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

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

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

Form

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

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

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

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

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

And not this:

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

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

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

But I don’t think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All my words
flattened, rolled, turned into felt,

slowly melting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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