surprisingly sprightly when offered the correct form of stimulation.

Sprightly describes old people. It doesn’t describe a teenage thug in a noisy car. In fact, the first search on Google says ‘especially of an old person’. It’s as ouchy as saying “he was unusually zippy”, or “he was playfully peppy”. Just ouch. Nothing is more ouchy than accidental (or purposeful!) alliteration drawing attention to misused words. Also, did you hear me reading the first sentence like Preview Man?

I knew what was going through the big guy’s head. He thought that the ignominious alley was where he was going to end his days. 

Ouch to the ignominious. If you swapped it with ‘disgraceful’, you can see it’s just as ouchy. It doesn’t go with the tone of the narration about a hard man thug – they don’t use words like ‘ignominious’ – in fact WHO uses words like ignominious?! Nobody. It sounds forced and yet again sounds like it’s been chosen for showing off rather than because it was the right word.

We’re all about the right word. Even ‘dirty’ would have been better. Dirty alley, muddy alley, grimy alley, filthy alley, dark alley… sure… befouled alley, feculent alley, unhygienic alley… just no. That’s what horribly ouchy language is like. Sure, befouled is a posher word than dirty, and ignominious is probably ‘sophisticated’ were it used correctly. But it isn’t. It’s inappropriate and unhelpful, and I’d be hovering around a mark of 13 out of 24 with vocabulary like that.

Terrible similes also fit into the ‘ouch’ category.

Her eyes were peeled like oranges

Ears that looked like pork scratchings

They were as solitary as oysters

You can find some more here

And yet a further collection here

Please, please respect your tired old examiner and refrain from ALL images of predators. No ‘like lions chasing giraffes’. No ‘as stealthy as cheetahs with their prey’. Definitely no ‘as stealthy as cheaters with their pray’. No hawks with prey. No sharks with prey.

The only reasons that you would use a simile like this are:

a) you think you need to use a simile because you haven’t used one yet, but you can’t think of a good one

b) you want to give the person marking your essay a good old chuckle and then find them hovering between ‘some use of (conscious) linguistic devices’ for 10-12 marks out of 24, or ‘appropriate use of linguistic devices’ for 13-15.

In fact, I’d always stick to 10-12 for fair cheesy similes that make me laugh or don’t work, and the same with ‘ouchy’ mis-used vocabulary. It’s conscious, yes. The person writing has clearly tried to do something rather than just having words spill out. But it’s not successful and it’s not clear. It’s not appropriate. This habit of vocabulary and feature-stuffing is not one to follow if you want to get a grade 5 or above.

So there you have it…. things you’re being marked on… things to avoid… and a rough idea of what will be up next (to be read in Preview Man’s Movie Voiceover Style).

Coming soon… A blog with a mission. A blog to guide you. A blog to eliminate all the competition. Learn to wield your punctuation like a weapon. Find out how to use your similes like a hunter on the trail of a jaguar. Structure your stories like Freytag and his Marvellous Pyramid…

And in non-cheesy summative style, that equates to:

  • advice and guidance for planning and writing descriptive writing
  • advice and guidance for planning and writing narrative writing
  • improving your structure
  • improving your range of sentence forms
  • polishing your punctuation

Have fun!

An analysis of the language and imagery in Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes

In the last post, I explored the use of form and structure in Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes, which is in this year’s AQA GCSE English Literature anthology for exams from 2017.  Today, I’ll be exploring how language works with the form and structure to convey Hughes’ viewpoint about the themes of conflict explored in the poem.

Bayonet Charge starts in the middle of the action, unlike some other poems in the anthology, which give you the necessary back story you need to make sense of it. Here, all we get is the title, an unknown war, an unknown time. It isn’t an entire story like The Charge of the Light Brigade.

So, what’s the effect of starting in the middle of something?

It’s immediately more dramatic. We’re dropped into the action, unprepared, perhaps like the soldier himself. The opening word ‘Suddenly’ emphasises this. It’s as much a shock for us as it is for the soldier. We also see that it’s past tense. This is another point of comparison with The Charge of the Light Brigade which is also past tense.

Here, you’ve got to think about the effect of tense. Present tense makes something more real, more ‘now’ – it’s as if it is happening now in front of our very eyes. We don’t know, just as the characters don’t, what will happen. Past tense is reflection. It gives us time to think, to consider our angle. I suppose, in a way, present tense is a little less biased – it’s presenting what happens, as it happens. Of course, this is only an illusion. All poems are written after the event, rather than during it. It’s not as if they unravel as time does. Past tense means that you’re reflecting on a completed action. There isn’t much, however, that is reflective about this poem. However, writing after the fact means that Ted Hughes, just like Tennyson, is allowed to consider his ‘spin’, his angle on things, to add his views and to polish the writing. Past tense is more commonly used with narrative and reflective writing. Present tense is more vivid in some ways, because it’s like watching something as it happens.

There’s something peculiar about what’s happening. The soldier, who is as yet un-named, and his role unidentified (we don’t know that he’s a soldier – it just says ‘he’ – and we can only guess from the title) is awake and immediately running. It’s odd. We don’t normally wake up and then start running. Why would we do this? Because we’re under threat? Are we running to something, or away from something?

The word ‘raw’ is separated by a dash from the line. The poet makes us stop and think about this word. It stands alone, brief and ‘raw’. And then he repeats it in the next line, so if we were in any doubt about the importance of this word, we aren’t now. So what does raw tell us? It tells us that something is unfinished or unprocessed (like ‘raw’ crude, which is petrol as it comes out of the ground, unrefined) and like his seams, which aren’t sewn over, aren’t made for comfort. They’re rubbing against him, making his skin ‘raw’. When our skin is ‘raw’, we’re often describing a wound. His skin has been chaffed until it is red. It’s painful. It’s a word that evokes pain. It’s what happens when something abrasive has rubbed on your skin. It’s also a word that when we use about emotions means emotions that are really clear, really on the surface, “strong and undisguised” (Oxford Dictionary) which could mean that all his emotions are on show, for everyone to see.

