Les Grands Seigneurs + Analysis

‘Les Grands Seigneurs’ by Dorothy Molloy

Men were my buttresses, my castellated towers,
the bowers where I took my rest. The best and worst
of times were men: the peacocks and the cockatoos,
the nightingales, the strutting pink flamingos.

Men were my dolphins, my performing seals; my sailing-ships,
the ballast in my hold. They were the rocking-horses
prancing down the promenade, the bandstand
where the music played. My hurdy-gurdy monkey-men.

I was their queen. I sat enthroned before them,
out of reach. We played at courtly love:
the troubadour, the damsel and the peach.

But after I was wedded, bedded, I became
(yes, overnight) a toy, a plaything, little woman,
wife, a bit of fluff. My husband clicked
his fingers, called my bluff.

Analysis

Take a run down the end of each line of this and in seconds you can see this is a poem but not one with rhymes throughout. There may be internal rhymes happening [we shall see] but it is a simple collection of thoughts surrounding the relationship between one person and another, in marriage.

Translate the title into English and you get, unless I am wrong, ‘The Big Fellas’ or ‘The Big Men.’ It is clear therefore, to any reader, that where the conflict will be [for there is conflict in every single piece of literature at some point] it will be against men and in favour of the female gender. Will this be a Feminist poem? We shall see.

If this was the case then the first line gives us a clue. We see the words “men were my buttresses,” which is a strange word to use. A buttress is something that is built into an object to strengthen it. Is the lady here saying that the men in her life strengthened her? If so, then forget a Feminist approach to this. Men were her “castellated towers” and “bowers where [she] took [her] rest.” In men, she found comfort and solace, rest and fortitude. But is this enough in any relationship, this sense of safety?

She adds that men were “the best and worst of times” for her. Now this line is interesting because it is a paraphrase of something very famous. Look up the first line to Dickens’ Tale Of Two Cities and see what I mean. What she is saying is that with men she has experienced both the good and the bad. There is no middle ground with them. They “were men” but they were “peacocks” and cockatoos,” things that like to look beautiful whilst at the same time be the centre of attention, preening themselves in the mirror. They were her “strutting pink flamingos,” something fantastic to see and be with. Clearly, her relationships have been both good and bad.

Then she adds that men have been her “dolphins” and her “performing seals.” All these comparisons and metaphors should have your brain thinking “oh boy” as you see what she is using to compare the men in her life to. Dolphins are graceful and playful so this is a positive poem so far. But when we get to the “performing seals” quote, the tide turns a little against men. Does she mean to say that men are like “performing seals?” If she does then she is saying that in her life she can get the man to do anything she wants, showing that she is the one in control in the relationship. Indeed, she may be saying this should be the role of all women; to control their men away from being “performing seals” and into something more likable.

As the poem continues, we see may more metaphors being used, without extension, to show what she really wants. She wants a man who can be the strong and sturdy sailing ship, or the “ballast in [her] hold.” She desires the sort of man who can be like the “rocking-horses prancing down the promenade.” But if she wants this then she is at odds with reality, for such a man does not exist in the world and the female world view here, from such a perspective, is sadly lacking.

Let me explain. What do you consider to be the role of the man? Do you expect a man, a real man, to be strong, tough, determined, reliant on no-one but himself, confident, assured, with a good sense of who he is? Now answer this: does such a thing exist that has all these qualities? The answer is no. A woman’s view of a man is coloured by her experience of men, good or bad. Likewise, a man’s view of a woman is equally skewed. There is no such thing as the perfect man or the perfect woman, even though someone will add “oh yes there is; me!”

Cue Pantomime response there.

So we look at this poem and ones like it through tinted glasses and see someone who fails to see clearly “the bandstand” before her. We see someone who sees what she thinks are “hurdy-gurdy monkey-men” but who is in fact, looking with unfavouring eyes. She is biased to begin with, even though she was “their queen” to begin with. Again, the word “queen” is one used by men to share an expression of fondness towards a woman. A man would see this word and think favourably towards the woman in question. A woman may not, especially an ardent Feminist.

The poet says that she “sat enthroned before them, out of reach” and that “we played at courtly love.” This is a negative comment, from the mind of someone who has been let down, from someone who feels hurt by men. Yes, they treated her like a queen [small q there on purpose] but they were only ‘playing’ at love. They were only actors on a stage that was her life, she the “damsel and the peach” and they the Troubadour. One could argue both for the positive and the negative here especially as she has had more than one relationship with a man before now.

But all this happened to her before one major event in her life, namely her marriage so the poem reflects on how her marriage has changed things. She adds “but after I was wedded [colloquial term meaning married] bedded [internal rhyme there and meaning made love to], I became (yes, overnight) a toy [something to play with], a plaything,” showing the changing attitude of the husband towards his new wife.

Or does it?

Is it the case that this shows only the attitude of the man to the woman, the husband to the wife?

I am married. I by some, am considered the one who you ask something first. I do not like that but that is a societal attitude, not mine. The words “my wife” denote that I am married to this wonderful lady; nothing else in my mind. One thing it definitely does not mean is that I own her, or have control over her, regardless of the vows taken. After all, she did omit the word “obey” in the ceremony, telling me she cannot make a promise before God that she cannot keep. So for me to refer to her as the “little woman,” or the “wife” or my “bit of fluff” would be very, very wrong of me.

Taking that in mind, one sees a poet who does not like when a man does that. So I am in agreement with her. But why is she like this? What makes her think that? The answer lies in experience.

Again, let me explain. I am tall and I am of the larger variety of male. I have had issues with weight all my life, so I am conscious of it and my attitude to it. So when someone uses a word that is derogatory towards obese people, I am likely to respond with 2 words, with 7 letters and 3 of them F. Sometimes, a student has copped for it as well, sadly. Why am I like that? The answer is because I have had that all my life and I hate the person who does this.

So, go back to the poem again and you see the possibility that this woman may not be the typical feminist [small f used on purpose], or even a raving Feminist, but simply someone who is fed up of being treated like a second class citizen by husband or society. If you are male and unsure here consider this. You get a letter as a couple. Someone writes on the envelope “Mr and Mrs G Smith.” George knows it is for him. His wife, Mildred, sees no sign of her on that envelope, apart from the Mrs bit. Does it matter we ask? Well to some it does.

This poet then says “my husband clicked his fingers,” which is suggesting that he is now ordering her about. I know what would happen if I tried that! So this is a complex poem, dealing with tricky and detailed issues. It deals with relationship differences before and after marriage. It explores how a woman can perceive a man acting towards her. It also shows the possibility for both man and woman to totally misunderstand each other, as is so often the case. And at the end we are told that the husband “called [her] bluff” which does suggest or hint at the possibility that he is saying “do it or leave,” but we cannot be certain because our image of the man in the relationship is being painted by an aggrieved woman. On that note, we are careful to see both sides of this relationship.

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Give + Analysis

‘Give’ by Simon Armitage

Of all the public places, dear
to make a scene, I’ve chosen here.
Of all the doorways in the world
to choose to sleep, I’ve chosen yours.

