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.

 

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.

next to of course god america i

This poem, by e e cummings, is in the new AQA anthology – and it will probably fox a lot of people. So… what do you need to know?

The most noticeable thing about e e cummings’ poetry is that it is non-conformist. This poem is perhaps less non-conformist, structurally, than many of his other poems. Forget anything about saying what it looks like – which many teachers seem to rely on when talking about form and structure – and think of two things:

1. e e cummings is a rule-breaker with a very distinct personal style. As soon as you see lack of capitals, odd punctuation and strange layouts, e e cummings is probably hot favourite to be the writer. Much of what he writes is covered with his writing ‘fingerprints’ that make it as distinct and unique as a real-life fingerprint.

2. The most important thing is you ask yourself: why? Why does he write like this? Why has he chosen not to capitalise this word, or capitalise another? Why does he want to break with ‘traditions’

3. Then ask yourself what it is about the way he’s set it out that helps add meaning to what he writes. What does it tell us?

If you want to think about the structure of e e cummings’ poems, take all the line breaks out of them, see where you would want to put them and think about why.

Why do poets use line breaks?

  • For a long time, line breaks didn’t exist. In copied writing, for a long time, sometimes up to the time of the printing press, most of the words ran into one another with no spacing at all, and no paragraphs. ‘Poets’ who wrote Icelandic sagas, Beowulf and so on, didn’t use the features we now associate with poetry. Line breaks came much later on, and for a period of time – 400 years or so – were fairly standard.
  • Ask a five-year old what a poem looks like or to identify what’s a poem, and they will pick things that usually have verses – and always four lines in a verse! – and rhyme. If you read these, you will find they often have a regular pattern of syllables too. This is fairly standard.
So, if you look at the first verse of another anthology poem, London by William Blake, it matches with what we’d expect. Four lines per verse. Capitals at the beginning of the line. Rhymes at the end. A clear pattern of stressed syllables (the ones you emphasise)
I wander thro each charter’d street ,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

So we have 8 syllables in most lines except the last in the verse. It rhymes alternately. It looks pretty much how you’d expect a poem to look. It has that dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM pattern that makes it easy to read. Each line makes sense on its own. The verse is like a complete sentence, with commas adding a pause and coming at the end of each line. Perhaps the regulation of this poem has something to do with the regulation and restriction Blake finds in the city. But mainly, it’s how poems were written.

So… poets gave us line breaks to make it easy to read (and memorise – remember a lot of poetry came from the ‘troubadour’ tradition – wandering entertainers who would go round telling stories and long poems) and it’s instantly recognisable.

And then we get the first line of e e cummings’ poem:

“next to of course god america i”

which immediately makes us stumble over our words. Next to, of course, God, America… that’s fine. That works. It’s a complete bit of sense. But the ‘i’ tacked on at the end? It really wants to go on the beginning of the next line, or at least have something coming after it. Especially when we realise it’s ‘I love you land of the pilgrims’ – which all goes together. That i is out of place, it seems. It’s not in its most natural position. And it’s a ‘i’ not an I, and although we live in a world of instant messaging and SMS, ‘i’ begs to be capitalised. Traditionally.

So, you’d want to write (or say)

Next to, of course, God, America

I love the land of the pilgrims’

And so forth.

Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early

My country ’tis of centuries come and go

And are no more.

What of it?

We should worry in every language, even deaf and dumb.

Thy sons acclaim thy glorious name.

And so on. And if you compare where you want to put the breaks with where cummings put the breaks, they’re very different.

Yet, when you look at the poem as a whole, it is remarkable for several things:

  1. Firstly, it rhymes. All the way through. He had to chop ‘beautiful’ into two to get ‘beaut’ to rhyme with ‘mute’, but it rhymes.
  2. It has 14 lines. It’s actually a sonnet – that poem sometimes of love – always of contemplation and marshaling of complex ideas into a neat little box.
  3. It has a fairly regular syllabic pattern, with most lines having 10 syllables.
But when you try to look for a dee-DUM dee-DUM rhythm, there isn’t one. And the enjambment – sometimes of words like ‘beaut-iful’ also makes it really hard to find the natural rhythm of the poem. Plus, there are no marked pauses, so you don’t know where to stop and have a breath – which makes it a nightmare to read aloud. Try it!
So… first big question:
Why of all the poetry forms he could pick from, did he choose a sonnet? 

Superficially, you might want to settle for ‘it’s a love poem for America’.

Really?

