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!

 

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, 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 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.

 

An Analysis of the context, form and structure of Remains by Simon Armitage

Okay lovelies, Simon Armitage is up next with his poem Remains, which appears in AQA’s GCSE English Literature anthology section Power and Conflict for exams from 2017 forward. English teachers love Simon Armitage and he’s become a real stalwart of GCSE courses.

That said, there’s not a lot of stuff out there on this poem, so I’m going to ignore a lot of the context stuff until it appears in the poem. Instead of starting globally as I am wont to do, and narrowing in, I’m going to start with the minutiae and work out. If I come across some stuff that I think you need to know the context of, why I shall go right ahead and tell you.

Just incidentally, when doing a search for the poem, I came across a website that has completely stolen my analysis of other poems. I was reading it and I thought “this sounds awfully like good sense, but they do love a semi-colon,” before I realised that those words were my words. It’s not the first time this has happened, but I do wish people would learn to quote their sources. Or write their own stuff. The latter, preferably. I’m quite proud that someone thinks I write enough sense to steal from.

Anyhow…

The form of the poem.

When I think about form, I think about this:

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?

These are the questions I ask myself. First bit of context: Armitage loves to play around with form. Many of his poems use form in interesting ways.

First, I’m asking myself what is usual and unusual about the poem? Four lines is about as regular a verse structure as you get. So we have regularity and normality. But then we don’t. Those last lines are a couplet, substantially different from the others. So we have to ask ourselves why is this? What is the significance of these things?

Of all the verse structures that Armitage could have picked, he went for four lines. So why this regularity? Is it suggesting a normality for the narrator? The way the poem starts suggests a kind of continuation from other stories – from the way the poem looks on the page, it wouldn’t seem that we were in for any surprises. For me, those four-line verses convey a regularity, a normality – given the colloquial tone, we wouldn’t think that this poem will lead to opening fire on a looter. The choice of form is mundane, hum-drum even. It has an added bonus of not detracting from the ideas and images in the poem either, which is good. For me, it’s a very ordinary form, the most ordinary of forms, so why would you pick such a normal form? I think it does a couple of things. The first is that it makes the event in itself seem mundane and humdrum, like it’s the kind of thing that happens every day. Take that with the opening of “on another occasion” and it sounds like it’s part a series of stories or everyday anecdotes. Having this most commonplace form supports the ‘commonplace’ – ironic, since this kind of event should not be commonplace in anybody’s life. I think in this way, the four-line verses emphasise the absurdity of the situation: it is nonsensical and illogical, unthinkable even, that this sort of event should be so commonplace that you’d a) not mention it first as the most pivotal of your military experiences and b) you’d attach no particularly special importance to it. Armitage is not the first to put ill-matching forms and content together to highlight the meaningless and irrational. Clown Punk is another poem where he does the same.

Another reason that he could have chosen this most commonplace form is that it is simply a vehicle for the content. When you strip the form of all its meaning, it’s kind of like presenting a fancy meal on a white plate or a piece of slate. No busy patterned china or fancy designs to detract from it. The white plate or slate is just a ‘clean’ way to present food in the same way as this commonplace form is a clean way to present the ideas. That way we don’t get bogged down in thinking about the line-breaks and the pace, the rhythm and way the words fall. Ironic that I just spent a good lengthy paragraph dissecting his choice of the four-line verse if that was Armitage’s purpose. In that case, I would be very sorry for pontificating over its significance when Armitage might have wanted to have zero significance at all were he prioritising the content.

There is absolutely no reason he can’t have done both things, by the way… chosen a commonplace form so that it doesn’t distract from the content, but at the same time using that to highlight the way that the narrator describes this event as something normal and ordinary, which highlights how irrational the event is.

And of course, it’s all normal and ordinary except for the finishing couplet which breaks with the rest of the poem.

So why the finishing couplet?

Shakespeare used couplets to finish off a story, to mark an ending, like the curtains drawing on a scene, or as a way to emphasise a character’s lines. It was as if to say “this will give you something to think about.” And the poem certainly does that. I think, perhaps a bit like Exposure, the verse is cut short, just as the man’s life was cut short. When Armitage says earlier “End of Story except not really”, this too feels like there is more that goes unsaid.

Although the first verse starts with neat end-stopped lines, the poem soon falls to enjambment and caesura, which fracture the rhythm just as it does in Bayonet Charge. I’ll explore more about the enjambment and caesura when I explore the language of the poem, because it makes more sense to think about which words he is emphasising and how. We’ll look in more detail at where the enjambment runs those ideas on, where we trip and fall over the rhythm.

Really, that’s as much as I want to say about the form in itself. There will be points when I’m discussing the language when I’ll want to show how he uses form to highlight or underscore a particular idea, but those would be better taken in context with the rest of the content.

So, when I’m thinking about structure, what does that entail exactly?

Structure refers to 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?

So how does this work when I look at Remains?