I’m on the street, under the stars.
For coppers I can dance or sing.
For silver-swallow swords, eat fire.
For gold-escape from locks and chains.

It’s not as if I’m holding out
for frankincense or myrrh, just change.
You give me tea. That’s big of you.
I’m on my knees. I beg of you.

Analysis

It is so rare to find two poems in one section of any anthology from one poet, unless there are sections like the old anthologies, where you were expected to read and study a certain poet’s works and then answer questions on 2 or more of them. Couple this with Armitage’s poem about the Punk rocker in this anthology and you get someone who you can write about in an exam, so as to make your writing easier. The same would be true if for a Controlled Assessment.

Armitage lives in Yorkshire, England, where there is an honesty and hardness to the people. Yes they are loving but they tend to not suffer fools gladly and say things exactly as they are, preferring not to mess with words. So when we see a poem like this that is poignant yet to the point, this teacher sees a fellow Yorkshireman at his best in expressing a character’s thoughts.

Okay, to the poem we go and I ask a question – have you ever slept under the stars? If you have camped, or like me, slept outdoors whilst hitch hiking abroad, you know how dangerous it is and how cold a night can get. So when I see this poem, I react accordingly. It is a poem about someone who lives on the streets, about homelessness, but also about each one of us and how we treat those less fortunate than us who do live in the street.

The title of “Give” suggests this is going to be about giving, but it is not, at least not in the way that we expect. We expect a poem like this to be the sort that asks you the question about your giving to others. Coupled with the fact that Armitage is famous for making the social comment, you then expect that slap in the face at the end.

He begins by setting the scene where the lone person is, in a public place and makes us think of those who are homeless through no fault of their own or by choice. Now we talk about someone making a scene as if they are doing something naughty, or wrong. That again, is what we expect from those words, so Armitage has the person making the definitive statement: “of all the public places, dear to make a scene, I’ve chosen here.” “Making a scene” is a way of being or saying something that is polemic, to make a point, or to make a stand, so the reader expects conflict at the beginning of the poem. He then adds “of all the doorways in the world to choose to sleep, I’ve chosen yours.” This makes the poem more personal than ever, for we see homeless people on the ground or in someone else’s doorway, never our own. We walk on by because it is then someone else’s problem. But now, here, it is personal. We are in our warm, comfortable homes and the man here is “on the street, under the stars.”

It is a cold, hard reality that this homeless man [or indeed woman] faces. The harsh reality is that wherever he sits, or lays his head, there will be people who try to move him on. No doorway is so good that it makes for a warm bedroom, so the reader immediately feels an affinity towards the man on the street from these words. Now that is done on purpose because of what follows, for we see Armitage making us think about what we do when we experience a homeless person. The last time it happened to me, I stopped and gave the man some money but before that I have offered a full English breakfast and been denied by a man, so one can be immediately negative towards such a person.

But here, we have the chance to re-evaluate our attitudes towards such people, because the poem reminds us just how bad it is. The man in the doorway says “for coppers I can dance or sing. For silver-swallow swords, eat fire. For gold-escape from locks and chains.” It is as if the man is saying you want to treat me like something in a zoo, so I can and will perform these tricks for you should you deem it necessary in order for you to cross my palm with silver or gold.

The man on the street is not “holding out” for some special gift like “frankincense or myrrh,” which then brings a Christmas feeling to this poem, but instead, the man is just after some of our “change.” Now the cynical amongst us will say that if we give money to these people then they will just use it on drink and on drugs, but they may be wrong if the person is there by no fault of their own and does not have a drug or drink habit to feed. Indeed, the American Pastor and Professor, Tony Campolo, once told a story in the Ebor Lecture he was conducting. He told of how he was out with 6 of his student in an SUV, like a camper van with seating for at least 7 people. It had sliding doors on the side. As they were driving with him at the wheel, one of his students screamed out “stop the car!” So he did and watched as the young man launched himself out of the car and ran over to a homeless man sat on the street.

The young student then gave the homeless man a $20 bill and returned to the vehicle. Prof Campolo asked the young man why he had done it and said that surely, the man would use it on drink or drugs, or worse. The answer he got shocked him to the core, for the student taught the master that day when he said “I gave it to him …. just in case he needs it.” His was an act of compassion on another human being and that is what Armitage is making us think about. As I type this, it is Boxing Day 2014 and I am thinking about how cold it is outside and how difficult it will be for the folk out there whose night tonight will be on the street. That is the power of this poem to make me think that!

At the end Armitage has the man say “you give me tea. That’s big of you.” In a sense this sounds sarcastic and it might be meant to, given Armitage’s style in other poems, but I see something different because we give cups of tea out because we do not want to encourage someone like this into drink or drugs. In a sense that is “big” of us and the man may be saying it like this, as a thank you. In the link below however, you will hear Armitage say it more spitefully. He is reciting it more like the man is saying “how good of you to buy me a tea. Perhaps if you helped me into a home that might be better, but until then, “I’m on my knees.”” Here the man is saying that he has hit rock bottom; there is nowhere else left to go.

This then, makes the man in the poem something of a character in need of compassion and to a certain extent, in need of our help. He adds at the end, “I beg of you.” He is a beggar. He is at the lowest that he can be. Things can only get better, but he needs help from the likes of us to get back into accommodation of his own. He will not be able to get there without help. Tea and food will sustain him, but greater help is needed. That is what Armitage is saying we should be thinking of when we next see that man sat in the street.

The following is a link to a website with more information about this poem. Feel free to go to it.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/education/clips/zy8s34j

Brendon Gallacher + Analysis

He was seven and I was six, my Brendon Gallacher.
He was Irish and I was Scottish, my Brendon Gallacher.
His father was in prison; he was a cat burglar.
My father was a communist party full-time worker.
He had six brothers and I had one, my Brendon Gallacher.

He would hold my hand and take me by the river
where we’d talk all about his family being poor.
He’d get his mum out of Glasgow when he got older.
A wee holiday some place nice. Some place far.
I’d tell my mum about my Brendon Gallacher

how his mum drank and his daddy was a cat burglar.
And she’d say, ‘Why not have him round to dinner?’
No, no, I’d say, he’s got big holes in his trousers.
I like meeting him by the burn in the open air.
Then one day after we’d been friends two years,

One day when it was pouring and I was indoors,
My mum says to me, ‘I was talking to Mrs Moir
who lives next door to your Brendon Gallacher
Didn’t you say his address was 24 Novar?
She says there are no Gallachers at 24 Novar

There never have been any Gallachers next door.’
And he died then, my Brendon Gallacher,
flat out on my bedroom floor, his spiky hair,
his impish grin, his funny, flapping ear.
Oh Brendon. Oh my Brendon Gallacher.

Analysis

When you first read this one, a very definite impression is made on the mind of the reader. A young boy is speaking and telling the reader about a friend he had when he was young, but as you get to a certain point in the poem, the eyebrows raise and you suddenly realise that Brendon Gallacher is not real, but an imaginary friend.

