Posts Tagged ‘teaching poetry’

On a poet laureate

May 20, 2019

Last autumn Carol Ann Duffy wrote a poem which reflected on the armistice which ended the Great War. The poem moved me greatly and I wrote a post about it; it has turned out to be the most popular post I’ve written in the last year.

The institution of Poet Laureate is a bizarre and curiously English one, and Duffy has just come to the end of her tenure of that office. I have followed her career as a poet, and also as our national laureate, with interest. She and I were students at the University of Liverpool at the same time in the mid-1970s. Our paths never crossed, however, because I read English and French and she read Philosophy. Her poetry featured heavily on GCSE English Literature specifications for many years when I was teaching – along with that of Simon Armitage, who has just been named as our next Poet Laureate – and I really enjoyed teaching it. She wrote with a voice that many students could tune into, and each year Duffy would appear at Poetry Days set up for GCSE students, to read and talk about her poetry. Sometimes she was clearly bored and doing it for the money, at others she came alive and brought her poems to life, engaging with the students who came away with an even deeper appreciation of her writing.

The Poet Laureate is an official, national poet who traditionally is expected to write poems for state occasions, royal occasions, significant national moments; over the years many of them wrote sycophantic tosh which has fortunately been long forgotten. Carol Ann Duffy has been different, I think. She has certainly written poems to coincide with the kind of occasions that you would have expected a Poet Laureate to mark or commemorate, but she has never been doting, grovelling or twee; she has always taken an interesting and thoughtful angle on whatever occasion she has marked. And this brings me back to the poem The Wound In Time, written for the centenary of the end of the First World War. No triumphalism, in the sense of ‘we were on the winning side’. No pride in our nation or our armed forces. Instead, a recognition of a world-wide calamity, acknowledging that it still affects our world today, and a calm and deep respect for the memory of the millions who were killed. Writing a poem to commemorate that event would have tasked any poet, and Duffy rose to the occasion.

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William McGonagall: The Tay Bridge Disaster

July 27, 2018
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

Twas about seven o’clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-
I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say-
I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay.”

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

So the train sped on with all its might,
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
And the passengers’ hearts felt light,
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
With their friends at home they lov’d most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year.

So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o’er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill’d all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav’d to tell the tale
How the disaster happen’d on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

You may have heard of the nineteenth century Scots poet William McGonagall, the one often described as the worst poet ever, the man whose public performances were packed by people who went to laugh at him and his poetry. His is truly a very sad story, although he does seem to have been largely oblivious to what really went on…

But remembering him set me thinking about good and bad poetry

When I was first teaching, practical criticism was a full two-year course, preparation for a single unseen paper at A level, where the student would meet two texts, one poetry and one prose, and would have to write an analytical and appreciative essay on each. Only once was a text set that I’d used with some of my students a couple of years previously.

So preparation for this paper involved exploring poetry and prose from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, looking at language, poetic techniques, styles, form and structure; it involved learning how correctly to use the language of literary criticism and how to express opinions; it involved learning to evidence one’s analysis and response. Not easy, but interesting, and two years was a decent length of time for a student to become as proficient as they were going to be.

I came to use McGonagall’s famous poem as one of my final pieces of practice with my students. By then, I would give them a text, and ask them to read it to themselves, and to think about and jot down brief notes on particular aspects, preparatory to beginning discussion. After ten minutes or so, we would be ready to begin work together. Usually, a student would be asked to read the text aloud. There were times when students would tie themselves in knots trying to say positive things about the poem, taking things like rhyme, rhythm and metre seriously. (Try it.) How quickly they were able to realise how bad the poem was, was a touchstone of how competent and confident they had become in their analytical abilities. I tried to keep a straight face through all this. I wish I could remember which student it was, who, at the end of the few minutes of silent study looked up and said, ‘Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?’

