Tips to help you with AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 4

Last time, I was having a look at the mechanics of Question 4, the essay question on AQA’s GCSE English Language (8700) Paper 1, and today it’s time to have a look at how you can best prepare to answer.

So far in the series, you’ve had:

And today, I’ll be looking at Question 4 once again. This is the same reading approach that you saw for Question 2, and it’s very much about your reading, annotation of the passage and your planning time. You may find it helpful to go back and re-read those on Question 2 if you haven’t already.

To summarise the previous post:

  • Question 4 is the longest comprehension question and you should treat it with respect. It shouldn’t be the same length as Q2 or Q3. If it is, you’re either over-answering Q2 and 3 or you’re under-answering Q4.
  • It’s a 20 mark question
  • You should spend about 20-25 minutes answering it
  • It gives you a statement and asks you to find evidence to support (or disprove) the statement, giving your opinions.
  • It asks you to explore HOW the writer does something.
  • You need to use a range of select, embedded quotations.
  • You should be writing explanations of how the writer’s language works
  • You need to write about writer’s methods
  • Writer’s methods includes any single thing the writer has done, from figurative language through to viewpoint and perspective. If you want to write about sentence length or type, you can do so with safety here (although I’m not sure it’s necessary – and it’s certainly not compulsory!)
  • Really, we don’t care less if you agree, if you disagree, if you are making a balanced argument. This is not a question that is asking you to make an argument (that’s a writing task). It’s asking you to respond to a statement, find evidence to support or contradict that statement, and then explain what the writer is up to. That ‘to what extent do you agree?’ is a bit of a dead end. It suggests it should be an argument, but really it’s just a way to get you to respond to the statement.

When you get to what we’re doing today, you’ll have already looked at the statement and picked out the key words. For this, I’m going to give general reading advice based on a slightly-adapted extract from Joyce Carol Oates. It’s not perfect but you have seriously no idea how hard it is to find things that work perfectly. I picked it because it’s a little similar to the November 2017 paper. I could have wasted hours looking for something that works. Plus, It’s a big extract to deal with and there are a variety of different types of questions that we’ve seen so far.

The extract I’ll be working with over the next two posts is taken from a short story called “The Temple” by Joyce Carol Oates (with a few abridged moments).

THERE, again, the vexing, mysterious sound! – a faint mewing cry followed by a
muffled scratching, as of something being raked by nails, or claws. At first the woman believed the sound must be coming from somewhere inside the house, a small animal, perhaps a squirrel, trapped in the attic beneath the eaves, or in a remote corner of the earthen-floored cellar; after she searched the house thoroughly, she had to conclude that it came from somewhere outside, at the bottom of the old garden, perhaps. It was far more distinct at certain times than at others, depending upon the direction and power of the wind.

She had no choice, then, did she? – She must trace the sound to its origin. She set
about the task calmly enough one morning, stepping out into unexpectedly bright,
warm sunshine, and making her way into the lush tangle of vegetation that had been her mother’s garden of thirty years before. The mewing sound, the scratching — it seemed to be issuing from the very bottom of the garden, close by a stained concrete drainage ditch that marked the end of the property. As soon as she listened for it, however, it ceased.

Out of the old garage, that had once been a stable, the woman got a shovel, a
spade, a rake, these implements festooned in cobwebs and dust, and began to dig. It was awkward work and her soft hands ached after only minutes, so she returned to the garage to fetch gardening gloves-these too covered in cobwebs and dust, and stiffened with dirt. The mid-morning sun was ablaze so she located an old straw hat of her mother’s: it fitted her head oddly, as if its band had been sweated through and dried, stiffened asymmetrically

So she set again to work. First, she dug away sinewy weeds and vines, chicory,
wild mustard, tall grasses, in the area out of which the cry had emanated; she
managed to uncover the earth, which was rich with compost, very dark, moist. Almost beneath her feet, the plaintive mewing sounded!

“Yes. Yes. I’m here,” she whispered.

She paused, very excited; she heard a brief flurry of scratching, then silence. “I’m
here, now.” She grunted as she pushed the shovel into the earth, urging it downward with her weight, her foot. 

She dug. She spaded, and raked. She dug again, deepening and broadening the
hole which was like a wound in the jungle-like vegetation. Chips and shards of aged brick, glass, stones were uncovered, striking the shovel. Beetles scurried away, their shells glinting darkly in the sunshine. Earthworms squirmed, some of them cut cruelly in two. For some time the woman worked in silence, hearing only her quickened heartbeat and a roaring pulse in her ears; then, distinctly, with the impact of a shout, there came the pleading cry again, so close she nearly dropped the shovel.

At last, covered in sweat, her hands shaking, the woman struck something solid.
She dropped to her knees and groped in the moist dark earth and lifted something
round and hollow — a human skull? But it was small, hardly half the size of an adult’s skull.

“My God!” the woman whispered.

Squatting then above the jagged hole, turning the skull in her fingers. How light it
was! The color of parchment badly stained from the soil. She brushed bits of damp
earth away, marveling at the subtle contours of the cranium. Not a hair remained. The delicate bone was cracked in several places and its texture minutely scarified, like a ceramic glaze. A few of the teeth were missing, but most appeared to be intact, though caked with dirt. The perfectly formed jaws, the slope of the cheekbones! The empty eye sockets, so round… The woman lifted the skull to stare into the sockets as if staring into mirror-eyes, eyes of an eerie transparency. A kind of knowledge passed between her and these eyes yet she did not know: was this a child’s skull? had a child been buried here, it must have been decades ago, on her family’s property? Unnamed, unmarked? Unacknowledged? Unknown?

For several fevered hours the woman dug deeper into the earth. She was panting
in the overhead sun, which seemed to penetrate the straw hat as if it were made of
gauze; her sturdy body was clammy with sweat. She discovered a number of scattered bones — a slender forearm, curving ribs, part of a hand, fingers — these too parchment-colored, child-sized. What small, graceful fingers! How they had 
scratched, clawed, for release! Following this morning, forever, the finger bones
would be at peace.

By early afternoon, the woman gave up her digging. She could find no more of the
skeleton than a dozen or so random bones.

I picked this one because it’s kind of similar to the ‘Alice’ text and it works for a similar type of question. So, you know that Question 4 is less usual than Q2 or 3, but it follows a regular format, year upon year. First, it will specify a part of the text for you to focus on.

Focus this part of your answer on the second half of the source from line 23 to the end. 

For the sake of this, which has no lines, I’m going from ‘So she again set to work’.

You already know there is a little bit of a difference from Q1 and Q2, in which you absolutely must write from the lines mentioned. In this you must ‘focus’, which means you will be spending the majority – if not all – of your time looking at those lines. It doesn’t, however, mean that if you refer to bits from lines 1-22 to support what you are saying about lines 23 to the end, that we can’t mark it.

Then you have a statement:

A reader said, ‘This part of the story, where the woman uncovers the skull, is very mysterious, and it sounds as if she is compelled to continue digging’.

To what extent do you agree?

In your response you could:
* consider the reasons why the woman keeps digging
* evaluate how the writer creates a sense of mystery
* support your response with references to the text

This is probably harder than the question (and the text!) you’d find on the paper as that word ‘compelled’ would be a challenge for candidates working at the lower grades. That said, it’s going to be okay for us to work through Levels 2 – 4 from 6 to 20 marks next time in examples.

So where do you start?

Similarly to Question 2, what you want is to do two quick read-throughs. On your first, use two colours. Underline or highlight everything that is related to ‘mysterious’ in one, and everything that is related to ‘compelled to keep digging’ in the other. There may be some cross-over!

So you can see how this ensures I’m going to be answering both bits of the question and that I have more than enough to say. You aren’t going to use broad brushstrokes to answer, but it’s kind of how middle-ability candidates go about selecting.

Then you do the precision, detail work that better candidates do. You appraise all of those quotes and you decide which to narrow down on.

For Question 2, you were really looking for 4 – 6 quotes to give you enough to write about. Here, you’ve got a little more flexibility, and two parts of the question, so you may find yourself looking for around 12 – 15 mini-quotes. That means grouping similar quotes together. There are level 4 20 mark answers that use 3 quotes, 6 quotes and 20 quotes, so it’s not about number, it’s about what you do with it. Even so, a narrowing down is important.

Narrowing down helps you pinpoint the useful, evaluate what is essential and assess the value and validity of your quotes. Those are all important skills that point to ‘judicious’ quotations. More importantly, what you say should be absolutely rooted in the the text, and this approach helps you do that.