The boy tells us that when he was very little, he had this special friend. It is something that some of us have in life, a crutch if you like, to help us walk through difficult times. This friend is no different for the reader sees that “Brendon Gallacher … was Irish” whilst the young boy in the poem is from Scotland. At that point the hint is made that something is wrong here but the reader goes past it assuming that he is talking about a boy who lives nearby. We are told that Gallacher’s father is “in prison; he was a cat burglar,” whilst the boy’s father “was a communist party full-time worker.” once again, the romance of the “cat burglar” in a world where his father is aligned to the Communist Party shows a boy who is living and growing up, using his active imagination.

The use of rhyme here helps the reader to grasp this sense of friendship and camaraderie that exists between real and made up friends. This is borne out in the next line when the reader sees that this friend, called Brendon, has “six brothers” whilst the boy in question has only one, his “Brendon Gallacher.” There is a feeling of loneliness in life here, a feeling that we are reading about one very unhappy little boy, possibly a boy with few friends who needs to be imaginative to survive.

Then the poem goes into some detail about what the boy would do during the day with Brendon Gallacher. The two of them would go to the river where Brendon would “talk all about his family being poor.” The words here are meant to echo and be symbolic of what the young boy wants for his family when he is older. In psychological terms, the young lad is projecting his own angst of being alone in life into an imaginary friend, someone who has the power to “get his mum out of Glasgow when he [gets] older.” To the little boy, who has no power, this is an outlet for his own feelings and is a perfectly acceptable form of behaviour in a way. He wants to get out of Glasgow, where he lives into “a wee holiday some place nice. Some place far.” As he is unable to make such things happen he makes up the imaginary friend and then tells his mother about his friend as a way of making these things happen in his imagination. But the boy’s imagination is one that paints a lurid picture of his friend, a friend who has a Mum who drinks, a father who is “a cat burglar,” making it so that the reader feels some sympathy towards the little boy. His friends are ‘rough and ready,’ the sort that stand by you whilst at the same time, are considered by mothers and fathers to be the sort of friend that is not good enough for you.

Then the poem turns the reader into the right direction when the mother says “why not have him round to dinner?” At this point the boy, who has made up the new friend, has to go on the defensive. He has to lie to his mother, something she would no doubt not be happy with. His excuses are normal. He says the friend cannot come to dinner because “he’s got big holes in his trousers” and he would therefore be ashamed of his poverty, again maybe that the little boy might be feeling at the same time. So his mother pushes the point home, as if she knows this lad is made up by her son, as if she is trying ultimately to help her son out of this make believe situation. This is a loving and caring mother.

He has ‘known’ this imaginary friend for “two years” when his mother finally challenges him about Brendon Gallacher. The mother does something that mothers do; she checks on her son’s friends to see who they are, where they live, what sort of friend are they? Parents do this because they do not wish their children to be walking the streets with the ‘wrong sort.’ It is their way of protecting their children, so to see words like “my mum says to me, ‘I was talking to Mrs Moir who lives next door to your Brendon Gallacher,” does not come as too much of a surprise to the reader, for we expect a resolution to the conflict in the poem.

The mother checks and asks “didn’t you say his address was 24 Novar?” When this has been done she follows it up with “there are no Gallachers at 24 Novar; there never have been any Gallachers next door.” At this point the reader sees what is happening and realises all too well that the friend is indeed, made up. For the first time reader, this is the moment where truth dawns in a world of lies, where we see what the boy is actually doing and then the sadness emerges. The boy tells us that “he died then, my Brendon Gallacher.” It is as if his mother has switched off the boy’s dreams by proving her point, that his imagination has been defeated, that he has to return to the land of the normal, the reality of existence as it actually is, poverty stricken, miserable and painful.

His form of escape has died at this point which makes the poem, for me, quite sad and emotive [emotional]. The added description of the now deceased imaginary friend, laid “flat out on [his] bedroom floor, his spiky hair, his impish grin, his funny, flapping ear” brings the reader to a sense of sadness for the little boy, which is done on purpose to make us think about our own childhood and the friends we have, to make us think of what we do as parents when we destroy the imaginary in favour of the real in our children’s minds.

“Oh Brendon. Oh my Brendon Gallacher,” cries the boy, as he once again realises that he cannot get away with this made up friend in a very real world. This makes the ending of the poem both sad and reflective, the sort of poem that makes you stop and think at the end, bringing about a feeling that although the little boy has been made to grow up a little more, his growing up is being handled well by his mother, who tries to show and share her love for him.

Singh Song! – Daljit Nagra

The first thing to notice about this is the use of nonstandard English. The lack of capital letters at the beginning of a line in poetry is not unheard of either, but on every line, it makes it almost non-conforming to the normally standardised version of the language.

Singh writes in the first person from the beginning, telling the story of how he runs “just one ov [his] daddy’s shops from 9 o’clock to 9 o’clock.” Typically, immigrant workers work in all sorts of environments but today, in the UK, we see a lot of shops and stores that are family run and family run by a variety of the ethnic population. They are a main part of our society and a good one, but this poem shows what it is like for the son of one such family to have to work in the shop.

So let’s see if he enjoys it.

The words “he vunt me not to hav a break” suggest he does not and also a negative attitude towards not the role as such but more the dictatorial way he is being handled. In this country, each worker is entitled to a break, a rest period, where they can recharge their batteries and then begin again refreshed. For the shop keeper on his or her own in a shop, this cannot happen. But Singh has a way round it. He says that “ven nobody in, i do di lock,” or he closes the door, locks up and goes upstairs because there is his new “bride” who shares a “chapatti” and “chutney” after they “hav made luv like [they are] rowing through Putney.” The comedic end to that verse is designed to make the reader chuckle either outwardly or inwardly and it has a great effect at turning round the negative thoughts about father and his attitude to the son as worker. It makes you snigger at the end.

But being in a shop like this is the kind of job where customers notice things. If there is anything out of place, different, or just odd, a customer will notice. When he returns downstairs and opens the shop, they notice and ask “hey Singh, ver yoo bin?” Again, the use of “ver” instead of “there” shares a cultural use of language. In some ethnic cultures in Britain there is a difficulty in sounding out certain sounds of consonants and the letter W is no exception in certain circumstances. Not everyone in the world has an alphabet with 26 letters in; some are different, shorter alphabets, so the W sound becomes what is nearest, in some cases the V sound and “where” becomes “ver.”

But then the jibes and the insults, in a friendly manner, are thrown at him, again showing a cultural difference in this context. They cry “yor lemons are limes
yor bananas are plantain, dis dirty little floor need a little bit of mop in di worst Indian shop on di whole Indian road.” The rhythm is fantastic here, like a song, and the way this verse is italicised, when some of the rest are not, makes me want to sing it like a chorus in a song and indeed, the comments made are to be considered a chorus of disapproval.

