Writing about form for GCSE English Literature Unseen Poetry

Last time, I looked at the ways you can think about form when writing about poetry, and we took a look at Ezra Pound’s short poem, In a Station of the Metro in order to say something about form there. Today, we’re taking a look at a poem that is literally an explosion on the page, Study No° X by Pierre Coupey. This poem was a GCSE Anthology poem of the past and it foxed the best.  It gives rise to some lovely discussions about form.

So, just to recap – what are we talking about when we talk about form anyway?

This…

How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

So, looking at the freakish and fiendish Study No° X, I’m just going to start as I always do by looking for interesting stuff.

Now you’d be forgiven for thinking that this poem was ‘so interesting’ (yeah, I know that’s not the adjective you’re thinking of right now) that it’s be quite hard to narrow down but let’s have a go….

If you want practice instead of just reading my own blah blah waffle, before you read my bit, have a go at making a list of 10 or so interesting features of the form. Then look at mine; I bet we have more in common than you’d have thought.

13 things that I find interesting about the form:

  1. That first line, “che ama, crede : mother”, is just set right out in the middle, and so is “infanta! madonna! guernica! hiroshima!”
  2. The phrase “split pea skulls” is the most split up bit
  3. There are no capitals
  4. There IS rhyme and reason to those lines – it’s not just chaos
  5. Some phrases are grouped like “for there was no sex involved” and “)you are a catastrophe on the mirror of this earth”
  6. Some phrases are split over the lines like “(just/a/cosmos/of love) and “)you do not/let me/believe/(in hell
  7. There’s no end punctuation (full stops) but there is punctuation ; : ( and )
  8. Some of that punctuation is used conventionally according to the rules, and some of it is used unconventionally
  9. It seems to be one giant sentence with several dependent clauses
  10. There’s a title, which sounds like it’s part of a sequence (if X means 10)
  11. I want to talk about the semi-colons and the punctuation in this poem as well
  12. “Infanta! Madonna! Guernica!” (and then their not-quite right friend “Hiroshima!”) form a triplet/pattern, and there’s something going on with the sound of those words and their syllabic pattern – these are definitely the centre of the poem, or its climax, if you ask me
  13. Something is interesting about that “(in hell/only: )

Other stuff is starting to drift into structure (although the title is technically structure I’d say as well) so I’ll leave those for another day.

So, once I’ve looked at my crazy unseen poem, I then make a list of the weird things and oddities I want to get into writing about. In the exam, I’m going to go super-fast and really I only need a shortlist of 4 or 5 things about form that I might select 1 or 2 to write about.

Now, you know me. I’m a grade 6 girl at heart. Can’t select or narrow down for fear of betting on the wrong horse.

My internal dialogue goes a bit like this:

“What if I pick X, Y or Z and the examiner wanted us to write about D?”

“I really think it’s X but what if I’m wrong?”

And my solution, my lovely readers, is to try to write about ALL of them in the hopes that one of those thirteen horses will be a winner and will pay out with a grade 8 or 9.

Except… except if I do that, I’ll need approximately 7 hours to write my exam, just for the section on the unseen poem where I might want to write about form. Just as a guide, Teacher Me says that the exam is asking me to spend maximum of 45 minutes on the unseen poem. That means I have about 10 minutes to write about form. So unless I plan on speed-writing so hard that my hand ends up mangled and I have 6.5 hours of hand cramp afterwards, or unless I plan on describing 10 or so of those 13, it won’t be possible.

Yet so many Grade 5 and below students opt for the latter.

“I can see 10 things I could write about form. Therefore, I’m going to write about all of them in case 1 is right and 9 are wrong.”

That, though, is why they’re Grade 5 and not Grade 8 or 9…

You have to pick a horse to back. One.

But let me tell you a secret…

They’re ALL winners.

So how do I go about narrowing down, since describing ten things in ten minutes will only reward me with a very low mark?

When we look at form, we almost look at it as if it’s completely divorced from language and ideas. Except it’s not, is it? I want to think about the main idea in the poem – what’s it about? – and then pick out form aspects that relate to that.

Got that?

That’s the really important bit for those of you like me who can spot 100 features and can’t pick one sensible one to write a paragraph about.

So what’s the big idea of this crazy poem?

I’m going to let you into another secret…

I really haven’t the foggiest.

Ok. Bit of an exaggeration. I can a bit. But it’s fairly nonsensical, so it’s simply my own idea about what the central idea is.

But how do I know what the central idea is?

Often, the form or the structure will help me find it.

It’s the bit of the poem where there are lots of unusual things going on with the form. Like that line in Wordsworth’s Stealing the Boat that is 11 syllables, not 10… that line that is arrived at by a massive and lengthy build-up to the “horizon’s utmost boundary” that can’t restrict itself to the syllabic metre.

Look for the confluence of simple language, important structural devices (like beginnings and ends, or shifts in mood) and aspects of form.

For Study No° X, that brings me neatly to “mother… love… Infanta! Madonna! Guernica! Hiroshima! hell, flesh and dust” and I notice that we kind of start with mother and love (“chi ama, crede” means “who loves, believes”) and stops at towns completely destroyed in war, then goes to “flesh and dust”) so I don’t think I’m going out on a limb or being too wacky if I suggest it’s about life, death and everything in between. Creation and destruction, maybe.

So then I start to think about what aspects of form support that. And do you know what? It seems like it’s about the whole ‘explosion’ of the poem on the page, centred on ‘Guernica and Hiroshima’ but when it gets down to it, I think the poet seems to be telling us it’s all pretty random, lawless and unstructured.

And isn’t that what the form is?

I’m going to do the same as I did last time – switch the timer on and write about the form of this poem. You’ll see me start descriptively and then move into analysis rooted in evidence.

If it’s not rooted in evidence, by the way, it’s just speculation. I could say this poem was about nuns and pussycats if I wanted, but that’s just unsupported, unjustified speculation.

So, let’s have a go… start off describing, like we did last time and then move into an explanation of how that works with the content of the poem.

Study No° X by Pierre Coupey looks literally like an explosion on the page: the conventional rules of poetry have been broken, and the words lie chaotically across the page. Given that there are two towns that were completely destroyed by bombs, Guernica and Hiroshima, lying at the centre of the poem, there is a sense that the words themselves echo the remnants of those two towns, depicting the destructive forces that can obliterate the normality of life, just like the way the poem contains remnants and fragments of something recognisable. Chaos certainly seems to be one of the central themes of the poem, and is clearly represented by the rule-less, unconventional form of the poem. Perhaps though, this also picks up on another theme, how the rule-less unconventional form represents how life doesn’t follow ordered lines. Despite that, there is a sense of a chronology in the structure – a beginning that seems almost to hint at conception, “just a cosmos of love” and an end, “flesh and dust” and in that way, the poem could be seen to represent Coupey’s view of life, how it may start and end in fairly conventional ways, but everything in the middle is less predictable. There is a reference at the epicentre of the poem to “Guernica” which is also a famous painting by Picasso, a semi-abstract painting about the bombing of the town. The painting represents the destructive forces of war and in that way, we can see Coupey, a painter himself, using semi-abstract poetry to create something that emerges from chaos, not unlike Picasso did with paint. Whilst the poem seems to run from “a cosmos of love, there are also many images of violence, “split pea skulls” where the way the words in this phrase are fragmented across three lines, almost reminding us how fragile the human skull is, that it can be split as simply as a pea. Ultimately, it is no doubt Coupey’s painter background that helps us make the most sense of this poem: like many abstract works of art, it is left to our imagination: we make sense of the chaos presented to us. Whether you see the references to love and courage, or to Guernica and Hiroshima, what you take from the poem is up to you. 

As you can see, then, it’s perfectly possible to make sense of something more abstract and unusual. The orange bits are my description of what is going on, and then I’m just trying to explore how some of those things might relate to the big ideas within the poem.

Form should never be divorced from language.

You can see that you also don’t need to write unsupported speculation. Everything relates to evidence from the poem or from its context.

It did help me to know that the poet is also a painter, though, and to know a bit of his context and the context of some of those words. You wouldn’t have that in the exam. But then again, nobody is going to throw you a poem like this for your unseen poetry analysis, so you don’t have to worry too much. If you can make some sense of this poem, and some sense of In a Station of the Metro that we looked at last time, you’re doing fine.

Coupey’s painting Stanza 47

So don’t be afraid of poetry and don’t feel like you need to resort to cheap comments about how the poem ‘looks like’ something when you’re talking about its form. If you take Blake’s London as your baseline ‘rigid’ and conventional and Coupey’s Study No° X as your baseline ‘unconventional’, then you can look at every poem and decide how much it conforms to the rules, and what reasons the poet might have had to choose the form that they did.

You’ve now seen how you can make comments on form that relate to the brief and almost prose-like, and you’ve seen how you can make comments on form that relate to the crazy and abstract.

And if you want to have a bit of practice, why not get in touch?

Poetry need not be frightening or hideous!

 

Advertisements

Preparing GCSE English Literature Unseen Poetry

For many English Literature exams at GCSE, there’s a requirement to respond to unseen poetry. Most students do really well on this, and examiner reports say the responses are fresh and interesting. Nevertheless, it does instill a great deal of fear in the hearts of many candidates and the following four posts are designed to help you get your head around some of the most challenging poems ever written in order to help you revise and prepare for the unseen poetry questions.

There are three main things you’ll need to look at when responding to poetry: form, structure and language.

Most of you are fine with the language bit. You can spot similes at fifty paces; you know how to write about metaphors, and pathetic fallacy doesn’t phase you.

But many students really struggle when it comes to writing about form and structure. So the following posts are designed to look at three poems that will really develop your response to these two aspects of poetry.

Let’s define our terms first, though, so that we know what we’re dealing with.

Form

How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Form is what makes it a poem and not prose. Why does it look the way it does? What decisions has the poet made about what he has put on one line and what on another? Why this form?

When I approach a poem, I start first by identification of what’s there. Sometimes, if I don’t know where to start, I identify everything I can see.

When I’ve identified and can describe what the poet is doing with the form of the poem, then I start narrowing down. What’s unusual? What’s interesting? What links with the ideas in the poem? What supports the ideas in the poem?

Because I might be able to say 200 things about the form of the poem, but I can’t write 200 things in one paragraph in a short exam essay. Maximum, I’m looking for is a single paragraph on aspects of form and how they link to the ideas in the poem.

One thing we have to do, though, is step away from comments about how the poem LOOKS LIKE something. Really. Time to put those comments behind us.