So circle or underline a more precise selection:

And I may even narrow down once more if I felt I had too much for a 25-minute essay. Personally, I like to run quotes together and focus on a couple of words in each groups so this selection works for me. I know equally though that there will be candidates who will go straight for 2 or 3 quotes in each colour and that will be fantastic.

Why this approach helps you get a level 4 is in two ways. Firstly, going from broad brushstrokes to narrowing in helps to stop the ‘scattergun’ effect where you just pick out hundreds of target quotes and there is no real sense that you have evaluated them or appraised their value. Secondly, for those who normally go straight for the sniper approach of ‘boom – boom – boom’, putting in the step before helps you ensure you’re not missing anything. Two read-throughs is never, ever a bad thing even for candidates who can slamdunk 20/20 time after time.

What I do then is I begin to shift these into my plan.

I’ve got four paragraphs. Two on mystery. Two on why she seems compelled.

My first paragraph is about the mysterious noise and how the writer makes it sound mysterious – ‘vexing… faint… muffled… distinct at certain times’, how it ‘seemed to be issuing from the very bottom of the garden’, then how ‘it ceased’ and then came again with ‘the impact of a shout’ when the woman finds the skull.

My second paragraph is about the mystery of the skull and all the questions, ‘unnamed? Unmarked? Unacknowledged? Unknown?’

My third paragraph is about how she is compelled to dig, how she searched ‘thoroughly’, the question, ‘she had no choice, then, did she?’ and that word ‘must’.

My fourth paragraph is about how her efforts show how she was compelled to dig, to unearth all the bones, the repetition of ‘she dug’, the way the writer says ‘She dug. She spaded and raked.’ and ‘deepening and broadening’ the hole until she ends up ‘panting’ and her activity is described as ‘fevered’.

Here, all I’m doing is grouping them together. Four paragraphs is a lot for 25 minutes, but if I aimed for 2 in 8-10 minues, this should not be a stretch. It’s a nice even number that allows me to address both of the key words in the statement twice.

I just wanted to stop a minute and remind you that you can really see here that I’m not thinking whether I agree or not with the statement. I’m just trying to find evidence of the statement. Then I’ve got some nice language and structural features I can comment on in both strands.

To summarise then:

  • Read through the statement.
  • Highlight key words and identify if you’ve more than one part of the question that you need to refer to
  • Use as many colours as you have key words, finding evidence and colour-coding as you go
  • Use broad brushstrokes and underline everything that may be useful
  • Then refine and narrow down
  • Aim to have anywhere between 5 and 15 quotes but don’t worry too much if you are such a sniper that you start with 3 or such a scattergun shooter that you end up with 20
  • Once you have your quotes, group them
  • You need roughly two groups per strand
  • Start to identify the main things the writer is doing in your plan, or summarise the main things that are happening

When you’ve done this, you’re ready to move on to answering.

Next time, I’ll take you through an 8 mark answer, a 13 mark answer and a 20 mark answer so that you can see what they look like, and how you move from one to another.

 

 

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AQA GCSE English Language 8700 Paper 1 Question 2 practical guidance

After having had a really good look at some feedback for Paper 1 Question 2 (the ‘language’ question) about how the question is marked, about the markscheme itself and about how to use subject terminology and why you shouldn’t take a feature-spotting approach, in this post, I’m going beyond the shoulds and shouldn’ts of the question to give you some practical guidance that will make a difference to your marks.

To summarise so far:

  • You don’t have to write about all three bullet points in the question.
  • There are three things you are being marked on in Question 2: your subject terminology, your use of text references and your comments on the effect of language.
  • The key skill for Question 2 is analysis of language, not identification of figures of speech.
  • You don’t need to know very complex subject terminology and there’s no hierarchy that says you need to write about semantic fields rather than adjectives for example. 
  • The quality of your comment on the effect of language is the most important and most heavily weighted of these three things.
  • You only need to make one clear comment to come in at level three, or one simple comment to come in at level two, and so on. You don’t need three paragraphs. Or more! This is an 8-mark question that should take a maximum of ten minutes to respond to.
  • You need to understand what you’re being assessed on, because if you don’t, you could end up hula hooping instead of designing a fancy costume.
  • You don’t have to do level 1 and 2 to get to level 3. You can make one comment and hit level 3 or even level 4.
  • Nowhere in the markscheme does it say you have to write about everything in the bullet point list of the question (words, phrases, language features etc) and it does not specify which you have to write about.

Whether you are aiming for a grade 4 or a grade 9, much depends on what you do before you start writing.

What do I even mean before you start writing?

How can I even mark BEFORE you start writing?!

Truthfully, no teacher starts marking what you do before you start writing. That’s not even possible. It’s not like we can see into your head or that we even mark any annotations or notes you make.

But the things you do before you start writing impact strongly on the answer you give. In the following post, I’m going to write a lot about broad brushstrokes and narrowing in.

Broad brushstrokes are big sections of underlined bits. In art, you use the broad brushstrokes to pick up the big details, and that’s what they do. No refinement, no focus, just big chunks. Narrowing in is precisely that – focusing in on one or two key words in a quote.

Better candidates are always more precise, but you may see broad brushstrokes at first in their answer.

Let’s look at some of the things that candidates do before they start answering the question. This is based on Question 2 from November 2017, the ‘Alice’ paper.

So what do people do?

#1 Nothing

Some people do nothing. Well, they read it. You guess that they read it because they have written about it. The reproduced bit of text shows zero sign that it has been read. They certainly haven’t used the reprinted text for anything. 

#2 Underline practically everything.

Some people underline everything. They don’t always refer to it all (how can they?!) and what they’ve underlined, at least some of it makes its way as a quote into their answer. This one used “it’s her first time in the Pyrenees” in the answer, and “it’s a place of secrets”. A bit from the beginning, a bit from the end. Their annotation is their broad brushstrokes – it’s ALL worth commenting on!

Some of these candidates may use these big chunks in their response. Others narrow in during their answer, as this one did.

Underline practically everything – quote practically everything

or:

Underline practically everything – quote practically nothing.

#3 Underline big chunks, but fewer of them

You can see this one kind of has a theme. They might as well have written the features in the margin. You know they are going to comment on colours and then a second paragraph about contrasts. That is exactly what they did. Kind of broad brushstrokes, just with fewer of them.

#4 Underline a lot of precise quotes

This approach is a more precise one, but it’s still not very helpful because there are too many things to write about. In their essay, they narrowed down again to focus in on ‘jagged’, ‘covered’ and ‘beautiful’.

#5 Underline a lot of precise quotes and annotate everything with features that have been spotted and some comments

This approach means the candidate has spent a good three or four minutes of their ten on the plan. You could actually mark the planning. There are a lot of features on there and this kind of candidate has obviously been taught the importance of thinking before they write, but not how to do it in a way that will help them.

These five approaches exemplify some very important learning points:

  • Underlining nothing is unhelpful. It really doesn’t help you to only think in your head. You may have a great idea or an interesting thought about something and it disappears into the 10-minute ether as you write. Not even the most able candidates can do that.
  • Underlining too much is unhelpful. It really doesn’t help you prioritise.
  • Annotating with features and comments is very labour-intensive and can be very restrictive not only in time but also in your thinking, although it does help you to have an organised approach.
  • Underlining stuff and not narrowing down is also really unhelpful.

Time for a cautionary tale about two girls. One is called Emma (that’s me) and one is called Liz (that was my uber-smart classmate). I annotated everything.

E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G.

My entire copy of Pride and Prejudice is underlined and written on. There is not a spare space or page. I did this because I wasn’t confident and I couldn’t sift. I couldn’t prioritise. It was ALL important to me and it made me nervous having to pick out particular bits, like I was going to miss out on some marvellously important thing. Chronic underlining of everything is a sign of a candidate who can’t zero in. It’s a mid-grade kind of thing that says you really, really want to do well at English but you haven’t got the confidence or the understanding to decide what is important and what is not. That’s fine if you want to comment on everything, and if you have the time, but it’s really unhelpful if you don’t.

Then there’s the Liz approach. Underline some stuff. Highlight the most important bits of those underlined bits once you’ve finished and had a bit of a think about what’s useful. This is often what better candidates do automatically. They kind of go straight for the juicy bits that they can squeeze a lot of use out of and instinctively know which bits will lead them up a dead end, comment-wise.