There are other things we could say about this word ‘raw’

  • Is he like a ‘raw’ recruit, unpolished, unrefined, inexperienced?
  • Is it that his skin is raw on a literal level?
  • Is he emotionally raw, on a metaphorical level?
  • Are his emotions strong and undisguised, like ‘raw anger’?

This little fragmented, repeated word gives us a lot to think about and it works on lots of levels.

The word ‘khaki’ is our first sign that this is an army situation. Khaki is the colour of army uniforms, and it’s often used in a military sense. It’s little clues like this that make it overtly about the war, in ways that we have only seen so far in Charge of the Light Brigade. 

The third line starts with ‘stumbling’. Like all the great verbs in The Charge of the Light Brigade, this is a very evocative word. If you stumble, it’s like you’re out of control. Wilfred Owen says a man caught in a mustard gas attack was ‘stumbling’ in his poem Dulce et Decorum Est – it doesn’t sound like the noble, brave or glorious soldiers in The Charge of the Light Brigade with all their sabres flashing, racing on proud horses into battle. This sounds like a man running to escape, desperate. If we stumble, we are hesitant. We stumble when we are unsure, when we have made a mistake. It sounds as if this man is at great risk. Yet we are three lines into the poem, and other than the title, we have no concept of why he is running. 

Like other poems in the selection, Bayonet Charge also uses the natural as a contrast. He races towards a ‘green hedge’ – it seems strangely out of place on this battlefield. We’re reminded that often, battlefields are exactly that: fields. And yet, other than his khaki clothing and the title, we’ve had little other clue that this man is a soldier or is involved in a battle. We see here how incongruous a war would be, out in the countryside. It doesn’t feel right and it doesn’t seem natural. 

The first five lines use enjambment to run the lines into each other, so you end up saying them like this:

Suddenly he awoke and was running – raw In raw-seamed hot khaki, his sweat heavy, Stumbling across a field of clods towards a green hedge That dazzled with rifle fire, hearing Bullets smacking the belly out of the air –

It’s all one long breathless sentence – and it still doesn’t have a full stop when we get to line 5. So why would Ted Hughes want us to be breathless? Does it evoke and recreate the soldier’s own breathlessness, unable to take a pause?

Not only that, but we stumble over our words too, when reading it aloud. It makes us read the words in a halting, hesitant manner, although speeding through it. The line breaks don’t fall where maybe they might, similar in ways to Heaney in Storm on the Island. In contrast to that poem, though, where the secterian violence is an unmentioned backdrop to the poem, where the lexical field of war is used to paint a picture of how nature attacks the island, here it is the war which seems out of place. 

The fourth line is where we begin to see the images of war: the hedge is dazzling with ‘rifle fire’ – which makes us wonder why he’s running to the hedge – surely, if that’s where all the bullets are going, he’s better behind the bullet line? Is he just running into danger? The verb ‘dazzled’ is very reminiscent of words in The Charge of the Light Brigade, which also uses words like ‘flashed’ to describe the weaponry. It’s these verbs that make the poem so vivid and recreate the sights of conflict. ‘Dazzled’, to me, doesn’t have the same visceral brutality as ‘smacked’ in the next line. Dazzled, if anything, is quite pretty. Smacked is not.

Ted Hughes personifies nature here, the air, saying the bullets ‘smacked’ the belly out of the air. It’s as if nature itself is the target: it’s the hedge being shot up, it’s the air that is being shot in the belly. Belly is also a fairly basic, evocative word. In fact, the word belly was banned from the Bible for a couple of centuries! Still, children often say ‘tummy’ rather than ‘belly’ and if you ask a grown-up they might say stomach, or a doctor might say ‘abdomen’ – belly is still a word that has got a fairly crude whiff about it. It’s a brutal, basic word. The Bible sees the belly as the seat of all our more primitive emotions, lust, greed and so on. Put it with ‘smacking’ and you’ve got some fairly brutal, harsh language. Couple that with the image of the air being shot at, and you’ve got a really powerful image. The ‘b’s in this line are also fairly plosive. Your mouth closes to say the ‘b’ (like other plosive sounds) and then pushes it from your mouth. Plosive sounds are often used by Hughes and his contemporary, Heaney, to have an oral effect. And the effect of a plosive explosion of ‘b’s? It’s harsh, basic and violent. Those plosive words ‘belly’ and ‘bullets’ really add to the effect of the poem, how violent it sounds. You might think I’m labouring the point but there are only four ‘b’ plosive sounds in the first verse, and two of them are on this line. This image of nature being attacked by war is the reverse of the images that we see in Exposure where it is nature that is the enemy.

Following these harsh plosives and the personification of the air, we have a simile: ‘he lugged a rifle numb as a smashed arm’. This image shows how the rifle has become almost like an extra limb – albeit a useless one. It’s dead weight. It’s also a very violent image – a ‘smashed’ arm – not just broken, but ‘smashed’. It couldn’t be much more brutal. It reminds us that the machinery and weaponry of war is senseless, literally, unfeeling. It’s a part of him, like an arm, but also it’s not a part of him – it’s useless, a hindrance.

Hughes moves to the pluperfect tense when he describes the patriotism that ‘had’ driven this man, suggesting that it is not there now. Now it is ‘sweating like molten iron’ from him – iron being heavy, weighing him down, but also metal – an inanimate object as unfeeling as the rifle. All of these metallic images seem to make him sound ‘robotic’ – like he is being replaced by metal and weaponry, like Robocop.

At that moment, he is ‘bewildered’, confused. And what confuses him? That confusion also echoes the confusion of Owen in Exposure. It reminds me here of another Owen poem too, Futility, where Owen reflects on God and life, how pointless the miracle of the universe seems when lives are snuffed out so easily and without consequence or even recognition. 

