Archive for the 'poetry' Category

Sonnets, sonnets, sonnets

September 12, 2021

     I’ve come across a couple of good ideas – which of course I borrowed – during the various states of lockdown over the past year and a half. Someone wrote about listening to all the Bach cantatas, one a day, an excellent idea even if, as in my case, some days it was none and other days playing catch-up… And then someone was reading through Shakespeare’s sonnets one a day. I’d never read them all, just the usual dozen or so well-known anthologised ones that were important in teaching literature and criticism.

My reading of the sonnets was never one a day, either, just like the Bach cantatas weren’t. But it was an interesting exercise, now that I’ve reached the end. I’m glad I’ve done it, and I intend, if and when I can find the time, to spend more time studying them carefully. It’s hard to frame an overall response, really. There are a lot – 154 – too many? The sameness is rather daunting, the same structure and rhyme-scheme, apart from the single curious twelve-line one, and I’ve often used that as a way to be somewhat dismissive, especially when I’ve set Shakespeare alongside his contemporary John Donne, whose poetry I’ve always preferred for its variety of form and astonishing boldness and inventiveness.

But this reading has had me reflecting. Shakespeare’s sonnets are a tour-de-force because there are 154 of them, and even within the restrictions of that form he is both incredibly inventive, and also far wittier than I’d ever expected… again, this had been one of the areas where I’d compared him unfavourably with Donne, whose wit I still find matchless. There’s variety in Donne, but there’s an amazing number of variations on a theme in Shakespeare, which becomes captivating after a while. And then there is the inventive interplay between and among the sonnets themselves…

The other thing about the writer who set me off on this, was that they read the sonnets out loud. I loved this idea (in the privacy of my study), and parsing them as I read so that they scanned correctly and made sense was a serious challenge, which this retired English teacher rose to and enjoyed.

On being inarticulate

April 13, 2021

 

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you may feel that I can write reasonably clearly and in detail about literature and explain what it is I like or dislike when I’ve read a book. I’ve found myself provoked to think about why this is so much harder when it comes to art and music. On and off over a couple of days recently I slowly leafed through a hefty tome about Monet, which was copiously illustrated with reproductions of his paintings. I loved it. But why?

The simple answer to my question about art and music compared with literature is that I suppose I have some kind of expertise in the field of literature, as studying and teaching it has been pretty much my life’s work. So I can explain in detail what it is in a novel or poem, whether plot, character, themes and ideas, language or whatever, that I like or dislike; I understand and can explain how words and writers work Getting beyond the gut response ‘I like it!’ is much harder for me in other fields.

I really enjoy visiting art exhibitions, and some paintings I will happily sit and stare at for hours. I recall a Turner exhibition in Edinburgh about ten years ago; I fell in love with Modern Rome so much that I now have a copy of it on the wall at home. And an exhibition in Berlin a few years ago which juxtaposed impressionist and expressionist paintings took my breath away.

Thinking about Monet and Turner in particular, I realise that a great part of what attracts or fascinates me about many of their paintings is the attention they pay to light. Monet painted certain scenes – most famously, perhaps, the front of Rouen Cathedral – many times, at different times of day and at different seasons, presumably because he was so fascinated by the changes of lighting. Another thing that I find myself reflecting on is the difference between art and photography; to me it seems to have been liberating for artists not to feel obliged to focus on achieving some ‘realistic’ or recognisably ‘accurate’ reproduction of their subject. So the idea of impressionism speaks to me as an evocation of certain places or objects, with associated ideas and feelings, which are sketched out (wrong word, I know) for the viewer to fill out the gaps for her/himself as they choose; there’s an openness to interpretation I like about such art.

Music is even harder. J S Bach I can listen to for hours; I am in heaven. But how? Why? What does he do to me? I get headaches trying to understand anything about musical theory, and one of the regrets I do have is never learning an instrument. But without music, I don’t know where I’d be.

That’s as far as I get, and it doesn’t feel very far, compared with what I can say about literature. Is it because art (and music, for that matter) is rather more open, and rather more likely to affect one emotionally, whereas literature, though it can and does affect our emotions, is rather more analytical, rather more susceptible to analysis and deconstruction?

Lockdown activities

April 6, 2021

I’ve used a couple of good ideas originally mentioned by someone else to focus myself and renew pleasures during lockdown. Somewhere, I read about someone who had decided to listen to a Bach cantata a day, and someone else had decided to read aloud a Shakespeare sonnet every day.