If you are a Level 4 or 5 chronic underliner of everything, how you become a Level 7, 8 or 9 is in how you narrow down. Do the chronic underlining first, then read again and narrow down.

I’ll show you how.

This is the passage:

It’s her first time in the Pyrenees, although she feels very much at home. She’s been told that in the winter the jagged peaks of the mountains are covered with snow. In the spring, delicate flowers of pink and mauve and white peep out from their hiding places in the great expanses of rock. In the early summer, the pastures are green and speckled with yellow buttercups. But now, the sun has flattened the landscape into submission, turning the greens to brown. It is a beautiful place, she thinks, yet somehow an inhospitable one. It’s a place of secrets, one that has seen too much and concealed too much to be at peace with itself.

And this is the question:

How does the writer use language here to describe the mountain area?

So the first thing I’m going to do is underline everything I might want to use about the mountain area.

It’s her first time in the Pyrenees, although she feels very much at home. She’s been told that in the winter the jagged peaks of the mountains are covered with snow. In the spring, delicate flowers of pink and mauve and white peep out from their hiding places in the great expanses of rock. In the early summer, the pastures are green and speckled with yellow buttercups. But now, the sun has flattened the landscape into submission, turning the greens to brown. It is a beautiful place, she thinks, yet somehow an inhospitable one. It’s a place of secrets, one that has seen too much and concealed too much to be at peace with itself.

Now as you can see, that is far too much. I could write about all of that if I had five hours and nothing else to do. But I have ten minutes. That means four quotes as an absolute maximum.

There are things to help me pick out those four things:

  1. It must be brief. One word is fine. Four is okay. Seven is not. It’s not up to the examiner to look at what you’ve picked out and decide which they think you thought the relevant detail was. Be brief.
  2. It’s helpful to look across the whole passage, rather than focusing too much on things at the beginning.
  3. It’s helpful to look for repeated ideas as they help you really think about the bigger themes.
  4. At this point, it CAN be helpful to look at what the writer is doing as well, in terms of language use.

When I look at the passage then, I can see some interesting words to focus in on. I like ‘jagged’ as it gives me plenty to say. I like ‘peep out’ as well, which reminds me there is quite a lot of personification in the passage to focus on. ‘Delicate’ kind of sits with ‘peeping’ and I can tell I’ll have more to day about that. I like the bit about the sun ‘flattening’ the landscape, and although the quote is long, I can focus on ‘flattened… into submission’ as my keywords. ‘Beautiful’ and ‘inhospitable’ are nice and give me a sense of the contrast of the place, so I think I’ll use these to help me form my answer. They seem to sum up the place. It’s beautiful but unwelcoming.

It’s her first time in the Pyrenees, although she feels very much at home. She’s been told that in the winter the jagged peaks of the mountains are covered with snow. In the spring, delicate flowers of pink and mauve and white peep out from their hiding places in the great expanses of rock. In the early summer, the pastures are green and speckled with yellow buttercups. But now, the sun has flattened the landscape into submission, turning the greens to brown. It is a beautiful place, she thinks, yet somehow an inhospitable one. It’s a place of secrets, one that has seen too much and concealed too much to be at peace with itself.

Now I could equally write about the ‘place of secrets’ and the ‘seen too much, concealed too much’ as well, but the only thing making me want to do so is lack of confidence in what I have picked out. So I have to take a breath and say, ‘Emma, six is more than enough. It’s an 10-minute response, not an analysis of the Works of Shakespeare.

Now that I have done that, I have moved from the nervy ‘waaah, want to include it all’ to ‘a clear selection of quotation’.

All before I’ve even started writing.

To sum up, then…

  • Use the printed passage to underline. Then, if you haven’t been selective enough, narrow down.
  • Pick out four main words or phrases.
  • Be brief and be precise. One or two words to focus on in each of you two paragraphs is more than enough.
  • When you pick out the words and phrases, think about ‘what here does the writer think is important? Which words are unusual or interesting?’ Look for the juicy words that you can squeeze a lot out of.
  • Look for parallels and linked ideas.
  • Think about any particularly nice figurative language – metaphors, similes and personification – if you can see some come up and you think you can write about it.
  • Try not to just focus on the first two lines you fall over.

Above all, think about what is the main idea the writer is trying to convey. For me, in this passage, the place is both dangerous and delicate. I want to explore those in my answer. So, ask yourself, “what’s the big thing the writer wants me to think about?” and select your quotes accordingly.

Many middle-grade candidates fail to access the upper grades simply because they are not narrowing down. Narrowing down is what Liz did naturally and which I did not (and still struggle with!)

Knowing which quotes will give you plenty to write about and which you can discard is a vital step in moving up the levels.

You can also have a look at me exploring quote selection on this video

Next time, I’ll look at how to make great comments based on your quote selection that will help you understand what a 2-mark comment looks like compared to an 8-mark comment.

The five posts in which I explore Question 2 are as follows:

If you’re interested in further revision sessions for either GCSE English Language or GCSE English Literature, feel free to get in touch via my website

I currently have a very limited number of places for 2018 students with sessions costing £20 for the hour. You can have as many or as few as you feel you need.

AQA English GCSE Paper 1 Question 2 advice and guidance

Last week, I looked at some of the ways candidates do well on question 1 of the English Language GCSE, as well as some common errors. Today, it’s the same, but with Question 2.

Question 2 is such a typical English Language question that I’m surprised that students don’t do well on it or don’t know how to handle it. I think there are plenty of ways candidates can move up through the levels, but much depends on a solid understanding of both what is being asked for, and the markscheme itself. In this post, I’m going to look at the question itself along with the markscheme, and next week I’ll look at how to answer.

So, the question itself is out of 8 marks, with these 8 marks being distributed across 4 levels, with Level 1 being weaker responses and Level 4 being the best responses. This is a question that it is absolutely vital that teachers get their head around, because it is marked differently than we are used to.

In the past, we often marked in what I’m going to call ‘a process of attrition’. Most students chipped away at a response and kind of got there as they went on. For instance, you can’t see a ‘range of relevant textual detail’ in one quote. One quote isn’t a range. So we always worked on the notion that there would be some quantity involved in the response. Two was not a range. Three or more is a range.

I suspect this is why many people still think you have to do something three or more times to get the higher bands. But more about that as we go through…

So what do you need to know?

Firstly, the question is 8 marks. That means 10 minutes. I want to say that again so you are clear. Ten minutes. Not twenty. Not thirty. Ten minutes is all you have. You’re given two sides (well, one and a half once you get the questiony bits out of the way) and that is all you need. Unless you have ridiculously large handwriting, you should not need an extra sheet of paper. It beggars belief that some people’s answers for Q2 and 3, both worth 8 marks, are more detailed than their response for Q4, worth 20 marks!

That said, it is not a test of quantity.

But even so… if you’re spending 15 minutes on Q2, 3 and 4, you need to sort your timing out. Seriously. These questions are not the same. They are not equally weighted. And if you are asking for extra paper for Q2 yet you have three empty pages on Q4, that says a little about where you could prioritise.

Now, also, 8 marks is 10% of the paper’s marks. That’s all. But because the language question was historically worth more, many teachers are still teaching it as if it is worth spending 20 minutes on.

That’s the marks out of the way.

Now the question.

The question is assessing your ability to write about how writers use language to influence readers, using relevant subject terminology to support their views.

It’ll go something like this:

Look in detail at this extract from lines X to XX of the source:

[extract reprinted]

How does the writer use language here to [blah blah blah] ?

You could include the writer’s choice of:
words and phrases
language features and techniques
sentence forms

Okay…. so it’s not going to change much. It’s usually going to ask you about a bit that follows from Question 1, and to help you out so you don’t write about the wrong bit, the extract is printed for you. This works really well. Virtually nobody ever writes about the wrong bit of the text.

Where it gets contentious is what follows:

You could include…

Let me say that again…

You COULD include…

Once more with feeling..

You COULD include…

Now, I can’t understand for the life of me why there seems to be a popular bit of urban myth circulating the internet (and in classrooms!) to cross out ‘could’ and write ‘should’. It goes against AQA’s guidance. It goes against the Principal Examiner’s guidance. It goes against what you can feasibly and reasonably do in 10 minutes.

I’m going to say this in big, shouty letters so you get it…

YOU ARE UNDER NO OBLIGATION TO WRITE ABOUT ALL THREE BULLET POINTS.