Out of this revelrie appears a sound; the sound of “high heels” as they “tap di ground as [his] vife on di net is playing wid di mouse.” She operates a dating page on the Internet in her spare time, adding people together in the hope they will find love. It is a sad and reflective life she leads upstairs and one that is borne out in how she treats her new father in law and his family. The next verse shows this so well as we are told she is “effing at my mum in all di colours of Punjabi,” and stumbling “like a drunk making fun at [his] daddy.” Clearly, she is upset with her situation, unless we see it from another possible context.

In most cultures such action might be considered wrong. But in some, a stronger woman is seen as a virtue for the man, so she may be trying to live up to expectation here. [In your essays, try to do this, to offer more than one idea] and so, his bride, with “tiny eyes ov a gun and di tummy ov a teddy,” acts like the girls who buy his sweets, with “red crew cut,” a “Tartan sari, a donkey jacket and some pump [and the ] squeak ov di girls.” She is then, trying to be like the examples she sees each day from above her shop where she is perched like a bird on a branch, watching what transpires below. She reminds me of one of the two girls brought to the home in East is East, the ones where the big dog finally runs them out of the street. I am laughing hysterically inside at this description of someone who is so far removed from what we expect to see.

Singh then uses repetition of the verse [or chorus] to share more of what the customers say to him in pleasant jibes. He says that when he returns to the shop, they add “di milk is out ov date and di bread is alvays stale, the tings yoo hav on offer yoo hav never got in stock in di worst Indian shop on di whole Indian road.” The humour here is remarkable to see. It is someone who knows the English language so well that he can then play with it to great effect. This is done on purpose!

And so the day continues into the night and we see Mr Singh as he works “late in di midnight hour ven yoo shoppers are wrap up quiet” and we see that the “precinct is concrete-cool.” When this happens, the wife appears and comes “down whispering stairs and sit on [their] silver stool” and “from behind di chocolate bars vee stare past di half-price window signs at di beaches ov di UK in di brightey moon. At first, one is led to believe his wife’s existence is not a good one, but now, towards the end, we begin to glimpse something else, some other feeling and emotion, that of admiration and love, for each other.

The reader sees that “from di stool each night she say, how much do yoo charge for dat moon baby?” His response is a term of endearment in that he wants her to know how much she means to him. He says “is half di cost ov yoo baby.” Once again, we have to understand that in some cultures, dowries are still paid by the father of the bride to the groom’s family, to take the girl in marriage. If this is one of those situations, then the comment made here is not only a rendering of affection, but also a comment made about cost, her cost, how much it cost his family for them to marry. To place it in a different context, someone now can meet someone on the Internet. It may cost “£10” one year to enrol in such a thing but then costs go up, so the cost is £15” the next year. If two people meet and marry in such a way [and it has happened] and their two costs are different, the same thing can be said of them, that it is half to cost of you” or “you are more costly and more precious to me than anything we might sell here.” Indeed, he adds at the end that to him, she is his “priceless baby,” a term sharing love, affection and endearment towards his new wife.

Daljit Nagra has in this poem, shared so many emotions. It is a poem contained within a book of poems called Look We Have Coming to Dover! It is published by Faber and Faber but if we notice the title, we see the reference to the shop being close to the beach. He is classed as British Indian and tells stories in his poems about what it is like for an Indian to live in Britain; these are humorously reminiscent of the skits in the TV programme, Goodness Gracious Me.

He uses a mixture of English and Asian patois mixed with rhythms that make this poem sound and feel like a song, hence the title and makes this sound like the reader is meant to join in a sing-song of a poem. The use of repetition of “9 o’clock” shares the mundane every day existence, but this is turned on its head later with the terms of endearment. He is trapped in this existence and shares an exceedingly funny moment with the words “like vee rowing through Putney.” One can only imagine the reaction this will get with a class of 15 year old boys!

And finally, one way to look at the interaction between the wife and the husband here is to look at it like a Bollywood hero singing to his girl, who is also singing back. Some of us would be thinking “oh deary deary me” at such a description of her in her tartan but he loves her in spite of all this. It is a sign they are happy enough with their life. Indeed, their day ends on a high note with love and affection, in words that depict a bond between them that is unbreakable. It is therefore, a very funny and very effective poem at sharing negative and positive emotions.

Medusa – Carol Ann Duffy

A suspicion, a doubt, a jealousy
grew in my mind,
which turned the hairs on my head to filthy snakes,
as though my thoughts
hissed and spat on my scalp.

My bride’s breath soured, stank
in the grey bags of my lungs.
I’m foul mouthed now, foul tongued,
yellow fanged.
There are bullet tears in my eyes.
Are you terrified?

Be terrified.
It’s you I love,
perfect man, Greek God, my own;
but I know you’ll go, betray me, stray
from home.
So better by far for me if you were stone.

I glanced at a buzzing bee,
a dull grey pebble fell
to the ground.
I glanced at a singing bird,
a handful of dusty gravel
spattered down.

I looked at a ginger cat,
a housebrick
shattered a bowl of milk.
I looked at a snuffling pig,
a boulder rolled
in a heap of shit.

I stared in the mirror.
Love gone bad
showed me a Gorgon.
I stared at a dragon.
Fire spewed
from the mouth of a mountain.

And here you come
with a shield for a heart
and a sword for a tongue
and your girls, your girls.
Wasn’t I beautiful?
Wasn’t I fragrant and young?

Look at me now.

Analysis

Once again, we have a poem from Carol Ann Duffy, superimposing her thoughts about a fictional and mythical creature onto our minds, just like she did with the biblical figure of Salome [give that a read if you can find it and see the similarities]. But now we have another character from ancient folklore, the Medusa.

MEDUSA

By all means, have a look where I got the words for the poem from at:

https://thescallopshell.wordpress.com/tag/carol-ann-duffy

so it can aid your study, but be aware, not every response to a poem is the same as the next, so no answer is a wrong, or bad answer.

So, to this poem.

The Medusa in Greek mythology, was a monster, a Gorgon, generally described as having the face of a hideous human female with living venomous snakes in place of hair. Gazing directly into her eyes would turn onlookers to stone. Medusa was beheaded by the hero Perseus, who thereafter used her head, which retained it’s ability to turn onlookers to stone, as a weapon until he gave it to the goddess Athena to place on her shield. Clearly this was a dangerous beast but Duffy treats these characters from ancient lore in a modern context, adding things in to bring her to life and give her a modern attitude and lifestyle.

The poem begins with “a suspicion, a doubt, a jealousy” growing in the mind of Medusa, as Duffy writes in the first person putting herself in the mind and body of the Medusa. This seed of suspicion growing in her mind makes “the hairs on [her] head” develop into “filthy snakes, as though [her] thoughts” actually act like a snake and hiss and spit on her head.
If you have ever felt that emotion when suspicion in the mind gives way to proof and then anger, leading to you fuming about something, then you know something of what Duffy’s Medusa is feeling as she talks. She describes her “soured” breath “in the grey bags of [her] lungs.” Such use of grey scale colour adds to the picture in the mind of the reader.