Where Owen refers to the ‘cold’ emotionless clay that formed the world in Futility, Hughes calls it a ‘cold clockwork’ suggesting something emotionless and mechanical, inhuman. The alliteration of ‘c’ – cuh – is cutting. It’s another plosive sound – kuh – and it’s cacophonous – dischordant. It stands out. It emphasises the ‘cold clockwork’ – making us think about it. The alliteration draws attention to it. Again, like many of the other poems in the selection, God is not present in this war. It continues the theme of this literally ‘god-forsaken’ war – a war that God can have no part in. All we are is ‘cold clockwork’ – the universe is something mechanised, something emotionless. The soldier ponders his place in time, where all this conflict fits in the grand scheme of things. In the billions of years that have passed and may pass, what is the significance of this war? Like Owen, even like Tennyson, he raises questions that almost cannot be answered, because the answer is that life, death and conflict are meaningless, pointless. And that very nihilistic thought is almost too depressing to live with. No wonder the soldier almost stops.

He ‘listens’ for the reason for things, and finds no reason at all.

Out in the middle of this chaos, where the soldier is frozen like a statue, a ‘yellow hare’ appears. The land here is ‘shot slashed’ and it reminds me that no matter where you go in a war-ravaged area, you cannot but think of the tragedy and the blood spilt, that the rain and seasons have now washed away. We don’t know if the hare has been shot, but it seems injured. It is ‘threshing’, in a circle, like an animal might do with a broken leg, unable to go in a straight line. It comes from the word ‘thrashing’, as in ‘thrashing about’ – moving ‘in a violent and convulsive way’ – it doesn’t head for freedom. Its mouth is ‘wide/Open silent,’ and here, Hughes uses the enjambment and the semi-caesura of the comma to make this bit fractured and fragmented, disjointed. It’s a terrible image, this hare in pain on the battlefield, reminding us that war is totally opposite to what is natural and good. It destroys the natural order of things. It gets worse. The hare isn’t just thrashing about violently in a circle, with its mouth open, as if screaming silently, but its eyes are ‘standing out’ – it’s terrified. Its last moments are in pain, terror and fear. It’s a hideous image. But then, is it any different for any of the soldiers who die? The hare seems almost a euphemistic, softer way of making us think about the soldiers who died in similar ways. It’s almost too painful to imagine.

Still, this spurs the soldier on, to make it to the safety of the green hedge, if safety is what he’ll find there. Hedges are often homes and protection for small birds, small countryside animals like voles and mice, protecting them from predators, and here, I’m reminded of the sanctuary a hedge provides for smaller creatures from things like hawks. A hedge is their fortress. Yet we know a hedge isn’t going to protect this soldier from bullets or bayonets.

What spurs him on? Patriotism. ‘King, honour, human dignity’ – like Henry V spurring on his men in Shakespeare’s play, who rallies his men with ‘cry ‘God for Harry, England and St George!’ (and if you want a great rallying call that picks up on patriotism and loyalty, Henry V’s speech is a great place to start, since it picks up on loads of great images that are used to spur men on to be victorious in battle, like Henry V was at Agincourt) – but Hughes undermines the effect of this little tripartite rally (there’s your little persuasive list of three, like ‘Harry, England and St George!’) with ‘etcetera’ as if he can’t be bothered to name all the other trite and meaningless words that fill his spirit. It’s a real anticlimax. Shakespeare finishes on ‘St George’ – a real build-up – and yet  Hughes undermines his with this little ‘etcetera’ – as if you already know how it goes. It really shows how hollow and pointless this is, this use of anticlimax at the end. If those words did make you feel patriotic, then ‘etcetera’ bursts that patriotic bubble.

Hughes calls these thoughts ‘luxuries’ – as if in war, he can’t afford to be driven by these thoughts. A luxury is something we can do without, something non-essential, something additional or extra to what we need. Still, it is these thoughts that spur him on to finally make his way to safety. If, again, that’s what the hedge is. I can’t help but think if the hedge is ‘dazzling’ with gun shot, he’s actually going to find this isn’t a safe haven at all. A luxury can be a comfort, though, and we get the feeling that although these feelings of patriotism aren’t essential to battle, it’s what keeps him going. When he stops to question what it is all about, Hughes tells us: country, honour, dignity. It’s a battle for something more than land. You are doing it for something bigger than you will ever be. And it’s enough to light this man’s fuse.

We then get a sense that the hedge is hiding the enemy – he gets his bayonet out and runs at the hedge. It’s as if he’s attacking nature. Of course, Hughes doesn’t say that he’s running into the enemy. This soldier has gone ‘over the top’ and is running at the enemy. The hedge is marking the enemy. The dazzling is rifle fire. The hedge is not protection, but the enemy. He is running to certain death. A bayonet is a knife that you fit to the end of your rifle in order to charge at the enemy – designed for close-quarter combat, man on man. It’s a last-resort weapon – it’s not ‘clean’ like rifle fire, because you’re up close and personal with the men you have to kill, and if you are in a situation where you have to use a bayonet, your chance of survival is pretty limited. This soldier is nothing but ‘cannon fodder’ – food for the enemy, served up on a plate. They have nothing to do but run at the enemy and hope to overwhelm them. It’s an utterly pointless and useless method of combat reserved only for speeding up death when picking off people by rifle fire is taking too long, and you are cornered without ammunition or supplies.

It worked in earlier wars, where a platoon could run across a battlefield or no-man’s-land knowing that the enemy might only get off a couple of rounds, because muskets took such a long time to load. But it didn’t work by the time of World War One, because rifles were so much more accurate and so much more quick to load. A bayonet charge was a battle tactic that was outdated and cost many, many lives. So we get a sense of how ridiculous it is for this man to run with his bayonet at a hedge-full of whatever enemy it is that he’s facing. We also get no sense that he is in company. There’s a real feeling that he’s alone and that he’s facing a larger number of this nameless enemy – his prospects of living are very slim.