No matter what you are told, no matter where on the dark internet you find that, you don’t have to write about all three things. In fact, it will arguably damage your response if you try to do so.

Seriously… take off a couple of minutes to read and think. Can anyone write three paragraphs of analysis in eight minutes?? That is 2.66 minutes per paragraph!

It also leads to a very harmful ‘feature spotting’ approach. You may not find any interesting sentence forms to talk about. Then what are you going to do? What if you find two really nice language features? Do you have to sacrifice one so you can go and talk about complex sentences?

You’ll see later why a feature spotting approach is not going to get you very far.

So… back to the bullets. Basically, they are there to give you ideas about things you could write about, and that’s pretty broad and vague. Words, phrases, language features, figurative techniques, sentence forms….

Unfortunately, there’s some kind of snobby value system going on in some guidance that implies some techniques are more ‘sophisticated’ than others which has led to some mind-boggling terminology.

Another message I want you to hear loud and clear is that feature spotting is not a valuable approach. And there is no more value in finding some casual stichomythia than there is in finding a really great simile. Don’t know what stichomythia is? Good. It won’t help you get a 9 more than it’ll help you get a 1. There’s no more value in finding some lovely metalepsis than there is in finding a metaphor, and no more value in your polysyndetic coordination than in your personification. We are not language snobs and we’re not awarding grades based on arcane or overly-complex feature spotting. It is not a test of how many weird language features you can find, seriously.

Asyndeton, polysyndeton, synaesthesia, semantic fields, aposiopesis, synathroesmus… will these help you get a better grade?

Not any more than using the word noun, simile, metaphor, adjective or adverb would.

When you go around identifying parts of speech, it’s what I would call an ‘arse-backward’ approach. In other words, when you start with a mental list in your head of figures of speech that you might find, then you go around finding them in the passage, you’re going about things in the wrong order.

Find some interesting uses of language and comment on them, using subject terminology where appropriate to help you.

Knowing fancy terms is not what you’re going to get marks for on this question. Neither is doing it three times.

In fact, this becomes even more essential when simple language classes aren’t identified accurately. If you can’t tell me what type of word ‘horribly’ is, or you don’t know that ‘sickening’ in ‘a sickening smell’ is not a verb, then make sure you know those terms inside out before you start trying to work on the silly stuff.

And do you need the silly stuff? No. I could (and will!) write you a lovely Level 4 example (so a grade 8) without using language features of more than two syllables.

So what do you get marked on?

First and foremost, this is a question testing your ability to explain in writing what you think the effects of language use are. You are getting marked on the way you comment on language.

Your examiner is going to have four choices to make here about your comments:

  • are they simple comments or statements?
  • are you attempting to comment on the effect of the language but not quite there yet?
  • are you clearly commenting on the effect of the language?
  • are you making perceptive and/or analytical comments on the effect of the language?

Now, teachers know this. They have a markscheme. So they prompt you to do the best of these, to make perceptive or analytical comments. But many of my students come to me rattling on about perceptive comments without understanding what that really means. I want to exemplify simple comments, attempted comments, clear comments and perceptive comments next time, as it’s too much to get into in one post (and you’ll go to sleep!) but basically it breaks down like this:

  • Simple comments are restating the text, putting the quote into their own words which mean roughly the same thing. Simple comments may also only be loosely right, or might be generalised (where you could say the same comment about any other use of that language) Simple comments are often restating or repeating the text.
  • Attempted comments are better. They’re about the language in the example you’ve picked out and they’re the ones that make me say, “ok, possibly” when I read it. Or “kind of”.
  • Clear comments are exactly that… they make a plausible statement about what something suggests, what it helps us understand, what it means, what it implies. By plausible, when I ask, “Is this true? Is this right?” I’m going to say, “yes”.
  • Perceptive comments are those I don’t have to ask this question of. They say interesting, plausible things about the examples and make me want to say, “Yes! THAT!”

Basically, every time I look at a comment, I ask myself, “Is this true? Is it right?” and if I say “okay, yes, but it’s just repeating what’s there” or “not really”, or “it’s about every time that device has literally been used in any text”, it’s Level 1. If I say, “ok, kind of”, then it’s Level 2. If I say, “Yes” it’s Level 3 and if I say “Wow!” it’s Level 4.

It can be really hard to know what ‘comments on effects’ look like, which is why I’ll give you lots of examples in the next post.

Once an examiner has decided what level of comments you’re making, then they start looking at your quotations and your subject terminology. Quality of comments first, then subject terminology. In other words, if your comments aren’t clear or perceptive, no amount of fancy features will help you. But if you have one or two clear comments, you can come in at level 3 straightaway in two or three sentences or so. In other words, the better the comment, the better your mark. And you only have to do it ONCE to hit the level. So one clear comment on the effect of language, and you’d be in at 5.

So, to summarise:

  • You don’t have to write about all three bullets
  • You probably shouldn’t use fancy terms (especially if you don’t know the basics) and there is no obligation to use bizarre or over-complex names for language features. In fact, it can really backfire on you if you do
  • You only need to make one clear comment to come in at level three
  • The quality of your comments on the effect of language are what decide your level, not your identification of language features

With that in mind, next time I’ll look at what the levels look like for question two, as well as giving you some advice on how to move from one to another.

The five posts in which I explore Question 2 are as follows:

If you’re interested in further revision sessions for either GCSE English Language or GCSE English Literature, feel free to get in touch via my website

I currently have a limited number of places for 2018 students with sessions costing £20 for the hour. You can have as many or as few as you feel you need.

 

 

AQA GCSE English Paper 1 Question 1 advice and guidance

Following on from last week’s post with some thoughts about the new GCSE English paper 1 from AQA (8700), today I’m focusing in on Question 1. You wouldn’t think that this little question would be problematic, but lots of really bright students lose marks on it.

Basically, your marker is starting with the notion that all candidates should be able to get four marks on this question. It’s marked positively and candidates do well on it. Sometimes, it’ll be the only four marks they’ll get on the whole paper. And there’s a good reason it starts like that. Can you imagine any paper that started with a hard question that frightened off the majority of students?! The aim of this question is to get you four marks and set you on your way to the rest of the paper, not to make you all emotional.

So why doesn’t everyone get four marks, and why do better students often get lower marks? This post is designed to help you understand what the examiners are looking for and how you can get those crucial marks.

What do you need to know?

Firstly, you should give yourself about five minutes to do this question. The question is assessing your ability to find facts and information in a passage.

Question 1 asks you to look at one section, usually the first paragraph.

Read again the first part of the source, from lines X to XX.
List four things about [thing] from this part of the source.

Now you can already see where people go wrong. Question 2 is printed in the answer booklet, but Question 1 is not. That means the first hurdle that some students fall at is they don’t find a thing from the right lines.

Also, before the extract is an explanation of where the passage is taken from.

Here’s a slightly-amended example, from a Cambridge CIE 2015 paper with an AQA-style addition to the introduction.

This extract is taken from the middle of a novel by [name of writer] in which villagers meet to hear proposals from a large company wishing to develop a piece of common land.

Already, you can see my problem in creating it for you… CIE didn’t bother adding the writer, the type of text or who wrote it, which AQA do. Not only that, the CIE version is much less informative. So… read the introduction but do not make the mistake of using it in your answer. Lots of students do! You’ll see some examples shortly.

Now, onto the extract. I’ve included the first three paragraphs but the question would only refer to what usually forms the first paragraph. You’ll see why I had to extend my range in the ‘mistakes’ that come later.

The crowd swarmed into the building, many eager to hear plans that might bring prosperity to their town. Others wore grim expressions, aware of the titanic fight needed to save a precious site. Anuja scanned the people, many roughly dressed and weather-beaten from long hours of working outdoors. None looked well-fed – except the main speaker, the representative of the development company.

‘You know why we are here tonight,’ a leading member of the community began. ‘Food Freight wants to build a depot on our common land next to the river. Mr Carmichael is here to tell us why we should let them.’

The temperature in the room rose as the meeting wore on. Hands were swept across sweaty brows and some removed outer garments. A short break was announced during which people could look at the glossy plans and maps pinned up around the hall, and enjoy cool drinks and delicious-looking snacks thoughtfully provided by Food Freight. Fingers traced the lines of new roads on the maps.

So, a sample question would go like this: 

Read again the first part of the source, from lines 1 to 5.
List four things about the people in the crowd from this part of the source.