Please don’t tell me the poem looks like blah blah thing in the poem.

I don’t know why students do this.

Ok, I kind of do. There’s a branch of poetry called ‘Concrete Poetry’, also known as ‘shape poetry’ or ‘pattern poetry’ where the poets wrote in shapes that reflected the content.

George Herbert’s The Altar is an example of this. Another of his poems, Easter Wings,  also does this:

It would be, then, perfectly reasonable to say you need to turn this poem on its side and then it looks like a pair of wings. I’m guessing angel wings on account of the fact that a)I’ve never seen an angel so I don’t know and b) they look like butterfly wings to me, but the poem isn’t really about butterflies.

But… BUT….

There are so few poems like this in the English language that you shouldn’t have to resort to comments like ‘If you turn the poem on its side, it looks like…’

And if you come across a poem that IS a Concrete poem, you’ll probably know.

Don’t be tempted to say anything about turning poems on their side or what the poem looks like. I hate this and most of the time it’s not at all what you say it is – your comment could be applied to thousands of other poems that look the same as the one you’ve got.

Pattern poems absolutely exist. Mostly, you’ll know that’s what you’ve got.

Do you see?

You’ll generally know without having to puzzle over it. I promise.

So now I’ve said ‘Don’t say the poems look like…’ where does that leave you? What can you say?

To start, we’re going to have a look at one of my favourite weird poems and think about form. I’m going to tell you what I see – all of it – and describe the form. Then I’m going to narrow down and think about what’s useful. Then I’ll think about what relates to the content and what I want to put in my single paragraph about the big idea.

And I’m starting with one that will REALLY make you think.

It gets worse, I must admit, but by the time you’ve read and thought about these poems in this series, you’ll be so happy to write about form that you’ll realise that you can do anything once you’ve tackled the meaningless and the complicated. The poems you’ll get in the exam will never, ever be this hard. So if you can happily write about the form in the poems that are coming up, nothing will ever be that difficult in the exam.

So let’s have a look at our first unseen poem: Ezra Pound’s brief “On a Station in the Metro” written in 1907

Yes, this is all of it.

Yes, it’s a poem. Well, at least those who know more than I do say it is. You might want to use this as a starting point to consider what makes ‘a poem’ – what the things we need to make a poem?

For me, I’m going to say: it’s not a play. It doesn’t have characters. That said, some plays are composed in poetry, like the early plays. It’s also not narrative.

In fact, it’s form that makes this a poem at all. Form is the very thing that makes something ‘not prose’. Cutting things up and putting them on the lines you want them to go on is the very essence of poetry. But you can have some very interesting discussions about ‘what is a poem?’ using this as a staple. It makes for some very interesting discussion.

So, let’s look at that form and I’ll tell you all the things I can see. You may see more, and that’s great – leave me your thoughts in the comments if you like.

Just a reminder… this is what I’m asking myself:

How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Eighteen interesting things about the form:

  1. It’s a couplet.
  2. There are two lines.
  3. One line is longer than the other.
  4. The second line is shorter.
  5. There’s a title.
  6. The title tells us where it takes place.
  7. The first line has 12 syllables.
  8. The second line has 7 syllables.
  9. It reminds me a bit of a haiku (will come back to that later)
  10. There’s something rhythmic about the last words.
  11. ‘Crowd’ and ‘Bough’ have a ‘ow’ sound. Not rhyme, but assonance.
  12. Both lines contain an entire phrase.
  13. Neither idea or line has a verb.
  14. It’s a bit like a short list of two timeless things without those verbs.
  15. I really, really, really want to talk about that semi-colon.
  16. The semi-colon turns these into two linked ideas.
  17. It’s a pivot, a mirror, a turning point, a volta (that’s structure, I know).
  18. If you take the poem’s title as a line in the poem, you’ve got 7 – 12 – 7.

Now I know myself. I think I could easily write about the relevance of at least ten of those things. But I have about 12 minutes to write one section on form and it’s not possible.

From there, I have two options. One is to group them for an overall impression. There is, for instance, quite a lot of balance in those two lines – something even in the cadence. Not perfect, slightly offset by the length, but the ‘crowd’ and ‘bough’ are pleasant and smooth, long vowel sounds, mellifluous even, and they help create a sense of balance. The fact there is one statement on each line, neither with a verb. That semi-colon. The parallel monosyllables of ‘in the crowd’ and ‘wet, black bough’ which both have two short vowels and then a long vowel to finish. I could talk about why Ezra Pound does so much to make it neat and balanced.

Or I can drill down into one specific thing. Like the semi-colon for instance.

But Ezra Pound is long since dead and I can’t ask him what he meant by this poem. That means that everything I say about it is speculation, hypothesis, theory. An educated guess. So I can’t say ‘Pound did this because…’, only ‘The effect this has on the reader is…’, or ‘this makes us think that…’ and so on. Because I do know what people think about it. And whilst I may say ‘the reader’ or ‘we/us’, what I mean is ‘me’. I mean how could you possibly think otherwise?

Oh, okay. You do. That’s great. All I’m asking you to do is explain then to me and justify why you think this way about it. I write sometimes as if there is only one way to take a poem, when this is so untrue. You take from it what you like. As long as you can justify it, you’re on solid ground. That’s not to say that anything goes – it’s doesn’t. There are reasonable, rational evaluations, and there are crazy notions that don’t bear any real weighing up and fall apart under scrutiny.

For instance, let’s look at those two lines.

You might think ‘metro’… metros have two platforms. The two lines are like the platforms. So you could write “The two lines could represent the two platforms in a metro station”

And that might very well be true, except for the fact that one of those lines is shorter, and platforms are usually of fairly equal length. Also, lots of stations have more than one track, and some have only one.

You might as well say, “the poem looks like an equals sign”, or “the poem looks like a parallel line” or “the poem is like a double-yellow line” or “the poem is like metro train tracks”

Even if these things were true, would they add to the meaning?

So what IS worth commenting on?

For me, the couplet. The two lines seem very neat. In fact, you could also consider the title to be a third line I guess, in which case it would be even more like a haiku.

It’s at this point knowing some of the context for Pound is helpful, but in the unseen question, you don’t have any of that. I did want to explain a bit about the haiku statement, because no doubt, you’re scratching your head saying, “Really? But it’s two lines!”

If you knew that Ezra Pound was very interested in Japanese poetry (and also in Dante’s famous poem, Inferno, about hell) and you knew that he was interested in those neat little moments of Japanese poetry, then you can see why I might say this.

But you don’t have to know he was interested in Japanese poetry to see that this is a very simple, singular, timeless moment. Just looking at the ‘haiku’ page on Wikipedia, you can see it’s about the ‘juxtaposition of two images’. Does this poem do that? I think it does – the apparition of the faces and the petals. Haiku have a ‘turning word’, a pivot. Does the punctuation at the end of the line do that? I would argue that it does. Plus, different variations of this poem have different punctuation at the end of the line – which alters the meaning in interesting ways once you know what semi-colons and colons do, but a semi-colon is a joining thing. It says the ideas are connected. Second thing in common with a haiku. Also, a haiku may have a reference to a season. I think you could make the argument that the petals are evocative of spring, since spring is when most trees blossom, unlike flowers which may have flowers at other times of the year. A final thing is that haiku should be everyday kind of events, which seeing people on the metro station undoubtedly is.

It doesn’t have the three lines of a haiku, or the syllabic patterns, which is why I’m saying this is ‘like’ a haiku rather than it is a haiku. But the point would be about what haiku DO. They capture a moment. They capture everyday events or occurrences and make poetry out of the mundane.

Couplet or haiku, that’s what I think this poem is doing. It makes you reflect on the world around you.

So what can I say in my one paragraph about the form of this poem? Let’s have a go:

In a Station of the Metro is a brief, two-line couplet. In itself, the couplet is complete and neat. Like the moments when waiting for a metro train, it’s brief and fleeting, just as those thoughts and impressions you get about the people who are waiting. It’s a fragment, a flash of a thought, like the couplet has captured that brief thought. Because it’s so brief, it helps us understand the brevity of the moment, yet also that it was complete in itself. The ‘apparition of the faces’ is made to seem like a short, transitory, fleeting thought. It’s a stark, simple image that is reinforced by the stark, simple form. Although it may not have much in common with Japanese haiku in terms of form (unless you consider the title to be a third line), it has some features in common such as the ‘volta’ or turning point, and the way that it captures a single moment or thought. The simplicity is deceptive: we end up doing as much thinking about it as we would for a longer poem, but at the same time, when we read it, we too experience the same transitory and fleeting moment as the poet does.

As you can see, I’m trying to move on from describing the poem and into evaluation. I say that it’s complete and neat, which is more of a judgement than “it has two lines” and then I go on to spend the rest of my paragraph explaining what the effect is. I’m not saying “Pound wants us to think” or trying to explain what I think Pound is doing. I don’t know. He’s dead. I can’t ask him. Even if I could he may not have replied. But I can say what we think when we read it. What I hope you can also see is that I’ve got three mini-descriptions and then three comments that explain my thoughts about that.

Now if I can say something sensible about two lines (yes, I’m aware of the irony that my commentary on form is longer than the actual poem) and if you have some ideas too about why it’s two lines and why you think it’s so simple, then you’re a long way on to making comments on a poem that is FREAKISHLY unique. If you can comment on this, then you can comment on longer things for sure.

That brings us to a very simple thing to consider, no matter what poem you’re looking at:

Is the poem brief and neat? If so, why do you think that is?

Is the poem waxing lyrical and dedicating hundreds of lines to the topic? Why do you think that is?

And how much of the poem is dedicated to one single idea?

Next time, I’m going to have a brief look at another freakishly unique poem and think about other aspects of form that might help you analyse poems in the exam. After all, if you can have a SENSIBLE thought about this ^^^^^^^ poem, you can have sensible thoughts about much less complex ideas without resorting to painful comments like “it looks like train tracks”.

An analysis of the context of War Photographer by Carol Ann Duffy

It’s not often I spend a full post on context, but I think this will cover much about the role of the artist in documenting history, warfare and tragedy, as well as thinking about the role of patriotism in the Power and Conflict poetry, so it seemed like a worthwhile detour. It picks up on aspects of power & conflict from OzymandiasMy Last DuchessCharge of the Light Brigade and War Photographer.