So what is wrong with the poem? There are some terrible rhymes – Edinburgh and sorrow, for instance, and some forced rhymes, as in think of a word that will rhyme with x and it will do, forced into the poem anyhow. There is no sense of metre, so that rhyming pairs of lines jar appallingly. There is needless repetition of phrases and lines, perhaps with the hope of a refrain-like effect. The poet strains to covey a sense of tragedy but fails completely, partly because the metre he’s trying to use is a rather jolly one, when he sticks to it for long enough. And then there’s the civil engineering moral tacked onto the end…

I remember, from my time as a school pupil, being told to write a poem. God, how I hated it. I didn’t understand metre, couldn’t get the right number of syllables to a line, got the stresses all in the wrong places, thought it had to rhyme. It was a peculiar form of torment, which I tried very hard to mitigate when I was teaching (see here). I firmly believe that the starting point of a poem is inspiration of some kind – which you either have or don’t – the ideas or sensations produce the words and images, which are then either worked over, tweaked and improved or not, and then offered to readers or not. A good poet, and a good poem, can make me see something I’ve never seen before, or look at something in a way I’ve never thought of, for a (brief) moment taking me away from myself and my pedestrian reality.

Rupert Brooke: These I have loved

July 25, 2018

These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;
And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;
And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,
Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon;
Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss
Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is
Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen
Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;
The benison of hot water; furs to touch;
The good smell of old clothes; and other such —
The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,
Hair’s fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers
About dead leaves and last year’s ferns. . . .
Dear names,
And thousand other throng to me! Royal flames;
Sweet water’s dimpling laugh from tap or spring;
Holes in the ground; and voices that do sing;
Voices in laughter, too; and body’s pain,
Soon turned to peace; and the deep-panting train;
Firm sands; the little dulling edge of foam
That browns and dwindles as the wave goes home;
And washen stones, gay for an hour; the cold
Graveness of iron; moist black earthen mould;
Sleep; and high places; footprints in the dew;
And oaks; and brown horse-chestnuts, glossy-new;
And new-peeled sticks; and shining pools on grass; —
All these have been my loves.

 

A moment of epiphany here, as I looked for the text of this poem I’ve liked for years, to use in this post. It’s actually part of a longer work… and I never knew! However, this is the part I have known and used, and which I shall focus on. I don’t know where I came across it first, although it was long ago, at the start of my teaching career, and I always used it as a way in to offering my students the possibility of trying to write poetry. This was always a very fraught task, if you think about it, poetry being so personal as well as something many students seem to have an automatic aversion to; I also had grave reservations about trying to ‘teach’ students to write poetry anyway…

But, Brooke’s poem offers a way in. In this part of his poem, he focuses on many, totally unconnected things which have given him fleeting moments of sensory pleasure; we all have these, and it was relatively easy for students to understand what Brooke was on about; even if his particular pleasures left them cold, they could name plenty of their own, and were usually ready to. Then, invited to focus more deliberately on each of their five senses and make lists of them, it was a straightforward enough step for most to see how that exercise could lead them into a similar poem of their own; prodding them to think carefully about exactly the right words they needed to characterise their particular pleasure came next… I was regularly very surprised and pleased by the number of good poems they produced, imitative or not. And there was a box ticked (if I needed to tick one) as well as a classroom display for a while.

Brooke’s poem works quite simply, it seems to me: it’s a list – the final line of the section I’ve quoted makes that clear – there are items that pleasurably stimulate each of his five senses, randomly thrown together (?) or perhaps linked by some association in Brooke’s mind. Each item is briefly listed, characterised in a few words, and then Brooke is on to the next one, so there is a democracy of sorts here: no one sensation is prioritised, better than others. And the impressions are fleeting: this I feel is most important, as we understand that oh so brief buzz of pleasure from one of the little things that momentarily please us. The skill (the art?) is in the choice of words to describe each sensation: the strong crust of friendly bread, the cool kindliness of sheets, the cold graveness of iron… and I remember that the better poems my students produced also managed to find just the right words to convey their sensations.

It’s not a stunning poem, but it’s a good one, one I have never forgotten, and one that does a thing that a good poet always does: make me look at something in a new way, one that I wouldn’t have found for myself (because I’m not a poet).