What it is finally that sets fire to the ‘dynamite’ of his terror is a little thought of patriotism. It is his ‘dynamite’ terror if anything that is forcing him to run, to fight, not honour or duty or loyalty or patriotism.

Next week, an exploration of Remains by Simon Armitage

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email via the website or Facebook and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.

 

An analysis of the context, form and structure of Bayonet Charge

Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes gets its second outing as a GCSE English Literature anthology poem for AQA, having previously been included in the last. Whilst it may not be his best poetic offering, it fits well within the Power and Conflict section and compares easily with other war poems such as The Charge of the Light Brigade as well as those that explore the battle with nature such as Exposure or even Storm on the Island.

Context… Ted Hughes, like Heaney, is a poet who often explores nature in his poems. I don’t think he’s as accessible as Heaney, which is why you find fewer of his poems littering anthologies, although some of his poems are popular in collections. Like Wordsworth and Tennyson, he was also Poet Laureate, which shows in some measure his popularity. Hughes’ father served during World War One and fought at Ypres. This poem is from his first collection, published in 1957, The Hawk in the Rain, which contains a number of poems about the war. The most interesting images in this collection as you might be able to work out from the title are the way he uses animals to explore a number of themes. The Thought Fox, View of a Pig and Pike are three of his poems that focus on animals and use them to explore other themes. The collection itself is noted for its use of rhythm and the way Ted Hughes, not unlike Heaney, also uses the sounds of words for specific effect and to complement the ideas in his poems.

In terms of ideas in the poem, it compares well with Charge of the Light Brigade simply because of those graphic, violent images.

When we start looking at the form of the poem, we see that it’s written in free verse. We see those three stanzas of seven or eight lines – there’s a loose regularity, but nothing you would feel compelled to comment on. The stanzas are as long as they need to be and do not force the poem or box it into corners by requiring it to be more ‘neat’. You’ll notice the stanzas blend into one another, as we consider how the ideas are structured and we see that the first stanza runs into the second, and the second runs into the third. I think that it is more than appropriate to convey the sense of motion in the poem, to echo the way the soldier moves through the poem. The first line of stanza two seems to be very much a part of the first stanza, and then the second line changes subject, as he stops and reflects on the “cold clockwork” – almost like the soldier is frozen in motion as his mind reflects on the events, or like the poet deliberately (almost) stops him in mid-charge to interject this reflection on what it is the soldier is doing here.

Similarly as we move into stanza three, the last line of stanza two seems like it would be better placed in stanza three, but the gap between the stanzas very much emphasises the shot-slashed furrows. I’ll talk more about why he runs an idea into stanza two from stanza one, and why he leaves that little fragment of stanza three hanging back there in stanza two, but the overall effect is one of a disjointed, fragmented and fractured moment.

The poem is not driven or constrained by rhythm and rhyme in the same way that other poems are. One of the focal points we might notice about the form of the poem is that it makes a lot of use of enjambment, with two noticeably enjambed lines in stanza one, the “raw/in raw-seamed hot khaki,” and “hearing/bullets smacking the belly out of the air” where the rest of the line breaks kind of fall where you would expect them to. That begs us to consider why he runs these lines into the next, why he wants to break up these phrases. For me, he leaves that word “raw” hanging at the end of the line, making it more important somehow, especially given the repetition of the word. It really makes us reflect on that rawness. And in the second, there is a gap between “hearing” and what he hears, the “bullets”, which seems to slow them down – a tiny, mini pause on paper that we don’t hear in the reading. That word “hearing” dangles… We’d read it and wonder what it is he hears, it’s like the word “bullets” catches up a microsecond later.

In stanza two, we also have some interesting use of enjambment, focusing us on the words “running” and “runs”. The lines literally run into the next line. When you take that huge sentence, split over four lines, you are obliged to think about why Hughes has written it this way:

                                                                                     He was running
Like a man who has jumped up in the dark and runs
Listening between his footfalls for the reason
Of his still running, and his foot hung like
Statuary in mid-stride.

That 35-word sentence is long. It leaves us breathless to read. That’s its first effect… we are as breathless as he is. I’m reading, desperate for the comma after “still running”, and by the time I get there, I’m breathless. It makes that breath-pause comma-stop even more necessary and when I read it aloud, I find myself stopping there for longer than I would to catch my breath. For me, it emphasises the need to get to the target (the comma) in order to breathe again… I’m conscious of needing to get there, just as the soldier must be to get to the safety of his target – “the green hedge”. I’ll talk more about how he uses enjambment to add meaning to those active verbs in the next post exploring the language and imagery in the poem.

In the third stanza, we also have some noticeable enjambment between “wide/open silent”, splitting the idea over two lines. I think this does a similar thing as it has done in other parts of the poem. The line breaks stop us in mid-phrase, leaving us hanging for a microsecond, as if time has just stopped still at that moment. I don’t know why but it reminds me of when they slow film down and you can see the individual frozen moments that make up a movie. It seems to capture that moment like a photograph and freeze it, like they’re in suspended animation. At the very least, it allows us to process the image, to take it in. But where he splits phrases across lines, those line breaks seem to me to be a chasm of a pause rather than just a line break. The effect for me is that it seems to put the soldier – or the hare – into suspension, stopping them for a brief moment before continuing.

When we consider structure, the poem starts as if the man has awoken from sleep. It drops us right into the action alongside the soldier when it starts with “Suddenly he awoke”. It’s disorienting and confusing. We have no idea what woke him or why he is running, or indeed who “he” is. Like Heaney’s and Owen’s ambiguous “we”, this “he” gives us no idea who “he” is, although the title will, of course, have filled us in on what is happening here. The title gives us a sense of what is going on and why he is running – it’s essential in order to make meaning from the first line that we understand the title. But it gives us a little of the soldier’s confusion and disorientation.