And there are plenty of things you could say.

Let’s start with what you don’t need to do.

  1. You don’t need to answer in full sentences
  2. You don’t need to use quote marks
  3. You don’t need to infer meaning

So what can you do (and these are ‘can’s not ‘should’s!)

  1. You can use the words of the question to start your answer off
  2. You can use quote marks
  3. You can quote directly
  4. You can paraphrase or put it into your own words
  5. You can make inferences (but you do not need to)

Here’s a helpful example response:

  1. The crowd “swarmed into the building”
  2. Many of the crowd “were eager to hear plans”
  3. Some of the crowd “wore grim expressions”
  4. Many people in the crowd “were roughly dressed”

Four points. Four marks. No inferences.

  1. The crowd swarmed into the building
  2. Many of the crowd were eager to hear plans
  3. Some of the crowd wore grim expressions
  4. Many people in the crowd were roughly dressed

Still four points. Still four marks. Still no inferences.

  1. They swarmed into the building
  2. Many were eager to hear plans
  3. Many wore grim expressions
  4. Many were roughly dressed

Still four points. Still four marks. Still no inferences.

Doesn’t seem that hard, does it?

Where it gets hard is where you start doing more than the question needs. Like if you refer to the opening.

  1. They’ve come to hear proposals from a large company.
  2. Many were eager to hear the plans
  3. Many wore grim expressions
  4. Many were roughly dressed

The first point is from the introduction, so even though it is true, it doesn’t get a mark. Three points from the right bit of the passage. Three marks.

This is also true if you refer to bits after the extract.

  1. The people were sweaty
  2. Many were eager to hear the plans
  3. Many wore grim expressions
  4. Many were roughly dressed

So even though it’s true, it’s from the wrong bit and it doesn’t get a mark. Three points from the right bit and one from the wrong bit. Three marks.

If you refer to anything other than the crowd, you also will not gain marks. Although Anuja and Rufus Carmichael are there, they are not “villagers in the crowd” as such because one is named and the other is not a villager and not in the crowd.

  1. Mr Carmichael was there to talk about the plan
  2. Many were eager to hear plans
  3. Many wore grim expressions
  4. Many were roughly dressed

Now, while the aim is to give four marks, there will be SO MUCH in the passage that you could use as your answer that it’s taking liberties if you refer to other bits and the examiner has to sit there thinking about whether that is included or not. So if it’s not about the crowd, don’t expect a mark.

For this reason, I’ve got two tips:

  • put a box around the right bit of the passage and only select your answers from that bit, even if you struggle;
  • start with the words of the question.

Those two things will help you stay on topic, write about the right topic and answer from the right bit.

The other reason candidates go wrong is they try too hard and try to draw inferences rather than just finding quotes. Examiners will have to think about whether your response is ‘fair’ or not.

So…

  1. The people in the crowd were thin
  2. Many people were excited to hear the plans
  3. Some people in the crowd were prepared for the worst
  4. The people in the crowd were interested in the possible benefits of the plans

These are what we call ‘fair inferences’. The people were thin, as it says “none looked well-fed”. Some were “eager” and excited would be a fair inference for eager. Some were “aware of the titanic fight needed to save a precious site” so you could say they were prepared for the worst – or could you??! – I’ll come back to this. And if they were eager, they were “interested in the possible benefits” – but would this get a mark?

Response three would have me calling someone for a second opinion! Is “prepared for the worst” a fair interpretation of being aware of the fact they are going to need to fight to save the site? Honestly, I don’t know that it is. I think you could justify it to me if you had ten more lines, but you don’t. How I wish you’d written Some of the crowd was aware of the titanic fight needed to save a precious site !

And response four would also have me wondering, because it’s kind of similar to response two. Are they kind of the same? That’s another reason candidates lose marks, because they refer to the same point.

Waaaaah – examiner headache!

But some students make it even worse by making an inference that’s a bit of a leap. It’s not a fair inference.

  1. Some of the crowd were furious
  2. Many of the crowd were desperate to hear the plans
  3. The crowd were desperate for money
  4. They were poor.

All four of these are a bit of a leap. “Grim expressions” is not the same as furious. Being “eager” is not the same as being “desperate” and even though their clothes are roughly-dressed and “none looked well-fed”, we don’t know it’s because they are poor. We can guess, but it’s a guess rather than something we know for sure.

So on Question 1, a lot of candidates talk themselves out of marks by referring to things that are not in the passage. You can also stay on topic by using full sentences that start with the topic of the question – it’s pretty tough to stray if you do that, I promise you! You can also include quotes and you may drive yourself into a lower mark by trying to make inferences and not getting it quite right.

Remember KISS… Keep It Simple, Students 😉

This is a really simple question and the majority of students gain a quick four marks here, which is often more than the marks they get on Question 2 or Question 3 (which I’ll write about next week and the week after)

If you’re interested in further revision sessions for either GCSE English Language or GCSE English Literature, feel free to get in touch via my website

I currently have a limited number of places for 2018 students with sessions costing £20 for the hour. You can have as many or as few as you feel 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

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 Before You Were Mine by Carol Ann Duffy

This is another poem, like Mother, Any Distance by Simon Armitage which has been analysed to death, hence another reason I left it so late to explore. I can’t count the number of years it’s appeared on the GCSE syllabus. Like Mother, it’s on there because there’s so much you can say about it and it’s generally quite accessible, which is why it’s a perennial exam board favourite. I like Carol Ann Duffy. I love The World’s Wife and she writes poetry that is just very, very good. It’s interesting and you never feel cheated by her poetry. They’re always very thought-provoking and I never feel I want to read more than one or two in a go, just so I can spend a little time chewing them over and thinking about them. Plus, I like the way some of her poetry is borderline psychotic. Okay. A lot of her poetry is borderline psychotic. More than you might expect.

This poem celebrates the poet’s mother in a more unusual way, reflecting on the life her mother had before she became a mother. I think we’ve all done this, haven’t we, looked back at a photo of our parents or grandparents, and wondered about their lives, the moment that led up to the photograph. The people our parents once were before they were parents. The central theme of the poem is made clear in the title and we pick up once again in the personal nature of the poem.

Like many others in the selection for the new AQA anthology, this poem is directly addressed to the poet’s mother, which we see even in the title. Again, we sense that same feeling of being an intruder in something that is intimate and personal, putting the reader in the position of Duffy’s mother. This use of a very personal tone makes us an insider in that relationship, reading things we might never have read as an outsider. We get to share in something that is private and reflective. Unlike Walking Away or Mother, this poem doesn’t just take one moment for reflection: it uses the first memory, perhaps a photograph, as a springboard to explore her mother’s life at that time, imagining the life her mother leads, the conversations she may have had. In terms of the way the ideas are structured in the poem, we get a sense of a passage through time, each stanza marking a shift in time or place.

Unusually, Duffy isn’t writing from a fixed point in her own existence, either. Her own reference point isn’t clear, moving from “I’m not here yet” to “I remember my hands in those high-heeled red shoes” and “You’d teach me the steps”. Just like our memories, there’s no sense of beginning or ending – we shift between them in the exact same way our memory does, and we move fluidly from one to another. There is a kind of sense of linear progression, from her mother’s teenage years to the first years of motherhood, but it isn’t clearly defined. What I particularly like about the poem is the notion of “relics”, the objects from the past that create a trace of that moment and evoke that time when you look at them. I think the poem does that. It feels like an archive of a sort, a collection of memories that serve to define her mother.

We get this feeling as well with the tense of the poem: we start off with a mention of the past in the title, “Before…” and then the poem is present tense in parts, such as describing the mother with Maggie and Jean. We get some complex turns-of-phrase, verbally speaking, with “I knew you would dance like that”, which suggests Duffy has always known, with some certainty, but there is also the possibility and hypothetical feeling of “would” which is unusual. We move back to the present tense and its sense of immediacy in “You reckon it’s worth it” which gives us the feeling that Duffy can see her mother at that exact moment in time. It also gives her an aura of omniscience, that she knows everything her mother is thinking and feeling, which gives us the impression of this strong bond between the pair.

