The Unseen Poem – Nightmare On English Street

There is a thing in the AQA 9715 Lit exam that should alarm students. It is like finding a nest of dangerous spiders inside some bananas and finding they are the world’s deadliest. It is a task that asks a student to write about a poem from an ‘unseen’ perspective. For many, this is the thing they fear, which is why my college taught the 4700 syllabus and not the 4705/9715 option. We did not have to do it.

WJEC do this also and add in their teacher pack a document called ‘Unlocking a Poem,’ which is on this blog. It helps you to try and write something sensible about the poem in question. In last year’s AQA unseen poem question, they chose the Linda Pastan poem, To A Daughter Leaving Home and asked for a response.

This would have been mine, had it asked for me to write about the poem in question.

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The poem To A Daughter Leaving Home, by Linda Pastan, immediately makes the reader think of what it must be like for a parent to see their child finally leaving the family home, flying the nest as it were. It is a poem that reflects and shares the joys and the heartaches of being a parent, of bringing up a child seeing them go through formative years and disappear off into the wide unknown, ready and prepared for what life has for them.

Linda Pastan, in one very emotive poem, tells the reader just what it was like for her, referring to a time when a young one learned to ride a bike. The first line is soaked in pain and intensity, for it tells how the parent taught the child “at eight to ride a bicycle,” something a teenager reader may not react to favourably, but an adult learner might.

For example, I can remember taking my son, aged five, to the park with his bike, pushing him, with my hand on the back of the seat, as he squealed off down the lane in the park. As he did so, I can remember saying “you can do this” and letting go after twenty five yards, seeing him wobble and eventually get to grips with the bike. I can remember the look of complete elation on his face as he stopped, turned to me and let out a really throaty growl of satisfaction.

So when I see a poem like this, with the father [or mother indeed] “loping along beside” the child, I remember with fondness these times of joy. But I also remember the pain involved in bringing up a child. Being a father is the hardest job in the world. It is a cliche I know, but true nonetheless. I can remember as my son learnt to ride his bike, how “my own mouth [was] rounding in surprise” as he “pulled ahead down the curved path of the park.” It was a time to cherish and one I can never forget, however old and decrepit I may become.

I, like the parent in the poem, “kept waiting for the thud” as he crashed, but it never came. All the angst beforehand was gone. All the nervousness and build up was now past history and here was my son able to ride off into the sunset on his own. And even if he had crashed “as I sprinted to catch up,” there would still be the pain and the concern in my face, as I worried for his needs.

As he grew up, he moved away from me as a father-son relationship goes and now he lives in a flat in a city fifty miles away, working to better his own life, but I share the memory “while [he] grew smaller, more breakable with distance.” This is a metaphor for life and how it tends to separate us from our loved ones. It is a powerful way to get across the idea that with age comes suffering and pain.

It is this memory, on the bike in the park, where the poet asks us to concentrate our efforts into the young boy, who is “pumping, pumping for [his] life, screaming with laughter,” as his hair flaps in the wind, rather like a flag in the wind. The hair in the poem is described in such a way as to make the reader think of what it will be like for them when their time comes. This sense of saying “goodbye” is prevalent throughout the poem and it is one that challenges us to think of others as we think of ourselves.

It is, in essence, a place where Junior can go to when he needs some time to himself, a club, a solace from the perils of life and one that has to be cherished at all costs; such is the pain and turmoil that can come with moving on in life. This is why this is such a good poem; it is a memory of a time gone by where there has been chance to shine at something as you grow older. It links especially well with Give, by Simon Armitage, in the way that it has the one voice talking, and also with the Clown Punk, as the driver shares a memory from the past. It is therefore, an excellent poem aimed at sharing some of what it is to ride off into the sunset of life.

NB. In the exam, feel free to write about the poem as you have been taught by your teacher, and me, but also add in how the poem fits with other poems in the anthology. Now that is “Brownie Points Time.”

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