The poem narrates two moments: the soldier running, and then the appearance of the hare. We notice the word “then” at the end of the second stanza which shifts us on to the next moment. It’s a brief incident, but it is described in such detail that it becomes almost slow motion, with each action distinct. The introduction of the hare seems almost surreal, and we’re reminded that in order for the man to pass the hare, the hare’s “threshing circle” must be its death throes. It wouldn’t make sense any other way.

I find the ending the most interesting aspect of the structure: does the soldier get to the hedge or not? We don’t know. It is left unfinished. The fact that the poem is also past tense means that Hughes could have made that clear, had he wanted to, but it finishes with the final moment being the soldier’s wish to get to the hedge, “to get out of that blue crackling air” – and that’s where it finishes. We never know if he survives or if he dies. It’s a bit of a philosophical dilemma – like Schrodinger’s cat. You’ll need to get someone better at explaining complex quantum physics to tell you about Schrodinger’s cat, but essentially the dilemma is this: there is a cat in a box. It’s either alive or dead. Until you open the box, it is BOTH alive AND dead. I have no idea what the comparison is supposed to explore, but the soldier is in that same state. It’s possible he lived, it’s possible he died. Both things are true and not true. The poem finishes with the uncertainty over the man’s life. We don’t know who he is, which war this is, when this is, where this is, and we finish the poem not even knowing if he is alive or dead. In this way, Hughes leaves us with an enormous mystery which leaves us feeling unsettled.

The poem is not just observational – there are moments where we go into the mind of the soldier. By the last four lines of the poem, it has become much more subjective as Hughes takes us into the inner thoughts of the soldier. What had been largely observational and focused on external actions is now focused on telling us that the soldier has forgotten all the nobility, the glory of war and is only now fixed on saving himself. We have a structural shift then from external actions to internal thoughts as we arrive at the final lines. That subjectivity touches us too as a reader: we cannot help but feel like we want him to get to safety, but we are cheated of that knowledge.

In the next post, I’ll look at how Hughes uses language and imagery in Bayonet Charge, exploring the words he chooses and how he uses the sound of language for effect as well as some of the ideas within the poem.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email via the website or Facebook and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.

 

A sample response to Question 3 on AQA English Language Paper 1 Higher Tier

Following on from last week’s post about Question 3 on Paper 1H, I’m going to share with you my own response for one of the papers.

I always start with a really good read, highlighting everything I think I might use. Then I read again and narrow down. This is a response to reading question, so the more carefully I read, the better my answer should be – in theory!

I’m going with the November 2014 paper and I’ve included a printed version of the source text which has my initial quote selection, so you can see how I start with a very wide selection of quotes, underlining everything that might be relevant, then I narrow down to the specifics I want to use. Believe it or not, I’m going to have about 25 – 30 brief quotes I want to use, some 6-8 per paragraph, and I’m aiming to write 3 – 4 paragraphs in about 10 minutes. 12 minutes tops.

The question, as always is:

Explain some of the thoughts and feelings the writer has as…

And in this case the precision is “as she cycles home.”

To get top band marks, I’m looking at doing three things:

  1. Having appropriate quotations that support my ideas
  2. Explaining and interpreting the thoughts and feelings
  3. Engaging in detail

I’m also bearing in mind the Chief Examiners’ Report which reminds me that I am not being assessed on writing about linguistic choices or language features.

With those things in mind, I started my first read-through.

GCSE sample annotation.jpg

Then I planned out my answer briefly:

  1. Invincibility: “had to”, “the wind threatened,” “I was impressive”, “I’d beaten everyone”, “I felt unassailable”
  2. Contrast with her feelings of pleasure about school dinner-time and “no-one knowing” about her free school dinners and the liveliness of the lunch-hall.
  3. She feels above playing and her friends, she’s “a grammar school girl”

I can start to pick out key feelings: pride, shame, invincibility. These will form my introductory sentence and a conclusion too.

Finally, I’m ready to write. I’m typing this and my typing is less fast than my writing, so I’m going to give myself 15 minutes to type it.

From the moment Jane sets off from school, the ride home becomes “a race” as she “beats” a number of competitors, “though they didn’t know it.”. From the “Northgate Boys” to the “Northgate girls” and the “vespa” scooter, she “overtook them easily”. It’s like this is her moment of proof, where she can be better than anyone else, thinking that she is being “watched admiringly” by the “people on the pavement”. This is her victory ride, where she can triumph, and she seems to hugely enjoy it, the speed and exhilaration of seeing the world as it “flew by” and seeing off competitor after competitor. When she says that she felt “unassailable”, we really see that she feels invincible, like nothing can beat her. She is unstoppable. It seems to give her a huge rush, swelling her ego and making her think that she “was impressive”, that she stands out from the crowds. This is her moment of glory and when she says that she was “sure” she was being watched, it seems to reveal her desire to be recognised, to be admired. 

This is in contrast to the loose daydream she has in the fourth paragraph about school dinners, where she seems glad that “no one knew” that she had free school dinners. Here, she is glad to fade into the background and happy that her poorer background in these “grand” and exotic settings isn’t something that is known. She says that “no one knew” once she was in the canteen that her name went into the “separate” book each morning, that she is once again anonymous, as she is on the bike ride. In contrast, on the bike ride, she is “admired” and recognised, what she seems to enjoy about the canteen is that she is anonymous. She seems to be ashamed of the fact she has free school dinners and that this is not known when she is in the canteen. Like the bike ride, the canteen is pleasurable: “I liked it”. 

The canteen and the ride home seem to be the highlights of her day: she gets home and has a great pleasure in having homework to do as it “impressed” her. Her former life, “the shed” seems to be a world that she has cast off now, and she is incredulous that she spent such a long time playing there, in the “dark, musty space” with Margaret Whitman and Margaret Hayward, which also seems rather embarrassing for her, something that she is ashamed of. She is intensely proud of being “a grammar school girl” and how grown up it is with homework. It’s no longer in keeping with playing in dusty sheds with her childhood friends: she seems to think that she is above all of these childish things now. Ironically the pleasures she now gets are from the thrill of the bike ride home and the exotic world of “school doughnuts”, “jam sponge with coconut” which are “unlike anything Gran ever made”. She mentions when she talks about the sixth form and prefects that they seemed “grand and remote” to her, and it seems to be this grandeur that is appealing to her too. The bike ride, however, shows that she still appreciates the simple things in life, she feels for the first moment in her day perhaps that she is worth watching and she wants to stand out from the crowd. 

