Posts Tagged ‘Gerard Manley Hopkins’

David Jones: In Parenthesis

September 1, 2016

There was a documentary about Jones and his poem on television a few weeks ago: I was very surprised, as a teacher who’d taught First World War literature for many years, not to have heard of the poet or the work. The programme was fascinating, and now I’ve read the book.

It’s poetry in the way James Joyce’s prose is poetical, lyrical in its use of the language’s sounds and images. More prose than poetry, then, and running to nearly a couple of hundred pages, it’s not as immediately accessible as Owen or Sassoon, perhaps. We follow the speaker – an ordinary soldier – from call-up through basic training, his complicated journey to the Western Front, near Ypres first and then to the Somme, where he sees his mates killed, and he is wounded.

The writing is impressionistic. Often the soldiers are backgrounded an atmosphere takes centre-stage, very effectively. Often his verse reminds me of Whitman, with echoes of those long, gradually developing accretive sentences. Sometimes he reads like Hopkins in his use of adjectives and nonce-words. There is erudition in his epic similes, and his myriad religious references, though the constant recalling of Arthurian and Celtic mythology did pall after a while, as did having to refer to the notes Jones provided to help his readers through his text.

I was impressed by the poem; it moved me greatly, even though it was hard work. An uncanny beauty somehow conceals the horrors of the offensive, and you only gradually realise the carnage taking place around the narrator, and by the time you have realised, you are in the very middle of it, with him, sharing his perspective. I’m still not quite sure how he did it, because there is at the same time a perspective and a curious distancing effect too. I shall have to come back to this soon.

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Poetry: Gerard Manley Hopkins

January 9, 2015

A former student called me to task, quite rightly, for not mentioning Gerard Manley Hopkins in my writings about poetry: a very serious oversight, for which I hereby make amends:

I think Hopkins is probably as much of a minority taste in poetry as Milton, nowadays: both are ‘difficult’, or take some serious effort to access, though both are well worth it; both very religious, though at opposite ends of the spectrum – you can’t get farther apart than a Puritan and a Jesuit – and both were serious experimenters with language and verse.

I tried to get my head round ‘sprung rhythm’ when we ‘did’ Hopkins at university and failed abysmally; it was only when my job as teacher meant that I had to pick up someone else’s work on Hopkins’ poetry halfway through that I really came to appreciate him. And for a teacher of literature, in some ways Hopkins is a godsend.

With Hopkins, you finally ‘get’ the crucial importance of reading poetry aloud: on the page it looks and reads like a nightmare. It takes several goes to parse it orally, but the revelation is stunning: nobody illustrates all the poetic techniques so fully and perfectly. There is rhyme in abundance, there is the rhythm (sprung or not!) all of Hopkins’ own. There is alliteration with real purpose, at least as much assonance as you could wish for: no-one revels in the gorgeousness of sounds as much as he, in the fullness of English words. And enjambment – well, who could have imagined it could be used so dramatically? not Shakespeare… Hopkins revels in words, and the ordering of words, to slow us down, make us stop, ponder, and then… the moment of epiphany!

But it’s poetry, too, not just beautifully honed technique: a devout Catholic who joys in the beauty of the world his God created, in masterpieces such as God’s Grandeur, Pied Beauty or The Windhover (how that bird moves!); also a man tortured by depression and suicidal thoughts: who can be gloomier than the writer of No Worst, or Carrion Comfort? though he seems to come back to his God in the end.

And: is it possible to do more with the sonnet form than Hopkins has done? he pushes it to its limits, it seems; but then, that’s the difference between him and me: he was a poet and could imagine such things; I can only wonder.

I don’t come back to Hopkins very often, now, but thanks for the reminder, Sam.

On teaching literature (2)

March 20, 2014

Unlike many other subjects, with the study of literature a personal reaction is both inevitable, and also desirable. As I suggested in my previous post, we usually start with a gut reaction to something, and to develop our personal response and be able to articulate it is a key part of the study of literature. I often found it necessary to give students ‘permission’ to dislike a text. Because something is labelled literature doesn’t mean we have to like it. You’ll find my confession of disliking and/or ignoring various classic authors here.

I think the important trait to develop is that of maintaining an open mind for as long as possible. I’m reminded of teaching Charles Frazier‘s Cold Mountain to a groups of sixth form students, one of whom developed a loathing for the novel (which I really like) almost at the outset: it was quite a struggle, but by the end, there emerged a (grudging) admission that there was much that was worthwhile and clever in that text.

Poetry was always a particularly difficult form to teach successfully. There’s inevitably a gut reaction, and I find it harder to get beyond this than with other literary forms. My first rule was never to teach a poem that I didn’t like, or couldn’t find something to appreciate in, or, failing that, (exam syllabi are prescriptive!) I would openly dislike a poem and explain why, even as I taught students about the technical devices and ideas it contained. And yet, there was always a richness to poetry which it was a joy to see students gradually tuning in to… language used in so many different ways, often the use of rhythm and rhyme, the imagery, and all that before one even got on to the ideas. I’m particularly reminded of classes where we explored the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins or John Donne, where there is just so much cleverness packed into a short space.

Everyone’s response to poetry is very different and you can’t get very far without allowing and encouraging this. Drama presented different issues: it’s obviously written first and foremost for performance, and teaching it in a school in a small city quite  some distance from live productions was hard. I found that a quick read in order to grasp the outlines of plot, character and important ideas first worked well, if possible followed by a film or TV performance to bring it all to life; then one could begin to explore the detail of the dramatist’s craft and evaluate her/his success. The text can be brought to life in the classroom in different ways, but the entirety has to (at least) be read aloud.

With novels, one was often hampered by time constraints: ideally the entirety would be read aloud in class. This was possible until one reached sixth form, when there was just too much to get through in too little time; then, one had to be selective, using representative extracts to explore the whole.

Literature needs to be read, to be heard, to be discussed. It needs to be the subject of argument and disagreement, because it’s clearly open to individual response and judgement; there can be no ‘party line’, no ‘received opinion’ to which everyone has to subscribe. I felt that my job (for that is what it was, in the end!) was to enable as many students as possible to explore and articulate their response to as wide a range of reading as possible. And I loved it…

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