Images of conflict have been around practically as long as art and conflict have co-existed. If we think about why art exists – and I’m going to take poetry as a part of that – some of it is wishful thinking, visualisation or creative imaginings. Some is record-keeping: it is a narrative designed to document significant events. Some of it is planning. Some of it is celebratory, designed to celebrate this or that god. Art can tell stories or express a truth, just as poetry can. It can imitate reality or can even inspire reality.

We first come across art in Ozymandias: the sculpture of the long-dead king. The statue is at once a symbol of his might and power – or at least Ozymandias’s own thoughts about how big and mighty he is. Lots of that early art is very good at capturing “Look how great I am!”

Much of that ancient Egyptian art is about preservation of the past and it reflects the beliefs and values of those who commissioned it (by which I mean the people who paid for it or commanded that it be built). Just because Ozymandias thought he was an unholy terror who should make other kings tremble in their togas doesn’t mean the sculptor did. That said, it’s the traveller’s opinion that the sculptor captured “those passions” and emotions very well. Egyptians were also very good at using size to show value. I am big therefore I am important. And the bigger my stuff is, the more important I am.

Art also starts to indicate wealth. If you have an empire that can employ artisans, sculptors and musicians, then you were an empire who was doing pretty well. By the time words came along and ways of preserving events on paper, civilisation had already got pretty good at documenting things and exaggerating their own importance, especially if you were the victor.

Lots of early art was commissioned. Much of it was a way of remembering or memorialising events or as offerings, or even as a way to mark graves. Sometimes they represented an idea or an ideal. In that way, we’re already seeing the early commemoration that art (and poetry) can be, as well as a way of representing an ideal.

So you go from the ‘Look how absolutely marvellous I am!’ to the ‘Look how rich I am!’ to the ‘Here’s an idea in a statue form’ kind of stuff.

And then you’ve the obligatory ‘Look how many people we quite literally trampled on!’ stuff.

Not to denigrate the Romans, but I’m pretty sure they added very little to the genre. No offence to any Roman or anyone who has spent their life in pursuit of understanding the Romans. A huge generalisation, I know, but the Romans weren’t great at artistic innovation.

What happened next in Western art is the rise of Christianity and religious art. This reflected the kind of Europe-wide changes going on and in turn influenced what happened with the Renaissance – the birth of what we may consider to be ‘real’ art. Religious art didn’t contribute much to the artistic representation of warfare, so you have almost a thousand years where the West had very little in terms of either empires or full-on takeovers. Between the Scandinavian Vikings – not particularly known for their military art history or their contributions to literature – and the Church, more focused on buildings and religious art, surprisingly little happened in the world of Art & Literature in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Renaissance.

Where the Romans might not have added much value to the history of art, the Renaissance certainly did. All those big names you may know, from Michelangelo to Leonardo Da Vinci, Botticelli and Raphael. What made it happen comes down again to money, and we move from the artistic world of Ozymandias to the world of My Last Duchess. Because of Italy’s (and more specifically Florence’s) structure, it meant that there were a number of rich merchant families who’d profited hugely from Italy’s central position in the Mediterrenean and who could turn to that good old tradition of employing minions to churn out stuff that made them look cultured. Not a world different from the Kardashians really. Have money but no talent? Hire talent and show off to your friends. And what happened in Florence was then copied by lots of other city states in what we now call Italy. Poetry changed. Music changed. Art changed. And then Italy exported. The Renaissance found a home in France and in England.

Nothing much changed with art when you get down to it though.

Have more money than sense? Get someone to paint a portrait of you so everyone will know how marvellous you were when you’re dead.

Want to leave a legacy behind? Find an architect, a sculptor or an artist and get them to commemorate stuff for you. Build an enormous statue. In fact, think bigger. Build a castle. Build a church. Build a university!

Art didn’t deviate much from its original purposes: commemorate, remember, preserve; show off, boast, brag and posture; imagine perfect ideals to which we can all aspire; frighten your competitors and see off your rivals.

Post-Renaissance Europe didn’t change much. The Dutch masters liked to paint naval battles and you start to find artists who actually specialised in battle scenes or in naval battles. It’s the first time war gave artists a job to do. But guess what? Those Italian merchant families also paid for a lot of the specialist art too. Who pays for military art is always interesting.

So you get the general images of victors vanquishing their enemies, trampling them underfoot (and which gives rise to some discussion for Checkin Out Me History) and that continues at a happy pace throughout the European wars from the 1600s right up to Napoleon in the 1800s.

The Napoleonic Wars changed the way conflict was depicted no end. You start to get bloody scenes of loss that are much more realistic and less about bragging and looking marvellous in battle dress. You also find some paintings by “the vanquished” – the nations who lost or who lost heavily.

Soon, everyone was at it. The Spanish were depicting how Napoleon’s troops sliced and diced them – in scenes reminiscent of Macbeth with the carving of passages through battlefields:

Art takes on two roles here: commemoration of the successes and victories, portraying the soldiers as glorious and noble when faced by swarthy adversaries, and depictions of the realities of war – the lootings, plunderings and such like. You can loosely term these as ‘propaganda’. Two sides of the same coin: glorification of war vs the realities of war.

Want to make your enemies look like immoral sadists? Get someone to paint a picture of it.

1824 brings a major change in depiction of war with a four-metre-long frieze of Greek citizens in the aftermath of an attack from the Ottoman empire forces painted by Eugène Delacroix.

The invention and development of photography as an art form changed things a little. First, we all know that art isn’t real. Nobody sat around posing for their painting after they’d been stabbed on the battlefield. Art is construction. It is about representation, and how the artist (or the patron/country/organisation bankrolling it) wants you to see things. It’s a staged mise-en-scène, theatre designed to evoke emotions, designed to bolster beliefs.

Photography was more ‘real’ – or at least it offered the opportunity to be so. You can’t depict (well, you couldn’t as easily in the days before Photoshop) things that weren’t there. You can stage it, certainly, but photography is instant and easily portable. Some of Great Britain’s Victorian wars started to make use of an employed photographer – not least because lots of those battles were in faraway places like China and India, Prussia and Crimea. Mr & Mrs Joe Bloggs had no way of knowing how the war was going. It wasn’t like you could just step outside your door and see with your own eyes.

An 1862 photograph from the American Civil War.

War photography, then, less good at the ‘glorious’ and ‘noble’ and pretty good at revealing the horrors or realities of war. Not much of a shock that people’s views about war and death began to change around the same time. Hard to say if this was influenced by images that captured the realities of war but it’s pretty hard to imagine soldiers as fine, strong, heroic victors when you’re looking at photos of them with their heads and limbs blown off.

By the time we get to the Crimean War, and Charge of the Light Brigade, war photography was a well-established genre. The more portable and accessible cameras became, the less of an artist you needed to be to use them. Still, some of the most powerful and most moving images of war have come from professional war photojournalists.

We move then into considering the role of a photographer, or a photojournalist. What is it that they are doing? For some, they are clearly there – paid for – to capture material that can be used as propaganda for either side. Whether they’re showing the atrocities of the enemies or glorifying acts of bravery, much is designed as propaganda.

Some are there to present the realities of war or conflict Even that comes with a ‘why?, a ‘who for?’

Often that can be something as simple as ‘to raise awareness of what’s happening’ or ‘to show people what’s going on’, but there is the knowledge that the ‘right’ image can change things for good.

What they are, though, is trapped behind a camera with a job to do. Your job is to document and to preserve, maybe to raise awareness.

Just as a side note, by the way, this is clearly a topic that interests me. I love photography and did a lot of hours in darkrooms in my youth. I even have a full darkroom kit, though I haven’t used it in ten years or so. Photoshop takes the fun out of chemicals and hanging around in darkrooms. I’m also the photographer for the animal shelter where I’m a trustee. It’s my job to photograph things that happen, so I’m more than aware of the power of the photo. I don’t, for instance, take adoption photos of our dogs with the kennels in them. Whilst getting a bleeding-heart adoption might be okay for some, it’s not ethical for me. I don’t want people to adopt a dog because they feel sorry or guilty. That way is a way to massive problems. It’s also manipulative and cynical. I don’t share photos of wounds or where I’ve had to document the condition in which animals arrive. Those photos are to document impartially and they go to court to help the judge decide what should happen in abuse or neglect cases.

But taking those photos can be hard, and you’ll often find me weeping. I have to take photos of wounds, of starving animals, of animals near death, or even animals who have died. I have to catch them at their worst without being emotional about it or trying to do anything other than be impartial.

That can be hard when you want to punch an owner in the face and you want to take a dog home with you because it’s clearly suffered so much.

And I have NOT to intervene. If I see maggots in ears, I can’t stop to clean them out. I just photograph them and move on to the next thing to photograph. In fact, if I start cleaning and treating the dogs, it stops me doing my other jobs. Sometimes, it is horribly emotional and I have to stop.

And I’m just talking about animals in a shelter, not children in a warzone.

Sometimes you’ve got to consider the ‘greater good’ and forget trying to help at all, knowing that you can help more by sharing.

Sometimes, with humans, you have to photograph them or document them, take their stories, when they are at their very worst. You have to remain impartial, and that means not intervening.

But that is very hard and you have to try to compartmentalise. The camera becomes almost like a protective bubble that stops you seeing things first hand. The camera protects you and acts as a buffer or a barrier between what you’re doing and what you’re seeing. It’s like you lift that camera up and you have a job to do.

Video comes into this too. When I was 10 or 11 or so, the BBC showed video of what was happening in Africa – the same footage that inspired huge interventions for famine relief such as Live Aid and Band Aid, Comic Relief and so on. You know, when you capture these things, that you are having more of an impact by sharing than you can ever have by intervening.

1984 changed everything for me.

If you ever have the chance to read Michael Buerk, Kate Adie or George Alagiah writing about reporting on war or catastrophe, it’ll really give you such a good insight into their roles and how they feel about it. George Alagiah, in particular, in A Passage to Africa in the old Edexcel IGCSE anthology, writes much more emotionally about his feelings about documenting tragedy. He writes about how ‘ghoulish’ he felt, preying on the tragedy of others to ‘make news’ (which is often profitable, too, don’t forget). He writes too about how he felt innoculated against what was happening – how he came to feel impassive and unemotional because he’d seen it so many times. You become habituated to it and almost immune. Seeing it that often, not being able to do anything practical and knowing you are hunting for that ‘one’ image that will sell papers can turn you into a hardened cynic.

He says, “The search for the shocking is like the craving for a drug: you require heavier and more frequent doses the longer you’re at it. Pictures that stun the editors one day are written off as the same old stuff the next. This sounds callous, but it is just a fact of life. It’s how we collect and compile the images that so move people in the comfort of their sitting rooms back home.”

