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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find a way to trace a grand design

with living tissue, raise a structure
never meant to last

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do I mean by form?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s now think about structure.

What do I mean by structure?

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

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

Dharker starts with a statement and a possibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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