Writing about form for GCSE English Literature Unseen Poetry

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

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

This…

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

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

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

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

13 things that I find interesting about the form:

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

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

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

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

My internal dialogue goes a bit like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You have to pick a horse to back. One.

But let me tell you a secret…

They’re ALL winners.

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

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

Got that?

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

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

I’m going to let you into another secret…

I really haven’t the foggiest.

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

But how do I know what the central idea is?

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

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

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

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

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

And isn’t that what the form is?

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

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

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

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

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

Form should never be divorced from language.

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

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

Coupey’s painting Stanza 47

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

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

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

Poetry need not be frightening or hideous!

 

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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.

 

Flag by John Agard

I love this poem. I love the simplicity of this poem. But before you get into it, you have to understand JUST why a flag is so important…

A flag is used as a symbol of pride in nationality. Consider the Dixie Flag, the ‘Confederate’ flag. Millions of homes in the southern states of the USA still have a Confederate flag outside their home. The Confederate army hasn’t existed for over two hundred years, so why do people still use it? Partly it’s pride. It’s a statement. It says you’ve signed up for all the values that the Confederates stood for. It’s a universal V-sign saying ‘Up Yours!’ to the Yankee Northerners with their Stars-and-Stripes flag. So partly it’s pride and partly it’s defiance. Nobody puts a flag outside their house and doesn’t expect some kind of reaction.

When the football is on, England is awash with St George’s flags – the red cross on a white background. People paint it on their faces. They use the flag in bunting. It’s both a symbol of identity: “I’m English and I’m proud of it.” and a symbol of defiance: “We’re going to beat all of you!” – it’s no different with football colours, football scarves. It’s part pride and part antagonism.

The English flag is a great example to talk about, because it’s something we all know can cause arguments and antagonism. Racist or national extremist groups adopt it as a symbol of being racially pure and it engenders discussion about who ‘belongs’ and who doesn’t. It’s sometimes used as a taunt to people. Living in France, if I were to put up a St George’s flag, I’m saying: “I’m English and proud!” but I’m also saying: “I don’t want to be French. I don’t identify with you. I’m different. England is superior to France. This is English territory right in your territory! Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!” and I’m guaranteed to stir up emotion, mainly from either English people who believe I’m right to be proud of my nationality and to flaunt it in a foreign land that I’ve chosen to live in, or from French people who think ‘well, go back to England or integrate!’

As another example, a house down the road has a Welsh flag outside. Why doesn’t that do the same? Because there aren’t 1000 years of antagonism between the Welsh and the French. That Welsh flag isn’t a threat. It’s someone being proud to be Welsh. It just doesn’t stir up the same emotion.

Go to ‘border’ towns between England and Wales, though, and that flag becomes antagonistic, just like the flag on the Moon was an antagonism to the Russians, just like the Chinese flag is an antagonism in Nepal. Like dogs, it’s fine to piss in your own territory, but when you start pissing on someone else’s territory, they’ll get upset. There will be fights if they don’t want to let you take over their land. A flag brings out the primeval, the animal instinct in all of us.

Firstly, flags were used to make something recognisable – if you’re all in armour or all dressed in army clothes, a flag is a great way to identify yourself and distinguish yourselves. People use flags at big events, so that their friends can find them. It shows who you are, and where you are. After that, they began to take on a life of their own, representing a nation. In some countries, flags are everywhere: on churches, on town halls, on civic buildings. Each tiny village in France has a flag. It’s everywhere. Yet in some countries, like Japan, there aren’t many flags. Here, the flag has become a symbol of war. The Japanese rising sun is not flown in many places. The only place I saw it was at the war museum in Hiroshima. The flag is now more of a symbol of shame because it tells of things that happened in the war – things that should never have happened. National pride is one thing: flaunting it is another. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t see so many flags in Japan.

‘Capture the Flag’ was a popular game, and is the name for a series of games on war games as well as a popular paintball scenario. If you take someone’s flag, they’ve lost. That’s how important a flag is.

Comedian Tim Minchin wrote in The Observer about his arrival into Phoenix, Arizona:

“We drive out of the airport past the compulsory orgy of American flags, which despite their quiet fluttering still manage to scream: YOU’RE IN AMERICA! YOU’RE IN AMERICA! YOU’RE IN AMERICA!

Where am I?

Oh, yeah. Thanks.”

See. Flags mean something to everyone. Even Australian comedians.

Wow. That’s a lot of background to a flag. And a flag means all of these things. It has the potential to spur you on, to bring you to tears, to make you feel patriotic, to mark you. By using it, you’re saying ‘I’m here’ and ‘This is what I am’ and you’re also, potentially, goading anyone who doesn’t feel like you do about whatever the flag represents.

And as you can see, there’s no way on earth a flag is ‘just a piece of cloth’.

You’ll be able to read more about this poem in my ebook on Kindle, which will be up-and-running by the end of the week. In the meantime, feel free to check out my ebook about the Conflict poems from the Literary Heritage

If you want to read more about the AQA poetry anthology contemporary poetry, you can find my ebook here. Remember, you don’t need a kindle or e-reader to read it; just download the ‘Kindle for PC’ software. If you want an hour’s lesson with me (or even half an hour!) you can find all my details on my website. One hour via skype is £20.00 only! By the end, I promise you will OWN the poems!!