I’ve finally reached the end of listening to all the cantatas now; it’s taken me since the beginning of November and there are about 200 of them. I haven’t listened to one a day regularly or religiously; sometimes I did, sometimes I forgot or didn’t find the time, and other times I binged, but it has been very interesting renewing my acquaintance with them. I took the opportunity to compile a list of my favourites and a list of the ones that really didn’t do very much for me. The whole exercise has made me want to go back to the list of my favourites and listen rather more carefully, with the texts alongside, and deepen my understanding and appreciation of the music and the words.

I’ve had a working knowledge of probably a dozen of Shakespeare’s sonnets as a teacher; they came in useful when teaching the open-ended Love Through The Ages unit at A-Level back in the day. Now I’m working my way through all 154 of them, and I’m about a third of the way. It was interesting how hard I found reading them aloud initially, getting the phrasing and pauses right, and sometimes needing a couple of attempts; now I’m really into the rhythm, and I like the way I can wade in confidently and deliver a classroom-ready rendition straight off…

What I’m actually discovering, reading all of them for the first time, is how dull, pedestrian and same-y a lot of them are: there are only so many ways in which you can re-work a fairly hackneyed trope in a fourteen-line poem, The good ones are powerful because of their originality; that’s the key. But I have also renewed my intention of studying at least some of them in rather more depth once I have finished this read-through. And I came up with an original project of my own, too: I would like to re-read all of the plays, in chronological order of their writing (insofar as that’s known). How far I’ll get with that resolution before I’m side-tracked by something else, I don’t know…

And somehow these two activities have got me thinking again about the nature of genius, because in my mind J S Bach and William Shakespeare represent two examples of that kind of person. Sometime, there will be a post on that subject.

First World War poetry: some help for students

January 14, 2021

I’ve noticed that a great number of people are looking up what I’ve written about First World War poems, and deducing that many of them are students who are preparing these poems for exams or assessments.

Do you need to write an essay about poetry? Here are some ideas to think about, and get you started. They are based on an idea of mine which I used when teaching, called the staircase. It only has three steps, and the idea is that the higher you get up the staircase, the more credit an examiner is likely to give you.

Step one: What is the poet saying?

This is the bottom step, the easiest to do, the one that will get you some marks but not move you very far up the mark scheme. It’s like understanding the plot of a novel. What is the poem about? What happens in the poem? What is the story of the poem, if you like. You are showing that you understand. Bear in mind that you will get very little credit merely for telling the story, unless that’s all the question asks you to do. If you do need to re-tell what goes on in the poem, other than perhaps a brief account at the start of an essay, make sure that you do this for a reason, connected with a part of the question you are answering.

Step two: How does the poet say it?

Now you are getting on to the second step, the real stuff. It is a poem, after all, not a novel or a play, and you are beginning to recognise this and explore detail, in particular acknowledging the poet as an artist or a creator who has set out to do something specific. You are thinking about how it all works, considering the tricks of the poet’s trade as they craft and create their poem.

You will be looking at form, at structure, at language. You will be finding various poetic techniques. The form is a poem, simple as that, although you may also recognise it’s a particular kind of poem, a sonnet for instance. Structure may involve looking at what kind of sonnet it is and how the different parts work, or it may be about looking at what happens as the poet moves through different verses in her/his poem: do they move on through different aspects of their subject?

You may notice rhyme, rhythm, metre. If you read the poem aloud (in your head, in the exam room!) does it move slowly, or quickly? This is the pace of the poem: does it make a difference to how you feel? What might the poet be wanting to do? Look for other poetic techniques. Are words repeated? Is there assonance, onomatopoeia anywhere? What effect do these techniques have? Notice pauses: are they in the middle of a line? At the end? Do the lines run on (enjambment)? What difference do these techniques make?

Again, you won’t get much credit for technique-spotting on its own: you need to say what the poet achieves by using the things you have noticed. Do not worry if you don’t have time to mention everything; there may well be too much. Go for what seems particularly effective to you.

Step three: How well does the poet say it?

This is the hardest part, the top step: your personal response to the poem and the poet’s (hard) work. Remember that there is no law that says you have to like a poem, to like every poem. But whether you like it or you don’t, you do need to try and explain why…

Go into detail. Say what you like and don’t like; explain why; give evidence – a short quotation – that shows the examiner what you’re on about. Don’t be afraid of you reactions to a poem: the examiner likes this part, and there are marks to be gained for a well thought-out and expressed opinion.