These are dark thoughts that are hissing their way through her mind. This is an anger personified into the reptilian kingdom and these bad thoughts lead her to become more “foul mouthed” and “foul tongued, yellow fanged.” This is the response of a modern angry young woman and reflects the way the women of today can act. In some parts of the UK culture, we call them “ladettes,” the sort of young woman who is not afraid to say it as it is, to say her piece and do so in a foul mouthed manner. This is indeed, a very modern Medusa.

She tells us to “be terrified” because her feelings spread now to loving someone, an individual. She says “it’s you I love, perfect man, Greek God,” reflecting the original story of Perseus, the Greek hero from ages gone by, the epitome of perfection, the good looking, physically fit, young hero of then superimposed into the modern world. But at the same time as she loves the man, she knows that one day he will “go, betray [her], stray from home” like some men do, so this now shares an image of the scorned woman, the woman who trusts a man and then is treated harshly, hence the negative thoughts turning to snakes on the head. She feels as if it would be “better by far for [her] if [she] were stone.”

But then she reminisces about a past event. The tense changes to past tense because there is a story to be told in the next verse. She reflects on staring at “a buzzing bee” and how “a dull grey pebble fell to the ground.” Words like “dull” and “grey” are negative words denoting a sadness in the heart of this woman as she glances “at a singing bird.” Then the image of the “dusty gravel” and the “ginger cat,” coupled with the “housebrick” make the reader realise that her life is not a good one. And so the negativity continues as she feels like a “shattered a bowl of milk,” a “snuffling pig” and a “boulder rolled in a heap of shit.” The language she uses is something that is prominent in her poetry. She writes as she would say it and to me, that is an endearing feature of her poetry. You feel the anger, the resentment, the bitter hatred in her poems and although they are predominantly negative, they show a woman in command of her spoken and written language who can use her skills extremely effectively.

As a reader, you have to be able to see the metaphors used and write about them. You do this by deciding what one actually symbolizes. If the words are “the traffic was murder,” then you get a certain image in your head. Actually there are two used; the traffic and the concept of murder, but the metaphor mixes the two to create the one image in the mind of the reader. Duffy, in this poem, says that she, Medusa, stares “in the mirror” and says that somehow, her love has “gone bad.” The words “love gone bad” symbolize the positive being turned into the negative. In metaphorical terms, the concept of love and the concept of badness are merged to share an extremely painful and negative emotion.

All this rage and anger flare up in the Gorgon as she stares “at a dragon” [possibly another woman] and as she does so, we read that fire, itself symbolic of rage and anger, spews “from the mouth of a mountain.” It is like when you get increasingly angry and then at some point, the volcano erupts and it comes spewing out of your mouth; all that resentment and bitterness flowing like lava from your very own volcanic explosion.

Up to now, this has all been about her, about her love “gone bad,” but now she changes tack and irony and sarcasm, often called the “lowest form of wit,” are used to great effect. “And here you come,” she says, “with a shield for a heart and a sword for a tongue and your girls, your girls.” She is signalling out the man at the heart of this break up, the man who has caused her pain and her use of ironic comment is meant, on purpose here. There is a literary argument that goes something like this: when you write something, do you know from the beginning what you are going to write? If you do, then your writing is “intentional.” The literary theory of the “intentional fallacy” opposes that idea, as does the theory of the “unintentional fallacy,” whereby one can say that when you begin creating something, you cannot guarantee that every word is what you intended. Here, Duffy intends, in my opinion, to be sarcastic, to show and share the anger, the bitterness between her and her man.

“Wasn’t I beautiful?” She asks. “Wasn’t I fragrant and young?” In other words, I was as good as these young ones you date now, but “look at me now.” Those last words in the poem are her saying “look at me now,” or “look at what you have done to me, look what your double dealing and deceit has caused.” In a sense, she is right as well, to say this, for in relationships, we deal with each other in different ways. When it is all going nice, both persons in the couple love each other, care for each other, think of the other before themselves. But, this man she once knew, her Perseus, is a deceitful man. He is, in Duffy’s mind, a typical man. She is a feminist and comes from that literary background, so one has to immediately assume that what she is trying to do here is make a connection between how a woman is treated by a man normally and how this can turn her into something nasty, something resembling the Medusa of old.

It is, in effect, a poem that hints at the idea that all men are bad and are liable to do the same thing to a woman. But, what it does not do is say this directly. A woman reading this may think yes, how true of every man I have ever dated. A man reading this may think there is no wonder the man has left if that is what she is like inside. So, what is originally written as a poem to merge the ideas of the scorned woman and the Medusa of old becomes something that ends up showing that the old adage is accurate; hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, which is a slightly misquoted line by William Congreve that when said in full, should be “Heav’n has no rage like love to hatred turn’d nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorn’d.”

Horse Whisperer + Analysis

HORSE WHISPERER
Andrew Forster

They shouted for me
when their horses snorted, when restless
hooves traced circles in the earth
and shimmering muscles refused the plough.
My secret was a spongy tissue, pulled bloody
from the mouth of a just-born foal,
scented with rosemary, cinnamon,
a charm to draw the tender giants
to my hands.

They shouted for me
when their horses reared at burning straw
and eyes revolved in stately heads.
I would pull a frog’s wishbone,
tainted by meat, from a pouch,
a new fear to fight the fear of fire,
so I could lead the horses,
like helpless children, to safety.

I swore I would protect
this legacy of whispers
but the tractor came over the fields
like a warning. I was the life-blood
no longer. From pulpits
I was scorned as demon and witch.
Pitchforks drove me from villages and farms.

My gifts were the tools of revenge.
A foul hex above a stable door
so a trusted stallion could be ridden
no more. Then I joined the stampede,
with others of my kind,
to countries far from our trade.

Still I miss them. Shire, Clydesdale, Suffolk.
The searing breath, glistening veins,
steady tread and the pride,
most of all the pride.

Analysis

Firstly, there is a link I want to share with you to the man’s page. Check this out:

http://andrewforsterpoems.blogspot.co.uk/p/gcse.html

According to good old Wikipedia, a horse whisperer is a person who is a practitioner of something called “Natural Horsemanship,” which is also known as horse whispering. It is is a collective term for a variety of horse training techniques which have seen rapid growth in popularity since the 1980s. I will take their word for it, but it helps us to understand this poem.

The techniques used in this practice differ in their precise ideas but generally share principles of developing a rapport with horses, using communication techniques derived from observation of free-roaming horses and rejecting abusive training methods of the past. Therefore there will be some who accept these people and what they do and there will be people who will reject them out of sight as nothing short of fools.

But, the horse whisperer will tell you [please see the film on http://www.putlocker.com to see what I mean] that this is a way to communicate naturally with a horse. I suppose it would be normal, should I ever get on a horse again, for me to go up to the beast, take the reins and face him [or her] head on. It is the sort of thing I would do, so that I can look the thing in the eyes and say “now, are you and I going to enjoy each other’s company and get on?” It is what I would probably do and have done on the one occasion as a young man, when I got the chance to ride. That horse, called Monty, and I, soon hit it off and were blasting down the sands at Mablethorpe in the UK. I loved that thrill of uniting with the horse as we thundered down the beach at pace. I felt like a race horse jockey, flying down the straight at Doncaster, where I lived at the time. It was fabulous.