On eyesight and glasses

August 6, 2016

I was first prescribed reading glasses when I was fifteen. I have always been very long-sighted – the kind who can read a car numberplate from half a mile rather than the prescribed 25 metres or whatever it was; the reading glasses very gradually got stronger until I was about 45, when I moved on to wearing glasses all the time, bifocals in my case. It used to be that I could still, with effort, make out written text without the glasses on: now I can’t, everything is an impossible fuzzy blur. This does alarm me when I think about it.

I love reading, and I normally read a lot, on paper and now onscreen. And if I didn’t have glasses, I’d no longer be able to do this any more. What on earth would I do with myself and my time, and, more importantly, where would I get my constant fix of new ideas? Worse things could have happened, I know; I do still have my sight. But I remember a discussion we used to have at school, when I was trying to introduce students to the possibility of writing their own poetry. We would look at the inputs to our five senses and the pleasures each could bring, having looked at Rupert Brooke’s poem The Great Lover. And then I’d ask the class, ‘If you had to lose one of those five senses, which would you give up?’ We would look at the consequences of each choice together. I’d always point out that I was a teacher and an avid reader and would never give up my sight; choosing which of the other four to do without was incredibly difficult…

Back in the past, readers, writers and other learned people didn’t have the wonders of optical science to help them. There are two telling moments in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Firstly, we discover that the hero, William of Baskerville, has poor eyesight, and a primitive pair of glasses that magnify text to allow him to read: is this apparatus a thing of the devil, some of the monks wonder? And then, later on in the story as he gets closer to solving the mystery and identifying the murderer, that person realises the significance of the eye-glasses and contrives to steal them, leaving William helpless…

My glasses are always on the end of my nose apart from when I’m sleeping, and I have a spare pair in case of emergencies. Attempting to walk without them is somewhat perilous, particularly on stairs: I won’t say I’m helpless without them – nor was William of Baskerville – but activities are seriously circumscribed. And the day will come when I will not be able to manage without them.

The problem of poetry…

December 13, 2014

I’m aware that. although I describe my blog as being about literature, mostly I’ve written about fiction, non-fiction and drama, and have said very little about poetry, apart from a few remarks about a visit to Wilfred Owen‘s grave. It’s time to rectify this omission.

I’ve always regarded poetry as a difficult form to approach, and perhaps my feeling has been accentuated by my having had to ‘teach’ poetry as part of my job. Somehow, personal gut response predominates, for me at least, in a way that it doesn’t with other forms: it’s harder to analyse and intellectualise, I suppose. Anyway, this instant personal response comes in before anything else. In school, the issue was complicated by students’ expectations: poetry was supposed to rhyme, to have a recognisable rhythm, to be funny, to be sweet, to be about animals… all sorts of clichés which got in the way of poetry itself.

The function of poetry has changed over time, too: it’s rarely narrative any more, mainly because we have novels to tell stories; plays are not written in verse any longer; poetry isn’t descriptive in the ways it used to be, because we have photography. Poetry now seems to be much more intimate, a window into the soul of the poet, perhaps, and if we are not interested in what we see, we turn away…

I’ve always believed it’s important to give permission to dislike a poem; again, in school, students sometimes felt that they were expected to like a poem for some reason. I always shared my negative reactions as well as my positive ones – some of the poetry presented to GCSE students in the guise of ‘pre-twentieth century texts’ was the most awful tosh. The key surely has to be ‘does this poem (or poet) speak to me, or to my condition, at this moment?’ Once one gets that in place, I feel things become a little easier.

If a poet can make me slow down and think; if s/he can make me look, see, contemplate something in a way that I would never have done for myself; if s/he can offer me a new angle or perspective, maybe on something that is commonplace or familiar, whilst I slow down for a few minutes to take the trouble, then that poet has surely succeeded in her/his aim. In the manner of KeatsOn First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, a moment of revelation, of epiphany is possible.

Poetry is often overlooked nowadays (and I’ve done that too, hence this post!), yet when a little time and effort is taken, there are revelations. I touched on some of e e cummings‘ love poetry with sixth form students; this prompted one student to read further and he then encouraged me to, and I responded. Some of my strongest memories of teaching are of managing to get students to share in the pleasures and power of poetry: find the right poem, read, listen and open up…

I shall move on to look at some of the poets I have come to appreciate in future posts, if you are interested.

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