I think that is probably the best explanation of the feelings behind being a journalist or photojournalist. It’s your job to ‘move’ the people back home, but they too become immune to the images so that you are constantly searching for something more shocking, more horrible.

You can read the full extract here and I would recommend it since it describes in detail how it is to be caught up in a tragedy.

Of course, these are not about warzones.

War photographers and journalists have a good deal of power, although they too must realise they need to search for more and more shocking images to get the reader to feel anything at all.

I want to finish by talking about what you HOPE will happen…. and a story about an image that changed things for many of my friends.

It’s the photo of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy dead on a beach in Turkey.

He drowned in 2015 as his family attempted to escape war in Syria. The family were refugees hoping to find safety in Europe.

Now there is always hostility towards refugees. I can’t begin to unpick that. We rich, civilised Europeans in our safe and secure countries, with our spare bedrooms and our shiny cars, our iphones and our First World Problems feel righteously irritated that some other people – whose skin is different than ours or who wear different clothes than we do – want to save their children so much that they’ll uproot them from everything they’ve ever known and take them to a place of uncertainty, where the only thing they can do is put all their pride and dignity aside and ask for shelter from strangers who hate them. You go anyway, leaving everything behind that you can’t carry – your past, your present, your souvenirs, your photos, your family – even though you may have already had asylum applications turned down, hoping against hope that you will find safety there.

I think many of us who do care had a rude wake-up call with that photograph. It reminded us horribly of the brutal truth of what was – and is – happening. On the day the photo hit the news, many of my friends here in France decided to do something huge and positive – to do what they could. Some went up to the migrant and refugee camps in Calais, Dunkirk and Paris to see what was needed and what could be done. Three years on and their efforts still roll on. That photo changed their lives forever. It reminded us of our responsibilities. It reminded us that we are all “one body” and all those things the Inspector says in An Inspector Calls. Donations surged. Practical help surged. A few politicians here and there started making noise about it. And that photo, slowly, changed views. It changed hearts and minds. It changed political policy. Even the refugee-hating Daily Mail recognised how powerful the image was at painting an image of the human costs of the war in Syria. It comes to something when you can make a scurrilous, inflamatory rag like the Daily Mail take a step back and have a little sympathy.

The photo was highly debated. Some commentators thought it was manipulative – that there’s something ethically wrong with showing photos of dead children on beaches for whatever purpose that may be. You might think so too. A lot of people find images such as this disgusting and manipulative, or sick. Personally, I think there’s nothing wrong with the truth. Do refugees die in attempts to get to safety? Certainly they do. If you can’t stomach the reality, then you need to get involved and change reality.

I don’t know what your feelings about such photographs are. Personally, I see a huge value in them. We shouldn’t live in ivory towers protected from the reality of the world around us. Sure, I skip past some – we’re now into the seventh year of conflict in Syria and little has changed. The photographs dry up as does people’s interest. When you tap into people’s emotions, you have to understand how hard it is to remain emotional. It’s hard to be angry or frustrated or sad at the same intensity. But you can change beliefs and values, and that’s what I guess most photojournalists or photographers would aspire to do.

That, or it’s a way to make a living. I can think of better ways to make a living as a photographer though, when you’ve got people who’ll pay thousands for a wedding photo package, or pictures of their newborn. One of my photographer friends does nothing but photograph the interiors of buildings. He makes a good living. Whilst the cynic in me would agree that for some it’s a ghoulish way to make a living, there’s got to be some deeper motivation there somewhere – some desire to change the hearts and minds of people in their comfy armchairs enjoying a pre-lunch beer.

Capturing conflict and power through artistic means – be that sculpture, art, photography or poetry – has changed significantly from those early epic celebrations of heroism and the use of art as a way of demonstrating power. We move from those huge statues in the desert and cryptic relics of powerful, long-dead civilisations, or brash attempts to show off to your future wife’s family, or recording feats of glory and strength in the face of adversity to seeing things from the perspective of the artist themselves: a way to leave their own legacy and make a difference that has a huge emotional cost and leaves them often in an ethical quandary.

Next up: structure and form in War Photographer

An analysis of the context, language and ideas in Tissue by Imtiaz Dharker

In the last post I was looking at the form and structure of Tissue by Imtiaz Dharker. This popular anthology poet has been on every inception of the poetry anthology at least since I can remember, but she continues to both delight and baffle, so I thought I’d try to write something to settle the nerves of this year’s GCSE students who have asked for some support on this poem.

As I said, there is a crescendo towards the end of the poem, a sense that the poet is building up to something, and we finish with that final statement that reveals the poet’s illusion: the paper is a metaphor for humanity.

Today, I’m going to take a line-by-line approach, looking at the key ideas in the poem, and how they’re explored through the language. You can find Dharker talking about her poem here, and reading it.

She starts straight away with the word ‘Paper’, and the idea of how fragile it is: ‘Paper that lets the light/shine through’. We’ve already thought about how she uses the enjambment there to leave the word ‘light’ dangling at the end of the line, drawing our attention to it. Light is something positive, something that gives hope. Couple that with all the conditionals, and I see a poem that is very much about hope for humanity – and what we must do to save ourselves from the current conflict. This line reminds me of hoary old songster Leonard Cohen, the master of gloom, in his song, Anthem and his line that “there is a crack in everything.;. it’s how the light gets in” – which is a nice way of saying that it is our flaws and imperfections, the broken bits of us that allow the good to seep in somehow. In fact, if you’re feeling adventurous, there is a lot to be added to your understanding of Tissue by considering the great Mr Cohen’s song. It talks about hope too, in a cynical world.

The first quality of paper, then, that she finds interesting, is that it lets the light shine though. Light is such a powerful and well-used metaphor for all that’s good that I shouldn’t have to explain it to anyone. We’re surrounded by that metaphor.

In the second line, we also have a dangling word that is separated from the rest of its line with the enjambed line ‘this/is what could alter things.’ I wrote a little about the word ‘this’ in the previous post, but it’s interesting. We call it a deictic word, a pointing word. It’s a pronoun that refers back to something before. But what is ‘this’? Does she mean it’s the paper that can change things, or letting the light shine through that could alter things? Or a combination of both – paper that lets light shine through?

At the same as being quite a hopeful image, I think there is also a dark side to this image. Paper and skin and light makes me think of another, darker image. Anyone familiar with Lady Lazarus by poet Sylvia Plath (and it’s one of the most well-known post-war poems, so most poets would be) will be aware of a line in that poem, ‘My skin/ Bright as a Nazi lampshade’. This line is a reference to the ugly tale that certain Nazis in charge of concentration camps in World War Two made lampshades out of human skin. Whether it is true or whether it is propaganda, we are reminded in this image of not only the good things that humanity is capable of – our light and goodness – but also the darkness and the evil. What should be an image of beauty, like paper lampshades and light, is a thing that reminds us of the cruelty and depravity of humanity. I don’t think you can read a poem that compares paper to skin and to humanity without thinking of Lady Lazarus and these darker images.

That cruel image alters things too: it is the horrors of what happened in the concentration camps and extermination camps that is largely what has changed warfare around the world and should change how we see others. There are lots and lots of lessons to be learnt from the atrocities of the Second World War, and if that is one of the things that Dharker’s ‘paper’ image is referring to, then she is right indeed. It could alter things.

Still, I like to think of the hopefulness of the light and paper image, not its ugliness. She talks about how she found a connection with her father – and her past – on the paper she found.

Whether she means the way paper lets good shine through, whether she means it as a reminder of of mankind’s atrocities or whether she simply means it as the literal piece of paper she found in the back of a book, where she found a connection to her father.

The final line of the first stanza is also interesting as she describes this paper in a second way: ‘paper thinned by age or touching’ – this is paper that has a value, that has been kept or treasured, paper that is significant.

Now you are undoubtedly not as old as me, and you probably don’t have the stuff I’ve collected over the years, but there is a lot of stuff I can’t throw away. First off, I need to confess that I am an English teacher. That’s not confession material, I know. But English teachers often have a weird thing about books. Like books are our religion. Books are our safety blankets. So we have weird attachments to books that you probably don’t get unless you are a budding English teacher. So I can’t throw out my 40-year-old copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Stories that I got as a Christmas present from my Great Gran when I was a nipper. But I also can’t throw away books that were given to me as presents that people have written in – especially if those people are dead. That means I’m clinging on desperately to my illustrated Children’s Bible that I got from my grandparents in 1977, even though I’m not a child, I’m not religious and I have about 200 other Bibles, which makes me sound like a religious nut, but I can’t throw Bibles away, even if I’m not particularly religious and even though I don’t believe it’s the actual, literal Word Of God on paper. Neither can I throw away the Good News New Testament that I got from our vicar as a present (!) for going to Sunday School in 1981 (which was my parents’ great idea for free babysitting so they could have a Sunday morning without children and listen to The Carpenters or some such). I make no great claims to being religious, but if some day I am found dead and the police come round to my house, they’re going to think I’m a bit of a religious freak since I won’t be able to explain (and I can’t explain now, even being alive and all that) why precisely I have twenty copies of the New Testament and why I’ve got the world’s biggest collection of books signed by vicars.

Anyway, in this age of Kindles and e-books, of disposing of things, this age that lacks sentimentality, I thought it necessary to explain a bit how books, how paper and stuff can hold value for us old people with our whimsy and nostalgia.

In fact, even though I’ve moved house several times, gone through several purges of ‘stuff’ in the name of minimalism and had to squash a whole house-worth of things into a transit van to move abroad, there are some ‘paper’ objects that are still with me – things that are probably incomprehensible in this digital age.

Here, if you didn’t believe me, is my 1981 Good News New Testament (and this is the first time since 1981 that it has probably been opened)

And here is my Children’s Illustrated Bible (not Illustrated Children’s Bible, which sounds like a Jacqueline Wilson tale)

And here are letters I wrote in 1989 in GCSE History (NB: A Cautionary Tale… I got a C in GCSE History – and no doubt my poor performance was related to spending my time passing notes to my friend Pam about boys we liked)

So why do I keep this stuff apart from a weird sentimentality about religious things and holding on to the past?

Because they’re pieces of me. They are pieces of my life. They age, as I do. They get damaged, as I have. But they are the things that make me who I am. They are the reminders that those who have gone once lived. My friend Pam died of cancer in 2017, and although we hadn’t spoken for years, those letters are not just a reminder of one of my most rich friendships, they are physical and real evidence of that friendship. I can’t quantify that friendship. I can’t put it in a bottle and keep it on a shelf. But I can, when I open those letters, remember it and relive it a little. They are literally the only things left of it. They are the physical relics of a life. They are the archaeological artefacts of my past.