With these three paragraphs, I’ve covered the whole text, although I wanted to spend a little longer on the final two paragraphs. That’s always something that happens. People focus too much on the beginning and run out of time and steam by the final paragraphs. It’s just something to bear in mind. Looking back at the markscheme, I hope I have managed to achieve those three aspects, with appropriate supportive quotation, detailed engagement with the passage, explaining and interpreting her thoughts and feelings.

If you are struggling with any aspect of AQA Paper 1, please send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.

 

 

10 tips to tackle Q3 of AQA GCSE English Language Higher Tier

Q3 presents extraordinary difficulties for some students who have a paucity of emotional vocabulary to describe the ‘thoughts and feelings’ in a provided source text. For that reason, I’m focusing today on how to answer this question in order to get full marks.

Follow these ten tips to get full marks and you will see your writing improve no end. Although the source text changes each year, the question remains the same.

Explain some of the thoughts and feelings the writer has as…

Because the question and the markscheme are always the same, you have a very good opportunity to really get behind the question in order to hit top marks. Source Three is a recount text that often focuses on an event or occasion.

So where do you start?

  1. Explore the markscheme. When you really know what you are being asked and you really know what the examiner is looking for, you have a great opportunity to do exactly that. I won’t tell you about the row I once had with my night school photography teacher when he couldn’t explain how he was going to assess us. “How will I ever know what to do?” I shouted. Though I shouldn’t have lost my temper, it is the markscheme which governs what you get marked on. Everything outside the markscheme is as beautiful and yet as useless as writing a Physics equation as your response. We simply can’t mark it.

    So what are you being marked on?

    Two things mainly. Your quotation. Your understanding of the way the writer thinks and feels about the events.

    You’re also being assessed on your ability to explain your understanding, and your ability to write in detail about the writer’s thoughts and feelings.

    Now you know what the examiner is looking for, you know what to do. Root your answer solidly in the text and write about the thoughts and feelings.

    Some people still write about great stuff that’s not in the markscheme. As it says in the Examiners’ Report:

    Candidates should understand, that for this question, comments on the writer’s linguistic choices and references to the thoughts and feelings of the reader are not relevant , nor are they rewarded.
    Every year, people write about similes and metaphors, powerful verbs, adjectives… but you need to imagine that as being as pointless as drawing a picture. It’s nice, but we can’t mark it. Not only that, it takes you away from the main focus and wastes valuable time.

  2. Focus on the text. Read it with two pencils. One colour is for “might include” and covers everything you think about in your first reading. The second is a colour to go over the top for “must include” that you will pick out on your second reading. The process by which an A* student narrows down quotes is a kind of filtering process. They do it instinctively, sifting through and narrowing down. We want to make that process explicit and clear. Underline absolutely everything that is about thoughts and absolutely everything that suggests a feeling. Don’t skimp. Number the paragraphs and make sure you don’t do what most do – only focusing on the first couple of paragraphs. Make sure you are as thorough with the final paragraph as you are with the first. If it’s a thought or feeling, underline it.
  3. Now that you have identified all your quotes (you should find that you have between twenty and forty big pieces of text) you can check that you are covering all the paragraphs. Don’t start in a thorough manner and miss out the last paragraph. Often you will find that the event described falls into a BDA kind of thing. Before – During – After. Ask yourself: what do they think/feel before? What do they think/feel during? What do they think/feel after? Add a B, D or an A beside each quote. You will have a lot of stuff to divide up – but at this point, better too much than too little. Start to mark out which quotes will go in each section. You’re aiming for three or four paragraphs, but sometimes, the BDA doesn’t fall evenly. If you have more B, add a second Before paragraph. Likewise for During or After.
  4. This is where you can now start writing. You want to start with a brief paraphrase and a focus on “the writer feels…” or “the writer thinks…” then you’ve got a couple of methods to explore. My first method is a triple whammy of quotes in a row. Taking the November 2014 Higher Tier source 3, and the question: “Explain some of the thoughts and feelings the writer has as she cycles home” I would start by picking out the idea of competition in paragraph 1 that is picked up in paragraph 6. I want to be sure to get those quotes from across the whole essay.

     “One of the major ideas the writer explores as she rides home is her feeling of being in a race, that she “had to overtake” the Northgate boys, “it was a race, though they didn’t know it.” By the end, she’s elated: “I’d beaten everyone.”

    This way, I am showing I can pick out and manipulate quotes from across the whole passage. One of the things many candidates do is focus too much on the opening paragraphs and run out of steam by the final few. This way, I’m showing I can handle the whole passage and track through, helping me get that appropriate quotation mark.

  5. I also want to show that I really understand the writer’s feelings and thoughts. The best way to do this is to put them into my own words and explain what that means. For instance, I’m going to pick up on “I felt unassailable”.

    “When the writer says ‘I felt unassailable’, she’s telling us that she felt utterly invincible, like nothing can stop her. There is nothing that can stand in her way. It’s a feeling of absolute power and triumph as she rides her bike home, particularly as she passes the Vespa, although she does admit that it had ‘slowed down’, she still feels triumphant.”

    You can see that I am once again using the triangular three-point method, putting her feelings in three different ways to show I really understand them.