More thoughts

Do you need to compare two poems? In that case, your plan – you did write one, didn’t you? – should have the notes on both poems side-by-side so that you can look to move easily between the two poems when you need to, back and forth. A comparison isn’t writing about one poem, then writing about the second and then writing a sentence or two about both of them. It’s trying to consider them both at the same time, alongside each other. It means looking for similarities and differences between them.

Quotations

There isn’t a right number to include. Quotations are evidence, to support your comments, your analysis, your opinions. Ideally they are short, and frequent. You should not be copying in three or four lines of a poem when your point actually refers to three or four words: that’s time wasted that isn’t gaining you marks.

The end

I’m sure I haven’t actually said anything that teachers haven’t already told you. I’ve put it all down on paper, in one place, for you to read and think about, maybe in different words from your teacher. Sometimes that unfamiliar voice helps. Good luck!

If you have found this useful, you can find other posts about different aspects of poetry and literature by using the search box. If you want context or background information on the First World War, look under the ‘Pages’ heading on the left.

2020: My Year of Reading

December 29, 2020

No need to remind you what a weird year it has been. When lockdown arrived, naturally someone like me thought, “Well, OK, time to hunker down and get on with lots of reading..” Only it didn’t turn out that way. I found myself dithering a great deal, unable to choose what to settle down with. So I ended up reading quite a lot of magazines, and articles I’d saved offline on all kinds of different topics, tidying up my reading loose-ends if you like, but also, I increasingly felt, frittering away useful reading time. Overall this year I have actually completed slightly fewer books than usual. And the tidying up of my library, and the weeding out and disposing of many books that I know I’m never going to open again, has proceeded apace and some 250+ books have made their way to benefit Amnesty International at some point in the future. I think I’m now down to only 1700 or so books now!

You may not be surprised that I went back to Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which I taught once, many years ago; nothing new there, so I didn’t bother with revisiting CamusLa Peste

When I did manage to settle on a book, I found I did quite a bit of re-reading – Sherlock Holmes, Hermann Hesse, Josef Skvorecky, science fiction. I have read 51 books this year, and acquired 25 new ones. After some reflection I have decided I’d like to spend some of 2021 re-reading some of my favourite classics. We’ll see how far I manage to get with that one… but it is somehow comforting to return to a book I have previously enjoyed a number of times. It’s a sort of anchor in a very turbulent world.

Blog report:

Once again, my posts analysing various poems of or about the Great War have been the most visited. A logical deduction is that the poetry appears on examination specifications in various countries and students are perhaps tuning in for some insight, or else coming across the blog in search engine results and opening it by mistake. I do wish I got more feedback from visitors, and once again record my gratitude to those readers who take the time to like my posts and to occasionally comment or engage in discussion.

Other popular posts this year have included (again) Theodore Kröger’s The Forgotten Village, and Alexandra David-Neel’s With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet.

This year’s awards:

My biggest disappointment of the year: re-reading Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine, of which I’d carried positive recollections for quite a few years. It palled, it dragged, it was simplistic and it went on the ‘I don’t need to read this ever again’ pile. Ditto Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

The weirdest book I’ve read this year is definitely the Strugatsky brothers’ One Billion Years to the End of the World.

The best novel of 2020: re-reading Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which never fails to disappoint in its poignant picture of a long-vanished age.

The best new novel of 2020: not awarded this year as I haven’t read any new novels!

The best non-fiction book of 2020: after a fair amount of hesitation, I decided on Alberto Angela’s Pompeii, which I’d wanted to read for quite a while, after really enjoying another book of his on daily life in the Roman Empire. His formula for telling the story of those dreadful days in 79CE worked really well, and sent me back to the catalogue from the major British Museum exhibition a few years back, the closest I’ve actually got to Pompeii itself (unless you count passing through a train station just south of Naples – Ercolano – many years ago and realising ‘hey, that was Herculaneum!’)

My book of the year award goes to a book I ought to have read years ago, Adam Mickiewicz’s Polish national epic poem Pan Tadeusz, which was a gentle and lyrical revelation and took me closer to my Polish roots.

Travel book of the year: in a year when not a lot of travelling could be done, reading about travelling was a substitute. A review sent me to Sophy RobertsThe Lost Pianos of Siberia, which was a surprisingly thoughtful, interesting and well-written variation on history and travel in Siberia. And I’ve read a good deal of that.