Some of those pieces become the artefacts of other people’s past too. I have slide films and photographs, school reports and letters from my other dead relatives. I’ve got my Great Grandpa’s St John’s Ambulance medals, and my Great Great Grandma’s teaching certificate. These artefacts – and stories about them – keep them alive. When I die, those stories may die too, but as long as someone keeps that box of relics from our family’s past, it’s as if those people are still alive.

I know that’s a hard and weird concept to get your head around when you are 16. I mean why not burn the whole stinking lot of it?

I think a lot has to do with our own mortality and how we are but tiny flashes of existence in an enormous chasm of time. Keeping hold of things makes them significant somehow.

It also, like Imtiaz Dharker, allows us to hold on to relationships that are gone. And when people have died, holding on to them is the one thing that becomes the most important of all. Coming back to the ‘lone and level sands stretch far away’ of Ozymandias, we’re a long time dead, and even if you are the ruler of the biggest empire that ever was, even if you were the ‘King of Kings’, give it some time and your life is going to be nothing more than a puzzle to future curious minds, should they trip over some remnant of your life.

Ironic how paper, something so fragile and so easily destroyed, can be as good as stone at preserving the past.

Anyway, a circuitous waffle about the marvels of paper. Like the sculptor in Ozymandias, we may not know the author, the creator of these artefacts as time passes, but what they capture may help us understand ourselves and the world around us. As Dharker says, ‘a hand’, not knowing whose hand was responsible for recording all the details of lives before ours, so we lose connection with the people who create records of the past. But the fact that there are records leaves us something. Whether it’s a painting of someone’s wife, whether it’s a photograph of lives destroyed during war, whether it’s half a statue in a desert, these artefacts aren’t just curiosities about “the way we used to live”, but they are things that hold a mirror up to us in the here and now. We can use them to learn from the past. We can use them to see how times don’t change – how dictators will rise and fall – how people will suffer at the hands of cruel tyrants – how husbands will be jealous of wives – how atrocities are committed across the globe – and if we’re wise, we can learn from these things that don’t change, but could – if only we were to learn from the past! 

Unlike, however, those Bibles that may pass down through the generations recording marriages, births, christenings, confirmations and deaths on the pages themselves, the Koran is different – not to be defaced. This might be why she says these details are written on slips of tissue paper that are perhaps tucked inside. It reminds me too of books I’ve read where I’ve marked the pages with receipts or tickets of the places I’ve been when I read them. I don’t just open a book when I get them out again, I recall all the details about where I was when I read it.

Paper, too, turns sepia with age – it yellows. It does this, as it turns out, even if you don’t look in the book all the time (hence the yellowing of my Good News Bible) and the sepia of the third stanza, like other references to age and use, reminds us that paper ages as we do.

As we move into the fourth stanza, we have the rhyme on ‘drift’ and ‘shift’, where the sounds of those words amplify the meaning, the movement of things, how things are not fixed or secure.

And that, I think, is the central message of Tissue. We might understand how fleeting life is, how brief it is, how easily wiped out, ‘how easily they fall away on a sigh’. And if we understood that life is fragile, we can also understand that, despite that fragility, humanity is still strong. Like paper, it endures. We might stop trying to build permanent things, raising ‘a structure never meant to last’ and start focusing on what is important in life – all those names and details recorded in the backs of books, all the relationships we had with people of whom little physical is now left. If we accept how fragile life is, we might start doing things that are much more meaningful, might fly our lives like ‘paper kites’ and ‘never wish to build again with brick’.

When it comes to it, then, I think the poem explores the pointlessness of building empires – not unlike Ozymandias in fact, and instead of being pessimistic about how ‘nothing beyond remains’ is left of huge empires, we should, instead, embrace what we have when we have it. We too should treasure the lives around us, focusing them until they ‘transparent with attention’, like we pour so much care and love and attention into them that they are worn thin with use. I’m reminded of the line in War Photographer where Duffy says ‘All flesh is grass’ where we are supposed to remember how fleeting and meaningless life is – how our stone empires, the ‘capitals and monoliths’ are pointless, and what really counts are the ‘grand design[s] with living tissue’. We may have made our preparations with our stone houses and our nailed-down rooftops like ‘Storm On The Island’ but the lives inside are fleeting and transient. You can batten down the hatches as much as you like, prepare yourself to ride the storm, but ultimately, you’d be better to remember that we’re paper, not stone, carried slowly on the air currents, like ‘paper kites’, ‘drifting’ and ‘shifting’ like paper ‘in the direction of the wind’.

Instead then of realising that everything will be destroyed by time eventually, we should embrace that. All of those conditionals, the ‘could’ and the ‘might’ reveal a poem of possibility.

We should realise too that something fragile, like paper, has the potential to change things. History – the names, details and inscriptions from the past – has the possibility to change things in the future. We can use it to create, to be an ‘architect’ of things for the future.

Paper has the potential to reconnect you with yourself. Fragile as it is, it connects you with a past that you can never get back again. I will never live a life again where so much lay before me and everything was an exploration. That’s why I keep those letters. I will never again have a friendship that was as silly and free and careless as I did back then. My Nana will never again write an inscription in a book and all I physically have to remember how much I was loved and cared for as a child are those inscriptions in books.

Like Ozymandias and Storm on the Island, I think the poem works as a metaphor about the battle between humanity and time, but instead of reminding us that we are a long time dead and that time will get the better of us eventually, even if we are the ‘king of kings’, we’d be better to ride out the drifting direction of the winds of time as ‘paper kites’ and celebrate ‘the grand design/of living tissue’. She finishes with three imperatives:

Let the daylight break/
Through capitals and monoliths,
Through the shapes that pride can make,

Find a way to trace a grand design

with living tissue, raise a structure
never meant to last

Those three imperatives also build to a conclusion. It’s her advice for life. Let the goodness in. Create something wonderful with people and relationships. Build something that you realise will fade to nothing. The poem, then, serves as instructions for life and guidance about how to resolve the age-old conflict within us related to our own struggles to create a meaningful legacy in life and leave something behind of us when we die. You don’t have to hunker down in a bunker like Heaney to ride out the storm, or build stone monoliths proclaiming how blinking MARV you are… build your legacy in relationships and create something meaningful with the lives around you.

There is so much more to say about this poem – which is why I think it’s such a rich and complex beast. I haven’t even touched on the maps and the paper kites, the irony of how buildings can be destroyed as easily as if they were paper, the importance of the grocery slips, the significance of credit cards… but then you’re gearing yourself up for a brief comparison in 45 short minutes in an exam, and I’ve already said more than you could possibly hope to deal with in that. If I have to focus on anything, go with the light images, the light shining through, the daylight… go with the ‘our lives like paper kites’ to explore the fragility of human lives, go with the imperatives that end the poem and lead up to the Big Reveal of the central metaphor.

And teachers, if you want to really get into it, you may want to look at Denise Levertov’s What Were They Like? about how cultures can be forgotten in the blink of an eye. It’s not in the current AQA anthology, but it sits nicely with this one in order to make it clear how so much history of a culture can be so easily destroyed.

An analysis of the form and structure of Tissue by Imtiaz Dharker

And so we’re back to poetry for AQA GCSE English Literature. Let’s look at one of the two anthology poems that really leave people scratching their head.

The poem works as an extended metaphor, where paper is a metaphor for humanity. Let’s talk about form first, before moving through structure, context, language, ideas and perspectives.

What do I mean by form?

I mean how it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Form is what makes it a poem and not prose. Why does it look the way it does? What decisions has the poet made about what he has put on one line and what on another? Why this form?

The poem is set out in fairly neat verses – in terms of ‘neatness’, it’s not that different in appearance from London. We have to ask ourselves why she would choose such a traditional and ordinary form. We’ll talk about that last line after. But for me, when you choose an ordinary form, in a world where you can do anything with form, then that’s meaningful, just as it was for Blake; Why would you want something to be so ordinary? Is that the whole point? It’s about something that looks ordinary but can deliver a powerful message? At the very least, the form reflects the content: how something so simple and every-day can deliver a powerful message. Unlike London, whose ideas are restricted by the very lines, penned in and held down to reflect the very ‘mind-forged manacles’ of the people it describes, Tissue doesn’t have the same constraints.

So what else helps London be so restrictive where this is more loose? First the rhyme. There is only occasional rhyme, or half-rhyme. Perhaps a something in the first stanza, with ‘things’ and ‘touching’, which share an ‘ing’ ending, but that could easily be almost accidental, though there is a poetic softness that the rhyme brings to that echoing ‘ing’ sound. Then we have ‘roads’ and ‘mountainfolds’ which is much less subtle, although it still has a flavour of the accidental. Again, it has a kind of sense of a poetic echoing, drawing attention to those words. It gets stronger towards the end, with a sound-alike ‘this’ and ‘luminous’ (maybe! It’s a stretch, I know!) but then more obvious with the half-rhyme of the dissonant ‘brick/break’ – then the ‘break/make’ which sound alike but don’t look alike. It could be accidental, but there is a kind of purposeful grouping of those rhymes in those seventh anud eighth verses which draws attention to them. So why would Dharker want to draw attention to these lines? Could it be a climax to the poem – the bit where the important stuff is? When we explore the language in the poem in more detail, we’ll look at why Dharker might want to bring attention to these words in particular. The form is perhaps used to emphasise key aspects of the ideas in these lines.

We also have some internal rhyme that goes unnoticed on first reading, ‘Koran’ and ‘hand’, and the more obvious ‘weight’ and ‘date’, ‘drift’ and ‘shift’ which adds something to those words, which we’ll explore when we get to them. The way one of those rhymes comes buried in the line disguises it and makes it more subtle, so you have to consider why that is.

So, we’ve explored those ordinary four-line stanzas and the occasional, incidental rhyme here and there, but not the final line which stands apart.