The first mark on the page is a ” – the beginning of someone’s speech. Not the poet’s. Secondly, when you read the poem and look at the content, you get bits of things that make it sound like a poem of appreciation for America, but then a whole lot more that doesn’t. Personally, I think the sonnet form is a pithy little box to put this in. It’s as fake to e e cummings as the cheesy sonnets Shakespeare read and then criticised for their fake sentiment. He’s perhaps doing what Shakespeare did – using a sonnet form to mess with you – to make you think it will be full of fake sentiment – and actually, if you read it, it is!

Incidentally, if you google ‘is ‘next to of course god america i’ the first wiki-answers says it’s not a sonnet because it doesn’t have 10 syllables. Wrong!

Of course it’s a sonnet. And not all of the sonnets have 10 syllables. Some have 9; some have 12. Petrarch, the father of the sonnet, had 12. Don’t believe everything you read!

When you read it, you’ll get the feeling a lot of this isn’t actually the words of whoever is speaking. They’re bits of other things. You have a bit of the Star-spangled Banner – ‘Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light’ – the first verse of which ends patriotically with ‘The land of the free and the home of the brave’ – which kind of sums up the jingoistic patriotism most anthems pick up on. And you have bits that are kind of like other things, mentioning pilgrims, using archaic language like ’tis and ‘acclaim your glorious name’.

So, what’s the point of a national anthem? You’re supposed to feel all proud, patriotic and pumped-up. It’s what you hear before a battle cry to win a sports match. It’s the kind of tune that makes old soldiers get teary-eyed with sentiment. If you don’t believe me, watch the singing before the Superbowl, or the singing before the six nations rugby matches (not the anthem before England playing football. They’ve got as much national pride as a slug has for a lettuce)

But these words are not the poet’s words. They’re not even really the words of the speaker. They’re just rehashed phrases in kind of a jumble, without any real sentiment behind them. It reminds me a lot of the kind of jingoism that poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon rebelled against in their poetry, egging men on to sign up and fight in wars. Wilfred Owen’s poem that ends ‘Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori’ – it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country’ – is essentially doing the same thing as this: saying how thin and pointless these patriotic words are. How lacking in real sentiment or value.

What makes the link between this and a poem about the pointlessness of war?

The fact that e e cummings refers to ‘the heroic happy dead’ as if by dying a hero for your country makes you happy. He calls these corpses ‘beautiful’ – as if you become something amazing by dying for your country. Much of the poetry of the First World War dispels this myth – saying it is not dignified or noble or beautiful to be killed in battle – and the only people saying so are those who have no chance of dying in battle themselves!

He also says they ‘rush like lions to the roaring slaughter’… usually, the cliché is ‘lambs to the slaughter’ – not in this case. He calls them ‘lions’. It’s silly – because lion or lamb, they’re still ‘slaughtered’.

“They did not stop to think” kind of echoes ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ – also in the anthology – which says ‘theirs not to make reply/ theirs not to reason why/ theirs but to do and die’ – the kind of men who go blindly into battle. But where The Charge of the Light Brigade celebrates battle, this, like Owen’s poems, focuses on the pointlessness of it.

So… what seems on the surface to be a sonnet glorifying America, patriotism and jingoism is actually nothing more than the hollow regurgitation of words – once by the speaker and once by e e cummings. You can pretty war up as much as you like, swathing it in patriotism and liberty and equality, but at the heart of it, you have ‘lions’ running into a ‘roaring slaughter’ – not a pretty image – just pointless, senseless death.

e e cummings is one of the more interesting poets you can write about – his work is open to interpretation and clever analysis because it works on so many levels and there’s such a lot to say about it. Yes, it’s hard to make sense of, but there’s so much to write about that it’s much more meaty than many of the other poems which teachers have taught over and over again. If you want something to compare this to, think ‘futility’ by Wilfred Owen, another non-conformist sonnet – or ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ – and if you are looking for a soundtrack, think ‘Born in the USA’ by Springsteen. This poem has more in common with Apocalypse Now! and Platoon about how life is lost senselessly in battles allegedly about freedom.

If you want to read more about the AQA poetry anthology contemporary poetry, you can find my ebook here. If you want to read more about the Literary Heritage poems, including ‘Next to of course god america i’, you can find my AQA Literary Heritage poetry analysis 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!!

“Limbo” by Edward Kamau Braithwaite

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

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

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

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

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

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

More interesting things to discuss:

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

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

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

And WHY did poets start breaking the rules?

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

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

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