Special mention – because there isn’t really a category for it: Yuri Slezkine’s doorstopper of a book about the inhabitants of a building which housed the ruling elites of the Soviet Union over many years: The House of Government. If you’re interested in a deeper insight into the machinery of how the country worked and its ruling classes, this is the one. It felt like an obligation, but it was worth the effort.

Here’s to 2021: may it be a better year for everyone in every way, and may we all get lots of good reading done!

Adam Mickiewicz: Pan Tadeusz

December 4, 2020

     Today marks a real achievement for me, and one that’s taken years to make myself accomplish: I’ve finally read the Polish national epic poem, Pan Tadeusz. This may not sound a big deal to many of you, but imagine if an educated Englishman (like myself!) confessed that it was only at age 65 he had first read any Shakespeare…

I still have my dad’s small, leatherbound copy, in Polish of course, so I couldn’t read it, given to him on our first visit there half a century ago. I recently came across a reference to the translation pictured above, which was highly praised, and bought it. After I’d begun reading it, I found an old, second-hand copy of a much poorer translation on an out-of-the-way bookshelf; I’d obviously been feeling guilty over 30 years ago when I’d bought it!

I had been dreading (mildly) reading the poem, regarding it as a duty more than anything. Not that I don’t like poetry, obviously, but lengthy poems can be a slog. (Still only a third of the way through Dante, begun over ten years ago). And poetry from the Romantic era I’ve always had a problem with. But this was a delight… not what I’d anticipated at all. Partly, this feeling is a tribute to the hard work and sensitivity of the translator Bill Johnston, who is totally in sympathy with the work and the country, and thought carefully about metre, rhythm and the differences between the languages. So the translation feels contemporary, the verse is carefully but not obsessively rhymed, and Johnston has used the iambic pentameter throughout, except in the epilogue, which works well in English and is not tiring to read. I was more than a little surprised when, quite early on, I found myself reminded, both in terms of the rhythm and subject-matter, of Wordsworth’s Prelude.

The poem was written in exile in 1830; it’s in twelve books, and is set some twenty years earlier, at the time of the beginning of Napoleon’s invasion of tsarist Russia, which brought hopes of freedom and independence to Poland, which had been erased from the map in 1795. It’s set in the remote forests of the borderlands between Poland and Lithuania, which had formed a single Commonwealth for several centuries, and is the region of my Polish ancestors. The focus is largely on the gentry and its traditions, the setting is rural, and the plot focuses on rivalries and disagreements over land and property, a mysterious killing some twenty years previously, and various marriage plots.

What works most effectively is the marvellous creation of place and atmosphere of a lost past, one that is sliding into history as the story unfolds. I understood rather more about the nature of the old Polish nobility and its relation to other social groups, place and country, and am clearer about how our family comes to be in the book of the nobility despite being impoverished peasants…

The story works its way through various local rivalries up to a serious skirmish between Poles and Lithuanians united against local Russian troops, in which the former carry the day (obviously); the battle descriptions are marvellously done and you really feel in the middle of things. Then comes the reckoning, the revelations, the weddings and the feasting. And none of it is too deadly serious, if you see what I mean. There is a real sense of the Polish nation united, a happiness or contentedness with the old – and vanishing – ways beneath the surface, a gentle nostalgia…

Now that I finally have a handle on the entire story, I shall go back to it soon and read more closely and deeply, and enjoy more fully.

Carol Ann Duffy: Collected Poems

November 6, 2020

     A while back, I treated myself to a copy of Carol Ann Duffy’s Collected Poems. Of course, it’s not complete, because she’s still very much alive and writing, and one of my posts on one of her poems is the most read post on this blog, for some reason which no-one has yet elucidated.

My interest in Duffy is two-fold, aside from the fact that she’s a brilliant poet. One is that we were contemporaries as students of English Literature at the University of Liverpool in the 1970s; she did joint honours with Philosophy I think, I with French and so our paths never crossed. And she was my favourite poet for teaching at GCSE, I think because the selection of her poetry connected well with my students: I really enjoyed teaching her poems. Annually we’d take an entire GCSE cohort off to Leeds Town Hall for GCSE Poetry Day, a well-run commercial venture at which Duffy was always one of the featured live poets. You never knew what sort of a performance you’d get – if she had an off-day, it was pretty perfunctory though well-delivered; if she was on form, it was excellent, highly political, and the students raved about her.