  6. I can also explain what I can make sense out of when I read something. For instance, when the writer says, “I didn’t play in sheds any more now that I went to Northgate.” I can infer that she feels too grown up, perhaps, to ‘play’, that she has moved on from her childhood games. Ironically, she still enjoys the childhood freedoms of riding her bike home, but she feels she is too mature for these things any more. “I was a grammar school girl”, she says. What I’m trying to do here is explain what this detail suggests to me about her thoughts and feelings. Again, I’m trying to show I understand the text.
  7. I’m also going to focus in on the poetic. Often, when a writer chooses their most elaborate words, their most delightful vocabulary, I feel that this is the point at which they are really enjoying themselves. For instance, in the passage for this paper, I notice she is also very poetic about the weather, personifying it. It is as if she feels the weather is another of her opponents, that even the powerful wind which “threatened to lift” her beret off her head, or the “icy rain” are unable to stand in her way. They don’t count. They don’t spoil her enjoyment of her ride home.
  8. To prepare for this question means I need a super-size vocabulary to explain emotions. For this, I’m going to start by preparing with a word list, using a thesaurus. I’m just going to list as many emotions as I can, knowing I can also modify them with very, completely or a little et cetera to show that I understand the degree to which she feels something. For instance, I could write “she feels happy” on her way home. But it’s more than that. It’s more than “very happy.” I want to change my word and put “exhilarated” or “elated”. This is where I’m going to use a thesaurus to start with, but only to refresh my memory on words I already know; I absolutely do not want to put in a clever-sounding word that doesn’t mean what I think it means; I’m not going to write “she feels ebullient” or “she feels zingy” because, well, I’m not using those words properly and they sound bad. I’m not going to say “she feels delighted”, though I might say “she’s in high spirits” because that’s the kind of thing I might say in real life. I want to absolutely stick to emotional vocabulary that I know the meaning of. And, if I get stuck, I can say the opposite. “She’s not weighed down by anything.”
  9. When I’m writing, I’m going to do my best to ensure I have four or five mini-quotes in each paragraph, and that I have four paragraphs in that time. Three’s my minimum on either. I’m really going to focus on writing in depth and writing to explain the feelings the writer has, trying to tackle the “why” she thinks or feels this in my explanation.
  10. At the end, I’m going to check that I have probably about 15 mini-quotes through the essay and that I have not neglected any section or paragraph if I need to write about them. I’m going to look for the subtleties. Then I’m going to tick off every quote on the source passage and make sure I’ve included it, especially the ones from the end of the passage.

These tips should certainly help you write a really fabulous answer and get the marks that you need. There’s no reason at all not to aim for 8 out of 8, especially if you have tracked through your answer thoroughly.

more on next to of course god america i

Yesterday, I was trying to explain to my musician friend about E. E. Cummings. I’ll kind of compose the conversation and you’ll see where it took us. I, of course, love Cummings. Steve, the friend, didn’t get it. This is why I showed it to him.

“What are you doing?” he said.

“I’m writing an analysis of a poem.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ve been getting loads of hits about it – more than the other poems in the Anthology – and I think it’s frightening people.”

“A poem frightening people?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Well, they don’t get it.”

“Who? Teachers or kids?”

“Both. I don’t think the teachers get it. It frightens them. And English teachers don’t want to admit that something frightens them. So they research it, and most of the searches for next-to-of-course-god-america-i-analysis take them to REALLY BAD pages! Like pages written by idiots who talk shite.”

“Why don’t they know it’s shite?”

“They don’t want to think about it. It goes like this. I – English teacher extraordinaire – look at it. I’ve never seen the likes of it. Plus it’s American. I did ENGLISH Literature at Uni. I did Shakespeare and Dickens and Jane Austen. I did Books and Poems and Plays. I KNOW English Literature, but this might frighten me a bit, if I were easily scared…” *I’m not easily scared*

“So why don’t you study it?”

“Well, it’s a bit like Jazz or modern art.”

Steve hates Jazz. Well, he hates some of it. At least, he thinks he hates it.

“I hate Jazz.”

“See. You say that, and that’s what most kids and teachers do. ‘I hate poems that don’t rhyme and look a bit freaky’.”

“What even are we talking about here?”

I showed him another E. E. Cummings poem – my favourite – Buffalo Bill’s defunct.

“What the hell is that about??!”

“Why? What’s wrong with it?”

“What’s going on with the lines? They’re all over the place!! And it doesn’t make sense.”

“You mean it’s not in sentences. It makes sense! And you’ve just described exactly why most teachers and kids are frightened of it.”

I started to explain what it’s about.

“That’s what’s wrong with it.” he said. “It needs ‘interpreting’ like modern art. It’s not for regular people. And it could just be a load of rubbish. You’re like those people who comment on jazz. You say ‘Nice!’ and you don’t even know! It could be rubbish.”

“You’re right. It could be like the Emperor’s New Clothes. People could just be too afraid to say it’s rubbish. Some of them might even believe it’s good, like the people who said the Emperor had fabulous clothes on. But I like this poem. And I’d not have been afraid to say the Emperor was naked. And what a fashion statement THAT is! Recognise it for what it is, and if you like it, say so!”

“Well, I’d say he was naked too, and this poem doesn’t make sense and I don’t like it. It’s junk.”

“No… it’s marvellous. Look at this bit about the stallion cutting through the pigeons who flew off ‘onetwothreefourfive pigeons just like that’ – genius! If I write it one, two, three, four, five pigeons – well, it’s punctuated and spaced right, but it’s not how those pigeons flew off. They flew off onetwothreefourfive – all together.”

“You’re wrong. They weren’t all together. They were one after each other. Otherwise the words would all be on top of each other. Now I’m educating you Miss English-teacher-Extraordinaire! They were one after each other one-two-three-four-five. But they took off very close to each other.”

“See… it’s perfect! It describes much more perfectly what happened. And you didn’t need me to ‘explain it’ to you…  you got that yourself.”

“yeah, but you’re still like one of those people who stand about looking at modern art saying ‘oh, it’s a profound statement about the brevity of life, the transience of things. It’s magnificent!’ whilst Average Joe just thinks ‘what’s that about then?'”

“Maybe. But let’s compare it to music. You don’t like jazz.”

“I hate it.”