Why is that final line standing on its own at the end there? Again, it’s to emphasise, but that’s such a simple low-grade response. To emphasise what? The words in it, ‘turned into your skin’ are designed by the poet to stand alone, so why would she want to do that? For me, it emphasises the central idea or metaphor of the poem, that the paper represents humankind. It is the first time the metaphor is revealed, which then forces us into a re-read to make sense of the poem now we have finally been told the central idea. It is the second time we find personal pronouns to do with the second person ‘you’. The first of those comes in the second stanza, and it feels very general there, ‘the kind you find’. It’s hard always for us to understand this ‘general’ you, that doesn’t always exist in other languages. In French, for instance, we’d use ‘on’ to be clear that we don’t mean YOU specifically. We just mean ‘you’ as in ‘all people’. The ‘you’ in the second stanza feels general, like you could replace it with ‘the kind people find’ or ‘the kind we find’, whereas – and I can’t say specifically why I think this, it’s just my opinion – that ‘you’ in the final line feels very much like it addresses the reader directly. I think, had I to explain myself, the first instance just sounds very general, like it just means ‘people’, where as the second sounds like she means ‘the reader in particular’.

Suddenly, then, in that final, single stand-alone line at the end, we are addressed directly. The metaphor is revealed like the revelation in a magician’s trick. Another thing that happens there is that it also stands alone as a conclusion. If we want to make a point very clearly and very deliberately, we can use a single-sentence paragraph to make it very clear. Three of the four words there are monosyllabic too, which also helps make it clear and simple. When we look at it, then, Dharker is using a number of ways to make that simple single-line stanza meaningful, reinforcing its position as the central idea of the poem.

The other thing that I might notice about the form is the use of enjambment. Another ‘crossover’ technique that also impacts structure and language from time to time, enjambment can go one of two ways. Either it can leave distinct clauses in ‘run-on’ lines so that the lines function as breath pauses in natural places, giving the poem a conversational feel, making it easy to read and giving it that ‘flow’ that students like to write so often about without really understanding what it is, or it can make it fragmented and fractured if it splits up noun phrases or clauses unnaturally. Sometimes it leaves words dangling at the end of the line so that you are forced to consider them for what they are, rather than ignoring them if they are buried in the middle of something. The first lines are an example of that:

Paper that lets the light
shine through, this
is what could alter things.

Can you see how Dharker could also have set the words out like this:

Paper that lets the light shine through,
this is what could alter things.

It would obviously mean the stanza needed another line, but the comma and the full stop mark out the clauses and the pauses. The way she’s set it out – does it make it fragmented, splitting up those clauses? Not really. For me, it just leaves those lines ‘light’ and ‘this’ dangling at the end of the line. Whatever comes last and first become more interesting, more noticeable because the break adds a little weight. So we think about that word ‘light’, about that word ‘shine’, and ‘this’ emphasises precisely WHAT could alter things.

Paper that lets the light
shine through, THIS
is what could alter things.

In linguistics, we call this a ‘deictic’ word, a pointing word, a word that refers to other words. For me, it’s a word that points back to ‘Paper that lets the light shine through’. It’s the poet’s way of pointing at it and going ‘THIS IDEA! THIS is what could alter things!’ and normally, we’d pay such an ordinary, average little word no attention at all. For me, that dangling little word and its dangling little position just adds an extra pointy ‘this is important’ emphasis to it.

There are other places too where you find these words dangling, with ‘who’ at the end of the first line of the third stanza, ‘might’ and ‘feel their drift’ in the fourth stanza, ‘luminous’ and ‘script’ in the seventh stanza, ‘brick or block’ which are not only split over a line but also a stanza break, making those words particularly noteworthy, and the same with ‘trace a grand design/with living tissue’ over the final stanzas. Like the rhyme, there is a growing sense of something towards the end – a building up to something perhaps. The combination of those features of form – the rhyme, the enjambment – towards the end suggests a change of some sort. They all contribute to the significance of what comes at the end.

So, if I ask myself how the form contributes to the meaning, it is all to point towards the significance of those final lines, to contribute to a sense of importance as the poem comes to a conclusion. The broken noun phrases or clauses towards the end increase in frequency, as does the incidence of rhyme and internal rhyme. Add those things with the final single-line stanza and there’s a definite shift in the form towards the end which suggests a crescendo or conclusion of a sort.

So let’s now think about structure.

What do I mean by structure?

This explores how the ideas are organised and sequenced, shifts in viewpoint/perspective (third person? First person?) TiP ToP – Time Place Topic Person – shifts? Shift in time? Place? Why are the ideas in this order? External actions (happenings) vs internal thoughts? Circular structure? Beginning, middle, end? How does the title weave through the poem? Does the ending link back or develop from the opening?

Structure is the arrangement and sequence of the ideas, as well as some other aspects. I ask myself why here and not there?

Dharker starts with a statement and a possibility.

Paper that lets the light
shine through, this
is what could alter things.

First we have a description of the type of paper she is talking about, and she says ‘this is what could alter things.’ That ‘could’ is interesting to me: a possibility. We don’t know what type of ‘things’ it ‘could alter’, but she seems hopeful that paper could change ‘things’. It leaves us with questions – why is paper important? How could it alter things? What things could it alter? It’s a kind of unusual statement: we don’t normally think of paper altering things. It leaves us in a position where we need her to explain.

The next two stanzas are an embellishment, a description of the kind of paper she is talking about. It gives us lots of detail about the kind of paper she means. We’ll explore that more when we get to language.

The fourth stanza changes again. We have another speculative, a conditional ‘if’ to start off the fourth stanza, and another conditional statement or thought that needs explanation: ‘if buildings were paper’.

Stanza five is another description of the type of paper she is thinking about, as is stanza six. Stanza seven starts with a third statement of condition or possibility: ‘an architect could use all this’. Seven, eight and nine take this idea about buildings, about architects creating things, and runs with it before the final one-line stanza, ‘turned to your skin’. There is again that sense of a crescendo up to that final statement. It’s a final statement that leaves us having to re-interpret everything we read, as we realise the paper is not paper at all, but a metaphor for humanity. Structurally, we have three conditionals that are followed by detail, embellishment or explanation, and that final linking of paper and skin that forces us to go back and reconsider. It feels very much like she is using the poem as a way to explore a thought or an idea.

Dharker is also using tense in an interesting way, much of the poem being written in the speculative, hypothetical conditional: it ‘could’, it ‘might’. Some is past tense, the receipts, the records, the names. And some is a future conditional: what an architect might create. For me, the overall effect is to show how paper takes us from the past into the present, and how it might be used in a hypothetical future. If paper is a metaphor for humanity, then that shows also how things were in the past and how they could be in the future. It is a poem of possibility and uncertainty. Things are, very literally, not set in stone.

That is an image to finish with. The more astute and perceptive of you will be thinking about that. What are the qualities of paper when compared to stone?

And we’ll explore those in the next post about the context, language and ideas of the poem.

 

An analysis of the context, form and structure of Poppies by Jane Weir

This poem looks at a female perspective on conflict, and as such, it offers us our first female voice in the ‘Power and Conflict’ section of AQA’s GCSE English Literature poetry anthology. We see conflict from a mother’s perspective, a position that is both objective, looking on, and subjectively involved. The poet takes on the persona of a mother -it is not important whether she’s writing in character, or writing about her own experiences. It seems ostensibly about a child leaving for school, not a soldier leaving to fight, with the “yellow bias” on the “blazer” which gives it more in common with Cecil Day Lewis’s poem Walking Away in the ‘Love and Relationships’ section of the anthology. She says she deliberately left out any specific war: “after all, there are lots of wars”, which makes it relevant to whichever war – all wars – and she says she was deliberately thinking about mothers, including Susan Owen, Wilfred Owen’s mother. It shows you don’t have to be directly involved in conflict for it to affect you. 

So, when considering the form… When I think about the form of the poem, I think about the following:

Form

How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Form is what makes it a poem and not prose. Why does it look the way it does? What decisions has the poet made about what he has put on one line and what on another? Why this form?

So, Poppies… what do we notice this form? What effects might it have on the reader? 

The poem is written in a very natural way. It’s almost like the line breaks are artificial and just there to make it look like a poem. If you remove the line breaks, it’s very hard to know where they would go, and it works well as a piece of prose. In those ways, it just slices the text up to make it look like a poem, without it having much by way of purposeful effect. It makes use of caesura and enjambment, but not for any particularly dramatic effect like Seamus Heaney or Simon Armitage do. It does beg the question about why she does this. For instance, why this: 

Three days before Armistice Sunday
and poppies had already been placed
on individual war graves. Before you left,
I pinned one onto your lapel…

And not this:

Three days before Armistice Sunday
and poppies had already been placed
on individual war graves.
Before you left, I pinned one onto your lapel…

When you aren’t governed by where you put the words, why leave that “Before you left” dangling at the end of the line, hanging after the caesura?

For me, I think there are several effects worth considering. The first is that it makes the form seem almost redundant and accidental, like it doesn’t matter. That’s fine, of course. The form can be just a blank plate to serve words up on, and in the same ways as I discussed in the form of Remains, it could just be a meaningless form on which to serve ideas.

But I don’t think so.

Perhaps it also shows a bit of carelessness. Typesetters in printers are responsible for making the print aesthetically pleasing. They make sure in novels that the justified text doesn’t have massive gaps between words, or if there is hyphenation to make the text nicely justified that the hyphens fall neatly. I’ll justify this paragraph and you can see what I mean.

Perhaps it also shows a bit of carelessness. Typesetters in printers are responsible for making the print aesthetically pleasing. They make sure in novels that the justified text doesn’t have massive gaps between words, or if there is hyphenation to make the text nicely justified that the hyphens fall neatly. I’ll justify this paragraph and you can see what I mean.

But this is not “neat” book justification, just poor computer justification. The typesetter will take much more care than I have over the space between words and making sure the space is exactly even without huge gaps between the words. Poppies seems it’s been arranged by a sloppy typesetter, or a computer algorithm, careless and unartistic. Functional.

In other ways, it could be much more purposeful – when you don’t stick to the ‘natural’ line breaks and you split sentences, use plenty of enjambment and caesura, you end up with something that is quite fragmented and disjointed, with unnatural pauses and hesitations in places you wouldn’t normally find them. For me, this causes the poem to ‘catch’ in strange places, like our breath catches and our sentences jar when we are upset and trying not to show it. We have that little ‘catch’ in a mother’s breath when she says, “Before you left,” where the line break adds weight to that comma pause. If you agree with me about this being the effect, it certainly does seem to catch and jar there.

She breaks down a noun phrase too in the first stanza, “disrupting a blockade/of yellow bias” – when you disrupt a noun phrase with a line break and you’ve even got the word “disrupting” in there, the enjambment and caesura seem much more purposeful.