And in this collection, I’m discovering a completely different side to Duffy. Obviously the poems for the GCSE Anthology were carefully selected for suitability, though there were a couple of edgy ones, Anne Hathaway, for instance, where you could (carefully) lead bright students who were becoming aware of their own sexuality to use their imaginations…

Duffy is both a brilliant versifier and a very political poet. That feels very trite; you’ll need to explore for yourself to appreciate what I mean here. Much of her poetry is autobiographical in some way: we see her wrestling with Catholicism, and she is very bitter about the toxic effect of religion on people’s lives. She can be harsh, cruel, even vicious in some of her portraits of individuals and character types she has met. She creates vivid memories of her childhood days, and there are powerful memories of her mother, which become very poignant and elegiacal after her mother’s death.

The one particular collection in this huge volume which isn’t so personal is The World’s Wife, where she deliberately gives a voice to the often silent or unheard partners of famous men in history and literature; it is good to experience this more imaginative or creative aspect to her work; I particularly like Anne Hathaway which I mentioned above, and also Eurydice’s counterpoint to the story of Orpheus.

It’s clear that Duffy is also a wide reader of poetry and at times I found myself detecting influences of other poets, or deliberate imitations of them, Donne, Shakespeare and Hopkins to mention a few. I referred above to her poem The Wound in Time, which was her response as poet laureate to the centenary of the Armistice at the end of the Great War; she is clearly as moved by her knowledge of that conflict as I have been and there are a couple of other really powerful poems on the subject – Last Post, and Christmas Truce.

I’m not pretending to do justice to a lifetime’s work in this piece, but to sketch my personal response. I turned the pages, letting my eyes wander, and slowed down and enjoyed the poems which they lit on. For me, at this particular reading, the shorter poems have worked better than the longer ones, and at times I found some of the love lyrics rather repetitive, although she writes sensual and erotic verse better than any other poet I’m familiar with…

It has been so refreshing and eye-opening to explore the full range of her work.

Andrzej Franaszek: Miłosz, A Biography

October 7, 2020

I’ve been familiar with Czesław Miłosz’ autobiographical and literary writing for many years, but haven’t really got to grips with his poetry yet; my interest stems from his being from the part of Poland where my father and his forebears originate, and the interplay between the notions (and nations) of Poland and Lithuania in past centuries. The more I read, the more complicated it all seems. I found myself reading about him now as I grow older myself and look back on my life and consider how much I have been affected by my fifty percent Polishness.

This is a very detailed and well-written biography that anchors the poet’s life very firmly in his poetry. There are excellent, copious notes and a full bibliography; it’s also very nicely produced and once again reminded me of how much higher US production values for books are than our own. I like books that are physically good to handle and pleasurable to read.

Miłosz is one of the true greats of recent Polish literature and culture, and clearly deserved the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature. We read of his life as a student, and of intellectual life generally, in the poorest region of the second Polish Republic, as well as the incredibly complex interrelationships of races, nations and peoples in that borderland region, the troubled history of which has been so well recorded by Timothy Snyder.

The second republic was not terribly stable and what with being sandwiched between Russia and Germany and learning to become an independent country again, was increasingly chaotic as the 1930s progressed, particularly in the borderlands. Eventually it became a political quagmire as well as a military dictatorship, torn between a narrow nationalistic vision and a broader one which wanted to encompass at least some of the ideals and the peoples of the nation’s great past. The anti-semitism of the right-wing government was appalling.

Miłosz travelled widely, spending considerable time in Paris with his uncle, womanising and sorting out his attitudes to politics and religion, specifically Catholicism, which had and still has a leaden hold on the country. Having survived the insanity of Nazi occupation during the Second World War, he then faced the tragic dilemma of many Polish intellectuals after the war, seeking change and progress and yet faced with the inevitable Sovietisation of Poland. How to slow this down, how to distance oneself from the old rejects of the second republic, now emigres, but the ones who had aided and abetted the calamity of the war, and still hankered after the past?

Having initially thrown his lot in with the new order, Miłosz reached a point where he had to break with it and went into exile, first in France and subsequently living, working and teaching in the US for the second half of his life, tarnished for many Poles with the brush of collaboration with the Stalinists…

His was an incredibly full and complex life, a very reflective one which he mirrored in his poetry, which I am now hoping to begin to come to grips with, as it does exist in decent translations on which the man himself collaborated.