She moves into the past tense when she says “the decade ahead… was the best one, eh?” which is once more reflective, but then moves to the present, “I remember” and how her mother’s ghost “clatters”. Back to the past “You’d teach”, which is again unusual with the “would” – suggesting imaginary rather than real past: it’s not “you taught” but “you would teach” and we move to the past as Duffy remembers “I wanted… before I was born”

All these time shifts add to the feeling that she is dipping into her memories, constructing her mother’s past, imagining how it was. It’s funny because she as the poet is in control of her mother’s story, the way in which she presents her mother to us, adding another layer of possession to the poem. In writing about her mother, she is creating a past for her. Her mother has become a character in her daughter’s poem, controlled by her daughter. She defines how we see her mother, as well as how she sees her. The way she writes about her mother’s youth as if she can see it gives us the sense that she is looking in on her mother’s life, a being yet to take form, waiting for her moment.

Duffy writes in free verse, much more than any other poet we have yet seen in the selection other than Owen Sheers. She is not playing with sonnets and half-rhyme as Armitage does. Her stanzas work like paragraphs, each stanza with a new focus. The last line brings the poem back to the title and back to the beginning. We have various time references, but the poem is not chronological. Or, it is loosely chronological. The final stanza refers to a time when Duffy was born, harking back to a past even then. The first three stanzas seem to cover the ten years before Duffy was born, but we have no sense of the sequence of events, if indeed they are real events. Duffy certainly presents them as if they are, though. There’s a sense that these memories are actual events, due to the biographical details she gives us… the people who were there, the laughter, the setting. She sets up a tableau, almost creating a photograph or video clip in our minds of precisely what her mother was doing. The way she includes little movements, “you laugh”, “the three of you bend from the waist, holding each other… shriek at the pavement… your polka-dot skirt blows round your legs” – this sense of motion and movement is what brings the poem to life for me.

In terms of form and organisation, we have free-verse, with lots of enjambment and caesura which I’ll consider when we get to language, since it has more of an impact on the words and their meaning. The poem is organised with four even stanzas of five lines. The syllabic length of the lines varies but is generally fairly even too. The title threads through the poem, picking up in verse two and again in verse five, connecting the beginning to the ending. It remains the strong focus of the poem, but it also adds to this sense of time-travelling, the moving backwards and forwards between the past and the present, like loops rather than a strict chronology. The poem is also framed by the two pavements, the pavements with Maggie McGeeney and Jean Duff, and “the wrong pavement” on the way home from Mass. Each verse seems to cover a tableau, making it seem like a selection of photographs and artefacts of her mother’s life. I’ve got a box of relics from my life and it’s like she has the same, picking out one thing after another and using it as a key to evoke an (imagined?) memory from that time. Maybe the writer knows these moments for sure if her mother has told her the story behind the photograph or the object, or maybe she’s just imagining them.

The language is at once ordinary, colloquial, with “pals” and “a hiding” from “your Ma”, “You reckon” and “eh”. It’s also familiar, “sweetheart,”. I find it sweetly selfish, like a child would be, littered with “I” and “me”, thinking of everything in connection to herself as a child might. But there is also a glamour to the language, with “the ballroom with the thousand eyes, the fizzy, movie tomorrows”, the “red shoes”, the “tree with its lights”, “the glamorous love” with her mother who “sparkles” and “waltzes” and “laughs”.

Verse one immediately creates this self-centred tone: “I’m ten years away from the corner you laugh on” – and gives us also the sense of dipping through time, whilst setting the scene. We don’t know that this is her mother yet on a first reading. There’s a simplicity and mundane quality to the words: they’re not poetic high diction. In that, they recreate that every-day mood, the fact that there is nothing fancy, elegant or elaborate. As mentioned before, the present tense also brings it to life and inserts the poet into her mother’s life as a teenager with her friends. It’s a very descriptive verse, telling us about her mother’s “polka dot dress” and it’s also a verse with lots of movement in it, as they “shriek” and the dress “blows round” her mother’s legs. She calls her mother Marilyn, evoking the famous image of Marilyn Monroe standing above a subway air vent, so that we get an image of how her mother’s skirt is blowing around her legs. It does more than that though. It creates an image of her mother as a glamorous, fun woman who has a sex appeal not unlike Marilyn. She sees an image of her mother as careless and free, something that she would no longer be after the birth of her daughter.

In the second verse, the poet reaffirms her position, how she is looking back at her mother’s life, “I’m not here yet.” Not only that, her mother is far from thinking of motherhood, “The thought of me doesn’t occur”, and we get a different image of her mother, this time in a ballroom. When Duffy describes it as “the ballroom with the thousand eyes”, it’s very evocative, making me think perhaps most simply of a ballroom filled with hundreds of people, but also it has a sense that they are all perhaps looking at her mother. Again, it’s a flirtatious image of her mother and she sees her as glamorous, the centre of attention, where her mother is free to go home with any one of those people looking at her. She imagines the “fizzy, movie tomorrows”. I love that word “fizzy” here – it captures her mother, the bubbly effervescence of her – and also perhaps the butterfly feelings of the “movie tomorrows” – you wouldn’t naturally put “fizzy” with the “movie tomorrows”, but we have a real sense of the time period too, as we did with “Marilyn”, of the 1950s and the happy glamour of her mother’s life, when she is free to walk home with whomever she wants. The way “fizzy, movie tomorrows” sits at the end of the line also adds a little emphasis to it, encouraging us to consider the loveliness of these words and what image they paint of her mother’s life.

The scene once again becomes more than a photo, more than a tableau, when it says “I knew you would dance like that” and it brings the scene to life, more of a movie than a photograph. I think this phrase also makes me know how well Duffy knows her mother, that she knows how she would dance. Duffy then moves on to describe a very typical scene for so many: getting told off for coming home late and missing curfew. I’m sure we can all imagine a mother waiting furiously for her daughter’s late return and the certain punishment that would follow. She doesn’t just recreate her mother’s the with her friends, with the boys she walks home with, but also with her mother, showing it to be as typical as any. She presents her mother as rebellious and daring, carefree, accepting a punishment in return for all the fun she has had.

In stanza three, Duffy continues this idea, a rather bitter tone to her question, “the decade ahead of my loud, possessive yell was the best one, eh?” and we sense her envy that she did not get to share this side of her mother, and we begin to see that they carve out a new story, she remembers “my hands” in her mother’s shoes and calls them “relics”. Things change. Red heels may be fine for the life she had before Duffy was born, but after her daughter arrives, they are “relics” and playthings for her daughter. The memory is layered: as a daughter, Duffy remembers putting her hands in the shoes, and she imagines her mother wearing them as she “clatters” towards her. This has a couple of senses we can take from it: is her mother now dead, hence the “ghost”? Or is it that hazy kind of memory (even though this is one that Duffy is constructing) and her mother seems like a ghost as the memory materialises? If her mother is dead at the time of the poem, it takes on a new level of sentimental pathos: it’s not just the woman her mother was that Duffy is “possessive” over, but everything to do with her mother. The simile “clear as scent” is interesting, since scent is not clear to see at all, a vapour, and we realise her mother is not there at all. Still, Duffy sees the details as she has done before, the tree lit up that forms the background, the fact her mother has lovebites. The way she calls her mother “sweetheart” is curious too – something of a role reversal. We remember that this is the adult Duffy writing, and she is much older when writing than her mother was in the memory, which adds to the sense of role-reversal. These questions show a curiosity about her mother’s life, a bitterness that she doesn’t share the intimate details of her mother’s teenage years.

In stanza five, we find Duffy’s mother and Duffy together, getting a sense of the mother she was. To me, it seems like she retained much that was fun and lively, doing the cha cha on the way home from church. The stars are the sparks from the metal on the soles of their shoes, but this is the “wrong” pavement. Even though she has a fun relationship with her mother, what she wants is to know her mother as she was in Scotland. She tells us that even as a young girl, she wanted to know her mother as she was. She’s envious of the fun person her mother was, wanting to know that person, not the mother she has.

Through these imagined scenes, Duffy presents a vision of her mother. We have to understand that these are constructed memories, perhaps based on photographs or artefacts, but we have no way of knowing if they are real representations of her mother or not. Ironically, she is in complete control of her mother’s past in how she paints it.

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

An Analysis of Mother, any distance… by Simon Armitage

This poem by Simon Armitage in the “Love and Relationships” section of the GCSE English Literature anthology from AQA is one that has often been included on GCSE exams… and one reason I’ve left it until one of the last poems I look at. That’s not to say I don’t like it, just to say that a lot has already been said about it. It makes it hard to say new or fresh things about it when there are five times as many results on Google for this poem than there are for Winter Swans (although five times fewer results than there are for Follower!) It comes from his book of poetry published in 1993, Book of Matches. The poems in this collection were designed to be read in the time that a match could be struck, lit and burn down completely. The poems capture something of the brevity of situations, thoughts and feelings in a similar kind of way to sonnets and most of them fit somewhere within the sonnet spectrum.