Again, we have the catch and jar in her voice in stanza two, with the “shirt’s/upturned collar” and how she “steeled the softening/of [her] face” which I think seems to support the notion that the fragmenting, enjambment and caesura are indeed purposeful rather than just being sloppy about what words go where. She is a woman hardening herself so as not to give her emotions away, and the disjointed nature of some of those details makes it seem very much as if she has to stop a second to “steel” herself and gain control over her emotions.

Stanza two runs into stanza three, just like her words…

All my words
flattened, rolled, turned into felt,

slowly melting.

Here the lines do exactly what the words do, slowly melt into one another, adding to that kind of jumbled, formless effect, drifting from line to line before regaining a little compsure. Weir uses the final words at the end of those first lines in stanza three to add emphasis, to leave them hanging a moment for you to think about.

We land on “threw” which becomes so much more dynamic as a result of that line break pause that follows on the page. We do the same with “overflowing” and “a split second”. When we get to line five in that stanza with the full stop at the end, the word “intoxicated” is given so much more emphasis because of it. These are things I’ll discuss and consider further when thinking about the language of the poem.

By the time we get to the run-on lines of the final lines in stanza three, the words drift once more over the lines, just like the bird and the stitching. There’s a freedom and fluidity there which is not constrained by the line breaks or the sense of the lines. The rhyme of “tree… me… busy” also helps these lines speed up and run on into the next, picking up pace. They’re easier to read and more fluid.

The form in the last stanza is more assured. There are fewer unnatural breaks – sometimes verbs split from their object in “traced/the inscriptions” and “hoping to hear/your playground voice” (okay, split from its second object in that, since “to hear” is the first object) but it feels less disjointed than the earlier stanzas, like the poet has found her words and is no longer hesitating over them.

When we think about the stanza breaks, we are also asked to contemplate the structure and organisation of the poem, as well as the voice, tense and tone.

When I think about structure, I think about the following:

This explores how the ideas are organised and sequenced, viewpoint/perspective (third person? First person?) TiP ToP – Time Place Topic Person – shifts? Shift in time? Place? Why are the ideas in this order? External actions (happenings) vs internal thoughts? Circular structure? Beginning, middle, end? How does the title weave through the poem? Does the ending link back or develop from the opening?

Structure is the arrangement and sequence of the ideas, as well as some other aspects. I ask myself why here and not there?

We have four ‘paragraphs’ rather than stanzas, per se. Much of the reasoning behind these seems to fall into the domain of structure and organisation, since they seem to have rough ‘topics’ or ideas. The first is about Poppies in themselves. The second is about the mother’s attempts to care for her child and her final reflections before her child leaves. I’ll refer to the child as ‘he’ by the way, only because there is no real indication of whether it is a boy or a girl, only, perhaps the ‘gelled blackthorns’ of the hair, although girls can of course have a short haircut and wear gel. It could be a male or a female child, of course. I shan’t comment on my own innate sexism that the child ‘must be’ a boy since the poem is about conflict and seems to be set with a backdrop of war.

The poem opens with a mother who is reminiscing about a moment when she pinned a poppy to her child’s lapel, and it ends with an impromptu visit to the war memorial where the mother comes into the present moment. It is all written in the past tense, making it more reflective than a present-tense moment: it is a narrated account of internal conflict, of a mother caring for her child, setting them free and then the anxiety and worry that plague her having done so, as she tries to catch a last remnant of her child in the playground.

The first person narration is ambiguous. We do not know whether it is Jane Weir herself or a persona that she has adopted. It could well be some other mother, or it could be her. The first person narration allows us to see her internal conflict more clearly than an external viewpoint would have done: we get to see the inner workings of her thoughts.

In the next post, I will explore the way Jane Weir uses language and imagery in Poppies to create a moment of tension and conflict.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology or GCSE English revision, 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 language and imagery in Remains by Simon Armitage

In the last post, I looked at the context, form and structure in Simon Armitage’s poem Remains which is in AQA’s GCSE English Literature ‘Power and Conflict’ Anthology. I’ll pick up on some of those features once again as we look at language and imagery, as language is not divorced from form and structure, but the two work together.

I’ve already explored the start of the poem with the words, “On another occasion,” which acts as a sort of unmentioned exophoric reference to other ‘occasions’ that the persona in the poem has spoken or written about. It sounds like oral history, as I also said before, and it acts as a sort of marker that makes it clear that the events that happen in the poem are part of a series or sequence, or that they are nothing out of the ordinary. It just sounds like he is about to tell us some very matter-of-fact, routine, mundane, everyday sort of event. What comes is very much a surprise following this very conversational and banal phrase. It’s a very ordinary, unsurprising opening. It very much is in keeping with that four-line regular, humdrum verse and the unrhymed blank verse. Conversational and ordinary.

I’ve also already talked about the use of the present tense, which also gives it a conversational feel, but also makes it feel very much as if the persona is reliving the event as much as he is retelling it. It is very much the here-and-now for him. Sometimes the present tense is just a way we talk: it’s just a feature of spontaneous spoken English when we’re narrating a story – a way that we make it vivid. “I see this guy walking towards me and I’m all ‘come on, then!’ and just thinking ‘bring it on, mate. Bring it on!'” So that could be one thing Armitage is doing – making it sound like spontaneous spoken English.

Another thing he could be doing is using it to show how, for the soldier, the event is very much ‘now’ – the effect of which is to show how real and current this event is for the soldier, something that he is reliving and something he is unable to move on from. This very much fits with the notion of post-traumatic stress, that the person suffering from it feels like they can’t put the event behind them and move on from it: they are constantly reliving it.

Another way we could look at that present tense is that it makes this soldier, and this event, something that is current – an event that will never date. There will always be incidents like this in some war zone of some country or other. It makes it now. Wilfred Owen does the same thing in Exposure.

Again, no reason it can’t be doing all three things.

It has a very simple colloquial register to it as well, with the “sent out” and “tackle”. It’s a passive construction of a sort. They are “sent”. We have no idea who is sending them or why. This helps us understand that, like the soldiers in Owen’s poem and the soldiers in The Charging of the Light Brigade, they are not really clear on the reasons why. Theirs is not to reason why, indeed. We also have the plural inclusive “we” which could refer to a large number or a small number. We don’t know who this “we” is. Couple that with the present tense and you’ve got a similar voice and tense to Exposure that generalises it, makes it apply to all soldiers, any soldier, and to all wars, any war.

The word “tackle” is kind of innocuous. It’s reminiscent of a football match. Again, it’s colloquial. It sounds as if dealing with the looting should be easy: an everyday occurrence for the soldiers. Looting in itself is also a kind of petty euphemism. Looting means to steal, particularly during a war or riot. In the past, armies who’d laid siege to a city would loot and pillage, not that I am okay with that kind of practice; it implies opportunistic thievery rather than something downright criminal. Not to underplay it, but they aren’t cutting the heads off babies if they’re looting.

There are plenty of other more colloquial terms in the poem, and we catch one in the next line as well, the looter “legs it”. The verse ends with a contemplation as to whether he is armed, “probably armed, possibly not.” The parallel construction shows the weighing up the soldiers have to do in the instant. You’ve also got an interesting thing with the rhythm here: “POSS-i/bly ARMED,/ PROBab/ly NOT.” where we have a trochee followed by an iamb, repeated twice. It gives it a strong rhythm that seems to give it a bit of speed – not unlike the rhythm in The Charge of the Light Brigade. I think it seems to speed the verse up, both towards the inevitable “remains” and also at that moment, emphasising the spur-of-the-moment choices they have to make.

As we move into verse two, we have the “well” which is so indicative of colloquial spontaneous spoken English, adding to that effect that this is an oral history. Some of the details have become blurred; he can’t remember who he was with. Still, we have that strong rhythmic momentum, “and SOMEbody else and SOMEbody else” which drives us on and shows the confusion of the moment. The enjambment also runs the line on, increasing momentum, as does the lack of punctuation. We speed on through the three lines to the “open fire”, which comes as a complete shock – the “are of the same mind” has kind of foxed us, because we had no idea what they were up to.

There’s a real emphasis on three here, “me and somebody else and somebody else”, “all three of us open fire,” and “three of a kind all letting fly”.  I don’t know why this is. I can tell you the symbolism of three in itself, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, the importance of this number as a religious digit, but that doesn’t seem to sit with me. I really have no explanation at all why this number is so important to him.

This second verse runs on into the next courtesy of the enjambed line leaving the “and I swear” hanging there, wondering what it is he is about to swear. The moment goes into slow motion as he recounts every single detail, the bullets. There’s a bizarre turn of phrase with “rips through his life”, which I could only really find references for that relate to this poem… it’s not a usual expression by any stretch of the imagination. The alliteration on the r in “round” and “rips” also echoes the sound of the machine gun fire. The dash at the end of the line carries us on into the next, the emphasis on “I see” which is now repeated a second time, focusing us on the fact that the unnamed persona in the poem is reliving this, moment by moment, but in some kind of glorious technicolour movie style – he couldn’t possibly have seen every bullet rip through the looter, and where he may have seen it rip through the looter’s body, he uses the metaphorical “life” instead. It’s not just a body to the soldier. You can’t see a bullet rip through an abstraction, like ‘life’ unless you are using it as a synonym for the body. The colloquial “broad daylight” is also part of this slow-motion scene – it’s clearly not possible to see broad daylight in the wake of a bullet, but the event has become hyper-real to the soldier and he is filling in the gaps.

The “sort of inside out” is again very spoken in style. Not poetic. Not imaginative. Not clever use of adjectives or metaphor, simile or alliteration. Just “sort of inside out”, an approximation. He lacks the words to describe how the looter looks after the bullets have torn through him. I’d say it’s a metaphor, but it’s not, is it? He probably had got more of him outside than in.

But then that struggle to voice what the dead looter looks like intensifies as we move on into the next verse. The line and verse break let us pause before moving on into the second attempt by the soldier to describe the body: “pain itself”. I’m struggling to pinpoint the exact language feature here, except to say that it is an almost reverse personification. One abstract idea becomes real in that dead – or dying – body. The same thing happens with the third detail, the “image of agony”. A tripartite image.

Now it becomes difficult to avoid talking about the threes in this poem. I still don’t know what it means though. I don’t in all sincerity think the three images here have much to do with the repeated three of the soldiers who opened fire. I think, in some ways, it has a lot to do with an avant-garde art movement of the early Twentieth Century: Cubism.