So, I read this poem and all sorts of things pop into my mind. The first one is how Forster describes how he was “shouted for” by the owners of the horses in the past, how they wanted his services at some point, how they trusted him to communicate with their horses “when restless hooves traced circles in the earth and shimmering muscles refused the plough.” It is such a beautiful image in the mind of the reader that is being painted here in the mind of the reader and shows how one human being can communicate with an animal from another kingdom. But he had a secret tool for ensuring that the horse was curious enough to come forward to him in the first place, so one asks if this is a true horse whisperer.

He says he used, back in those days, “a spongy tissue, pulled bloody from the mouth of a just-born foal, scented with rosemary, cinnamon,” and how it worked all the time like “a charm to draw the tender giants” towards him and into a relationship of mutual respect. The repeated words of “they shouted for me” is an interesting technique to use as well because he wants to get over the notion that this was not fluke, or some random thing he was able to do once. No, he was able to join his heart and the heart of the beast on whatever occasion he so wished. He says that he would “pull a frog’s wishbone, tainted by meat, from a pouch” and use it to make the horse curious of him, to encourage the horse forward. It is an interesting trick that he is using here and his description is as vivid as it gets in this poem.

This continues as the verses progress, as he led the horses so that they could “fight the fear of fire.” This line is extremely alliterative and made this reader stop in his tracks and react positively. I love moments of enforced alliteration in poems because it allows the reader to trip the light fantastic with the words being said. It is a very good use of language as well by the poet. He says that he could always “lead the horses, like helpless children, to safety.” Again, the use of the simile to compare the horse to a helpless child shows a knowledge of animal husbandry that is second to none. It is no wonder then that he then says that at one point in his life, he swore he “would protect this legacy of whispers,” because he sees such tactics and actions as being important in the natural world.

But as is always the case with these poems about animals and agriculture [this poem does remind me of Digging by Seamus Heaney and some of the classic Ted Hughes poems I have studied over the years] he then spells out the menace of this natural world, which is the man made machine, in this case the “the tractor” that at some point, “came over the fields like a warning.” Again he uses a simile for comparison and the effect in the reader is one that should make them think of the conflict between the natural and the man made world. If it does, then it is a very successful poem. If not, then either the reader does not understand the poem or the wording is not direct enough for them to understand it further.

He then says that because of the changes in attitudes at the time, he sees himself as “the life-blood no longer.” Because things have changed and people do not trust the horse whisperer any more, he feels isolated and alone in a world of machinery and mass production. This part of the poem is clearly a critique of this dichotomy [look it up please] between the natural and the man made. He says that “from pulpits [he] was scorned as demon and witch,” which is an intriguing use of language. The reader has images of a ‘demon’ and a ‘witch’ based on their reading and viewing habits, so to use those words makes the modern day revulsion of his skills all the more powerful. He adds that “pitchforks drove [him] from villages and farms” into isolation and ingratitude from the farming community. His gifts and skills set were no longer needed or even considered as useful.

Imagine that for a moment. You get to the point where you leave school and you have a list of skills learnt, but then when you start work, your employer tells you that everything you have learnt is useless to him. That would be devastating to you and it is the same here with the horse whisperer. He says in defiance that “my gifts were the tools of revenge.” He would place “a foul hex [spell] above a stable door so a trusted stallion could be ridden no more.” If he actually did this then it was as an act of defiance, but I doubt he did so because these skills would not have been in his skill set. I think it s likely that he wanted to put the hex on to make life for the horse owners increasingly impossible, so that they would see the error of their ways.

His life as a horse whisperer had effectively, come to an end, but he remembers the time when those who did this and were rejected by the community would have emigrated to somewhere where their skills were accepted. He says he “joined the stampede, with others of [his] kind, to countries far from [his] trade” to be able to use his skills and the word “stampede,” being a word associated with horses, signifies an act of defiance, of freedom, of a desire to live as he wants to and not as others say. But as he and others did this, he would still have some regrets and that appears in the final verse where we see him saying he actually still misses the “Shire, Clydesdale [and] Suffolk” which are all breeds of magnificent horses; large, bulky, flaring animals who plod in front of beer carts in adverts with their hairy, hoven feet. They are truly a magnificent sight to get close to if you get the chance, with their “searing breath, glistening veins, steady tread” and the one thing that determines they are noticed, their sense of worth, of pride, something the writer [and/or the horse whisperer] feels too, a pride in knowing and being able to appreciate such animals in all occasions.

This poem therefore, with one person talking all the way through is a sad poem but one that shares negative feelings and emotions very well. There is sadness and there is regret, but there is also admiration “and the pride, most of all the pride” that comes with being able to get up close and personal with such a magnificent animal as the horse.

Checking Out Me History – John Agard

I have long been a fan of John Agard’s poetry [somewhere I have my own Half Caste poem done from a Yorkshireman’s point of view; flat caps and all] and when I saw this in the list today it made my heart jump and my mouth smile that smile that tells me I am going to enjoy this.

But then I tried to read it and although I understood it ….. a little ….. I was left thinking how a group of 15 year old students might take it if from certain parts of the world. So, to analyse it properly, I think we need to hear the man himself, reading his poem. The following video has him do that for 2 minutes and 14 seconds and then there is nothing for 3 minutes, so turn it off when he ends it and come back to this analysis, which I shall now complete and add later.

Here is the video…

Analysis

Like any good John Agard poem, this is written in a mixture of Standard English and Nonstandard, or Creole English. But as you no doubt heard on the video clip, he means this to be sung in places as well, as he and the reader get to grips with the idea that what we deem to be history is not necessarily that of the Caribbean man. We live in different parts of the world, in different cultures, with different faiths, beliefs, practices and ideologies, so we need to learn each others’ way of living and understand it so we can live together more peacefully.

The word “Dem” for example is the nonstandard version of “them” so readers have to understand that this is the island way of speaking where he hails from, the language he is used to using. If he was from the Philippines for example, then it might be written in Tagalog, which is similar in that it uses some English words, but mixes the local language of the place and time. He is saying that “Dem” refers to the people in authority, then and now, back in the times of slavery and of now. The masters, for that is what they called themselves, stated what was considered as “history” and it is also true that the old adage is true as well, that “history is written by the victorious.”

So, to the poem, which reflects a single character speaking about his own cultural identity. This is an island man very much akin to the poem of the same name by his wife. He is saying that he has been told what his history is. But, he wants to “check out” or investigate his own understanding of his genealogy and history. The white rulers of so long ago set down in words that there are certain dates to know about, like “1066” and subjects like “Dick Whittington and his cat” when learning history in school or in the home.
But Agard is arguing that this is only a one sided view of history. He is saying that this is not enough, for he was never told when he was growing up of the more important aspects of his own historical and cultural background. To him, this one sided teaching he has received has in effect, “blind [ed him] to [his] own identity.” It has made him a half taught individual with little concept of his own culture. He uses the example of “Toussaint L’Ouverture” [look this up] to say that this is one thing he has not been told about. Then we get the explanation of who this is and why he considers it important to know. He says that “Toussaint” was “a slave with vision,” who “lick back Napoleon battalion.” Clearly, this person and the heroics mentioned here is an important factor in Guyanese/Haitian culture but this is the sort of thing that British History lessons do not cover. It is a criticism therefore, of how we teach our children about the world. It is a criticism of what we consider to be important to teach our children.