Sometimes I am a tired old teacher and just want new stuff; it’s exciting to look at things with a pair of fresh eyes, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 29 or Percy Shelley’s Love’s PhilosophyAnyhow, here’s an analysis of a very fine poem about parent/child relationships that will compare well with other poems in the selection about this particular relationship.

Let’s look at the form. First it’s fifteen lines. I bet you felt sure it would be a sonnet. Is it a sonnet, just with an extra line? And if it is, why the extra line? And if it’s a sonnet, what’s that for? As it is, I’m just going to say it is a brief poem of fifteen lines split over three irregular stanzas – two with four lines and one with seven. But the other poems within Book of Matches are clearly sonnets – so I get the feeling that this is very distinctly a sonnet with an additional line. It forces us to reflect upon this extra line. For me, it’s very much to do with this feeling of moving beyond, of not being limited by the relationship he has with his mother. When he says in the poem that he and his mother are connected by the “spool of tape”, like a metaphor for the safety tether that connects an astronaut in space to the vessel they are working to. That in turn is a metaphor for the umbilical cord, which is … yet again… a metaphor for the connection he feels to his mother. That’s a lot of layers of metaphors! But at the end of the poem, though connected still to his mother, he moves towards the “hatch” that represents freedom, symbolised by the endless sky, and his future is unknown: whether he will fall or fly. To me, coming back to the ‘why fifteen lines?’ question, I feel like the poem too breaks out of its construct. It breaks out of the 14-line sonnet box and takes a leap, just as Armitage is about to do, metaphorically speaking.

The lines are held together with a loose not-quite-there rhyme scheme at the beginning, “span… hands… doors… floors…” which then disintegrates into a half-half-rhyme in stanza two with “recording… leaving…unreeling” where we don’t have simply a change in vowel sounds like we might usually in half-rhyme (like “floor” and “flare” might be for instance, or “hands” and “finds”) – the only remnant of rhyme in lines 5 and 6 is in the “ing” sound. After that, the rhyme is non-existent until the final two lines which form a couplet “fly… sky” which brings the poem to an end. The rhyme is interesting – it follows loosely with the ideas in the poem, rhyming at the beginning as he starts on solid ground with his mother, disappearing as he gets further away from her and returning at the end. It’s funny though – they aren’t together at the end – they are further apart in the poem than they have been, as Armitage reaches out to “fall or fly”, but it’s oddly harmonious once again.

Here, to explain why I think this might be, I found myself thinking about the purpose of rhyme and the effect of it. Historically, rhyme was used as a great way to remember poems, when all we had to rely on was an oral tradition. Rhythm and rhyme were two ways that stories in the form of poems could be remembered easily to pass on to future generations as well as helping to recall it when reciting it. The rhyme for me helps the poem to be an enjoyable, harmonious thing (I was reading A.A. Milne poems this morning with a very strong rhyme and jaunty rhythm and they’re pleasurable to read and listen to because of those features) so we have at the beginning a kind of harmonious, comfortable rhyme that is lost when Armitage gets further and further from his mother, but then returns at the end.

And although he has a momentous decision at the end of the poem, “fall or fly”, the rhyme leaves me feeling positive that he will no doubt “fly”.

We have also to consider the rhythm of the poem. It’s written in rhythms that sound very like natural speech patterns:

MOTHer/ ANy/ DISTance/ GREATer/ THAN a/ SINGle/ SPAN

Well, not quite natural. Where we stress the first syllable of the syllabic group (foot) it’s called a trochee. This isn’t a coincidence, is it? Why would you have 6 trochees in a row? That hints at crafting and playing with syllables, not natural rhythm at all. And yes, it’s very common in children’s rhyme as well as in other things. Think about “PETer PETer PUMPkin EATer HAD a WIFE and COULDn’t KEEP her” – although in that case, we often have trochees in fours (8 syllables in the line) which is trochaic tetrameter, instead of a kind of loose trochaic hexameter (12 syllables) that we have here. Plus the “span.” It gives it a very strong rhythm – it’s actually the same BOUNCE-bounce rhythm of “DOUble DOUBle TOIL and TROUble” from Macbeth.

Between the harmonies of the rhyme and the regular rhythm, there’s a pleasant, harmonious sound to the opening of the poem. Now yes, that stressed “span” sticks on the end and “reQUIRES a SECond PAIR of HANDS” seems to reverse the rhythm. But take the lines as one instead of two and you’ve got a continuation of the exact same STRESS-fall pattern. It’s incredibly regular and metered. And I’m hearing a very “nursery rhyme” sound in the stresses of the last line of that first stanza:

the ACres of the WALLS, the PRAIRies of the FLOORS

There’s an intentionality here. And to my mind, that intention is to create something that is harmonious, easy, light, gentle, almost sing-song in some ways, like a nursery rhyme. These words come naturally from him and read easily. When we look at the language in these stanzas, you’ll see how Armitage is using the rhythm to add another layer to the word choices he’s making.

Another place in the poem where we’ve got more intentional rhyme and rhythm is in the “two floors below” bit, where we’ve got a rhyme on “pinch” and “inch”. It’s not an end-rhyme, since “inch” comes within the line, so why have this loose internal rhyme at all? For me, it returns us to the same harmony and sense of order that we have at the beginning of the poem. Couple that with the rhyme of “sky… fly” and Armitage is doing deliberate things to make the end of the poem harmonious and ordered. The “pinch… inch” rhyme is less obvious but it still gives the poem a sort of organisation and harmony that it wouldn’t have had he used another word instead. It connects the two lines by sound, just as the two people are still connected. In this way, he’s using the rhyme as a connecting device and pairing up lines in couplets, which seems to reinforce the mother-son pair in the poem. It’s like he’s saying, ‘we’re still connected’ even though he’s about to make his step out into the metaphorical universe. It doesn’t place as much significance on this rhyme here, there’s no “jaunty” rhyme here, which seems to make it more serious and reflective.

We finish the poem with some emphatic stresses:

your/ FINgertips/STILL PINCH

the LAST ONE HUNdredth of an INCH … I REACH

toWARDS a HATCH that Opens on an ENDless SKY

to FALL or FLY

The stresses fall on words that, coupled with the rhyme and the line breaks make us focus on certain words here, like “reach… sky…. fall… fly”. We also find some other aural patterning besides the rhyme and rhythm – the repeated sounds “ch” and “f”. According to the internet, the ch is a voiceless sibilant affricative. The f is voiceless too. These voiceless sounds require us to make the noise with only our breath, the air in our mouths. It gives the poem a very airy sound – you could compare it to Heaney’s use of fricatives in Follower and how he uses them to make the way his father ploughs the fields seem effortless and graceful. Here, Armitage may well be taking advantage of the airy, voiceless sounds as he moves towards his metaphorical “fall” or “fly” moment when he steps out into the space beyond the hatch. We get that with the f sounds, but also the ch sound, which starts as a sibilant and ends as a fricative – a burst of air from the mouth. I feel like the sounds here propel him on – they give the poem a momentum and an air, a lightness. If that’s the effect, then we are forced to consider the purpose of it – why do this? I guess for me it feels like he’s trying to capture that lightness as he’s carried away from his mother’s presence and into the great unknown. The rhyme keeps them both connected.

When we explore the language of the poem, many of these features will have a great bearing on the content of the poem, giving weight to ideas and helping reinforce his thoughts. The poem is immediately addressed to his mother, just as Walking Away is addressed to the son. As with other poems in the anthology, Armitage makes use of the second-person address to create a sense of intimacy: it seems as though the poem is directly addressed to his mother and that we, the readers, are an intruder in something that is quite personal and private. We wonder too about his choice in publishing something that is essentially an open letter to his mother in the same way we wonder this about so many of the poems in the selection, from Byron in When We Two Parted who seems to want to get the last word in, in a public F@%! You kind of way, or Owen Sheers in Winter Swans who seems to use the poem as a therapeutic way to express all the things he could never say, and then Duffy in Before You Were Mine who uses this to create a strong bond between parent and child, but to share poems that may help us understand our own relationships a little better. In this way, Mother, Any Distance is both a poem TO his mother and about his own relationship with his mother, but it is also a poem about all mothers, and about the bond between a relationship between parent and child. In this way, we can read it and understand about the relationship Armitage has with his own mother, but also the relationship that we in general have with our mothers.