Cubism is an art movement that tried to capture the three dimensions of a thing. You find it in Literature too, in some of the works from this period. This is how Wikipedia defines Cubism: “In Cubist artwork, objects are analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form” – which is exactly what happens in this image. It is analysed, “sort of inside out”, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form: “pain itself, the image of agony”. The point of it is that it gives the object being described a more ‘real’ substance, allowing the writer (or painter) to present something in all of what it means to them at one captured moment of time. Writers would do this by using repetition and repeated phrases… kind of what Armitage is doing here. If you want to see this at work in a head-spinning kind of way, Gertrude Stein’s poem, “A Completed Portrait of Picasso” will show you. But other poets picked up on the repetition and the use of multiple perspectives.

Perhaps then, it’s one attempt to describe the body by each one of the soldiers who were involved in the shooting?

Who knows?

What we can definitely say is that the tripartite image allows the persona narrator to really try to fix on what the body looked like, to recreate the image in our mind. It also shows how he’s dwelling on that image, yet he can’t find a way to describe it in ways that please him, which is why he perhaps has three attempts at doing so. Or, it’s his attempt to make it clear to us: we often repeat ourselves when we worry that we will not be understood.

Then the poem slips out of that moment again, “One of my mates goes by”, and the scene comes to life again. There’s a carelessness to the way he “tosses” the “guts back into his body” and he’s “carted off in the back of a lorry”, which is evocative of other things by Wilfred Owen… the image in Dulce et Decorum Est where they “flung” the body of a soldier who had suffered a chemical gas attack into the back of a “wagon”. For me, it’s another of those “everyday” details that makes this seem like a run-of-the-mill event, as if it’s something that happened all the time. It’s not exactly disrespectful, just ‘hurried’, but in that the soldiers in both poems have no time to stop and reflect on the death they have just witnessed, it reminds us of the internal psychological conflict that many soldiers must go through in such circumstances. As Armitage says, “End of story. Except not really.”

For Armitage, the physical and the psychological, the past and the present all merge. It’s the “End of Story” physically… the body has been removed. But it hasn’t, “not really”, since the remains of the looter’s blood stay “on the street”, that “blood shadow”. Physically, it’s not exactly the end of the story for the body. Nor is the body leaving the end of the psychological effects for the soldier. That “blood shadow” is indelibly fixed in his psyche – it’s etched in his mind. He has no way to escape it. It’s not the end of the story psychologically. The past – the death, the killing – stick in the present with that “blood shadow” which reminds the man constantly of what happened, of “the image of agony”.

When the narrator says he has to “walk over it week after week”, we know that it isn’t just the shadow that he’s talking about, but the memory too. He is reliving that week after week. There’s a change of pace towards the end of this verse as the pace becomes more disjointed and choppy. “Then I’m home on leave” is entirely onomatopoeic, curt, brief. A change of scene. I’m imagining he thought that the blood shadow would disappear for good. That caesura followed by “But I blink”, which dangles at the end of the verse and the line, not unlike the technique Owen uses in Exposure. We don’t know what’s coming left. We’re left hanging, waiting for an answer. The connective, “but” sets up a change of direction. We’re guessing that home on leave is a good thing, but the change of direction in this word is as unexpected for us as it probably is for the narrator. Blinking seems such a natural, simple thing. In that blink, we are left, waiting. The enjambment runs us into the next verse hastily for an answer. When the narrator blinks, he sees the incident all over again. He doesn’t just see it. He relives it. It is present tense, at that moment, as real in his imagination as it was in real life. Look at all of those plosive B sounds as well. “But I blink… bursts… bank”

We’ve got other plosive sounds in there as well that makes this particularly abrupt, the K at the end of “blink” and the d in “door”. Those hard sounds add to the intensely monosyllabic line and bring that flashback to life for us just as it comes to life as the narrator blinks. It’s frightening because blinking is such a frequent and natural occurrence. You don’t even have to think about doing it. Also, you can’t stop yourself blinking. So we now that the writer cannot escape the flashbacks that can appear in the flash of an eye.

We have a second time that the flashbacks appear. He can’t even escape when he is asleep. “Sleep”, and we’ve got the repetition of “probably armed, possibly not” (ah, see…. it’s more like Gertrude Stein with her Picasso poem picking up on those repeated images… in fact, it’s at this point that I want to make a little aside to say that I found this poem quite simplistic to start, and seeing these avant-garde Cubist writerly techniques is giving me a new respect for something that felt a bit ‘churned out’, especially in recycling Owen’s body-flinging and tortured reliving of battle…) This repetition is powerful, looping back in. He can’t escape those memories and they haunt him in the exact same way, the exact same loop as happened at the time. He isn’t just remembering, he is reliving it in the present tense. Sleep too reminds me of Macbeth and his tortured “Macbeth shall sleep no more!” speech. “The balm of hurt minds,” Shakespeare called it. Certainly the narrator’s mind is in need of some balm or healing.

“Dream” follows the same pattern, and there’s that three again. “Blink. Sleep. Dream.” This time, it’s a loose rephrasing. “He’s torn apart by a dozen rounds.”

The final line of this verse really conveys that tortured mind so very well. “The drink and the drugs won’t flush him out”. We see what the narrator has been doing to escape this moment, to stop reliving it. It’s woefully inadequate, of course, self-medication. But it is a metaphor that is not a metaphor for the narrator. It feels like the memory is an enemy soldier inside his brain, sitting it out and attacking at random, or even when the narrator is most vulnerable. Of course, he is not physically inside the narrator’s head – it’s just a memory. But it feels real to the narrator, and that’s what’s important. Again, it’s monosyllabic which makes it more simple, more curt, more direct. It also relies on the rhythm of the repeated “dr” sound in “the DRINK and the DRUGS” as well as the stresses which fall on these words. It mixes in the loosely war-time/hunting metaphor about being “flushed out”. I imagine that war-time use of this word came from the hunting term, but it’s hard to know for sure. Simply put, if your enemy has “gone to ground”, is hidden or camouflaged, like a pheasant in the hedgerows, “flushing him out” is one way to get him to appear so that you can kill him.

But “flushing out” has another meaning as well, particularly one associated with liquids. We flush the toilet to “flush out” our waste. You can flush out your eyes if you get a foreign object in there. Detox people will tell you about flushing out your kidneys… it just means using water or liquid to clean something by flooding it and using water to dislodge it. You can see how this works on two levels with the alcohol. He’s using drink to try and dislodge the memory of the event, just as he is with the (non-liquid) drugs.

Particularly evocative word choices there.

As we move into the penultimate stanza, he carries on the image of the looter who has almost taken root in the soldier’s mind, “dug in behind enemy lines”. This works as a metaphor, the enemy lines being the soldier’s mind. A soldier who has “dug in” has dug a trench and is preparing to attack. It feels here as if the soldier is literally under siege from the enemy memory within his own head. It contrasts also with the ease of killing the escaping looter in the street, since this memory is proving much more difficult to eliminate than the looter was in real life.

We follow the same, terse, curt monosyllabic patterns following the enjambed dash between the two stanzas, “he’s here in my head”, where the “h” is a breathy alliteration that perhaps evokes (bear with me on this… It’s a bit of a stretch in terms of an effect, and it’s highly speculative! I wouldn’t want anyone taking it as read that these meanings are why Armitage is using the alliteration here!) the panicked breathing of the soldier (try three sharp “huh – huh – huh” breaths) or even the airy, intangible nature of the looter. I would very much doubt Armitage thought “I am deliberately going to stick in three ‘h’s in a row to make it sound like panicked breathing!” but I think it’s a nice effect nonetheless. It does sound to me like panicked breathing – a little. But the other sounds detract from that of course. You could almost say it sounds like a whisper. That works as well as an explanation of the effect of the alliteration there. Of course the soldier would be whispering if he didn’t want to alert the image in his mind. If that’s the effect you’re going for, there’s no reason at all why you couldn’t say that whispery sound evokes his paranoid state of mind. It certainly could. And there’s no reason at all why it can’t be doing both.

The stanza begins almost to rhyme as well, from “eyes” to “lines”, then a true rhyme in “land” and “sand” – then “hands” in the final couplet. I don’t know why it does that. Armitage does rhyme superbly – he uses it to eerie effect and to emphasise lines in many of his poems. I can’t say with any certainty what I think Armitage’s purpose is in doing so here. It feels to me like he’s using the rhyme to speed us to a final conclusion. It moves from colloquial to poetic, like he’s polished these words in his mind. Armitage likes patterns and plays around with them – it’s something I leave with you to consider, mainly because I don’t have any answers myself. For me, it certainly seems to drive on towards a desperate conclusion and that final line about how it is to take a life. I spent a lot of time on Google this morning looking at a variety of comments on Armitage’s rhyme across his poems (and even an article in The Guardian by Armitage where he seems to revel in the joys of the Arctic Monkeys’ internal rhyme) – there are lots of people, intelligent people, and guide books etc who point out that Armitage likes rhyme, perfect rhyme, internal rhyme and all other facets of rhyme, and not any of them talk about the effect. For me, it’s often pleasure or discomfort where Armitage uses rhyme. I think he uses it like a highlighter in his poetry to draw attention to emotion. But the jury is out and you are very welcome to give me your explanation of the effect of that building climactic perfect rhyme.

Another thing that seems to show a pondering of ideas, a climactic (cubist?!) build-up is the “distant, sun-stunned, sand-smothered land” where you can’t ignore the alliteration on the ‘s’ either…. the ending with its rhyme and alliteration is much more polished than the colloquial opening. The tone changes from the colloquial to the poetically rich. For me, it shows a polishing of those words, a deliberation on them.

We move in the final couplet to the alliterative “near to the knuckle”, which shows that neither time nor space can put distance between the narrator and the incident with the looter. It finishes with the very metaphoric “his bloody life in my bloody hands” which also plays on the rhythms there… “his BLOODy LIFE in my BLOODy HANDS”

We use this clichéd metaphor regularly… “my life is in your hands”. It usually means that we are responsible for whether someone lives or dies – or metaphorically – that we owe them a debt, we’re relying on them – not that our lives really depend on them. It’s a phrase that is at least a good couple of hundred years old, and Armitage uses it to show the narrator feels that he was (or is) responsible for the man’s life. But since we know that the looter died, we understand how profoundly guilty the soldier feels for having taken the life of the looter. It brings to mind the guilt of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, how she feels unable to wash away the spot of blood on her hands, how it tortures her, destroys her sleep and her peace of mind. It leaves us in no doubt that the narrator will forever be tortured by the death of the looter.

Next time, on through the anthology with Jane Weir’s Poppies

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.