Then he uses a second person in the form of “Nanny de maroon.” To this English teacher,this is the second name I have never heard of and I have studied cultures across the world, so here we see Agard proving his point, that again, this is something, or someone, worthy of inclusion into an educational package when growing up, or indeed, at a later stage of a person’s education. He is asking us to consider why he has not been taught these things. He is proud enough to say that he has learnt about “Lord Nelson and Waterloo” but to never be taught anything about “Shaka de great Zulu” is wrong, especially when British education does at times cover people like “Columbus and 1492.” In a way, he is saying that we should not be that choosy, that we should know about all the different people across the world who have fought or stood up for a cause, who are famous in their own countries, for when we do that, we can learn to live a life where we understand each other a little more. Simply knowing about a few individuals makes for a person who knows very little.

He uses the example of the “Caribs and de Arawaks” to make his point. Again, this writer knows very little about what happened to these people. He knows who they are and from what part of the world they hail, but does not know the finer details about how they were treated by their oppressors at their time of conflict in their history. It is an interesting comparison he is making too because most of us know about “Florence Nightingale” and her actions in the Crimean conflict, as well as nursery rhymes like “ole King Cole” and how he was a “merry ole soul” but we are sadly lacking in knowledge about “Mary Seacole” simply because she is not considered by an educational system to be of merit.
Now that is a pity, for she was from the Caribbean herself, travelled to the Crimean conflict even though she was advised not to and was, in Agard’s words, “a healing star among the wounded, a yellow sunrise to the dying.” The use of these beautiful metaphors here is brilliant in describing her actions. She has to be as important as Florence Nightingale but is forgotten, because she was black. This is a theme to Agard’s other poems so it is not a surprise to see it here.

This theme of inherent racism within institutions like countries, is continued throughout the poem as we see Agard telling us that he was in his childhood, taught about what the British wanted him to know about, what they considered to be important. But he adds a note of defiance at the same system he has helped over the years when he adds that “dem tell me wha dem want to tell me, but now I checking out me own history.” This is him saying that it is okay to teach our children what we think is important in terms of our history, but what is more important is to be as culturally diverse as possible. Simply keeping it to the white victor is not enough. Our children need to be taught something of other identities, something of other cultures, so that mutual understanding can be sought by everyone, so that we can all live as individuals in a multicultural setting.

He adds at the end that he is now, in his own time and at his own pace, “carving out [his own] identity” because he is learning now about what he considers to be important, so this poem ends up being a rally cry to us all to be learners in the modern world, to be people who are not prepared to simply accept what we are taught, people who question the authenticity of what we are taught, people who say to themselves, “today I carve out my identity.”

The Clown Punk – Simon Armitage

The Clown Punk – Simon Armitage

the clown punk

I have always loved the poetry of Simon Armitage and used to teach the poems of Duffy and Armitage each year, so part of me feels as if I know him almost. From poems like ‘November’ to ‘Harmonium,’ I have read, enjoyed, shared and taught them for years. So now, I come across a new one for me. Thank you AQA. I will enjoy this section immensely as I take you all through this body of work.

Simon Armitage is one of those Yorkshire poets, like myself, who tends to say it as it is at times, sometimes romanticising his thoughts and at other times, adding harsh, bitter comments about person, life, attitudes, just life in general. His is a poetry for the disaffected, a poetry that can bring alive the negativity in us.

This poem is an example of that. Most of us, who are of a certain age, can remember the days of the Punk Rock movement in music around the world and this lad can remember the arrival on the scene of a certain John Lydon and his band, The Sex Pistols. It was a time of great political change, of anger and resentment, of the worker wanting a fair deal and not getting it, and into that mix came these angry young men from the UK to share their venom and their angst at what the government were doing at that time.

That is the history. But those who took part and became ‘Punk Rockers’ as they were known, or ‘Punks,’ carried on their love of the music and the lifestyle and as they got older, they are now in their 50s and older, with the scars and signs to show from it. A cultural phenomenon that was short lived, lasts to this day because of those who chose to live the Punk lifestyle. But now, they can tend to look a sad echo of their former self. Today, we do not see them any more and if we do we call them Goth or some other words. Some, like this man in this poem, are ridiculed.

Society has moved on and Armitage captures this so well.John_Stoddart_John_Lydon_69

He recalls a time when he was “driving home.” The reader naturally asks if this is Armitage speaking as himself, or as another person. The reader believes it is him; that is his usual style. His poems are personal and reflective. He uses a great made up, slang term in the word “shonky,” one which I have not heard before and I am from Yorkshire. It just goes to show how variant English can be. To me, it means dangerous, or dodgy, the sort of place you do not stop if you value your tyres and wheels on your car. There are a few like that in Yorkshire. He says that if you drive through this part of town, “three times out of ten” you will see someone he knows well by sight. You will see the town clown. Notice the use of the lower case letter; it is not a name he is using to signify someone who wears bright, garish greasepaint. No, this is a derogatory word meant as an insult. A ‘clown’ in this context is the village idiot!

He is described using a simile to show that he looks “like a basket of washing that got up and walked.” If you go to your laundry basket or container and look through the dirty clothes, you will see soiled clothes, dirty clothes, crumpled clothes, maybe even torn clothes. This, for the town clown, is his normal, everyday wear. Our first reaction would be to laugh if we saw this kind of man, but Armitage asks you as a reader not to do this, making you think about the times when you have seen someone odd; a vagrant, tramp, someone living on the streets and chuckled. There but by the Grace of God, Armitage is saying, go you. It could so easily be you he is seeing.

The use of the words “every pixel of that man’s skin” is, for me, quite a powerful image. Yes the man is a powerful image himself, with every pore of his skin covered in ink, but to merge the idea of a pixel in a picture with a pore on a man’s skin is indeed, a very good trick he is playing on our minds. And as Armitage looks on, he begins to wonder what he [the Punk] will look like in years to come, when he is an elderly gentleman, if indeed he lives that far and to be that old. It is a true fact that in thirty years, there will be more and more OAPs covered with tattoos because some in society have chosen to rebel and go overboard on use of ink, piercings and odd hair styles. The town Punk is no different. He is therefore, a sad caricature of what humanity is, or should be, in the eyes of most of the rest of society.

Armitage asks the reader to consider this face that gets hurled at people in all sorts of drunken directions and to consider that this is one life ruined, one life that has gone the way that man wants, but has led him to drink and to ruin. He says “remember the clown Punk, with his dyed brain” as if the amount of ink he has put onto his body has infected him somehow. He tells the reader, as well as the children he is addressing, that they should consider this face and all those like him and then “picture windscreen wipers and let it rain.”