The poem is also present tense, although the use of present simple is limited to only a few words, relatively speaking. We see it in “requires… come… space-walk… climb… pinch… reach…. opens…” – as you can see from this list, a lot of these simple present words are towards the end of the poem, much more about one particular moment – this one – than the others. There’s a kind of timelessness about the others, especially all the present participles “recording… reporting… leaving… feeding… unreeling…” – you see these fall in the second stanza. This is not an accident. There is a purposefulness about how he uses these participles in the second stanza. For me, it gives it a sense of continuousness, a continual, perpetual sense of what is happening. It is not connected to one particular moment, but is always true. In French, these verbs would be expressed via the “être en train de…” form – in the process of doing something. Because the present participle is non-finite, it has a sense of being never-ending. The present tense throughout gives that notion too. Given that the whole poem is weighted on the metaphor of a spacewalk, the notion of exploring yet being still connected, it makes it seem like this poem has a constant truth: we are always connected to our mothers no matter what hatch lies before us, no matter what momentous decision we are about to make. You could contrast that with the way C Day Lewis uses time and tense in Walking Away, where he sets the event very definitively in the past but also writes about it as it affects him now. The word that seems to best encapsulate this is “still” in “your fingertips still pinch”. As it was, as it was previously, in the future as in the past. That’s why I think the use of tense in this poem is very important.

The poem doesn’t have a title either – although the collection that it comes from is unusual in that none of the poems have titles. Other poems of his have titles, but none in Book of Matches. It leaves you something to think about: what a title does, what its purpose is, and why Armitage chose not to have a title for any of his poems in Book of Matches. If you ask me, a title is usually a kind of poetic teaser, pulling out the main idea and theme for you, as if you are incapable of doing so yourself. Winter Swans, Walking Away, Letters from Yorkshire… they all fill that kind of role. And then there are poems that don’t have a title. When We Two PartedI think of thee! where the first line forms the title and we are left to discern the overarching idea, viewpoint or theme for ourselves. It leaves us with a sense of ambiguity. We have nothing to set a tone or to create an allusion. We have nothing on which to hang the poem. Largely, this only happens with poetry. Can you imagine a novel without a title? A play? Sometimes musicians do it and then the world are left to call the album “The Black Album” or something else. I don’t know why the writers, poets, artists or musicians would do this, except that it is a statement in itself and one we are forced to consider.

Thus the first word of the poem here forms a very strong impression, since we have no title on which to hang the poem. “Mother” is strangely formal, grown-up. Not “Mum”. And definitely not “Mummy.”

The first stanza focuses on the practical role of his mother: she helps him out. She is a partner of sorts and helps him do the things he cannot do on his own: “any distance greater than a single span/requires a second pair of hands”. His mother sounds like the kind of person who is practical, measuring the “windows, pelmets, doors” and we’re given a domestic scene. We measure up new property when we’ve just bought it, so it makes me wonder if this is Armitage’s new home, his first home perhaps. The way he writes about it makes it sound vast, like an unconquered new world, with “acres” of walls and “prairies” for floors. Already, the first extended metaphor is set up: the home as a symbol of his relationship with his mother as well as a metaphor for ‘the real world’. We also have the beginnings of the second layer, that of an explorer.

When he puts his mother at the “zero-end”, we see that she is the base, she is the centre and the support. She’s the starting point, the zero of departure. Armitage describes a very real scene: a mother and son measuring up a home but we realise it works on another level as well, that of a boy growing up, checking back with his mother, exploring more and more widely. He becomes more ambitious, “leaving up the stairs”, but they are still connected. First the tape is a kind of umbilical cord, if a metaphorical one. It is a symbol of their attachment, literally their connection. Of course, an umbilical cord is something that is essential for a baby’s existence, something that passes on nourishment as well as being a connection. We use umbilical cord in a practical sense too: it’s the name of the lead I use which connects me to a dog in the house, clipping to both of us and connecting us. It allows for safe exploration without danger. It’s also the nickname for the safety tether that harnesses a spacewalker to their craft, an idea that grows from this one. What Armitage is describing is the ethereal and unquantifiable connection between himself and his mother. He uses the tape measure as a metaphor of that connection. The tape measure then itself becomes a metaphor for the astronaut later in. What he’s saying, perhaps as he moves on into a house of his own, is that “the line” is “still feeding out” – they are still connected. “Still” is a word he uses again later in the poem. It’s curious this repeated word: it’s such a short poem that he has no need to repeat words, but he does. As I’ve said before, it seems very much to me that this poem is a reassurance that the link and connection between the poet and his mother is still there. It is as clear a line between them as it ever was. Of course, here, it means he is also “still” pulling out tape, that he is only in the middle of his measuring, his own new world, that he has still some way to go. The word, “unreeling” is also very telling, dangling on the end of the line before the enjambment. Of course, the tape measure is literally unreeling, and it works on that very physical, literal level. Unreeling also feels a little like things are coming undone, and when he says “unreeling years between us”, the reader gets the sense of the metaphorical for the first time – as life moves on, so Armitage moves away from his mother, his “base”.

As if that’s not quite enough of the metaphorical for you, he then introduces the word “anchor” with a caesura – the first and only one of the poem. She is his anchor, and the tape measure becomes the chain or cord that connects him to her. Although it could have a sense of weighing him down, preventing him from moving on, being still attached to his mother’s apron strings, I don’t get that feeling from it here. There is no sense of restriction or weight, only of binding something that is loose, securing it, providing connection and stability. An anchor is a fairly clichéd metaphor for a person who provides you with support and stability – the same as saying “they’re my rock.”

Although we might expect a boat to be attached via an anchor, the metaphor he uses for himself is “Kite.” It adds to that sense of freedom and flight. It’s this word that doesn’t make me want to think of “anchor” in a limiting or restricting way, but in a way that grounds him and keeps him secure. The tape measure becomes the string that connects a kite to its flyer. It has a real sense of motion and movement.

The way Armitage uses all of those floating present participles is also interesting – it gives it a sense of timelessness and a sense of perpetual motion, as if this is how it is and how it will be. Add that to the word “still” and you can see that this is not just a poem about his mother helping him measure up a house, but a poem about their relationship, in the same way that Follower also uses a moment to encapsulate or represent a relationship.

As we move into stanza three, the tense becomes more finite again – the simple present. This time he moves on from his former metaphors to a new one: he becomes an astronaut as he uses the verb “space-walk” and we have the final notion of the tape measure, which is the safety tether or ‘umbilical’ that connects an astronaut to their craft and stops them floating off. Again, we have another sense of the mother “grounding” Armitage, keeping him connected to reality instead of floating off to certain doom. The context of the poem seems to become clearer, with the “empty” bedrooms that give us a sense of a new house. I really think it seems like this is Armitage moving out of his family home for the first time. He has a sense of the intrepid, the explorer, continuing the idea of the house being a symbol of the great wide world.

In the second line of this stanza, we find something unusual, a moment of tension. He is at “breaking point” and says that “something/has to give.” The enjambed line and the commas reinforce this breaking point. He has run out of tape measure and his mother is holding “the last one-hundredth of an inch” and has a decision to make: he sees the hatch (simultaneously a space-hatch like the one we would find on a space vessel) and the skylight in the loft, and he has a decision to make about going off into the great wide yonder. In this part of the poem, it has moved well beyond the sense of an actual event: you wouldn’t keep reeling out tape in this way – they’re not actually measuring anything as they were in the first stanza. It finishes with a moment of anticipation, where neither he nor we know whether he will “fall or fly.” though I’m pretty sure he’s not actually on the loft ledge planning to leap just to see if he will fly or not. Interesting that we often say we’ll ‘spread our wings’  – there are plenty of cheesy clichéd songs about how others ‘raise us up’ so that ‘we can fly’ – seems like every cheesy songwriter has a song about spreading your wings and flying away.

The poem forms a very nice parallel with Walking Away, which is written from the parent’s perspective about the child leaving to explore the great wide world. For a short poem, it certainly packs a lot of metaphorical language in it. That tape measure takes on almost mythical metaphorical properties. It also works well with other songs about that parent-child relationship, but I like the way C. Day Lewis’s poem takes ideas from the opposing side of the relationship.

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

In terms of structure and organisation of ideas, we get a grow