I rarely read biographies; I find them hard going unless it’s a person whose life really interests me, and in the end this one was worth it for all the insights into person, places and the intellectual difficulties of those times.

Horace Smith: Ozymandias

September 28, 2020

Dedicated to all my former sixth form students of English Literature.

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone,—
Naught but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

I was astonished recently when something sent me to the wikipedia article on Ozymandias, and I learned that there was another version of the poem, for Shelley and Horace Smith had had a friendly competition to write a poem on the subject. Shelley’s survives and is well-known; this student and teacher of English Lit for half a century had not heard of Smith’s poem. I refer you to the excellent article for texts of both poems side-by-side and decent contextual background, too. I’m not going to write a detailed crit of Smith’s effort: you can do that for yourself. I just wanted to share the discovery.

The ‘leg’ somehow wrecks the poem for me – twice. It’s the sound of the word, its shortness coupled with the short, open vowel that just screams incongruity with the subject-matter.

Alliteration (sandy silence – the sibilants suggesting sand shifting in the desert wind, just as in the closing lines of Shelley’s poem) and assonance (the long vowel sounds at the end of the first three lines, the mournful ‘o’) create atmosphere and romantic sensation in Smith’s poem, just as Shelley does. But, I don’t think it’s just the familiarity of Shelley’s poem that makes it so much better: I do think he does so much more with all the poetic devices he brings in to play.

The sestet redeems Smith’s poem, though, by bringing in a perspective that Shelley doesn’t: the fact that this oblivion may affect the world and time to which we belong. The image of a huge, forgotten fragment of London creates a shock for the contemporary reader, striking a chord like that much later moment towards the end of Planet of the Apes. The alliteration of the ‘w’ sounds, repetition of ‘wonder’, use of the antiquated and biblical ‘wilderness’ create an atmosphere of desolation; London in the past tense ‘stood’, and the sense of abandonment conjured up by the ‘wolf’ are rather effective, I find. Smith has a ‘Hunter’ rather than Shelley’s ‘traveller’ but this character is equally effective, perhaps more so in the sense of a more primitive being, not understanding what he finds. And ‘annihilated’ works well in that final line, too.

Here’s a piece I wrote earlier.

Carol Ann Duffy: The Wound in Time analysed

April 24, 2020

There is an earlier version of this post here. The poem itself may be found here. You may also like to read this.

The title

It’s always worthwhile spending some time reflecting on the title of a poem: we too often merely give it a cursory glance and then dive headlong into the text, but we should remember the poet will have given it time and thought, just as they did the poem itself. Here, it’s the wound in time: note the definite article – it’s a special or specific wound she means, not one of many. And we can see from the first line of the poem that Time is capitalised, so that word is also emphasised. What is she saying about time? A wound is usually something temporary, which heals eventually; it’s something physical in the way we normally use the word, so we are in metaphor territory here. We will return to this.

Form

Look at the form of the poem. It has fourteen lines, which normally says sonnet. A sonnet is traditionally a love poem, but many of the poets of the Great War wrote sonnets, so Duffy may well be paying a tribute to them in the form of this poem. Hatred, warfare, killing are as powerful as love.

Structure

If we consider the poem as a sonnet, then we are immediately confronted with the fact that it doesn’t obey any of the traditional rules of either the Shakespearean or the Petrarchan sonnet; it does not fall neatly into the usual sections, and there is no discernible rhyme scheme. Later twentieth century poets, Duffy included, have experimented with the sonnet form like this, and rhyme often disappears. There are rhymes – hatching/ singing, war/ shore, and a half-rhyme – brave/ love – but these are not part of a structured scheme. Read the poem aloud: does the absence of rhyme make any difference? Would rhyme be distracting from the message of the sonnet? Is the rhythm noticeable, despite the absence of rhyme?

Can we find any meaningful divisions in the poem? For me, what stands out it that the first four lines (roughly) speak of it, the next four address you, and then move on to we, before finally coming back to you in the ending. To me, it’s almost like the poet’s gaze moving around. That analysis tends towards the Shakespearean model. Or maybe the shift is in the eighth line where the poet moves to we, after the caesura. This allows us to think about the Petrarchan model. But it’s probably best not to get too hung up on either; it’s Duffy’s poem we are considering.