Sex-Pistols-in-1978-001

That last part is a metaphor for something else, it is symbolic of a tearful reaction to something. When we “let it rain” we cry, so perhaps, this poet is saying instead of wincing or sneering, or even making fun of this man, perhaps what we should do is try to understand him and then, instead of him being the clown Punk, he can become someone with a name, someone loved, someone seen as precious to someone else. We do this at our peril sometimes, judging people because of the way that they look. Someone has very short hair and we think skinhead and avoid. If someone has dreadlocks in their hair, we think another set of things. Likewise for the Punk rocker. Yes there are some we would want to avoid, but to tar them all with the same feather [look that up – tarring and feathering] is a dangerous thing to do. Armitage is suggesting therefore that this part of us needs to stop. He [the Punk] is just another man on the street after all.

AQA Character and Voice – Poetry List

CHARACTER AND VOICE – ANTHOLOGY POETRY [AQA]

There are several poems in this section. My aim is, over the next few days and weeks, to do something for each one of them for you.

This is the list, provided by AQA, that you are required to study if your teacher picks it.

POEMS

‘The Clown Punk’ by Simon Armitage
‘Checking Out Me History’ by John Agard
‘Horse Whisperer’ by Andrew Forster
‘Medusa’ by Carol Ann Duffy
‘Singh Song!’ by Daljit Nagra
‘Brendon Gallacher’ by Jackie Kay
‘Give’ by Simon Armitage
‘Les Grands Seigneurs’ by Dorothy Molloy
‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley
‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning
‘The River God’ by Stevie Smith
‘The Hunchback in the Park’ by Dylan Thomas
‘The Ruined Maid’ by Thomas Hardy
‘Casehistory: Alison (head injury)’ by U. A. Fanthorpe
‘On a Portrait of a Deaf Man’ by John Betjeman

How many do you know or are aware of before you came to this page? In 17 years of teaching, I have only seen or taught three of them, so this should prove an interesting few weeks for me, as we go through them. Feel free to comment as we do.

RJ

next to of course god america i

“next to of course god america i 

E Cummings

next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?
He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

Analysis

First question; do you know the words to the American anthem? If you remember the tune as most do, then you try to sing the words and should begin with “Oh say can you see…..” and then sing the rest. Now re-read this poem.

When I first saw the title, I thought here we go again, just like the Stevie Smith; weird, odd little poem, sounding almost nonsensical if you tried to say it out loud as it comes off the page.

For example, the first line is a repetition of the title, in that the words are the same, but in context, they seem out of order in a normal sentence. Unless you are Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, taking the mess out of Michael Palin’s character, they simply do not work. Next to of course America i? Even my MS Word package wants to put the capital A in the word America.

So is this meant as a nonsense poem akin to Jabberwocky? I think not.

Instead, this is what I think is happening in this poem. Yes, Cummings has the word order wrong but when I do that in my writing, I am doing it to make a point. The poet is saying that next to God, whatever concept you have of God, then comes the land of the free, as they call it. There is a sense of nationalistic pride that runs through this poem and it is the pride of the writer, who is being creative with the language spoken, on purpose and for effect. In other words, God comes first, then my sense of nation and national pride. There is that sense that the history of this poet’s ancestors is important as a part of life. It is a very American sentiment and one that the British tend not to have. The use of “land of the pilgrims” and “say can you see” link together in the first three lines to bring this about so effectively.

Then, the poet continues. There are “centuries” of history to look back to, using standard and non-standard English [if you do not know the difference you need to look them up. Google them and learn them]. And after all the glorification of the nation [sounds like a rap, glorification of the nation – never mind] we get two lines that really start to get to the point of why it is in the conflict section of the AQA anthology at all.

We see the words:

“why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead.”

It is interesting that there is a rhetorical question being asked here. In my copy taken from the internet, there is a hyphen [dash] between the two parts of the word “beautiful.” If I then try to join the two parts together the lines get all messy, so it is done on purpose. Again, this is someone playing with the language. Can you remember learning to ride a bicycle? You wobbled. You may have fallen, but then you got going and eventually, you learned to balance, cycle and all the rest properly.

Then, you had a go at being adventurous, if like me, and took the hands off the handlebars. “Look Mum, no hands.” It is the same with writing and using language. We learn the basics so we know it and then we can play with it. This is what is happening here, as with some of the other poems in the section as well. “Why talk of beauty?” the poet asks. What reason could there be? What is being said is that there can be nothing more beautiful or glorious than those who have fallen in battle, the ones the poet calls “these heroic happy dead.” In the poet’s words, they “rushed like lions [simile here] to the roaring slaughter” [metaphor used] and did not stop to think right or wrong, death or life.

Now at this point, if you have read all these conflict poem notes on this blog, you should be thinking “hang on, where have I heard that before?” The answer of course, would be Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade. What the poet is saying is that there is no way after such heroism that those who call themselves American will stop thinking and saying glorious things like this, for when can “the voice of liberty be mute [silent]?”

This is, in essence, a very clever, very patriotic poem about a nation’s pride in their armed services and the sacrifices made by them each day, but it is also a poet handling language in a very sophisticated manner. It is a poem that reflects conflict, heroism, sacrifice, death, glory and pride. But it is also one that is equally confusing for some, so for the rest of the notes I refer to a fellow site with extra notes below.

RJ

From another website

The poem “next to of course god america i” alludes to the patriotism of a nation, namely the United States. It brings up the issues of what’s a patriot and what in actually the norm of the average American citizen’s response is to war and fighting? The writings style displays sort of a mocking tone of the patriotism of the United States because while we all rally against a common foe it becomes the minimal population that’s doing all fighting. Through my interpretation I saw this work as a member of U.S. Congress who act as if they are the biggest patriot who ever lived in this country, although they can talk the talk they will surely not walk the walk of the paths of war. It’s a matter of who can spew the biggest patriotic speech and act as if they care when in fact they’ll be doing none of the fighting as in most times of our nation.

Furthermore to the poem the element of blind patriotism is as well evident. This element of blind patriotism is apparent in “…who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter they did not stop to think they died instead…”(Cummings). Cummings’ deliberate direction towards close-minded ideals and questioning is the displayed sentiment seen here. We’re able to view individuals who against all common thought are prone to being manipulated and brought on the bandwagon to ship off to war without knowing what they’re fighting for. This delusion is exactly what it comes down to when one becomes a blind follower of a cause or nation that seeks help for the most ridiculous causes: war.

The last line of the poem is important in its own way because it brings into light the reality of dissent in the world of blind followers. The narrator speaks the truth in the text about the reality of who does the fighting and what becomes of the followers who are sent to fight in causes our own Congress does not seek to follow suit. As the narrator finished speaking we see they immediately take a drink of water and essentially swallow their own words when they realize what they just stated was against the ideal patriot’s mindset but something else: truth.

https://sites.google.com/site/theliteratureofpoetry/3