The first and most noticeable thing about the structure is the title itself. Remains. It’s a very open word. Whose remains? I’m pretty sure here that it is meant as a noun rather than a verb. Remains are the bits left of something. The pieces that are left over when the rest has been taken away. For me, it seems to suggest that what is left is something perhaps discarded. It is what is left when everything else has been removed. It can, of course, refer to a corpse, a dead body. A final sense of the word is the ‘remains’ of a writer: the fragments that are left after their death. All of those leave us with something to think about, to consider what the title means when we have considered the rest of the poem.

It asks more questions than it answers.

It could refer to the looter, of course. He is what is left when the others have escaped. It can be his body, his remains, what is left of him when the shooting has finished, the bit “carted off in the back of a lorry”, or the “blood shadow” on the street where it happened, the physical ‘ghost’ of him.

It could also refer to the idea that this event has had consequences for the narrator. It is about his own ‘remains’ and the bits left over in him following the shooting. I think it’s the “remains” of the man in Armitage’s memory, what is left of him, the fragments that appear when the narrator is “home on leave”. The “remains” of the man are what is left in the narrator’s head, “dug in behind enemy lines”, the memories of the event and of the man that torture the narrator. The title, then, is woven through the physical remains of the man, the physical “blood shadow”, the memories of the man in the narrator’s head.

In terms of structure, I can also think about the way the poem opens. That word “another” is an adjective at its most simple, describing “an occasion”, but it is also a discourse marker in that it’s used usually as a connective. We don’t start a conversation with “another”. It’s like starting it with “And” or “Additionally…”

Yet Armitage does this in other poems. To me, it implies a kind of sequence, that this is taken out of the middle of something. It’s not something we use entirely in speech for fluency, but there is something in this poem that suggests to me that it is the spoken word. It feels to me almost like those wartime oral histories the BBC is a fan of collecting for posterity. I can’t put my finger on why, exactly, but I think it’s a lot to do with the colloquial tone, “one of them legs it up the road,” and the slips of tense, “we get sent out”, as well as the word “Well”, which is a kind of filler here, softening it and making it sound more like a spoken monologue. We also have lots of simple coordinating conjunctions like “and” and “so” as well as the run-on lines and the word “then” which acts as a kind of simple temporal connective. I once listened to a friend’s son telling a story. He started telling it in Paris. Three hours later, he was still telling it. It didn’t have any stopping points at all as every single sentence was spliced together with an “and then”. People use these a lot in speech to help with fluidity. I think that these are some of the ways that Armitage makes it sound more like spontaneous spoken English than a poem as such. The word “another” in that opening acts almost as an exophoric reference, referring to events outside the text that we have no knowledge of as a reader or listener, but we would if we were the “real” audience to whom Armitage’s character narrator seems to be talking to. I think we are asked to be a kind of interviewer, or psychotherapist maybe, psychiatrist or priest. It leaves us with an interesting question… who does Armitage’s character narrator think the reader is? We’re definitely a confidante of some kind. It reminds me in this way of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Stealing a former AQA Anthology stalwart, except that it is less interactive. It’s clear Armitage’s persona is talking, but there is no sense of to whom or even that he is aware anyone is listening. The persona seems isolated and cut off.

Other things I can talk about include the voice and viewpoint: we have a character narrator, a construct Armitage is using to voice the situation. We need to think about the effect of his first-person choice rather than if he had told it as a third person choice. So what’s the effect of that? You can think about how he uses it to give us an insider point of view, how he uses it to make it more personal. Yet, like many poems about conflict, it is an ‘unnamed voice’ that could represent the experiences of a good number of soldiers. GCSE answers could get a lot of mileage out of explaining the effect of that first-person unnamed voice on the reader.

What else is interesting is the tense of the poem. The character narrates it entirely in present tense, even though it is clear it happened in the past. What I think this does is create the notion that the poet is still living this moment, that this event is still ‘now’ for him. It really helps with the “here and now” feeling of the poem.

Other things I might want to comment on in terms of the structure are the way it moves from the past to the present, from an external event to internal feelings. It has a narrative chronological structure, following time order from the past to the present. From this we could assume that it has implications for the soldier’s future too, if we can work off that progression. That present tense helps make it not only “here and now” but ‘always’. It will always be with him. The man will always be “dug in” his memory.

From the innocuous starting tone, a soldier recounting events, it becomes clear that this is no wartime voice, no objective reflection on things that have gone. By the end, we realise that the character narrator will be haunted by what he has done for the rest of his life. There is no escaping that image, even in sleep. It reminds me very much in this way of Mental Cases by Wilfred Owen and Survivors by Siegfried Sassoon, some of the earliest poems about shell-shock (which would go on to be named Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or an Acute Stress Response) Although one thing is different: this not a man who seems on the surface to have had his mind destroyed by what he has done. He is not a skeletal zombie who is haunted to such an extreme that they slobber and drool. He is coherent. He is fluent. Yet he is haunted. I don’t think it loses anything by being less shocking than Mental Cases or Survivors in its imagery. If anything, this man’s haunting, personal hell is all the more unsettling because he seems so coherent. Here, you can’t see what lies beneath, even in the opening lines of the poem, we have no idea.

In the next post, I’ll look at the language and imagery used by Armitage in the poem, exploring how he recreates the event for us.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week, an exploration of Remains by Simon Armitage

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