Language

This is the most important aspect, perhaps: the actual words the poet is using to convey her message and her feelings. How does the language help? The first half line stops abruptly, at the caesura. A compete thought, but containing a question: what is it, in that first word, and repeated at the end of l.2? Something unspoken? Something shameful, that we are unable to say? Notice the alliteration of Time and tides, the sense of regularity and repetitiveness. And then there’s the allusion to the old saying, time heals all wounds – except this one. Why is this one an exception? Bitter (l.2) recalls Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, and the psalms perhaps also recall the funeral anthems in Anthem for Doomed Youth. There’s also the more powerful suggestion that all the commemorative church services of thanksgiving at the time of the centenary are pointless, useless.

The war to end all wars (l.3) is the traditional way of thinking of the Great War, which of course led to an action replay only two decades later; the French have a similar phrase to describe it. Look at the position of Not at the start of the line, powerfully negating the idea. The position of a word in a line can often give it extra force.

Then we come to the powerful imagery of birth and death; putting death’s birthing alongside each other is very effective; the idea of the earth itself nursing ticking metal eggs – shells – about to hatch carnage is surely meant to be deliberately shocking. Think about how much meaning is crammed into very few words here, and recognise that this is something that poetry often does really well.

Next we shift to the soldiers themselves, whom the poet addresses as you, and emphasises their bravery through the alliterations brave belief boarded boats. They were singing: I find an echo of Owen’s powerful poem The Send-Off here. The next line is also meant to shock: The end of God? How could a deity allow such things? It was originally said a propos of the extermination camps of the Second World War that after Auschwitz there is no God; here Duffy boldly moves the idea forward in time a couple of decades. And the poisonous shrapneled air has the gas and the explosions jammed together. The reference to God also calls to mind for me the Sassoon poem Attack which ends O Jesus make it stop! There’s another powerful half line next: think how effective stopping halfway through at full line, at the caesura, actually is, forcing a pause for thought. And gargling is clearly meant to echo that famous line in Dulce et Decorum Est.

Now the poem calms down as the focus shifts to us. The silent town squares perhaps remind us of The Send-Off again, and the chilling awaiting their cenotaphs echoes for me the marvellous Philip Larkin poem MCMXIV, written on the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War.

Duffy is angry now, and bitter as she reminds us that there has been constant warfare ever since then, that all the horror of 1914-1918 has made no difference at all to the way we conduct our affairs. History as water? Ineffective? Disappearing as it sinks into the ground? But chastising – punishing – how? Why is the men’s sacrifice endless? And the final line so chilling and accusatory, drowning taking us back yet again to Dulce et Decorum Est, and the faces taking me back to one of the scariest poems of the Great War to me, Sassoon’s Glory of Women and its utterly shocking final line. And what about the pages of the sea? Think about how that image works.

Tone

Think tone of voice here; it’s important: imagine the poet reading her poem aloud to you. How would it come across? What words – try and be precise – would you use to describe that voice? I’m looking at anger, certainly, but bitterness comes over even more strongly to me. And why bitter? Because, as she points out (l.11) humanity seems to have learned nothing, changed nothing in a hundred years: we are still at it.

A female poet

Carol Ann Duffy is a woman. She was our Poet Laureate at the time she wrote this poem, so it’s specifically meant to commemorate the centenary of the Armistice, for the nation. It may not have been to everyone’s taste as a commemorative poem. Do you think a man would have treated the subject differently? How, and why? To me it’s significant that she brings in eggs (l.4) and birth (l.3): women bring life into being, men kill in wars. She doesn’t put it that starkly, but the thought is there (to me, anyway, and this is also important in interpreting a poem: whatever the writer’s intentions and meaning were at the time of writing, once a work is published, out there for anyone to read, it becomes capable of taking on meanings and shades of interpretation which the original writer may never have imagined or intended).

Your personal response

Although it’s Duffy’s poem, you are reading it and are allowed to have your own opinion, your own reaction and response. Indeed, this is most important, and you don’t have to like it just because it’s by a ‘famous’ poet. What is important it that you can articulate your response: you like or dislike it for these or those reasons. Does the subject matter move you? Do you like the way she uses language? Do you like the sounds, the poetical devices? When you explore your personal reaction to the poem, be sure to anchor it in examples from the text.

To finish: we have spent a long time taking this poem to pieces to try and understand it more deeply. Now stop and just read it aloud again, to bring it all back together as a piece.

If you have found this post (and the original one) helpful or interesting, I would appreciate it if you left a brief comment to say how and why…

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