“And if you had to teach it to a group of reluctant fifteen year olds who are more interested in blackberrys and iphones?”

“I wouldn’t do it.”

“What if you had to?”

“I’d tell them it was crap.”

“Well, you can’t. You still have to sell its virtues. You have to explain why some people like it. My step-dad loves Jazz. You can’t ignore that. Just because you think it’s crap doesn’t mean you have the right to tell a whole bunch of teenagers it’s crap.”

“Well, I’d get your step-dad in to talk about Jazz.”

“Yeah, but teachers can’t just ‘find’ someone who likes it and can teach it. Imagine if you’re an artist and you love Monet and Impressionism, and then you’ve got to teach Picasso, or Damien Hirst. Or if you’re a food tech teacher who loves Mrs Beeton and Delia Smith and you have to teach about Heston Blumenthal. Or a metal-loving-MachineHead fan who has to teach about Disco. You still have to do it. So you do one of several things. 1) you ‘forget’ to teach it and cost your kids exam points. 2) you teach it reluctantly and your hatred is evident to all your class who then hate it just because you do. 3) you ‘research’ it on crappy sites and you can’t be bothered to think about it so you teach it badly and teach mis-information.”

“Like what?”

“Like all those crappy teachers who told kids to turn a poem on its side. ‘Oh, it looks like waves!’ or ‘this one looks like it’s flipping the bird’ (the American ‘finger’) What a load of crap!” I picked up a random poem. “I turn this on its side and it looks like a big turd. In fact, most poems look like turds. Bah! I HATE that style of teaching. It’s SOOOOOO WRONG!”

“Why’s it wrong?”

“Well, this Simon Armitage one… I read four papers from four different schools that said it looked like he was sticking up a finger when you turn it on its side. Crap! He’s from Huddersfield. He wouldn’t do an American one-finger gesture, he’d flick the V sign. Two fingers. People in Huddersfield wouldn’t do a one-finger insult. Plus, I asked him. Just to be sure. He hadn’t even thought about it. What a load of shite. And that’s potentially 1,000 kids who’ve been taught that! It’d look like this:

uocusu xuyuslsl

xuxululd;d aoslislttyyc==ici8u cyysyff,n fygylutj6tioy

ccyycycy, siirlry6th,ta; ayydhflt tl ghulu5yy tfyffklh

auulddvyvy ffy

fufufyeln chyvc

“And not just have one long line, but two. If that’s what he was doing. Which he wasn’t. That’s just lazy teaching. And that’s what’ll happen with this poem too.”

“Okay, I get that.”

“So it’s like you, if you had to teach Jazz. You’d either a) not bother b) make everyone hate it because YOU don’t get it c) do a bad job.”

“Fair enough. So what do you have to do then?”

“Think about WHY people might have thought it was good.”

“I don’t know why ANYONE would think Jazz is good.”

“And you’re just having a knee-jerk reaction, like most people do to E. E. Cummings or modernist poetry.”

“No, I’m not!”

“You are. Because you like SOME Jazz.”

“No I don’t.”

“You do. You like Victor Wooten. And he’s got lots of Jazz bits. It’s unstructured, it’s not always a jaunty harmony.”

“He’s not jazz.”

“He IS! Bits of him are very Jazz. He takes a lot from Jaco Pastorius. And he was Jazz.”

“I don’t like Jaco Pastorius. Pretentious crap.”

“Well, that’s as may be, but you can’t deny that Victor is a bit Jazz. So what do you like about him? If you had to explain to a class of 30 bored teenagers, what would you say?”

“I’d say… ‘look at this kids… this guy is awesome!'”

“And? Why?”

“Because just look what he’s doing! He’s like a musical genius. He takes it all to another level. He doesn’t even think like other musicians. He goes where they haven’t before. It’s shock and awe.”

“And I could say precisely the same things about E. E. Cummings. I might say ‘that Victor Wooten… that’s just tuneless nonsense. I can’t tap my fingers to it. The rhythm’s all over the place… it doesn’t make sense…’ and E. E. Cummings is the same! So why do you like Victor Wooten? Why do I like Cummings? Why do people like Picasso? Because it’s different! Because it’s clever in a way you haven’t even thought of. Because it’s a bit experimental. Because it allows people like your friend Viaceslav Svedov (A great bassist) to do stuff… I didn’t know you could get those sounds out of a bass, I didn’t imagine you could get those words out of a bass. It’s just impressive – I don’t know if humbling is the right word – that somebody can be so good at something.”

“And that’s how I feel. I didn’t know you could do that with words. I didn’t imagine you could get words to work in that way. There. I didn’t imagine by stringing together a whole load of crazy bits from bits of songs and bits of The Star-Spangled Banner that you could get such a great effect. It would never have occurred to me. It’s just a perfect way to make those words sound hollow and fragmented. E. E. Cummings has the shock-and-awe factor to me. Just like you and Victor. Just like John and Jazz. Just like Damien Hirst’s half-a-dead-pig art. I never even thought you could do that, never mind that somebody would. It’s bold and brave…”

“Hmmm. You still sound like a pretentious Jazz commentator. ”

“I can live with that. You said it’s about the WOW factor. And this has it. And you agree that Buffalo Bill is a great poem.”

“I never said that.”

“But at least you know why I think it’s a great poem.”

“Yes…”

“And that’s what kids need to know. That some people think this is a WOW! poem, and why they think that.”

Of course, you need analytical and evaluative skills. You need to know what you’re talking about. You need to know what works and what doesn’t. And that’s a whole other kettle of fish. But at the very least, you can see perhaps from this dialogue Steve and I had why this poem is WOW!

Because no other poem in the anthology is quite like it. No other poems take language and structure to another level that I didn’t even think you could go to. And it makes you talk, even if you’re a poetry-hating metal-loving bass player, and a crazy English teacher.

You can buy a copy of my ebook on Amazon, including an analysis of all of the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology Pre-1914 poems. Phew. That was a mouthful.